Disclaimer: minor spoilers about the story ahead
At face value, Donut County is a goofy physics game with intuitive, satisfying puzzles and real good music. It’s kind of like a hole though – the more you play it, the deeper it gets. From the beginning it’s a funny game, but underneath those jokes is an allegory about accountability and apologizing. Quick, lighthearted, and relevant, Annapurna Interactive’s latest is the perfect fit for one of those end of summer afternoons.
You play as a raccoon named BK who recently moved into town and works at a “donut” shop with his good friend Mira. BK doesn’t actually sell donuts, though, he just plays games on his phone. Specifically, one that summons up real expanding holes that are hungry for trash. Which wouldn’t be too bad if he wasn’t a raccoon who thinks that literally everything is garbage, but he is, and chaos ensues. The main gameplay schtick is wandering around as a hole and gobbling up residents’ homes going from the smallest blade of grass to the entire lawn, building units, and families. It seems a bit grim, but don’t worry – you don’t really notice the impact of your actions until later, and neither does BK. It’s just a little phone app he’s using anyways; how could anything shitty he does on it affect people’s lives? Come on!
I know it’s a quirky premise, but Donut County wholly commits to it and delivers an experience I really dig. It always feels fluid and compelling. A lot of that is due to the intuitive mechanics, and relaxing, uncomplicated puzzles it features. The different places you wreak havoc in are so varied and colorful – both musically and visually. It makes it a treat to dive into each area for a few minutes, figure out the solution, swallow it up, and then move on to the next one. The wackiness never stops upstaging itself and BK ends up using catapults, launching illegal fireworks, and coaxing some large frogs into helping him get that trash throughout his journey. There are so many elements that keep hyper-elevating the stakes during the game, but throughout all that mayhem I never felt swamped with information or overstimulated. Donut County maintains a steady pace and holds a thoughtful structure that grants players a nice place to have a goofy, tangential time without making too big of a mess on screen.
They also nail the dialogue so, so well – a feat that not many games have achieved without sounding like a 47 year old man trying to fit in with the teens. The opening scene has BK and Mira texting each other about work, and it almost perfectly replicates the joke-y, jaded, millennial post-ironic Twitter dialect that people are using right now. Reclaiming the capitalized LOL’s and emoji usage, this game gets how people talk to other people online and in person. It just feels real, and makes it an amazing vessel to deliver the characters’ personalities and intentions without sounding ham-fisted or out of touch. There’s also a trash-o-pedia with little bios of all the things you’ve consumed; it’s the only thing I’ve ever read that was very obviously written by a raccoon.
By the end of Donut County’s opening scene you can tell that BK loves games and hates responsibility. We all know a BK. His focus is so tunnel visioned on gaining points and leveling himself up that he neglects his friends and fellow residents, endangering them for the sake of an end-game remote quadcopter prize. It escalates in a way that can only be described as gaming hubris. The more points BK got, the more damage he dealt to the town, and the worse I felt about progressing. And for the most part the game is told through flashbacks after most of the town ends up in the abyss BK’s operating, so the townsfolk are all there expressing the hardships they’ve endured because of BK’s lack of empathy. I’ve never had a game push me to a state where I cared less about gaining points, and more about the things I was doing to get those points. BK’s arrogant obsession makes him inconsiderate, and sort of an asshole to play as.
Later on BK eventually realizes that his actions have consequences and he apologizes, but not everyone accepts it, and honestly they don’t have to. One character flat out denies it saying that what happened was real messed up and it would take some time and actual effort on BK’s end to earn the character’s trust back. This isn’t dwelled upon too much, but it hit me hard because it reminded me about recent callout posts and celebrity scandals where people are just so garbage at apologizing, yet think they deserve to be absolved of their wrongdoings because they did. Thinking about that while I was completing simple puzzles caused me to take a step back and realize this game actually has a lot more to it than a cool hole mechanic.
Donut County is a rabbit hole of laughs and liability. A game that manages to fit so much into a small, charismatic package bursting with personality. I love that it can be interpreted in so many ways: modern urban development issues of gentrification, how people need to step away from games and check on how their friends are doing, or even commentary on how many people online have no sense of responsibility to the words they say. Also somehow offering such a calming, feel-good experience that’s sure to have you laughing all the way through. It’s wild how a little indie game like Donut County is jam packed with so many aspects, like a nice jelly filled donut, but that’s what makes it so special.