Venba, a narrative cooking game with South Indian cuisine and immigrants at its centre, discusses love, loss and identity
Fluffy white paniyarams, steaming biryani, grated coconut and an incomplete recipe chart with instructions to grind rice, flit between the scenes to a foot-tapping folk rhythm. A woman is at the centre of it all, meticulously chopping, grinding and frying. The 40-second, animated short gives a glimpse into the day-to-day of a family of three — a couple and their child. Food is almost a character, here.
The short, which has already grabbed eyeballs on social media, is the teaser of a narrative cooking game, Venba, that has South Indian cuisine at its centre. Revolving around an Indian family based in Toronto, it weaves a tale of love, loss and identity. The two to three hours-long gameplay takes one through incomplete or damaged recipes that need to be solved like a puzzle, where the player is expected to guess the steps.
Originally from Chennai, 27-year-old Abhi, the creator of Venba, moved to Toronto when he was 12. Despite migrating as a child, he never felt assimilated to the Canadian culture, and often feels his Chennai roots are stronger. “I very much see myself more rooted in Chennai. I grew up strongly connected to that culture and would visit often. I can also speak in Tamil very easily,” he says over a Zoom call. But having said that, he adds that Venba is not entirely autobiographical.
“The story we see here was more inspired by the families that I see around me, that came here [Toronto] much earlier, in the 1980s,” says Abhi, adding, “There is a lot of media about immigrants: the line most of them pursue is about kids and how hard it is for them to handle two cultures. But I always thought the more interesting story is that of parents. As they come to this country and grow, they grow farther apart from their kids. I have seen some parents who find it really difficult to interact with their own children due to the level of cultural differences.” Which, sometimes, he states, even makes them regret their decision to move.
Abhi wanted to focus on this aspect of immigration in Venba. This sentiment was also shared by Sam Elakana, his colleague from Indonesia. Together, they developed the concept in January 2020. While Abhi is the designer and programmer, Sam is responsible for the visual character of the game, as art director.
“In a game, you can’t just tell a story, you need something to play with. The game has a series of days and each day happens at different points in their lifetime. So, I thought it would be interesting if we tell the story of what happened each day, through food. No matter what happens, whether there is a fight or not in the family, the kitchen is still on,” adds Abhi.
But focussing on food, especially South Indian cuisine, does come with its own set of challenges. “For any given recipe, there are thousands of variations. So I need to do a lot of research, pre-production almost, before I finalise on a recipe,” says Abhi. The recipes concentrate on making everything from scratch; for instance, the game talks about how rice flour is prepared for different dishes. “When I communicate these dishes to people who are not of Indian origin — like Sam to draw it — a lot more references are needed,” he adds.
However, the biggest challenge is the realisation that people of Indian origin are likely to find the gameplay easy, because the ingredients and recipes are familiar.
Venba is now at its “polishing stage” and is expected to reach the market by the winter of 2021 or early 2022. However, those who wish to pre-order the game can do so by wishlisting it on the gaming platform, Steam.
“It was supposed to be a hobby game. We did not expect the level of reception we are getting!” says Abhi. After the trailer was released, patrons from across the world, especially North America, seem to have taken note. The duo wants to bring Venba to PC and all three major consoles. “But bringing it to those platforms (Like PS5 or Nintendo Switch) requires deals and partnerships with those companies which we are in the midst of right now,” Abhi says.
A career in games has always been Abhi’s plan. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he started working in a mobile games studio as a programmer, in downtown Toronto. “We make Venba on the weekend and the nights after my day job,” he adds.
For Sam and Abhi, Venba will always remain as something they created for themselves. “But, we do hope that people would come for the cooking and stay for the story!” concludes Abhi.
For details, visit venbagame.com