Publisher Annapurna Interactive has recently been in the business of publishing short, self-contained games that run the length of an average movie. They have practically cornered the market for critically acclaimed games that can be completed in one sitting with titles like Gorogoa, Florence, and What Remains of Edith of Finch. So it’s understandable that the publisher’s latest release, Donut County, would be the subject of some low-key hype. The game, created by game designer Ben Esposito and based on a tweet by a Peter Molyneux parody account, has been a favorite at industry events. The elevator pitch is simple enough. You control a hole in the ground that gets bigger as you devour increasingly larger items.
Hell, the buzz was loud enough to spawn a Goldman Sachs-backed “clone” that sought to undercut the game’s release. Don’t accept any substitutes, however. Donut County is a singular experience that transcends its simple, but potent core mechanic thanks to idiosyncratic humor, clever gameplay twists, and a gleeful sense of what makes swallowing the world into a hole so cathartic. It also has one of the best soundtracks you’re likely to hear to in a game this year.
The very fact that a huge financial institution would try to siphon some of the gas out of Donut County‘s tank is precisely the kind of thing that makes dropping an entire municipality into a pit so compelling. The game toys with this idea lightly, taking playful swipes at exploitative business practices and some of gaming’s most monolithic design tropes. Because surprise is Donut County‘s currency, I’m hesitant to say too much about game’s story, but just know there’s more going on here than quirky dialogue. One would be hard-pressed to call the game overtly political, but I found the game making subtle, but strong statements about gentrification and profit-driven greed at a lightning pace.
Ben Esposito has coyly described Donut County as a physics toy (perhaps to temper the mercurial temperament and expectations of “gamers”), but the core mechanism works because of tried-and-true video game design principles. Donut County first introduces a relatively straightforward concept, forces you to master it, and then alters the formula a bit. By the end of the game, you’ll be doing more puzzle solving than the game’s initial premise suggests. The scope of any given level will radically change as your hole gets bigger. You may start a level swallowing a single blade of grass and end it by sinking a car or even a house.
I feel contractually obligated to describe the game as a “reverse Katamari,” but that description falls a bit short for me. Sure, Katamari Damacy is perhaps the closest referent for how Donut County plays with scale and has you using everyday objects to progress, but in both games, you are making the world less, not more, populated. Where the games really differ, however, is to what end you are condensing the world. Katamari, for all its inventiveness, is a much more gamified series, one with time attacks, level progression, and power-ups. Donut County isn’t concerned with hitting those beats, at least not without its tongue tucked snugly in cheek.
It is ultimately Donut County‘s brash personality that makes it an essential game. I was taken with it as soon as I realized you could spam a “quack” button in a text message during the game’s opening moments for no other reason than it being a funny thing to do. I’m sure there is an achievement for “quacking,” but the game seems to make fun of the fact that anyone would want to unlock it. Similarly, the only true “power-up” in the game is a catapult that lets you strategically shoot some items back out of the hole to solve puzzles, but you can get some energy drinks too if you’ve got the points. Much of the game’s humor comes from reducing gaming tropes to their simplest terms, forcing players, especially “gamers”, to contend with how silly they sound when uttered out loud: “You have to be level 10 to unlock the quadrocopter.”
That’s the sort of thing that makes Donut County so damn relatable. It exists in a world, not unlike ours, where personal achievements and unlocks are far too often the only things that exist to fill our lives and time. The game suggests more nourishing stuff like relationships and a broader sense of community are often right under our feet, and it shouldn’t take a sinkhole to remind us of that. Donut County gives us one to play with anyway.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided by Annapurna Interactive.
Donut County is a singular experience that transcends its simple, but potent core mechanic thanks to its idiosyncratic humor, clever gameplay twists, and a gleeful sense of what makes swallowing the world into a hole so cathartic.