India’s rich and diverse culture provides the perfect backdrop for video game developers to craft unique stories and showcase them on the global level. So far, some have shown glimpses of this inclusion with their games. They have included India’s varied mythos and elements in their games, which differ starkly from games in the West and the East.
Several developers have used the Indian elements as inspiration for the story, gameplay, and visuals of the games they’re developing. With more Indian game developers and studios working on new projects, exciting times lie ahead for Indians, especially in the game development world.
One such game that has crossed the finish line is Venba, a narrative cooking game revolving around an Indian mother. As per the story, this mother has emigrated with her family to Canada in the 1980s. The game is developed by indie developers Visai Studios, which is based in Toronto.
Ahead of Venba’s release on July 31, 2023, IGN India caught up with its designer, programmer, and writer Abhi, to talk more about the game, the inspiration behind it, and more. Let’s check out our conversation with Abhi around Venba below.
Growing up as a gamer
Abhi grew up in India till the age of 12 and later moved to Canada. During our chat, he noted how he took his first steps into the world of gaming. Like most Indians back in the day, he set the sails to the bay of piracy. “When I was a kid, there was this thing called the Terminator, which was a bootleg console,” Abhi recollected. “That’s where I first started playing games.”
However, things changed when Abhi moved to Canada. After playing games like Pokemon through emulators on PC, the now 29-year-old found himself surrounded with console gamers who played on Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. “It was a big shock, and even though we (Abhi’s family) couldn’t afford any of that until my university days, it was very fascinating to grow up in a place where gaming was taken a bit more seriously than it was in India,” he said. Abhi added, “Adults would talk about playing games, and it was a very legitimate hobby here.”
While Abhi was unaware what a game developer was in his younger years, he was always fascinated by the art of making and playing games. In the end, he chose computer science as his major during university, as he thought it was the “easiest way” to get into the industry. And that turned out to be true, as he soon began working at a mobile game studio, where he met his now co-workers at Visai Studios, such as Venba’s art director, Sam Elkana.
The idea of Balloon Man
While working at the mobile game studio, he and Sam Elkana talked about the idea of making their own game. In 2019, the duo began work on an action game featuring a depressed superhero called Balloon Man. While working on it, Abhi proposed the idea of Venba, which Elkana liked even more.
After some pondering, Abhi and Sam dropped Balloon Man in favour of Venba in 2020. However, Abhi isn’t planning to completely give up on Balloon Man just yet as he could bring it back in the future. “I definitely want to, but you have different ideas at different times,” he stated. Abhi explained, “It’s also the idea that makes sense for the time you had it in, and back then I was thinking about it as an Apple Arcade sort of game, but now the whole thing is going away.”
While Balloon Man won’t come anytime soon, Abhi did confirm that there’s an Easter egg regarding the depressed superhero in Venba, which is remarkably close to his heart.
From AAA to indie
Just like most gamers, Abhi began his journey experiencing the large-scale AAA games in his childhood. “I think it was Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but I don’t know how the kids got a copy of it,” he revealed. However, while studying game development during university, the world of indie gaming opened to Abhi.
Now, Abhi prefers playing indie games more than AAA, as he considers them more “interesting experiences.” Plus, they’re shorter as well, which is more convenient for him.
Incorporating gameplay mechanics to tell a story
One aspect of gameplay that players often see in indie games compared to AAA titles is using intuitive gameplay mechanics to tell a story. As Abhi pointed out, AAA games usually end up keeping gameplay and cutscenes separate that progress the game’s story. “The two segments don’t really come together,” Abhi remarked. However, he stated that “indie games do it very effortlessly.”
A game that uses this concept quite well is Papers, Please, which is a puzzle simulation game. The player plays as an immigration inspector checking passports for a living. Abhi touts the game as an inspiration for Venba, even though they’re tonally quite different. He shared, “The entire story, all your choices, everything is done through that whole passport check-in menu.”
The NRI influences
Abhi stated that Venba is mostly influenced by stories of second-generation kids, who grew up outside India, and are typically considered the poster child of the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) life.
