Lessons from the success of Venba

Colin Campbell, Tuesday, August 29th, 2023 7:12 am

Venba, developed and published by Visai Games, was already profitable when the game launched on the last day of July, largely thanks to an Xbox Game Pass deal with Microsoft. High sales on other platforms have contributed to massive post-launch success around the world.

It’s a short narrative game about a Tamil family who immigrate to Canada. Through a series of cookery puzzles and dialog choices, players are immersed in Tamil culture, and the family’s emotive saga. The story includes themes about cultural assimilation and identity.

Reviewers are almost universally enthusiastic about Venba – the title comes from the mother’s name – with words like “enthralling” and “beautiful” used to describe its qualities. Writing an especially warm review for Eurogamer, critic Emad Ahmed captured the game’s authenticity:

“Venba captures something wonderful and mysterious to those of us in the diaspora, which is the real and imaginary conversations our parents and grandparents must have had about moving to the west. Every person or couple moving from one country to another for work or personal reasons still asks the same questions, always wondering whether they’ve done the right thing or not, balancing their needs and wants with opportunity and fear.”

I spoke to Venba’s designer, Abhi, about the game’s first few weeks in the world, and the reasons for its success. He said that he’s “gratified” by how well the game has been received, adding that while game developers always hope for a smash hit, he did not anticipate the positive reactions he and his co-developers have enjoyed. He adds that he’s especially pleased that the game is going down well in countries across Asia, as well as in the West.

Original vision

He said that, as a first generation immigrant, he wanted to celebrate Tamil culture as a whole, not just its cookery. He and art director Sam Elkana decided from the beginning not to dilute the game’s original vision.

“A film director I admire used to say that the more local you are, the more international you become. That’s just something that was deeply ingrained in my mind. So when I was making Venba I never had a second thought about, ‘oh, am I showing something without explaining it’. I knew that I just had to show things the way we wanted them shown. It’s really nice to see that those things are actually working for players.”

Venba’s origin story is a lesson in the value of following a unique and compelling vision. Abhi and Sam were in the process of developing a standard action game, when Abhi had a different idea for a game he really wanted to make. When he shared his idea with Sam, they immediately transitioned to the new project.

“It was a traditional game where you play as a superhero overcoming enemies and obstacles,” he says. “Then I had this idea that I wanted to make a game about a mom who is in Canada, and she communicates with her child through food. It felt very striking to me. After I wrote a small scene and sent it to my friend Sam, he was able to relate to it too, because he’s also a first generation immigrant like me [his family come from Indonesia].

“After that, we couldn’t work on the game we were working on anymore. We just had to start making Venba. As I started expanding Venba more and more, it just became more and more personal.

Families and community

He says the core story is “not my story, necessarily” but adds: “It’s a story of the families and the communities I’ve seen here. All the music, all the dishes are things that I grew up with, things that I think are cool, that I wanted to share.”

Many who have played the game, report an intense emotional response to Venba’s story, and to its lovely community of characters. Abhi says part of the game’s success is that it catches players by surprise.

“I think some players come to the game thinking that it’s a light-hearted cooking game. They tell me that they weren’t expecting to be taken on this very emotional journey. There’s one level in the game where it gets quite sad, actually, and at this point, almost every streamer I’ve seen has broken down in tears.

“It’s really interesting to see that in such a short game [Venba generally takes a couple of hours to complete] players are able to empathize with this family who they’ve never met.”

When I interviewed Abhi, I was thinking a lot about non-violent games for this GameDaily story we ran yesterday, and for an upcoming story I’m writing for The Economist. Because Venba is such a gentle game, that makes its mark through empathy and love, I asked him for his views on violence in games

“There’s gratuitous violence in games that is meant to be a release for the players,” he says. “But there are also violent games that have something to say, and that have a point to make, and sometimes the point is to question the use of violence.

“I think it’s also true that games are mechanically pre-disposed towards violent games – video games are technically about moving objects or moving through worlds. Those actions make a lot more sense to turn into action games. It’s a simple one-to-one encounter – pointing and shooting at something is fun.

“But when you’re trying to break down an activity like cooking into games, or when you’re trying to break down emotions into games, it requires a lot more effort to figure out how to translate that into a good gameplay experience.”

He says the experience of making Venba “has reaffirmed the kind of game games that I want to make in the future”.

“Our company motto is to tell intimate stories with interesting mechanics. To pursue storytelling through play mechanics. Venba’s success shows that you can tell these personal stories and there is a market for them, and that’s great, because those are the kinds of games we want to make anyway. It’s given us a bigger motivation to pursue the things we want to do.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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