As someone who struggles with anything more complicated than putting bread in a toaster, cooking games are a vicarious pleasure that I take great joy from. Like the leisurely task-ticking in social sims the feeling is the same with cooking games. The satisfaction of mashing the potatoes to the exact right consistency, keeping a steady hand as I drain the water from the pasta pot, or expertly manage the temperature of a hearty stew—it's task-ticking, mini-game heaven.
With the main focus of most cooking games being, well, the cooking, many tend to be light on story, with the usual case being that you're trying to run a restaurant or cafe of some kind. But the narrative cooking game, Venba, is taking a completely different approach. Developed by Visai Games, the team is aiming to create a culinary game where the story is part of the main course and not just a side dish (sorry).
Venba tells the story of an Indian mum who immigrates to Canada with her husband and son in the 1980s. Each day brings a new recipe and the player cooks a variety of South Indian dishes that thematically tie in with the narrative, one that Visai Games says touches upon, "family, love, loss and more." It's a story that sits very closely to Venba's designer and programmer, who goes by the online name Abhi. Although Abhi says it's not 100% autobiographical, he explains that it does touch upon many of their personal experiences.
"I immigrated from India with my entire family and came to Toronto when I was twelve," Abhi says. "I've seen a lot of focus on the kids, or at least the second generation of kids', experiences of growing up after moving countries but, to me, I've always felt the parents have the cooler story."
"They're taking a big risky move and they're immigrating at an age where it's not really optimal for them to start a whole new life. There are obviously different cultural values, and once they come over they have expectations of a better life. But when their kids grow up in a different society with different values, it causes conflict. It's not really anyone's fault, it's just unfortunate and Venba's story touches upon that."
Abhi explains that when conceptualising Venba, they spoke to many different kids from different immigrant backgrounds, including Venba's Indonesian artist Sam Elkana. It's a very personal story to Abhi and a story that uses cooking to explore this topic in depth.
"Especially in Canada and in America, I've seen a lot of immigrant lives, and there's a duality. In Venba, the parents are trying to hold on to their roots and the kid is confused, because to him, what he sees is normal, he sees himself as a Canadian which is completely fine. Food creates that bridge between both the parents and the kid, the mom is trying to communicate all the things she's trying to say through the recipes and the meals she cooks."
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It's not only authentic south Indian cuisine that Abhi wants to capture in Venba, but also the day-to-day life of an Indian family. "There's one thing that we're working on that's really interesting is including mehndi or henna," Abhi explains.
"It's a paste that's used to decorate your hands and then it dries. There's a level where Venba has a bunch of it in on her hands meaning she can't cook, but she gives instructions to her husband and her son, and they really suck at it. So in that way, the player interacts in a little different way. Each day, the scenario that happens is contextualized by cooking, but also the food itself is also metaphorically linked to what the story is."
Players will be introduced to a variety of south Indian dishes and will be tasked with following a recipe. The trouble is that in the move over to Canada, Venba's cookbook got damaged and some of the instructions are now unreadable. Players will have to click on different ingredients on the kitchen countertop and experiment with the techniques they've been given to try and fill in the gaps, discovering how to get the recipe right in the process. Abhi hopes that this will help change the way players think about each step, letting them be more playful instead of following the strict instructions of a recipe.
"What we're trying to do is try to focus on what goes through your mind when you're cooking," says Abhi. "What are your thought processes through each step? What ingredient comes next? Should I cook this for longer? We want to capture those feelings and I found that that's really hard to nail down."
With other culinary-focused games like Cook, Serve Delicious!, Cooking Mama, Battle Chef Brigade, and Overcooked, there's a strict order of steps with rewards given for your accuracy and speediness. Venba's puzzles want to shift the player's thinking to a more reflective approach and it's hoping to achieve this in a specific way.
Venba's collected recipes have been passed down through generations, meaning that many of the steps and techniques you'll be following are a little outdated. Recipes include loose instructions like measuring out 'a finger of butter' or 'mixing until the dough is sticky' and part of the fun grappling with what Venba's great-great-great-grandparents meant with these sayings.
"For example, in one of the recipes we have you're making like this sugary syrup and you're trying to get the right consistency," says Abhi. "Back home, they have this weird trick where they would pinch the syrup with their hands, and then like extended it between their finger and thumb. If it forms a line, it's sticky enough but if it forms too much of a line it's too sticky and you got to add more water. If it's not even forming a line, then it's too liquidy, which means you got to let it solidify more. So it's messing around with stuff like that."
These techniques are sprinkled throughout Venba's recipes and fit perfectly in its story about passing down traditions and cultures. Inheriting these little tips and tricks through generations is universal, and one which makes Venba all the more loveable.
Venba is looking to explore food as more than HP restoration. Food is massively important in our lives, cultures, and relationships and after chatting with Abhi, it looks like Venba is going to tackle a lot more than simply following a set of instructions. It's a game that my heart—and stomach—yearn for.
Venba doesn't currently have a release date but the team are aiming for the end of 2021.