Images of food in video games are not new. But often, developers tends to skew towards Western influences (think pizza, cake, candy) and historically don’t go much further beyond that. But this Atlas Obscura piece goes in depth into upcoming independent video games that tackle subjects like love, diaspora, and immigration, all brought together by food. As a video game lover who rediscovered my love for video games during the pandemic, I’m excited to see what they have in store for us.
Venba, an upcoming game from Visai Studios, makes food a core tool in telling the story of a Tamil woman, Venba, who immigrates to Canada in the 1980's. During the game, players restore pages in her cookbook, damaged during the move, by playing minigames that assemble dishes and fill in the gaps in her recipes.
Visai Studio’s lead designer, who goes by the online name Abhi, describes a scene written around puttu, which is coconut and rice steamed together inside a cylinder. “So the scene that we wrote is that the kid wants a pizza,” he told Atlas Obscura. “And the mom is struggling… because she’s afraid that she’s losing him to this Western world.” In order to catch his attention, Venba compares puttu to a rocket ship, says Abhi, “and this whole family has a moment.”
It’s very likely that Venba is the first representation of Tamil food in video games, so Abhi felt the responsibility to portray it with the respect it deserves. This included asking for help with recipe testing, and even help from Tamil musicians for the soundtrack. Abhi says, “From what I’ve noticed, cooking is not silent in India.”
An upcoming platform from Singapore called After School Afterlife, is a game in which players need to escape from a Peranakan Chinese mansion that straddles the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead. It features Peranakan and Singaporean Chinese food traditions.
The creators of the game are Singaporean sisters Heather and Megan Lim. Megan is a law student, while Heather works at a bank. During quarantine, they decide to make a video game based off the culture of the Peranakan Chinese, descendants of the first wave of Southern Chinese traders who blended their lives with local Malays, intermarrying within the region.
Peranakan cuisine is strict on the details and is difficult to master; it’s even harder to create on a screen. Heather told Atlas Obscura, “My parents got a bunch of Peranakan dishes for my sister to try out. And she would take photos and write a lot of notes for me.” The two learned a lot about Peranakan culture along the way as they put in the research for After School Afterlife.
“We eat this food, but we don’t necessarily know that much about how it’s made or the history behind it,” Megan said. “So we also research it and learn, and maybe other Southeast Asians will learn a bit about the dishes of cultures they might not think too much about.” This includes dishes like ayam buah keluak, which is chicken in tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts. Coffee and tea drinks like kopi-o (coffee with sugar) and teh tarik (pulled hot milk tea), are also featured in a coffee shop minigame.
So far, game testers have loved seeing their food and culture in video game format, and have even expressed the desire to learn more about Peranakan culture that they’ve never known about. “So that’s part of it,” Heather said. “Let’s just have this fantasy novel that we always wanted as a kid, put in the medium that we also enjoy.”
The last games, called Lutong Bahay and Soup Pot, are both from the Philippines. Game studio Team Meowfia’s Lutong Bahay follows a character named Maricela, who needs to learn about iconic food from the Philippines in order to inherit her grandmother’s food stall. Games within the game involve cooking of those dishes, including lumpiang ubod, a form of spring roll, and sisig, which is pork with onions and chili peppers. “For most people, food is something we turn to when we are in need of comfort,” the team wrote to Atlas Obscura in an email. “Filipino culture is centered around this fact.”
Soup Pot, a game currently in development by studio Chikon Club, goes more into the creative chaos that is home cooking. It’s less about narratives and more about gameplay, where players handle 3D versions of ingredients, mainly focusing on Filipino food. Of course, it also lets players fool around by throwing things like eggs at people.
So give the piece a read later and keep your eye on the video game marketplace. These games all sound like they’re worth checking out, not just for the gameplay, but for the opportunity to learn about different kinds of food and culture, which is an angle many video games tend to gloss over or ignore entirely.