Ben Esposito’s ultra-charming vibe.
This article contains SPOILERS for Donut County.
Oopsie. I had intended to get out the next instalment of this series within two weeks of the God of War III piece going live, but then house-moving suddenly went from 0 to 100MPH so things have been a bit pre-occupied here at Callie Petch Headquarters this past month. Still, got some time now so let’s get on with it. Also, yeah, I had promised two games being discussed in this entry, but it’s already clear to me that I cannot do readable concision, so these are individual articles now.
Story So Far for those just joining us: I am finally getting through at least part of my extensive gaming backlog, having spent years drifting away somewhat from a hobby I used to be massively into as a kid and teenager only to find it become something significantly more casual and comfort-foody. Because I have a gloopy part of my brain equal parts damaged by a decade-long depression that treats self-care as a waste of life and these stupid writer voices which insist #EverythingIsContent, however, I am also compelled to write reflective thoughts on each of these games upon completion in an effort to justify the time spent playing instead of bettering myself as a human or something. Vast majority of the time, these are older games everyone else has already played and that I don’t have properly deep-dive essay structured thoughts on as is my bread and butter, so the write-ups are (theoretically) going to be shorter and more scatter-shot bloggy than usual. Sound good? Lovely.
I had intended to pair this up with God of War III in one piece together since it functions as the antithesis to that other game, only to oopsie and 2,700 words before even getting two-thirds of the way to Donut County. That’s a shame too cos I think, even though I played and finished Donut County before I started up God of War III, the contrast between the two, especially in write-up tones, would have made it extremely evident why Ben Esposito’s cute little two-hour Unity-powered vibe has stuck with me more than any of Kratos’ giant bloody hardware-pushing spectacle did.
So, to reductively condense my prior piece down into three sentences: I found God of War III to be a really confused, queasy bummer of a minor slog to get through. The narrative and its presentation were relentlessly dour and accusatory, lacking any compelling or truly developed characters to make the unfolding story interesting – it’s no Asura’s Wrath, to extremely reductively put it – but the moment-to-moment gameplay and presentation of that were designed to make the player feel awesome and cool in a super juvenile masculine bro way which created a fundamental disconnect where, despite technical and mechanical excellency (mostly), none of its aims were executed properly. I thought it was hollow, mean, faux-deep, outright embarrassing at times, and ultimately not for me.
Donut County, on the other hand, was just a real sweet and very charming little time. A much tighter, more focussed, and better integrated game that is also designed to make the player feel powerful and satisfied in the gameplay whilst still exploring complex kinda-bummer topics in the narrative. The two games are not alike in any single way other than these somewhat superficial connections brought upon by the chancery of what order I chose to tick off my backlog in. But I still found it a strange study in contrasts, especially as it pertained in general to how my attitudes and worldview have shifted over the years. Even setting aside the fact that I (unknowingly) played Donut County the night of my Dad’s suicide attempt – more on that here – and God of War III in the week and a half following that event, I found myself preferring the wholesome, hopeful, casually inclusive irreverent worldview provided by Donut County than the edgy Greek melodrama of God of War. That’s just where I’m at right now.
Esposito’s light puzzler is, to utilise 2019 parlance, a real vibe. That doesn’t sound like decent substantive criticism, I am aware, but a] I already said these write-ups were going to be more casual bloggy works and b] it’s honestly the most accurate descriptor I can use for the game. Every facet of the its design – visually, narratively, audibly, mechanically – is born out of the kind of laidback simplicity one expects from something whose origins were a Peter Molydeux game jam. The graphics have a lovely, warm-coloured soft edgeless aesthetic that’s really inviting whilst still being bold and eye-catching, aided by smartly-chosen and smoothly-transitioned fixed camera angles. The soundtrack has a chill, summertime alt-hip hop bounce which on paper seems like it may fall into “low-fi beats to study to” mode but is constantly varying up its chords, pitch modulations, and syncopated rhythms to find the exact sweet-spot where the results are engaging but not overwhelming. (Esposito and Daniel Koestner’s score actually reminds me a lot of Beck’s tracks from music-platformer Sound Shapes.)
Gameplay, meanwhile, is dead simple. You play a racoon, BK, operating a movable hole and your goal is to clear the screen of everything on it. The hole starts small but gets bigger every time objects and things fall in, so you begin by dropping individual blades of grass down there and often finish by inhaling entire houses. There’s really not too much more to it than that. Sometimes you might have to jiggle objects around a bit in order to get them at the right angle to fall in. Sometimes you might have to inhale a spot of coal to make the hole hot enough to set things on fire. Sometimes you have to knock things around with a snake tail or fill the hole with some liquid that something else needs to absorb or drink. About halfway through you get a contextual catapult that lets you fire the last hole-d item back up at something. That’s about as far as the puzzling in this sorta-puzzler goes.
Despite how that last sentence may read, I don’t mean it as a criticism. Truth be told, making objects effortlessly and unceremoniously disappear never ceases to be inherently satisfying. There’s almost never a noticeable trail of destruction and I think there are only three times in the entire game where anything tries to actively impede you. Aside from the entertaining left-field boss battle at the very end, there are no fail states. Nobody runs away or so much as bats an eyelid half the time as you go about your business, a lot of the characters even outright stare half-passively at the moving hole until they get dropped in it. It’s a refreshingly mundane approach to simulated civil restructuring and that’s kinda the charm. The baseline serotonin provided by the little ‘pop’s of the hole growing in size as new things drop inside never gets old, whilst the puzzles require just enough grey matter to make figuring them out satisfying without being so intensive that they clash with the relaxed vibe of everything else.
