Venba and Papers, Please Flex the Same Emotional Muscle

Games Features Venba
Venba and Papers,  Please Flex the Same Emotional Muscle

Papers, Please has been out for 10 years now and it still bubbles up in my mind all the time. It’s been touted as a dystopian document thriller, but I’ve always remembered it as an empathy game where you’re made to inhabit a stranger’s point of view through words and rigorous play. It exists at a completely different level of magnification and uses different means, but the new narrative cooking game Venba is working to a lot of the same ends. 

Both use a combination of well-written dialogue and simulated mundane tasks to tell their story. Whether it be a customs officer struggling to stay abreast of the border’s constantly changing policies or a mother cooking expectantly for her adult son, you’re made to inhabit the character’s head by the menial labor they perform in a day.

In Papers, Please your family exists more as a carrot on a stick to incentivize playing accurately. If you don’t cross reference someone’s documents correctly, that’s fewer resources you can spend on your family’s basic needs. Sometimes “doing your job correctly” in this context means separating a family, or all but deciding whether a stranger lives or dies under a totalitarian regime that clearly sees them as a waste of space.

You get two free mistakes per day and at some point I found myself even thinking of these as a resource to help those whose paperwork might be out of order. On a particularly hectic day, letting a woman with an expired passport follow her husband you just let through might just cost your family their dinner that night. Ultimately, the amount of times you can save people like this comes down to how fast you are at the game and how much discomfort you’re willing to visit on the immediate and extended family members that depend on your income.

Papers, Please is really good at using small changes in your routine and familiar visual cues to tell its story. The top half of the screen is taken up by the mostly stagnant image of a customs line snaking off the screen. This lets you see the glacial pace at which the line moves as you do your job and makes it that much more poignant when something horrible happens and the folks in line scatter in a panic.

One person near the end of the first day answers your request for his documents by curtly telling you “It was a mistake to open this checkpoint,” before leaving. This only comes after another traveler complains about waiting in line for eight hours. The first guy doesn’t mention that he waited in that same line all day to give you his ominous message, which makes it that much more haunting and effective when you complete that circuit in your head.

Both games deploy their own striking visual and sonic aesthetics to keep your attention too. The dehumanized grunting noise you let fly from your border checkpoint’s intercom system to let the next person know it’s their turn. The beautiful music Venba’s title character puts on to accompany any bout of cooking, big or small. Venba’s sound design even goes so far as to absolutely nail the foley work for cooking appliances that many players may not have even seen before.

But the gameplay loop is where each game drills down and makes you feel something. They pull different levers and knobs, but both games forcefully put you into the headspace of their main character. You feel what it’s like to comfort and cook for a husband fighting a Sisyphean climb in a xenophobic job market where he’s the wrong skin tone. Or to spend your days staring at strangers with various levels of contempt in their eyes as you provide for a family you never see.

If Papers is a game about people in transit, Venba tells a story that couldn’t have even occurred without the titular character and her husband going through that transition themselves. What we get is the affecting story of a young couple growing into parenthood and a child they desperately want to give a better life to than they had.The story is well-observed with beautiful and even uncomfortable details that will ring true for anyone whose family has a similar story. 

By the end of the tale their son Kavin takes center stage as he makes sense of his family’s culture and his place in it, but there’s a good reason his mother is the game’s title character. This is because Venba is just as concerned with the way our relationship with our parents changes in adulthood as it is with conveying an immigrant family’s lived experience—the early knucklehead years of new freedom, where it’s sometimes easier to make a birthday plan with friends than it is to stop by and say hi to your parents, along with the effortless warmth of coming to your mom or dad with fresh eyes later on as the memories of childhood annoyances and disagreements soften and fade.

Loss and the way it looms and inevitably changes us acts as a deep underlying theme in Venba as well. The food is weighty and significant aside from looking amazing on the screen. We meet Venba as she’s thumbing through her mom’s old cookbook from back home, straining to remember what that smudged third step was. She feels her mother’s presence from over seven thousand miles away as the sounds and smells of her cooking fill the room. Later on when she explains to Kavin that grandma has passed away it gives that old book an almost holy quality. It’s an immutable piece of her waiting to greet you there on the kitchen counter.

Both games bring back vivid memories of my late Jidu. There’s the well-worn tale of leaving his life and family behind in Baghdad to come to California as a young man in the late ‘50s (the guy’s suitcase handle broke before he even left the terminal), or the time spent together in the kitchen where I was lucky enough to learn his favorite Iraqi dishes from the man himself.

Venba also lovingly renders the interiority of a first generation child who feels like they don’t live up to or inhabit their ethnicity in the “right” way. “I’m just a tourist,” Kavin says shamefully as he reflects on not speaking his parents’ native tongue perfectly, or hiding the meals his mom would make for school lunches to avoid being picked on as a kid. Of course, following an old smudged recipe and cooking his family’s food is inevitably what puts things into sharp relief for him.

As a second generation American and multiracial person I have been told at various points in my life that I’m not middle eastern enough, and not white enough, among other things. I can’t hope to ever expunge ignorance from this world, but at the very least, those recipes my Jidu shared with me and his love have always felt like a suit of armor against it. He didn’t care whether I spoke Arabic, or knew how to properly tie a keffiyeh. He just knew he loved this food and I ought to know how to make it so I could love it too. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.

I’ve been thinking about Papers, Please for a decade now and there’s no doubt in my mind that Venba will stick with me for just as long. As different as they might seem to the naked eye, both games are constructed to exercise the same emotional muscle. Both ask you to stare at someone different from you and search for the thing that actually makes you the same. Be it your own flesh and blood, or a passing stranger you’ll never see again. How different could you really be?

Yousif Kassab writes about games, music and manga on the internet. You can find him on Twitter at @Youuuusif (four U’s).

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