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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