Charming Indie Puzzler Inbento Made Me Miss My Mom
In the past, I’ve written on how cooking has helped me grapple with my eating disorder. But another reason why preparing food is so important to me lies in my complicated relationship with my mother. Food has always been one of her biggest passions, and as I grew older, I looked up to her as a master cook. She just didn’t miss – there was almost nothing she made that I didn’t like. As I grew into adulthood and started cooking more for the people in my life, I held her as the standard to live up to.
But then, mom always was the standard for me. Successful in business, charitable in her giving, and open in her worldviews, she was always the kind of woman I wanted to be. When I was younger, I thought she was this infallible superwoman, and considered her to be one of my best friends. We did everything together, and in a way, I think spending that time with her helped me realize I was trans earlier on than I would have otherwise. For years, she was my biggest hero, and every time I cooked, I asked myself one question.
“Would mom like this?”
Inbento, now available on Nintendo Switch, is a story about that inherently maternal act of preparing food for a child. In the precious indie puzzle game, players take the role of a mother cat who prepares ornate bento boxes for her young kitten. As the game progresses, the dishes get more ornate as the kitten gets older, the mother has more children, and time takes its natural toll on the relationship between parent and child.
That story is reflected organically in the mechanics, which are a blend of block puzzles and matching games. Players are given specific bento to make, and handed an assortment of square portions to arrange inside of the small lunchbox. The goal is to arrange your box exactly like the one pictured by stacking and rotating different colored blocks. Eventually, more types of tiles are introduced, and the deceptively simple mechanics give way to some infuriating brain teasers.
But that difficulty isn’t a caveat – it’s a strength. With accessible controls and a palette that’s considerate towards colorblind players, the game never feels unfair or pointlessly obtuse. Plus, the challenge is actually reflected in the narrative, as you see the aging mother cat struggle to keep making dishes that impress her child and, eventually, see that child grown up and struggling to make dishes of his own. It’s an ingenious synthesis of plot and gameplay without a single moment of ludo-narrative dissonance in sight.
It’s also an element of the plot that filled me with the most pain. As the child cat grew into adulthood and maintained a stable, cozy relationship with his mother, I wished that things had been that simple for me. Instead, it acted as a snapshot of something that could’ve been, or something that could be in a distant future. Because as I grew out of the period of my life where I idolized my mom, I grew into having a more complicated understanding of her as a person.
A large part of that has to do with how many times she and I have hurt each other over the course of the past decade.
When I was 14, she was “diagnosed with stomach cancer.” When I was 15, I found out that was actually a lie concocted to get back at my dad for cheating on her. When I was 16, I started dating an abusive rapist that she hated, just to spite her, as she was going through BPD therapy. When I turned 18, I ran off to college and started talking to her less. When I graduated, I moved to Bend, Oregon and lived two blocks from her for two years.
When I changed my legal name and started HRT, she was the first parent I told. After I started my transition, she helped me shop for women’s clothes and makeup. I felt supported.
Then last year, after I broke up with my previous partner and planned a move to another city, she went ballistic. Despite telling me for years that she wanted to nurture and support me, she accused me of taking advantage of her kindness and abandoning her. Behind my back, she told my ex that she didn’t believe for a second that I’d been raped, and that HRT was making me “emotional” and “crazy.” I found out she’d been lying to all of her coworkers about me – using my deadname, claiming that I was a successful author (ha!), and showing old pictures of me off as recent ones. Despite supporting me in private, she’d rejected the reality in front of her and chosen to cling to the past.
After that, things have been… tenuous. After a period of no contact, we’ve started texting again over the past few months. She’ll send me little presents in the mail, and we’ll exchange funny news articles and pictures. Sometimes, she’ll even send me really nice women’s clothing from her online shop and she’s continued to call me by my correct name and gender. Yet we never talk about what happened. Just like before. Just like it’s always been. We never talk about it, because talking about it makes it real, and making it real means admitting that we’ve both made mistakes. And if we make mistakes, that makes us flawed, and those flaws threaten to shatter the pristine porcelain illusion of perfection that she values so much. It’s better if things are pleasant, impersonal, and distant – that’s how she likes it.
That’s a dynamic I don’t see present in Inbento’s cute cat family. After some time, the child cat grows up and strikes out on his own as a cook. He’s unable to live up to his mother’s scrumptious meals, but he doesn’t stop trying and grows into a fine chef. Eventually, he has a child of his own to take care of and cook for, and relies on his mom to help him raise his own hungry little kitten.
Throughout this story, Inbento presents the cat family as extremely close and open with one another. I got the sense that these anthropomorphized cats were honest about their feelings, and that they cared a great deal about being close to one another. Even in adulthood, they stayed close and relied on each other. The roles were reversed, of course, but that nurturing and warm relationship was still very much alive.
Working through the game’s puzzles made this gradual reveal its own reward. By putting myself through the intense work of nurturing a child, cooking for a career, and caring for my own parent, I was given a window into a happier family. One that communicated and loved being around each other – the platonic ideal of the relationship between mother and child.
Ironically, though, that ideal is part of why things are so strained between my mom and I. I’ve learned through therapy that severe BPD often goes hand-in-hand with narcissism, which makes complete sense. Her lies often come from a place of deep shame, whether it be a cheating husband, a trans child, or practically anything else that she feels could make her look bad. I do believe that my mom is a kind and generous soul, but I also know that generosity sometimes comes from a place of seeking validation and self-worth. What happens, unfortunately, is her kindness often conflicts with her own needs and wants, and instead of expressing that, she represses it until faced with something that makes her snap. It’s a cycle I’ve been on the receiving end of for my entire life.
With that time bomb always ticking, I’m just not sure my mom and I can ever really be close again.
But for whatever reason, I can’t stop thinking about her on every step of my journey into adulthood. When I do something big for my career, I wonder if she’s proud of me. If I put on a certain outfit, I wonder if it was similar to what she wore in her 20s. And if I cook a meal, I’ll text her for the recipe, and I’ll try to recreate her magic from scratch, and wonder if it will hold a candle to the meals she made for me growing up.
As I played Inbento, I meditated on those meals, and saw a potential future acted out between the family of cats. The child cat cooking for his mom was a narrative beat that struck an emotional chord for me, as I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to that point. I haven’t heard my mom’s voice since last July, and the idea of seeing her makes a tense knot swell in my stomach. I’m not ready. I’m just not. I can’t do it. Not yet.
One day, though, I hope I can. Despite all that we’ve put each other through, I want to make things better, and I want us to reach an understanding. I want us to be able to be in the same room together again and not just feel an immense sense of loss and confusion and hurt.
Before it’s too late, I want to be just like the little cats in Inbento. Because no matter what, my mom will always be that smiling mother cat to me – making delicious food with love for the life that she brought into this world.
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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.
She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.
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