'Donut County' Creator Explores Urban Erasure with an Insatiable Hole

BK on the toilet in "Donut County." Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito

Playing as a hole in Donut County took a lot of fine-tuning. Early on during the development process, the physics just weren't working out—the more realistically the hole behaved, the less fun it was to watch buildings, plants and animals tumble into it. So creator Ben Esposito had to overturn his thinking, replacing realistic physics—which tended to be too slow, making players impatient—with a more cartoonish reality, where gravity changes with the size of the object. It may not have been realistic, but it fit with players' intuitions about the world.

"Feeling right has nothing to do with modeling reality necessarily, it has to do with modeling your perception of reality," Esposito told Newsweek. And physics were just the beginning of modelling player perception in Donut County. Because while Esposito had a compelling gameplay mechanic when he first began, there was still the matter of creating the reality around it. "I knew kind of early on that making the game about a hole in the ground is interesting, but the real actual character of the game has to come from the people around the hole," he said.

A raccoon on a scooter avoids your hole in "Donut County." Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito

While Donut County has the hook of a stylish, physics-based game like Katamari Damacy, it quickly reveals itself to be an uncommonly well-written adventure, as substantive as its player-controlled hole is void. It's this marriage of a high-concept mechanic —you steer a sinkhole—with L.A. vibes that really defines Donut County. More than the wrapper for a puzzle game, the settings and characters of Donut County are a celebration of the West Coast lifestyle and a reminder of all we have to lose, like Richard Scarry's Busytown meets Inherent Vice.

"Donut County" is loaded with sunbathers, snake wranglers, paranoiacs and most other imaginable varieties of California eccentric. Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito

"I fell in love with L.A.," Esposito said. "I loved this feeling that I had kind of seen everything before, because L.A. is the location of every movie. So there's this phantom feeling it takes you toward."

Esposito began with landmarks, searching for the local iconography that defined his phantom feeling. Game locations modelled after the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park pop up early, but Donut County soon moves downtown, modelling animal-populated versions of Los Angeles locales, like the ubiquitous mom and pop donut shops Esposito described as "the network that connects everything."

The Donut County donut shop, first seen on the title screen, is meant to be both archetypal and specific. It's likely you've seen something close to this donut shop before, in Iron Man 2, Coming to America, Get Shorty and the Entourage movie, each of which featured an appearance from Randy's Donuts in Inglewood, near LAX. It's the one with the giant donut on the roof, just like in Donut County.

"Donut County" donut shop and Randy's Donuts in "Iron Man 2." Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito / Marvel Studios

From this donut shop, which is both one L.A. donut shop and every L.A. donut shop, the raccoon BK fills delivery orders by sending only the hole from the donut, which goes on to devastate his neighbor's property, thanks to you. (The narrative logic in Donut County is strange and playful, like David Lynch eating cotton candy.)

Donut County's hip delivery donut shop, with its goose-on-a-scooter delivery critter,asks us to consider the way gentrification erases neighborhoods and landmarks, eroding an area's identity, and with it the appeal that drew people there in the first place. But rather than a didactic political statement, Donut County plays like a personal journey, inspired by Esposito's own experience of moving to Los Angeles, where he found himself part of a wave of "tech guy" gentrifiers transforming neighborhoods on the west side of Los Angeles.

A "Donut County" delivery driver takes the plunge. Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito

"That was the beginning of 'Silicon Beach' in L.A., which is kind of a nightmare zone now," Esposito said. "It's taken over Marina del Rey. It's huge and kind of empty and weird. And I was like, 'Oh, right, this is a game about erasure.' People getting removed from their homes and getting replaced by this supernatural force that can't be stopped."

Despite having a clear grasp of its themes from the start, Esposito struggled with the story. "There's not really a clean moral or clean answer I could build into it and have you walk with it," he said. "Maybe you could write a series of books about it that might give you an idea of what you can do, but a game is so focused and so small."

So he got personal. Donut County opens with a text conversation between the human Mira and BK, who employs her at the donut shop. Mira is having doubts and beginning to suspect the donut deliveries might be somehow related to area homes disappearing. But BK is obstinate, because every time one of his holes swallows a yard full of snakes or a napping neighbor, he's earning points toward a quadcopter. "I tried to pick the most stupid thing I could think of," Esposito said.

Mira and BK play with his new quadcopter. Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito

Rather than a social critique, Esposito zoomed in on a single character, who must discover he's been destroying his community for a quadcopter. "After the entire game of being told he's an idiot, finally coming to terms with the fact that he's an idiot," Esposito said, describing the narrative arc of Donut County. "And that's kind of like my story."

"I picked a racoon because raccoons have an uncanny ability to adapt to a specifically human environment," Esposito said. Like with his phantom feeling, Donut County's starring critter connected to Esposito's early experiences in the city, specifically his first apartment, where the laundry machines in the basement were fully occupied by raccoons.

"Raccoons can adjust to everything, but they're also not smart. They'll adapt, even if it hurts them. That's why they'll eat garbage. They represent that force of what's too effective for its own good," Esposito said, comparing Donut County's insatiable raccoons to the tech sector's rapid growth. "They're also just super funny and cute, so I knew it had to be raccoons."

BK on the toilet in "Donut County." Annapurna Interactive / Ben Esposito

Shortly before release, Esposito got a taste of the same forces the raccoons unleash in Donut County, when a developer ripped off his basic concept and released a hole game of its own. The forces of erasure embodied in the developer, whose entire business model involves copying gameplay mechanics developed by others for quick-turnaround releases of their own, took on an extra layer of irony when Goldman Sachs invested $200 million, officially enfolding the rip-off into the titanic conspiracy of global capital—the "supernatural force" embodied in Donut County's all-consuming hole. For Esposito, it was like a Lovecraftian encounter.

"I feel like I'm on the very, very end of this chain, where I've just been tapped with the tentacle and knocked over and I'm like, 'Oh, wait, whoa,' and I see this behemoth on the horizon and know 'Okay, well, I guess I'm affected by this too,'" Esposito said. "To capital-at-large, I'm just a guy who's coming up with cool, cheap concepts that you can grab, and that's kind of it. I'm the algae that a whale can just come by and eat. That sucks, but I'm just doing my best to have a good attitude about it."

The hole comes for us all, but at least we can soak up some of those California rays in the meantime. Donut County is out Tuesday, Aug. 28, for PS4, iOS and Steam.

'Donut County' Creator Explores Urban Erasure with an Insatiable Hole | Gaming