Playing Donut County, a game by Ben Esposito and published by Annapurna Interactive, conjured an odd feeling for me that I’m finding hard to describe. It’s that feeling you get after you pull off a practical joke that you find really funny, but isn’t well received by the recipient which makes you feel a little shameful about doing it. It’s like guilt wrapped in a blanket of cathartic humour. It’s uncomfortable and selfish but equally stalwart and stubborn in the fact that you liked what you did. I’m sure there’s probably a word for this conflicting washing machine of emotions but I can’t for the life of me think what it is. Whatever [X emotion] is called, Donut County is the first time a game has ever make me feel that way and that’s thanks to the balance of game play and the way that that’s framed then delivered.
Donut County is oft described as “that game with the holes”. In it you play as BK, a racoon who has taken over the Donut shop in a colourful world full of anthropomorphic animal characters and his best friend, a human girl named Mira. BK is painfully addicted to a mobile game created by his fellow racoons which enables him to deliver donuts to those that order them – but instead of delivering a glazed with sprinkles, it delivers a hole in the ground that grows with each item it consumes.
Each of the levels in Donut County hands you the control of a hole and challenges the player to swallow up everything in sight. At first you’ll be searching around for things small enough to slip into your tiny maw – grass, a real donut, a stone, a soft drink can – and with each item you consume the hole grows to allow you to envelop bigger items – crates, chairs, animals, people, benches – until you’re big enough to gobble down the big ticket items – cars, trees, massive boulders and entire houses. As you progress through the levels, new elements get added progressively. There’s the ability to fill the hole with water, granting the hole the characteristics of the wet stuff. You can add fire to the hole which burns away in the depths and can activate other elements like the coals from a BBQ (which spurts fire out of the hole and can burn objects) or fireworks (which shoot up after a few seconds). Some of these elements will make you laugh, some are real fist pump moments but all of these new mechanics build on a lattice of mild puzzles which require you to think out of the box in order to solve the age old problem of “how to destroy everything above ground then swallow it into the depths of the earth”. To put it bluntly, Donut County is straight up fun.
It’s the way that this fun is portrayed outside of the actual gameplay that makes Donut County stand out from its obvious clones. Each level is introduced by the character who owns the house and belongings that you’re about to trash with an ever-growing hole. There’s dialogue between the playable antagonist BK and each and every person that he has “wronged” and that pesky racoon is equal parts lovable and frustrating, protesting his innocence while revelling in the destruction he has wrought. This is where that mysterious [X emotion – I’m still thinking about what to call it] comes into play. Swallowing up a person’s whole life is all well and good during the game play, and I’ll admit, I enjoyed the hell out of it, but when you’re deep underground and the Crocodile/Rabbits/Fox etc are all trapped there, no way of escaping and they’re throwing accusations (even as light hearted as they are) at BK (sic the player) then you start to feel a little weird about it. Alongside this arc are off-hand commentaries about the often predatory nature of mobile games, a redemption arc, a pretty powerful message on the value that people place on the belongings of others and more. It’s a deeply deceptive narrative, packing a lot in and presenting large portions of it in text speak. There’s more than a few “lols”.
Donut County is only a few hours long but it’s a compact experience that’s excellently paced. Any longer and the charm and whimsy might have worn off. Any shorter and I might have felt short changed. There’s a little more longevity to it if you fancy tickling your funny bone as each and every item you swallow into a hole gets added to a “Trashopedia” complete with hilarious one liners that describe their use from the perspective of a trash loving racoon. My personal favourites here are a “Swear into here and no one will hear you” description for a traffic code offset by a “Swear into here and everyone will hear you” accompanying a megaphone. The trashopedia is a fun, totally unnecessary but very welcome addition to the game which shows how much care and attention Ben Esposito and his collaborators have put into the game.
And that’s that take away message I have about Donut County. This game isn’t the only “game about a hole” out on the market but this is the one that feels like it’s been loved into existence rather than rushed out to be first. The visuals, the music (oh folks! THE MUSIC!), the character interactions, the little diorama during the credits all build up this quirky feeling to Donut County that make the plot and the game play shine.
It’s not perfect – there’s a few moments when I felt there could have been better sign posting on what to do next – but as an experience, it climaxes as a joyful one that’s unlike anything I’ve played in a long time. Yes. Even that clone.
Donut County is available now on PS4 (reviewed on base model), PC and Mobiles.
Developer: Ben Esposito
Publisher: Annuapurna Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we purchased a copy of the game. Please see our review policy for more information.