Donut County (Ben Esposito)

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Donut County is a mellow casual puzzle game wrapped in story. The gameplay: you control a hole moving across the ground. If you place it under something small enough to fall in, the object vanishes below, and the hole gets bigger. It’s Katamari-esque, but there are some nifty extra effects: the hole can fill with water, which makes things float on the surface; sometimes items that are in the hole give off smoke or fumes, or leave appendages sticking out, which you can use to affect the environment in new ways. (Note for new players, by the way: I initially found the gameplay a little sluggish, but going to the settings and turning control responsiveness up to maximum made it a much more natural and enjoyable experience.)

The story? This is all a game-within-a-game presented within a flashback, with multiple protagonists, sort of. Let me start from the beginning because there’s a lot to unpack here.

Donut County begins with a frame story that everyone in town is living at the bottom of the hole, after six weeks in which this hole has been terrorizing the community. Mira, a human, blames BK, a raccoon who has all this time been playing an addictive video game that involves hole manipulation (and just incidentally manages to really swallow things in the real town). BK also happens to run a donut shop, and the hole tends to turn up whenever anyone orders donut delivery at home.

As you, the player, play levels of Donut County, you receive experience points and rewards that correspond to the in-game points BK is trying to accumulate; and then you cut back to the frame story in which the denizens of Donut County are talking about what has happened to them over the past few weeks and whose fault it all is.

This makes for one of the most convoluted triangle-of-identity problems I’ve yet seen. The framing introduces an undercurrent of unease and self-doubt in what is otherwise a relaxing, candy-pink game of playful destruction.

Where do you-the-player stand in all this? Are you BK, playing the game and destroying the entire community? Are you one of the other townspeople or perhaps Mira herself, telling the story of how the gameplay destroyed the community, a kind of interactive reenactment? Is there a possible redemption in store after you’ve done all this? Should you maybe stop being a hole?

I want to talk about where the story goes from there, but this will involve spoilers, so let’s have a break first.

I first became interested in Donut County after seeing a GDC talk several years ago in which Ben Esposito discussed his decision to abandon a Hopi theme for the game because he realized it wasn’t his place to tell that story. It’s a good talk and you can see it for free.

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Donut County in its final form tells a story that’s a lot closer to home. The longer you play, the clearer it becomes that Donut County is the greater Los Angeles area: Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory, 405 freeway. The donut shop in question is reminiscent of Randy’s or something like it. (By total coincidence, I was at Randy’s just a couple of months ago, where I ordered a Texas donut to find out what it was. Something to do with barbecue perhaps? Answer: it is an ordinary glazed donut only way, way bigger. I didn’t finish mine, but receiving a donut the size of a life preserver, still warm from the oven, at 3 AM, is an extremely good metaphor for consumer excess.)

The raccoons — BK and his bosses included — are running the place to their own capitalist, colonizing and/or gentrifying advantage. They’ve got a macho lust for tough machinery. They’ve stripped the local resources to the point of nonexistence. They’ve disrespected the lifestyles of people they didn’t understand, too. One of the key points of the mid-game is that BK regards people’s homes and possessions as trash to be collected.

At one point, Mira also tells BK off for trying to get her to absolve his guilt about everything the raccoons have done — a reflection, perhaps, of the way white people too often make their own feelings the center of conversations about racism.

There are lots of different references here. None of them is played too heavily. This is not strictly an environmentalist story or an anti-capitalist story or a story about race or gender or colonization or cultural appropriation. Rather, it’s a little bit about each of the above. “I was just playing the game to get rewards!” represents overlapping complicities in multiple destructive systems, and the addictive reward structures that distract people from their actual ethical beliefs, until More Money or More Power become ends in themselves, disconnected from any desired effect.

For that matter, Mira herself doesn’t have entirely clean hands. She had reason to think BK was causing the hole trouble and said nothing about it until the entire neighborhood had been destroyed.

I think ultimately the message of the game is that if you’ve been benefitting from a destructive system, you have a special responsibility to help dismantle that system and create a more just replacement. Donut County is still a pretty light-hearted game, though — so it represents this massive effort of systemic change as though it could be accomplished with one boss fight and a really big catapult. If only it were that easy.

5 thoughts on “Donut County (Ben Esposito)

  1. This is a very interesting read on the theme! I had missed the Californian references.

    My take on the player’s identity was pretty simple, and maybe too much so. During the hole-control phases, you see an icon in the upper-left of the screen (at least in the PlayStation version) showing either BK or Mira playing with a tablet. So, I took that to mean “this is you, at the moment”, with all the pre-endgame levels being True and Accurate retellings of BK trashing some place — and the XP meter at the end also belonging to BK, reflecting his quest to reach level 10.

    On the topic of playful player-identity confusion: did you see what happens if you lose the boss fight?

  2. I felt like framing the bulk of the game as flashback was a clever way to handle the player’s sense of culpability. The introductory scene, which is one of the few that isn’t in flashback, left me thinking “Wait, I just dumped a living person into a big hole. Is this one of those mean-spirited games where you hurt people and are expected to laugh it off?” But it was immediately followed by the time skip to the aftermath of the county’s destruction, with whole bunch of angry (and, notably, unhurt) people yelling at a completely unrepentant BK. This clarified the game’s moral stance — that dumping everything into holes is wrong — while simultaneously giving me license to violate that stance, because BK was already being punished for it. Moreover, everything I was doing had in a sense already happened, so it didn’t feel like I could make it not happen by refraining from doing it. (With lack of agency comes lack of responsibility?)

  3. And, furthermore, it establishes right off that dropping people into holes is (a) wrong and (b) what you’re going to do all game long and (c) way fun. This is kind of brilliant. It’s impossible to condemn BK entirely, even though he’s entirely a jerk.

    I know the term “ludo-narrative dissonance” got overplayed a few years ago, but this should be declared the holotype.

    • I’ve found myself struggling to explain, in conversation with friends, how this game feels like a response to Katamari Damacy.

      That older game is a blast but it gives not a jot of attention to the question of consent, and that really bothered more than one person I know. Donut County, on the other hand, directly examines the fallout of the protagonist’s actions from the get-go (even though they’re just as completely silly, on surface-read, as the Prince of All Cosmos’s are), and literally interrogates him about why he drove an all-consuming destructo-device through the middle of town without asking for permission first, *even if it was super-duper fun*.

      (And then, as Zarf says, flips the coin and hurls the player right down the obvious “come on, you know you want to” path of open-eyed complicity. And lo, it is super-duper fun.)

      • Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, did recently say that he was trying to criticize mass consumption. (But also that he didn’t intend players to pick up on this.)

        Mostly I am relieved that it was not a barbecue-flavored donut.

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