Venba, by Visai Games (2023)
If you’re used to playing games filled with guns, explosions, and a ton of status bars, I’d suggest trying out something different – Venba. It’s a short narrative cooking game that focuses on an Indian family who moved to Canada from Tamil Nadu in the ’80s. You step into the shoes of Venba, a mom and wife, who uses food to reconnect her family with their heritage and recover lost family recipes. This game combines elements of a visual novel and a cooking game, and it boasts a stunning soundtrack that adds depth to a story centred on “family, love, loss, and more.”
Game designer Abhi and sound designer Neha Patel went to great lengths to capture the essence of Tamil cooking, especially the background music you’d hear in a family kitchen. They’ve even included an in-game radio with a soundtrack that matches the narrative eras and the sounds of Tamil cinema from that specific decade. “In fact, it’s even more specific,” Abhi said. “It’s designed to sound like a specific composer’s song. The songs are homages to specific music directors who we were all fans of growing up. Depending on the level and the time period, the era will change with the music and song styling.”
What’s unique is that Venba’s music was recorded live, performed by various South Asian artists and composed by Alpha Something. “It’s pretty rare for games, but even rarer for indie games,” Abhi said. “But to recreate those styles of music, we needed live instruments that were signatures for different music directors.” Among the fantastic tracks, there’s even a song from the renowned music director Devanesan Chokkalingam, also known as Deva, who’s composed music for hundreds of films over nearly four decades. The team had planned to create a song inspired by his music, but Deva himself stepped in to make it happen!
Though the game makes its seamlessly blended soundtrack sound effortless, best believe it wasn’t all easy and fun! It was certainly a challenge for composer Alpha Something to take several steps back in time and make music that sounded “old”, and write words and lyrics that come off as almost outdated. During the creation process, they also realised that the songs on the in-game radio would have to belong to “fake” movies from various eras, which would be very important for the style and sound of each song. They worked backwards, from a fake director, to a fake movie with a phoney plotline, to an orchestrated song that would have fit into it perfectly! The game also pays homage to orchestrator and multi-instrumentalist Ilaiyaraaja, who was known for blind-scoring multiple films, where he’d note down and compose the score as sheet music while watching a scene.
Indian music, especially the Kollywood kind we hear emulated in Venba, tends to have a poetic quality vastly different from anything we hear in Western music; and in terms of instrumentation, never sticks to one particular theme but draws from and assimilates within itself all the cultures and influences that were brought to our country by foreigners. Cited as an example are the countless Carnatic violinists and guitarists who play instruments that were originally Western, drawing inspiration from Indian instruments like the Sitar and its stylings, fighting to be heard for their individuality and keep alive their amalgamated art form. Alpha Something and the dozens of live session musicians on the ‘Venba’ soundtrack were inspired by this struggle, swinging between recording their parts with standard sheet to improvising entire songs off a single line.
‘Venba’ draws inspiration from Abhi’s own experiences as a second-generation immigrant, which many folks with similar backgrounds can relate to. While it’s a noteworthy example of much-needed diversity in gaming, I can’t help but feel a bit let down by its short playtime. Venba has so much going for it that it’s almost frustrating how it manages to pack in so many themes like homesickness, cultural adaptation challenges, dealing with death and solitude, and the complex experience of being an immigrant woman and a mother in just over an hour, spanning 30-plus years of the game’s timeline. Venba’s a prime example of the stories we should have more of, but it would just have been nice to see more of this particular story, too.
Sources and podcasts featuring the team of Venba talking about the game: