Donut County PC
A quirky physics puzzler that questions the greater hole
Animals do what feels good. Put aside experience, conditioning and morality, and natural behaviour follows a pattern of simple gratification. If you’ve got an itch, you scratch it. If it smells good, you eat it. And if you control a hole in the ground, and there’s a space filled with things to put into that hole in the ground – and it feels satisfying to put said things into said hole in the ground – chances are, you’re going to do it.
That impulse is what Ben Esposito is counting on; Donut County revels in it. Like Katamari Damacy, it’s an irresistible exercise in tidying up. Chunky, colourful levels are cluttered with stuff: lawn chairs, clay pots, grass, donuts, horrified civilians. But this time, the player is a raccoon that’s found itself in control of an all-consuming hole.
We’ve wielded it before, but in this latest build, moving the mouse has the hole careen about the screen with a particularly pleasing elasticity. It swallows anything small enough to fit inside. The more it’s filled, the wider it grows, until it’s capable of gobbling entire houses. Simple, but worryingly pleasurable. “The game came from the silly idea of the hole in the ground,” Esposito tells us. “I didn’t know it was going to be good until I built it. Once I had it in front of me and I was moving the hole around, I was like ‘This feels so satisfying – and it shouldn’t.’ I tried to play into that as much as I could.”
As in Katamari, this conflict between systems and sentiment transforms Donut
County from cute physics puzzler into darkly humorous guilt trip. It might feel great to send ever more improbable objects tumbling into the void, but we’re constantly shown the cost of binge-eating a living, breathing world. Empty a level, and fulfillment fizzles into regret; we look upon our works and despair, a once-peaceful backyard or chicken farm now barren dirt as the music becomes plaintive. It’s a change from the wacky spinning donut that levels used to finish with. Esposito has put careful thought into ending scenes now: “Hopefully lingering on that, and having you sit in that, will give you that back-and-forth between cute and fun, and ‘Holy shit’. I try to push it in both directions.” Mostly, it’s a mad toy game, progressing through idle, organic puzzling. Deciding whether the hole’s big enough to gulp down a huge rock must be done by eye (unlike Katamari, there’s purposefully no indication of size ticking up on-screen), while easing in an awkwardly shaped plank is a physics-based scramble, and there’s light logic in spinning a sign to scare the chicken perched on it. But flash-forward cutaways to the void reveal broken furniture, bits of mountains, and furry, furious victims. “As the raccoon, you don’t understand what’s wrong, because you’re the player and you’re having fun,” Esposito says. “But the player understands this raccoon is a fool, and hopefully then you can sympathise with the people who live there.” Donut County is, for all its goofiness, faintly allegorical of the gentrification of Los Angeles.
It’s a strange game – and a strange way to spend five years, but Esposito is still hesitant to pin down a release date. As he’s grown as a writer and his priorities have changed, so have Donut County’s. “It’s sure as hell been hard to work on,” he tells us. “But the reason I never quit is because that first day when I had the hole in the ground, I knew it was something that would make people uncomfortable, make them feel good, make them feel weird... It’s something that you can’t just throw a bunch of mechanics together and get. It’ll have a very human reaction, and I know I can get that reaction.” Indeed, we have a very weird, very good feeling about it.
There is, we note, the tiniest suggestion of Brenda Romero’s politically charged tabletop games in Donut County. Esposito is modest, but agrees. “It’s a good metaphor for capitalism, putting you in a game system. Here are the rules; when you get good you can figure out how to exploit it. But the thing that is not captured in the game system, or capitalism, are the externalities. Who’s taking the hit? Is it the environment? The people working for you? That’s why Brenda’s stuff is so interesting: there’s a real emotional and historical context for it. My game is not very serious, but I’m thinking about the same stuff, in terms of you actually have to answer to all of the people you put in the hole.”
“I knew it was something that would make people feel good, make them feel weird…”