Donut County is a hit indie game that I found relaxing and enjoyable. As both a dev and a business of games consultant, I’m always down for exploring for why an indie game took off and plus the backstory of why the game was made. What was it about Donut County that just spoke to people in spite of the ever-crowding indie game sphere?
It’s virtually impossible not to be endeared by the minimalist graphics and quixotic jazzy soundtrack that feels at home in the playlist at any hipstery coffee shop that doesn’t quite reek of gentrification alongside its small batch roasts too much. All of which help flesh out our protagonists: a girl named Mira who doesn’t want to come into work that fateful day everyone gets jettisoned far below the earth’s crust, and the impish trash panda BK who just wants to deploy holes everywhere. Then as for the gameplay itself, it’s pretty simple. Icons on the screen tell you if you’re playing as Mira or BK, but you’re really just one of them controlling a hole that moves around the screen swallowing up objects that make the hole bigger, until you’re capable of ramming some really big things into that hole. (Let’s face it, there’s no way to describe the core gameplay loop without sounding totally filthy so fuck it, I’m going to bring out the 12-year-old in you throughout this piece.)
Laser Focus on a Single Narrative Branch
In terms of both mechanics and narrative complexity, Donut County is a totally stark contrast to the last indie megahit I analyzed, Stardew Valley. Whereas Stardew Valley is an RPG at its core with the elements of several other games and genres woven with one major narrative arc then several smaller arcs you can pursue on your own or leave unexplored, Donut County is the diametric opposite in that your attention is focused on just one narrative arc with one character’s story per level. The levels don’t get repetitive because each one is bespoke and some of them involve a little puzzle-solving once you’ve gotten the gist of navigating that hole that loves to suck down everything in its path. No less, it’s a totally linear narrative and progression with no chance for decision fatigue at all because you don’t really have choices in this game. You’re just controlling that hole until there’s nothing left to swallow then the level ends and the narrative continues where you don’t choose which character’s story you hear next.
With the exception of the boss fight, there’s no timers or movement involved in Donut County. That sort of grind that makes you seek achievements and one rare drop after another? Zilch. No pressure at all. You’re not timed so it makes you just want to take the level slowly or even back away for a little to take in the music. It is legit a totally therapeutic experience that doesn’t outrightly tell players they’re likely to find the game relaxing like many experiential type of games do today. In fact, it probably wasn’t the intent at all! So something about that just makes it even better for relaxation and getting some headspace than those meditation apps I downloaded to my phone over two months ago that I never bothered to open once I set the reminders. Why have an app nag you to meditate when you can angle a hole around a map and just keep jamming things in that hole for the glory of some trash pandas taking an allegory for Los Angeles County by storm through a seemingly innocuous donut ordering app?
What’s surprisingly meditative is simply regaining the ability to focus on one thing and Donut County executes this marvelously. In our “always on” world where we’re trying to 80 different things, a lot of the games we play reflect on this too. Playing multiple quests and sidequests, grinding, following one or more narrative branches...the list goes on. Sole focal points aside, the players who’ve rallied around this game say that the act of moving a hole around and stretching it was extremely satisfying. In a world where things like social media and constant push notifications have totally destroyed our brains, games have served as a way of re-training our brains. (No pun intended on this publication’s namesake.) We have to focus on so many things both in games and in life so this type of linear narratives often snubbed in favor of branching narratives, multiple choices, and other ways that storytelling in games has advanced? It’s good, actually! Linear gameplay and narratives are definitely not relics of the past, or so indie game aficionados have said they should not be.
But it begs the question: what defines “experiential” exactly?
Katamari Damacy and Eating or Sucking Everything in Your Path, and What Is and Isn’t an “Experience”
Genre-mashing is a fact of life if you want to innovate in the games space. But it was hard to create an exact label for “go around the game world absorbing things that make you bigger until it’s no longer attainable” until Katamari Damacy became a sleeper hit in the early aughts. With the success of Katamari Damacy, Bandai-Namco went on to publish more games in the series with and without original creator Keita Takahashi’s involvement. There’s Katamari Damacy Rerolled to look forward to this December and many feel that this game is a predecessor of sorts to Donut County since it contained an overarching narrative and the gameplay was largely driven by pushing your katamari around and having bigger and bigger objects get stuck to it. It makes sense not just from the mechanics standpoint but also because Takahashi hadn’t set out to release a hit game: he just wanted to make a game that was enjoyable in its simplicity.
