2023's indie game of the year is on Xbox Game Pass, and I now understand how it earned its awards

Screenshot of Venba running on Xbox Series X.
(Image credit: Windows Central)

Video games are unique among narrative art forms in that it allows the player to participate in the story. This participation makes the countless unique perspectives into cultures and histories all over the world more approachable for players of all backgrounds, so it's no wonder that some of the greatest video games of all time are those that explore complex and storied themes and topics. One of the most awarded indie games of 2023 definitively falls into that category.

Venba tells the story of a Tamil family immigrating to Canada in the 1980s. It's a nuanced narrative told through conversations, music, and food, covering the difficulties of finding your way in a new place, the complexities of remaining true to your roots, and the challenges that come with raising a family. At GDC 2024, Venba actually won the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival, prompting me to move the game up my backlog.

Now that I've played it, I want to share it with you.

A beautiful tale crafted with a caring touch

Venba is made with love, just like these Idlis. (Image credit: Windows Central)

I have learned and experienced so much through video games, and Venba has taught me a little bit more. To be honest, I knew very little about the Tamil people, who have a long and colorful history dating back thousands of years in Southeast Asia, in regions like India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. Tamil is actually one of the oldest surviving languages still spoken today, something that I certainly did not know.

Venba is about the titular character and her husband Paavalan choosing to leave the Tamil Nadu region of India and immigrate to Canada in the 1980s. The couple have high hopes for their opportunities in a new land, but quickly encounter difficulties establishing themselves, particularly when it comes to communication. When Venba becomes pregnant with their son Kavin, however, the couple decide to remain in Canada to give their son the best chances at a great life.

What follows is an emotional story spanning decades, during which you watch this family grow together and apart. Venba adamantly holds on to her Tamil heritage, bringing her culture into Canada during a time when Canada's Tamil population is steadily growing. Her son Kavin, on the other hand, feels alienated by his Tamil roots, and instead chooses to immerse himself in the radically different Canadian culture in order to fit in.

Venba spans decade, during which you watch this family grow. (Image credit: Windows Central)

The gameplay in Venba is split into two parts: dialogue and cooking. You'll either follow along with scattered conversations between the three family members, or work as Venba to faithfully recreate authentic Tamil recipes using the damaged book left behind by her grandmother. These cooking mini-games are cathartic and simple in their brilliance; through trial and error and a series of hints and clues, you piece together the exact ingredients and steps you need to cook for your family.

The stylized paper-like art design is gorgeous, the wonderful original soundtrack is inspired by decades of Tamil music, the story is touching and nuanced, and the gameplay is endlessly relaxing. Venba, like its namesake (Venbas are a classic form of Tamil poetry), is beautiful and short.

Over too soon, but memorable all the same

Realizing how short Venba is was a bittersweet feeling. (Image credit: Windows Central)

To 100% Venba and all its achievements, it took me around 3 hours on Xbox Series X. Yes, Venba is another short-lived narrative-focused indie game, which works both to its benefit and its detriment. On one end of the spectrum, Venba's short length makes it more approachable for players hesitant to commit a ton of time into more casual games. On the other end, Venba's brevity prevents it from more completely exploring its complex themes like the challenges of immigration, holding on to your cultural heritage, raising a family in a new world, and balancing your dreams with your reality.

Venba can be completed in an easygoing afternoon, but then it'll resign itself to your memory. The game will certainly retain a place in my memory for a long time thanks to its unique and expertly crafted blend of art, music, and narrative delivery, but I do wish it had stuck around a little longer. I wanted more of this family; I wanted more Tamil recipes to cook; I wanted to learn more about the Tamil culture through the medium of video games.

Still, Venba makes good use of its brief life, and it's incredibly accessible to play.

IGF 2024's grand prize winner, and it's on Game Pass

Visai Games cooked up something special with Venba, continuing the trend of indie game excellence from 2023. (Image credit: Windows Central)

Venba was nominated for many awards throughout the 2023-24 period, and won several, but the most important of the bunch, Seumas McNally Grand Prize at Independent Games Festival (IGF) 2024. I went to GDC and my time at the IGF 2024 pavilion was one of my favorite moments there, and the awards show (that I sadly could not attend myself) celebrated all the best indie games released last year. Some of my favorite Xbox games of 2023 were nominated and won awards in a variety of categories, but Venba is the game that took away the ultimate award.

After completing Venba, do I agree? Well, there were a few other games at IGF 2024 that personally resonated with me more, like the impeccable gameplay of COCOON and the phenomenal storytelling of Mediterranea Inferno. Venba's social impact can't be ignored, however, shining light on a culture that has existed for thousands of years and doesn't get much attention in mainstream media. At the very least, it makes Tamil food look amazing, and even includes a variety of real recipes so you can make those dishes yourself.

I wish the game ran a little longer, but I still adored Venba's light narrative touch, stunning visuals, and relaxing gameplay. It's another reminder that indie games are the best place to go for the most emotional, provocative, and inspiring stories in gaming, as long as you don't subscribe to the narrow-minded view that play-per-dollar is a good way to evaluate a game's value. My colleague Brendan Lowry also agrees, listing Venba as one of his 7 hidden gem recommendations going into 2024.

If you're open to a new adventure that won't take more than an afternoon, Venba is now available for $14.99 at Microsoft Store (Xbox & PC) and $14.99 at Steam (PC). It's also a day one addition to Xbox Game Pass, making it easy to jump in and play.

Venba — $14.99 at Microsoft Store (Xbox & PC) | $14.99 at Steam (PC)

Venba — $14.99 at Microsoft Store (Xbox & PC) | $14.99 at Steam (PC)

Another inspiring story told in a creative fashion, Venba is a handful of hours of talking, cooking, and learning about an ancient culture that still thrives today. It's the indie game of the year according to IGF, and I now understand why.

Zachary Boddy
Staff Writer

Zachary Boddy (They / Them) is a Staff Writer for Windows Central, primarily focused on covering the latest news in tech and gaming, the best Xbox and PC games, and the most interesting Windows and Xbox hardware. They have been gaming and writing for most of their life starting with the original Xbox, and started out as a freelancer for Windows Central and its sister sites in 2019. Now a full-fledged Staff Writer, Zachary has expanded from only writing about all things Minecraft to covering practically everything on which Windows Central is an expert, especially when it comes to Microsoft. You can find Zachary on Twitter @BoddyZachary.