A similar design ethos can be found on the narrative, too. Donut County looks like a cute vibey comedy game, but does in fact have some big ideas on its mind. Life under capitalism, strained friendships and self-absorption, the careless effects of gentrification and enforced displacement, trying to live ethically within the gig economy. BK is working for The Trash King, leader of underground racoons compulsively attempting to swallow more and more “trash” – “trash” here referring to literally anything which resides above the surface since surface-residents are recycling more now – with no end goal besides the further accumulation of more trash to sit atop his wealthy trash-pile. BK, for his part, goes along with it because he gets points for every “donut delivery” and once he gets enough points he can cash them in to buy a cool new quadcopter drone, despite the fact that he is ruining his friends’ lives in the process. Much of the game taking place in medias res 999ft below the Earth as the county’s residents read him the riot act and try to get him to realise this actually is all his fault.
OK, I guess there is an actual weirdly shared similarity between God of War III and Donut County. Both games have you playing as largely-unrepentant terrible people mindlessly ruining the lives of others in the single-minded pursuit of a selfish overall goal, with the gameplay attempting to instil a sense of base-pleasurable empowerment in the player and the narrative providing a load of reasons why one shouldn’t revel in the destruction they wreak. So, why am I not slinging accusations of disconnect and confusion Donut County’s way? Well, besides the fact that such comparisons involve extremely simplistic (somewhat mis)readings of both games, it comes down to a difference in tone, one game having compelling characters, and a marked difference in the quality of writing between the two games.
As I keep saying, Donut County is a vibe and despite how the thematic topics being covered by the game’s narrative may sound on paper, that same vibe has also been baked into the writing. That’s not to say the game takes a non-committal centrist tone to its messaging; absolutely not, this is very clearly the work of a committed anti-capitalist. I mean that there’s a very casual, almost-conversational tone with how the game handles its subject matter, akin to shooting the shit at the bar with your slightly-intellectual left-wing friends about these very things. It’s never accusatory… probably because the endgame involves repurposing the very tools used to oppress the natives of Donut County as means of rebellious reclamation so there’s less of a “how dare you do the very thing we keep telling you to do, YOU ARE A BAD PERSON!” schtick that literally only Spec Ops: The Line has ever managed to effectively pull off.
I feel that observation is best summed up by a line at the end of the boss fight prior to the heroic climax where, lamenting that BK appears to have sold out Mira and Possum to the Trash King, Possum notes, “I’m not surprised, BK is a true capitalist.” And despite how that may sound when ripped out of context and written out as a highlight, the line really landed for me because of those aforementioned three reasons. The line has a dry bluntness to it steeped in modern millennial conversational delivery that’s intentionally funny even as it has a kernel of truth and political viewpoint. Possum has already been characterised as a crackpot anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist – specifically, someone who believes in both Hollow and Flat Earth Theory at the same time – so it’s not a clanging left-field statement coming from him. And it’s just a solidly-constructed joke based upon the unfolding situation, what we know of the really likeable and memorable characters, and proper set-up/punchline rhythms. I guffawed at it, as I guffawed at much of the game up to then.
Surprisingly, I thought the game was much funnier in the writing department than the actual gameplay. Physics-based games are often inherently set up to facilitate both scripted and unscripted cavalcades of often-inherently funny physical comedy, and the similarly-styled (and similarly-engined) Untitled Goose Game proved that simple well-designed physical comedy can be endlessly more amusing and charming than millions of dollars burned on-screen for giant explosive setpieces. Yet, I honestly don’t remember all that many such instances in the gameplay of Donut County. There are some examples of that kind of in-baked comedy reliant on player interaction rather than, admittedly captivating and winsome, reading – firing a rocket at an overhanging cliff face to make the citizen above bonk down on the ground below for hole-ing, the unexpected popcorn shower, the sheer audacity of sucking an entire waterpark and congested motorway – but still not as many as I thought there might’ve been going in.
In that sense, and in the sense of the game always throwing new ideas and gradual tweaks to the primary loop right up until the very last, I find myself wondering whether Donut County should’ve gone farther. It’s fully completable within at the very most three hours, trophies and all, and a part of me wonders if there could’ve been some kind of additional challenge mode added to make fuller use of those mechanics. Maybe a separate group of bonus stages which turn this light puzzler into a full-pronged puzzle game. Perhaps the individual stages could have had more Rube Goldberg-y sequences to better integrate the comedy into the action rather than having it mostly be in the additional writing. There are points where the game feels more like a visual novel broken up by physics-puzzles than a physics puzzler. Hell, even just a slightly longer story with more time to exist in this world watching these entertaining characters banter I wouldn’t have said no to.
But, of course, to entertain such notions is to miss the point that Ben Esposito has gone for with Donut County. All of those desires would run the risk of overcomplicating the broth and spoiling the relaxed wholesome vibe. The game’s mechanics are exactly as complex as they need to be in order to retain accessibility without sacrificing satisfaction or frustrating the brain. Bonus stages could make the main story feel like an extensive training mode for the ‘real’ challenge instead of something to fully enjoy in its own right. More-scripted pratfall comedic moments would likely sacrifice player agency and expression to a degree that dilutes the appeal and hems in progression further. And even a longer story could risk the sensation of padding when the current length is frankly perfect as is; engaging, just deep enough, and leaves without outstaying its welcome.
It’s a short and sweet game, is Donut County. A real vibe. A wholesome, unique little joy which has been a welcome, needed balm in my heart in the month and a bit since playing. I look forward to whatever Ben Esposito makes next with interest and excitement!
Next time: Titanfall 2 demonstrates that reserved first impressions aren’t everything.