The game delves deep into their relationship with their parents, and the language between the two generations. Abhi points out how language can be alienating in the same household, as time passes by.
When asked whether many of the story elements are inspired by his life, Abhi clarified that it was not the case. Compared to other NRI kids who he grew up with in Canada, Abhi revealed that he was much more in touch with his Indian roots. However, the majority of the game’s plot elements come from experiences people around him have had over the years.
That doesn’t mean Abhi hasn’t added anything from his life in the game. Venba features a ton of South Indian food, music, and films that Abhi adores.
The genesis of Venba
When Abhi pitched the idea of Venba to Sam, he visualised it as a cooking game that would allow him to tell the story of the NRI experience. He chose cooking as the medium, as it supersedes the language barrier.
Abhi stated, “A lot of South Asian mothers back home and especially in our culture, they try to communicate primarily through food.” He continued, “Here, I think it becomes even more important because if there’s a language barrier between the mother and the child, then food becomes the only means of communication.”
He further explained, “I thought it would be interesting to use food as a lens to tell different stories, and how characters grow and change, and the relationship to the food changes as the years go by.”
Making a cooking game with a team
Despite the game’s various elements involving South Indian culture, music and films, the central aspect of Venba is the cooking. Abhi has stated that he has a passion for cooking, and most of his knowledge about South Indian food served as pre-production for Venba.
As part of the research, Abhi spoke to various people, including chefs, family members, friends, and more. Eventually, each dish was cooked and served to the development team for them to get an idea of the textures and the taste. This helped them visualise the food before they created the levels.
However, things took a slight downturn during the pandemic, which forced Abhi to ditch the team experience. Instead, he cooked these dishes for himself to write several documents. He also took photos for the rest of the team to follow.
In the end, Abhi believed that he could cook all the dishes in Venba, thanks to his experience of making them during the developmental process. His favourite aspect of the game? Biryani.
Incorporating music in the game
Alongside food, music also plays an integral part in Venba, which starts off its story in the 1980s. “Each level progresses like ten years or five years forward,” said Abhi. He highlighted, “So, by the end of it, it’s in the late 2010s.”
The game sees the mother, the main character, turning on the radio before she cooks. To enhance the feel of the era, Venba features era-appropriate music as part of its original score. “If it’s in the 1980s, it plays a song that sounds like an Ilaiyaraaja song, and if it’s the 90s or the 2000s, it sounds like an A. R. Rahman song,” revealed Abhi.
Additionally, the creator also confirmed that the game features an original song from yesteryear South Indian film music composer, Deva. Alpha Something is composing the score of the game. The team has already released Nee Dhaane, one of the songs from the game, before the release. Shreya Sukumar performed this song. Abhi outlined, “The whole team has been collaborating with lyrics and the music”. He also said, “A lot of Tamil artists from Scarborough, the place we grew up in, have blended their voices, instruments and all that” to create the music of the game.
Reaching a larger audience and the next game
Abhi and Sam originally planned to make Venba a small game that would be available on PC. However, following the big response to the game’s trailer, several console makers took note of the title. “We showed the trailer in December of 2020, and we go for Christmas break, and then we come back and there’s like three emails from the three different platforms saying, ‘Hey, can you bring Venba?’” Abhi said.
Venba is now available to play on PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. It is also available as a Day 1 Xbox Game Pass title.
Currently, the game is only available in one language. However, Abhi isn’t opposed to the idea of language localisation in Tamil. He said, “If there’s language localisation, I would definitely do it in Tamil.” He explained, “Right now, I’m looking at localisation stuff, and there are tech challenges and all of that stuff.”
To add to that, despite being the only Tamil person in the development team, Abhi and Visai Studio’s next project has a South Indian touch. He outlined that this isn’t by some compulsion, and he “would like to tell stories that the whole team can be part of.”
However, Abhi concluded by teasing the next project. He said, “The next idea that we’re working on, that we’re all very excited about, it can almost just be like a playable Tamil film as a game.”