Though I was born elsewhere, I've grown up in the Bay Area. And in the past seven-ish years since I moved from my hometown in the East Bay to San Francisco, I've watched the entire Bay Area change before my very own eyes. With every bougie coffee shop outing a family-owned business in the Mission District, with every Victorian home torn down to make way for an uber-modern condo complex, gentrification and what some may decree as the "tech uprising" have changed the Bay Area I love largely for the worse. The last thing I expected to confront the changing ways of West Coast cities was a game about swallowing mundane things with a big hole.
But that's precisely the prevailing message in Ben Esposito's thoughtful Donut County, which got its start as a teensy game jam experiment inspired by a Peter Molyneux parody account. Esposito, known most for his work with the comedy-game group Arcane Kids (the developers behind the surreal Sonic Dreams Collection and the bizarre Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective), also worked on What Remains of Edith Finch and The Unfinished Swan in the past. Much like the holes that expand to impossible sizes in Donut County, the project grew wide in scope over its long development; changing names, getting a big name publisher in Annapurna Interactive, and beyond.
In Donut County you play as BK, a snarky raccoon with an app that enables him to control a hole in the ground. In moving the hole, items in the world collapse into it and the hole inherently gets bigger. BK and his fellow raccoons have recently moved to Donut County, a town seemingly outside of the Los Angeles-like city. They've taken over the local donut shop, only instead of delivering real donuts, it's giant holes that suck up all their customers' homes and things. (Or, as BK sees it, their "garbage.")
We live in a world where Metroid-likes, Dark Souls-likes, PUBG-likes, and every other notable game is plagued with copycats and others chasing its success. Weirdly, Katamari-likes seemed absent from the equation, until Donut County showed up on the scene a few years ago. And the inspiration of Keita Takahashi's Katamari series is obvious from the jump. There's a "Trashopedia" at the end of every level, where you can read succinct little descriptions for all the items you swallowed whole, much like in Katamari. There are other direct nods to the series too, in more obvious ways. The art style is distinctively low-poly and soaked in pastel hues. The core conceit is an inverse to Katamari, though instead of freeform levels where you roll a ball around to collect items, Donut County's stages are heavily scripted and linear. (Also you're a hole swallowing things, not a ball collecting things, obviously.)
Each frame tells an entire story—at times it feels tailor made for players to take perfect screencaps or capture gifs. Other times it's telling a tale of its own inhabitants, as they watch you drag a gaping abyss around, absorbing their possessions as they helplessly stare with intrigue and bewilderment.
The levels themselves allow for relatively little for improvisation though, due to their scriped nature. When you start, it's usually in a small area with nothing more than blades of grass and maybe some fruit and mugs of coffee. Then your hole grows bigger and you're spawned into the next part of the level, all upon a Donut County resident's piece of land. Soon you're swallowing the citizens of Donut County themselves, and the ramshackle houses, souped up RVs, or tents they live in. It's up to you, the hole, to "clean" it all up. (Like San Francisco's ill-advised and unfortunately passed Proposition Q from 2016, am I right?) Sometimes you're solving puzzles too, such as absorbing a campfire, which causes the hole to smoke, and then snagging a firework to launch into the air. The puzzles never break your brain too much, but they add a clever spice to the consume-'em-all game.
It's the sort of thing I can see myself zoning out with and playing for more than its fleeting two-hour campaign length. I've already found myself revisiting the levels I enjoyed most; sometimes just to hear the music again (the soundtrack is particularly good), other times because it reminded me of those days where I'd roll around endlessly in Katamari Damacy only to be chastised by the King of Cosmos for the size of my makeshift star by its end. Since Donut County is all heavily scripted—with each screen requiring you swallow the same items, solve the same puzzles—I worry for its replayability in the long run. It's a bummer too, because there's a lot of surprising depth to Donut County's hole.
At least the story that frames the fun is worth sticking around for. The set-up follows BK and his hole-creating app after he's destroyed the entirety of Donut County with his antics, much to the chagrin of its citizens. As a result of his actions, they're all trapped beneath the surface of Earth, hoping to find a way out. Most levels are flashbacks to how each citizen landed down there. And every scenario ends the same: it's BK's fault because BK's hole swallowed them and their homes. Duh.
The dialogue itself is quirky and punchy, never overstaying its welcome. The characters are a hodgepodge of animals with distinct personalities and a lone human who works with BK and is essentially his closest pal—and the most likely to talk sense into him. Its real-world-leaning theme starts small, like a hole that's only swallowed sprinkler. By the end, it's all consuming, like a hole that can swallow an entire house or two.
Donut County is an excellent concept executed with pizzazz, personality, and an unexpectedly salient message at its core. While the end came abruptly and left me wanting more, like an endless mode or bigger levels to swallow things in, I can't deny the great time I had with what's there. There was even a moment where my roommates had gathered round, none of them particularly interested in video games, enamored and giggling with what was playing out on the screen. There's no denying the toy-like simplicity that Donut County excels in, even if by the end of the story you feel more than a little guilty swallowing up all these fine critters' belongings.
Katamari-likes are not quite a genre, but Donut County makes a case that it should be. Its inspiration is clear, and it takes the toy-like nature of its vision farther with a resonate message at its center. Moving around a hole and consuming all the low-poly things that lie in your path never really gets old from a mechanical perspective, even if the scripted scenarios do upon a replay from its level select. Donut County may not only make you hungry for donuts, it'll make you hungry for supporting your local family-run shops too.
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