What does Venba mean to me, someone who has an affinity for the conversations food has the potential to start about culture and memory, especially in an interactive medium like games? Well for that, you’ll have to excuse me while I take a quick stroll down memory lane.
Does anyone remember the mini-game in Final Fantasy IX where Eiko wants to cook a meal that will woo Zidane to stay with her in her desolate canyon home, Madain Sari? There was something about the combination of this lonely orphaned girl, a survivor of the genocide of her summoner clan, attempting to bond with another through culinary expression that I found very touching. Yes, there was some sexism implied with her wanting to prove she was a good homemaker, and a casual failing of the Bechdel test, but I feel that the sum of this sequence was more than its parts and elevated what would’ve been a pedestrian comic relief scene into something sincere. Food, social connection and identity are often eschewed in games writing, especially in 2000, FFIX’s initial year of release. At most, food is treated as an aesthetically pleasing buff or a means to capitalize on the in-game market. This sequence also included something that stuck with me even more so than Eiko’s quest to find a way to Zidane’s heart through his stomach, though—that something being Quina’s cooking advice to Eiko.
In the midst of the Active Time Events (the mechanic that frames playable side-plots happening simultaneously with the main storyline’s progress), Quina is accidentally fished out of Madain Sari’s river by Eiko and whatever Moogle the player chooses as one of her helpers. Quina, although a perplexing representation of a genderless humanoid, is known for coming from a fantasy race called the Qu. The Qu are preoccupied with all things gourmet and, as such, Quina is on a personal quest to become a master gourmand. They are considered, naturally, as a “helper from above” by Eiko, and what’s more, their cooking advice is sound outside of the game too. Making sure you use the correct heat, making more than you need in case more people show up to the meal or someone has a grand appetite. And perhaps most importantly, allowing others to help if you run into trouble with a portion of the recipe. These are all actions that make a great cook and meal. What’s more, the dishes Eiko chooses to cook, potato stew and barbecued fish, are dishes that she considers her specialties from growing up in Madain Sari. And these delicacies aren’t abstracted too much from our world’s food at all. Except, of course, the ingredients of “rock-fisted potatoes” or the cockroach-like bug “Oglop,” if you decide to get all haute-cuisine and take the joke route during this scene.
This vivid memory was brought on while anticipating and eventually playing Venba, a game about food, familial memory and cultural heritage. Not many games out there equal it in terms of how personal and grounding food and cooking can be. In Venba, the main mechanic (other than a few dialogue choices) is interpreting and following Tamil recipes from a dilapidated old cookbook the eponymous character inherited from her mother. Cooking is a comfort to Venba, a teacher struggling to adapt as a new arrival along with her husband to Canada in the 1980s, as much as it’s a way to stay in contact with her culture.
As she helps her husband Paavalan stay centered as he deals with relentless discrimination and tries to keep her son Kavin’s connection to his family’s culture strong, Venba’s pride and joy in serving them traditional recipes like idlis and puttu is evident. There’s no competitive nature to cooking in this game nor is there a connection meter that is affected by how well or how poorly you cook. The food is simply there as a narrative device to help players gain insight into Venba and her family’s plight. As such, the cooking scenes are lovingly rendered and graced with excellent sound design by Neha Patel, whose motto throughout the game’s development has been “if they cant smell it, they will HEAR IT”. According to the credits of Venba, there were several food consultants for the recipes featured and lead designer Abhi has mentioned during one interview that team members had to cook the dishes multiple times before they rendered them. Venba stands apart from other games that feature food in that food and cooking aren’t about powering up or commodification. There’s even a scene late in the game that comments on how often food from immigrant cultures is exoticised and commodified in media.
There are moments of great aesthetic pleasure regarding food in games, such as the evocative animations given to the hundreds of recipes one can cook in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Or moments of comfort and comic relief, like the cooking sequences in Monster Hunter World. But until recent decades, games centered on food and cooking have been ones that characterize food as buffs, achievements or part of a commercial venture (think Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley and any number of restaurant simulators). Not often has cooking in games been allowed to simply show us the identity of the characters we’re playing as.
There are notable exceptions, such as when Ignis cooks for the party in Final Fantasy XV. Many players (including me) fondly remember and joke about Ignis’ “recipEHs” because it wasn’t just a buff mechanic, it was core to his character. When Ignis is unable to cook for the party after a major crisis later in the game, there’s a real sense of unrest to the routine of the party. And since no one else in the party has the same cooking skills as Ignis, the guys are stuck with Gladio serving them cups-of-noodles for a couple rounds. I thought this was an inventive way to tie the food to the plot (even if it still boiled down to attributes at the end of the day). In fact, now that I think of it, most exceptions I can remember are usually tied to RPG moments, like the inn scenes of Grandia or sharing nostalgic food or drink with your allies in Code Vein (despite them being undead Revenants who are sustained by blood). In these games, food is less about cultural identity however and more about relationships and memory. And there are still stats attached to cuisine in these games as well.
I’ve written previously about how Spiritfarer uses its cooking not just as a way to connect to the characters, but to engender a solarpunk philosophy that’s threaded throughout the death-positive game, subverting the genre of management simulator. There are brief moments of food reflecting culture in A Space for the Unbound as well and games like Coffee Talk, Necrobarista, The Red Strings Club and The Archipelago where mixing drinks is a way to signify mental health or communication between individuals from different walks of life. Soup Pot is perhaps the closest to Venba in terms of its strong depiction of food and cultural identity, with a focus on sharing Filipino and Southeast Asian dishes via social media while stuck inside during a pandemic.
I’m happy that we’re at a point in time now where food doesn’t have to just be a fun marketing tool to encourage constant consumption a la Candy Crush or a simulator that’s tied to a competition or storefront of some sort. Venba shows us that food in games can be more than a delicious-looking power up and help us tell nuanced stories about different cultures and nurturing identities.
Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find her work at Unwinnable, Videodame, Third Person, and her portfolio. Her stream-of-consciousness can be found at @phoenixsimms.