But whether you played this game or not, it’s become the unofficial trope and genre namer for any time something consumes gradually larger objects until entire planets and multiverses go down the hole. It’s just known as a katamari game now. Having been a predominantly PC/Mac gamer who didn’t grow up with consoles, I didn’t hear of this game until Donut County took off. Rather, my first experience with a veritable katamari game was Dingo Games’ Tasty Planet and its sequel Tasty Planet 2: Back for Seconds where you control a bacterium intended to be a powerful bathroom cleaner but it eventually goes from eating other microscopic lifeforms to be able to swallow cars, humans, and entire galaxies whole.
The gameplay is based on a similar concept to Katamari Damacy where the bacterium exponentially grows but it has a very simple narrative that unfolds via comic panels opposed to fleshed out characters who we get to know or learn more about by exploring their surroundings.
TASTY PLANET TRAILER
There were lesser-known games with similar mechanics before the official katamari flagship in the Mac shareware days and for other platforms before genres started evolving on their own and developing sub-genres, then the kind of genre mashing we frequently see today. But whether you have the relaxing elements of Donut County or the timed challenges in Tasty Planet, they provide this totally satisfying experience laced with humor and something that leaves you wanting more. But why would the former be considered an experiential game by many while the latter isn’t?
In the most basic sense, all games are experiential because you need to actually do something that other forms of linear and more passive entertainment don’t entail. Many people default to thinking that a first-person perspective automatically being experiential whether it’s a visual novel or a point-and-click adventure game. After all, first-person means it’s through your eyes opposed to watching a character on the screen hurl fireballs or do a fetch quest for some other NPC. So if it’s not narrative alone that makes a game experiential opposed to simply narrative-based--what about the way that the story is told?
Trash Pandas as an Allegory for Gentrification and Displacement
Gamasutra described Donut County as a "short and personal experience" and as developer Ben Esposito's personal game. In his own his words, "I knew it was a game about erasure, but I didn't know what the real story was...I was kind of aware I was part of this process, and seeing this neighborhood change I was like, ‘Oh cool, I love LA and this is something that is just happening around me, and it's something that I'm kind of complicit in. I can tell this story from the perspective of an idiot tech gentrifier person.’"
Every narrative’s personal on some level, right? Games haven’t been taken seriously as a storytelling medium until relatively recent years even though they’ve been doing just that in various degrees for decades. Even a seemingly silly and light-hearted narrative that doesn’t hit you over with the head with harsh themes and politics is still more than likely inspired by personal experience and observations. The other mediums game developers consume and interact with also play a role but let’s be real: stories are almost always personal whether the dev admits to it or not.
In this case, the raccoons usurping the eponymous Donut County serve as an allegory for the tech monoliths like Google and Facebook completely reshaping LA neighborhoods like Venice Beach and Esposito’s sinking realization that he’s part of the gentrifiers’ pack. That in essence, BK is his avatar and each level is the player acting out the elimination of someone’s home. That the objects sucked down the hole aren’t just standard katamari debris, they tell a story about that character’s life. It was hard not to laugh as you play Salt’s level and end up swallowing everything from a Boston terrier to an entire trailer upon graduating from rocks and clumps of grass, some of the objects that go down the hole in this game are definitely supposed to make you laugh (especially when it’s just too big but you’re trying to ram it through anyway and that’s your cue to explore the level map more.) But despite the humor present in the game, it makes the player into an unwitting antagonist and all without their knowledge. Rather than being the ones experiencing the displacement from their homes being erased, the player is just an observer and is the one causing the displacement.
Hey, I can dig the trend towards more personal games. We’ve had plenty of books and movies that served as personal stories, it’s time that games got up there too. But what Donut County teaches us is that in order to be personal, a story doesn’t necessarily need to be this 1:1 retelling of your own life experience. It can merely be the realization that you’re part of some phenomenon whether you like it or not, and be based on an observation that struck a chord in you. Then the way you tell that story is also personal and it can be experiential like actively causing this problem or merely serving as a backdrop.
Just make sure you include something as hilarious that really adds to the game world as the Trashopedia.