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Venba Preview – Tribeca’s Surprise Package

Venba was the shortest game I played from the Tribeca Game Selection last weekend. We had half an hour with each game, but Oxenfree and Venba were the only two I finished in that time. With Cuphead, I reached the final stage and was half an inch away from the end of the boss' health bar, so had I been a real gamer and not a stinking game journalist, I might have been able to throw that in the 'completed it, mate' pile. While Oxenfree took around 25 minutes, almost the entire session, I was done with Venba in ten. It's important to stress this for two reasons. Firstly, I want to be upfront about how little of the game I have seen, but also, even with the most limited playtime, Venba had the richest impact on me.

It should be noted that Venba's short demo time is not necessarily an indicator of how long the game will be. I played through one puzzle (hesitant to call it that, as I'll explain below), and one major story beat. It was a natural stopping point, and in fact playing any longer would have felt silly, maybe even wrong. Even if it is a shorter experience though – certainly don't expect a sprawling 80 hour game, or even a 20 hour one – I think Venba will end the year as one of 2022's most impactful stories.

The story centres around two Indian immigrants living in Canada – more specifically, around the mother, Venba. She is a teacher (or at least works in a school), but has too few hours for the couple to do anything besides survive. Her husband, Paavalan, faces a similar story. He has an office job, but the company lacks the budget to make him full-time, so they both scrape by. They have tried to acclimatise to Canada, but the expense and the lack of roots has them considering a return to India. When Venba falls pregnant – this being the demo's one story beat – they face a choice. They can stay in Canada, where they are already struggling to get by but where their child might get better opportunities, or they can return home and raise their child in relative comfort, but risk having it resent them for depriving it of the chance at a better life a Canadian upbringing might offer.

It feels as though the game is going to decide this for us. While Paavalan stresses, Venba is oddly calm about the situation. Happy. Blissful, even. The story will happen around us, and we will experience Venba's tale through the magic of cookery.

This is what I mean when I say I'm not sure I would call Venba's central mechanic a puzzle. The one piece of gameplay I tried out saw me attempting to make idlis, which are essentially steamed pancakes. It took me three attempts to get it right, even with Venba stepping in and saying "I don't think that's next" to block certain incorrect choices. First, I laid the cloth in the wrong place, making the batter stick, and then I failed to rotate the dishes in the steamer, meaning only the bottom layer cooked. Interestingly, despite the game guiding me to not do certain things, it still let me fully cook these two failures, only for me to then try again. I'm not the best cook in the world, but I appreciate the point, perhaps even the joy, of failure when learning a new cuisine. These culinary dishes are native to Venba, of course, but alien to me and so many others playing, and I think it's smart to let us learn naturally.

I'm curious as to how this meshes with the storytelling – the dish eventually leads to a sweet moment when Venba reveals to her husband (and to the player) that she is pregnant, but the actual gameplay itself feels disconnected. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you feel like somewhere down the line, the two have to meet.

Venba seems like it's slipping under a lot of radars at the moment, and I don't have a hard sales pitch to convince you otherwise. But even after just ten minutes with it, Venba feels like it's worth paying attention to. I haven't seen enough to know… well, anything, really, but I know I care about it. Other games have had much longer and made me care a lot less.

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