© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reading The Game: Donut County

In Donut County, the main character is a hole. That's what you play as. A hole. A hole that swallows stuff and gets bigger so it can swallow bigger stuff.

But wait.

Donut County is not aboutthe hole. Not really. It's about the relationship between a girl named Mira and her best friend, BK, who is a raccoon. Mira and BK work at a doughnut shop, which is a front for an evil raccoon corporation that is trying to destroy everything in Los Angeles.

No, sit down. I'm not done yet. Trust me. It gets ... weirder.

Donut County was created by Ben Esposito (who also worked on Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch), and he originally designed it as a game where players controlled a hole that ate teepees and totem poles and kachina dolls as a way for him to ... explore Hopi and Native American folklore? Or something like that. Eventually (like, after years), he figured out that was a terrible idea with good mechanics, made a hard left turn, moved the game to his native L.A., added the raccoon conspiracy, some trailer parks, rabbit sex and an homage to Randy's Donuts, and it became a game about gentrification, corporate greed and personal avarice. A fable about what to do when your best friend is a total a-hole. And, you know, a raccoon.

As a game, Donut County is like a slow drip of valium — relaxing, sweet and a little bit numbing. It's a kind of inversion of the Katamari Damacyformula, in which a small ball grows bigger by rolling over stuff, allowing it to roll over larger and larger stuff, and its mechanics are incredibly simple: Swallow a rock, get a little bigger, swallow a bigger rock, then a fence, a car, a house, a building.

What's remarkable is the narrative architecture that Esposito has built around the gameplay, how nothing is quite what it seems. The story begins at the bottom of a hole, BK the raccoon having devoured everything in town via his remote-controlled hole. The way the raccoons' nefarious plan works is that they've taken over the local doughnut shop. They've instituted a delivery program. And every time someone orders a doughnut, what arrives instead is a hole. Which then swallows them and all their stuff.

At the beginning of the game, we've already arrived more or less at the end. BK's hole has eaten everything. By being such a good employee, he has won a remote-controlled quad-copter (again, stay with me), which Mira smashes in a rage.

The rest of the story (minus the final climax) takes place at the bottom of the hole, with all of the swallowed townsfolk gathered around a campfire, and Mira trying to explain to BK why he's the bad guy in this story and BK trying to explain why he's the victim. Or the hero. Or something in between. Lore, worldbuilding detail and a lot of really good, deadpan comedy can be found in the Trashopedia (an end-of-level accounting of everything the hole has swallowed, complete with pitch-perfect, occasionally hilarious item descriptions). Gameplay is a series of flashbacks, all hole-centric, explaining how everyone ended up in the hole, what they lost. BK insists his holes helped Helen the Ranger get rid of all the snakes in the park (along with everything else). They brought Salt and Pepper back together after Salt became obsessed with a bird. They saved Bearclaw from bees.

At a perfectly calibrated mumblecore pace, Mira and BK and the townspeople argue, at one remove — and from the bottom of a hole — the cost-benefit of destruction vs. rebirth. Of change vs. stasis. Of nature vs. design. The raccoons need more trash, see? Because raccoons love trash. They invented the app that sends the holes all over town, collecting people's old cars and broken guitars and double-wides and snakes, because they see everything as trash. And can't understand how anyone could see the trash as anything else.

There's just not enough art these days ... that can take a serious issue like gentrification in Los Angeles and turn it into a giant robot boss fight at Griffith Observatory AND still make its point about slacker redemption, personal sacrifice and forgiveness.

It is a truly bizarre experience. And life — this sanitized, focus-grouped, advertorial life we all live most of the time — is woefully short on the bizarre. On the deliberately alien. There's just not enough art these days focused on raccoon conspiracy theories, or the plight of love-sick rabbit farmers. Or that can take a serious issue like gentrification in Los Angeles and turn it into a giant robot boss fight at Griffith Observatory AND still make its point about slacker redemption, personal sacrifice and forgiveness.

Look, I'm fascinated by games that try to tell a real story. Whether they fail at telling big ones (Shadow Of Mordor) or succeed brilliantly at telling small ones (the aforementioned Edith Finch), video games present creators with a rare opportunity to tell deep, dimensional stories that feel like just a goof. Donut County?It feels like nothing. Like fluff. Goofy, strange, simple, primary-colored.

But that's deceptive because of what hides behind, between or just off to the side of the mechanics. Like a great short story, it doesn't say everything it has to say. It says just enough and leaves the rest of it to you.

The hole.

Controlled by the raccoon.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atmagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns.Tales From the Radiation Ageis his latest book.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.