“Donut County” is an upcoming indie puzzler from Annapurna Interactive that aspires to be something totally different than the competition. It’s you, an oddball set of characters, and a small rural area that’s suddenly found itself under siege by a black hole with a penchant for swallowing anything and everything.
There’s no somber narrative riddled with existential dilemmas or the open-world bloat. The game funnels you into its unique realm of silliness rife with open-ended puzzle-solving that exists on its own in a vacuum.
The game, which launches on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and iOS on Tuesday, dares to buck the convention that games need heady plots or expansive lore to be fun, and yet it’s still very much a blast. Following a raccoon that’s obsessed with a mobile game with a hole that can suck up everything in its path and the folks being terrorized by it, it’s very much a game that needs only its strong concept and humor to make a powerful first impression.
“I’m really interested in novelty and intuitive experiences, so that’s why I’m making a physics game,” developer Ben Esposito told Variety. “Even though it’s very fantastical, it’s also pretty grounded in terms of how objects can move around,” he said of the game’s out-there premise with ideas still firmly grounded in realism.
“Sometimes, a really effective way to speak to people is by starting with this abstraction and surreal concepts, because that makes it really easy to hook them into a supernatural world,” he said. “That’s what I try to do with a lot of my work. The funny, goofy presentation and themes that get you hooked on the weird concepts can then bring us back to the human elements. I then figure out a way to get you to put your guard down o you can think more about what it means to be a human in this kind of story.”
It’s no surprise, then, that “Donut County” at its core even drew inspirations from some of the more frivolous, surreal moments in his life when Esposito first moved to Los Angeles.
“The donut shops in L.A. were really interesting to me because they haven’t been taken over by chains. They represented the diverse ways people treat food and the way people interact with each other,” he said. “My first apartment when I moved to L.A. was basically run by raccoons. They had the whole run of the place and would sleep inside of the laundry machines, steal all our pool toys and towels, and lived on the roof. They’d yell at us when we were walking around at night.”
Unfortunately, even the unique inspirations that went into helping Esposito come up with his game ultimately couldn’t save it from being copied, however. French developer Voodoo crafted a “copycat” mobile game in the form of “Hole.io” and released it ahead of “Donut County.” The clone piggybacks on Esposito’s concept and executes it on iOS and Android without the clever window dressing of his donut shop inspirations or the wicked raccoons that terrorize the game’s citizens. After publishing “Hole.io,” Voodoo amassed a whopping $200 million investment from Goldman Sachs, essentially profiting off Esposito’s original idea and coming to the market ahead of “Donut County.”
With incidents like those, it’s easy to understand why the gaming industry, while teeming with fresh and unique ideas around every corner, suffers from a dearth of these seemingly “aimless” games, created solely with one goal in mind: providing a varied environment in which players can just enjoy themselves. They might just end up being copied, anyway.
This sort of “fun for the sake of fun” concept has been missing from a good portion of recent releases over the last few years, and Esposito’s quirky project looks to be something of an antidote for the cavalcade of overtly serious releases that have been paraded out over the years. Luckily, it looks like it’s going to give us a whole lot more than “Hole.io” ever could.
There’s no harrowing storyline, wizened soldiers, or coming-of-age tales to be found here. Instead, the game’s content to wallow in its simplicity. It isn’t the first of its kind, of course. The PlayStation 2 cult hit “Katamari Damacy” and the rest of designer Keita Takahashi’s catalog excel at this. In fact, one could refer to “Donut County” as the inverse of “Katamari,” as you’re sucking things into a hole rather than rolling up items (and people) to create stars.
It’s no surprise that Esposito himself was inspired by “Katamari Damacy,” which he’s “a huge fan of,” citing it as a game that’s about “the joy of interacting” and “the tactile feeling of making objects match together.” Like “Katamari’s” vague goal of rolling up items to be tossed into the sky and Takahashi’s later PlayStation 3 title “Noby Noby Boy,” these imaginative games left things quite open for interpretation, much like “Donut County” does. That, as Esposito said, is by design.
“There are almost no instructions in ‘Donut County’ in terms of how to get started because I think it’s way smarter and engaging to be presented with all the objects in front of you. We give you the time and space to play around with stuff and figure out the rules of the world and tell you your goal,” said Esposito. “The goal should just be self-evident.”
And while “Donut County” is bereft of hardcore storytelling, it’s still important to him as a concept. “Some of the most interesting moments [in storytelling] to me are the intersection of the story and game mechanics.”
Having worked on projects like “The Unfinished Swan” and “What Remains of Edith Finch,” Esposito knows a thing or two about the build-up and the “tension” that slowly ramps up when vignettes are involved.
“When you can have a really interesting dynamic between what you can do as the player and what the explicit story is about,” he said, “that’s always the most impactful thing you can do in a video game.”
As far as “Donut County” goes, Esposito agrees that there’s something of a demand for self-contained experiences that aren’t “200 hours long.” As such, he’s thrilled with the space he’s working in right now.
“I’m really happy that I can work in that in-between space where I can have a game that has a little bit of story, but it’s something that comes and goes in a matter of two hours and you can rest easy, like ‘Oh, cool. I’ve seen this whole experience.'”
The kind of action that can pass by in two hours of “Donut County” could include forcing a family into the underground depths of your hole, or puzzling out how to solve a dilemma that might have a creative solution you didn’t immediately think of. That’s what Esposito hopes will happen, at least.
“Giving that kind of freedom to the player is something that can only be done in a video game. So I wanna provide more of that.”