Donut County

The IGF fi­nal­ist show­ing us a hole new way to play



You won’t re­alise it im­me­di­ately, but Donut County plays a clever trick be­fore you’ve even reached its ti­tle screen. You’re thrust into a tu­to­rial with­out warn­ing; in the ab­sence of prompts, you’ll move the mouse around and no­tice you’re guid­ing a small hole. The let­ters of game cre­ator Ben Es­pos­ito’s name fall in­side it, and the hole ex­pands with each ob­ject it swal­lows. The cam­era pulls back, pre­sent­ing a wider view of a grass verge, around which a rac­coon rides a mo­torised scooter. We gob­ble up white fence posts, then it’s time to over­turn the scooter, which drops its cargo – a box of dough­nuts – invit­ingly. The hole widens fur­ther, and the rac­coon and its ride are gone.

What fol­lows de­vi­ates slightly from that first stage, though the ob­jec­tive is broadly the same: to re­move all ob­jects from the field of play. In­ter­ac­tions will some­times pro­duce sur­pris­ing re­sults and oc­ca­sion­ally you’ll need to solve sim­ple puz­zles. A fruit cart bal­anced pre­car­i­ously on a pair of bas­kets will only spill its con­tents when they’re taken away. By the sec­ond group of stages a new me­chanic is in­tro­duced – but in a game fo­cused on discovery and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, we’re loath to re­veal more.

Donut County has been likened to Kata­mari Da­macy in re­verse, though the more apt com­par­i­son is Keita Taka­hashi ex­per­i­ment Noby Noby Boy in its ten­dency to­wards loose, re­laxed play. It’s a com­par­i­son Es­pos­ito is un­ex­pect­edly de­lighted by. “Kata­mari is kind of de­fined by the timer that’s al­ways run­ning, and that’s what makes it a game. But it’s [also] what breaks the magic a lit­tle bit for me,” he tells us. “Noby Noby Boy ‘fixed’ that. I don’t know how much peo­ple en­joyed that com­pared to Kata­mari, but it was more of an in­flu­ence. There’s very lit­tle pres­sure on you when you’re play­ing this game. Ev­ery ac­tion is very self-mo­ti­vated. That was im­por­tant.”

Now in its third year of de­vel­op­ment, Donut County be­gan life as a vari­ant on the clas­sic river-cross­ing puz­zle: play­ers used the hole to carry chick­ens to an egg-shaped coop with­out them be­ing eaten by foxes. Es­pos­ito en­tered it into a game jam based on tweets from par­ody ac­count Peter Moly­deux, be­fore bring­ing an up­dated ver­sion to the IndieCade fes­ti­val in 2012, where Kellee San­ti­ago invited him to con­tinue de­vel­op­ment with the fi­nan­cial sup­port of In­die Fund.

Buoyed by In­die Fund’s bless­ing, Es­pos­ito be­gan to think more deeply about the game’s sys­tems and set­ting. De­spite its off­beat cen­tral me­chanic and stylised art – which earned it an IGF nom­i­na­tion – Donut County’s en­vi­ron­ments are earthy and in­ti­mate. Though there’s a nat­u­ral es­ca­la­tion to each stage as the hole widens, Es­pos­ito isn’t about to fol­low Taka­hashi’s lead and have play­ers in­gest the world. Keep­ing it at a hu­man level, he says, makes it more re­lat­able. That’s partly why Donut County’s en­vi­ron­ments are based in and around Los An­ge­les. “I [thought] if I make it more spe­cific, more about some­thing I care about, I’ll be able to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple on a more uni­ver­sal level.” Es­pos­ito was also keen to re­move any con­ven­tional bar­ri­ers: this is a puz­zle game of a form, but only in the way that, say, Ho­hokum is. Like that game, Donut County’s most be­guil­ing mo­ments oc­cur sim­ply through the act of play. “I feel like a lot of puz­zle games are just clev­erly dis­guised work,” he says. “It ru­ins it for me when you have to roll up your sleeves and say, ‘OK, it’s time to fig­ure out what this de­signer wanted me to do’.”

The light puz­zles are used for pac­ing or build­ing ten­sion. “I use puz­zle tech­niques as tools to give you this sat­is­fy­ing arc to each area. It’s less that I’m try­ing not to make a game, [more that] I’m us­ing game tech­niques to make an ex­pe­ri­ence.” He pauses briefly, and laughs: “Maybe this is not the best way to make a game!” Maybe so. But with Donut County – even in this early form – yield­ing such de­light­ful re­sults, there’s some­thing to be said for such un­ortho­dox meth­ods.

County downer

Fin­ish­ing a level in Donut County is cu­ri­ously bit­ter­sweet. You’ll ex­pe­ri­ence the sat­is­fac­tion of or­ganic growth, the tac­tile re­ward of the game’s physics and the plea­sure of solv­ing its gen­tle co­nun­drums. But by the end, every­thing has dis­ap­peared, and you’re re­spon­si­ble. “I had a lot of thoughts on what the game could be about,” Es­pos­ito ex­plains. “I moved to LA a cou­ple of years ago, and one thing I no­ticed was the lack of chains. Ev­ery dough­nut shop is unique. They’re owned by dif­fer­ent peo­ple and em­bed­ded within com­mu­ni­ties. And I was read­ing about Dunkin’ Donuts mov­ing into LA soon – in fact they’ve started the process – and I [re­alised] this was the per­fect way to talk about gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. I wanted to talk about what hap­pens when th­ese things get erased.”

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