Donut County PC

A quirky physics puz­zler that ques­tions the greater hole

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Ben Es­pos­ito Pub­lisher An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive For­mat PC Ori­gin US Re­lease TBA

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.

Sys­tem shock

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…”

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