And can we talk about cheering for apologies?
A Hole Lotta Fun
Donut County is a wonderful three-hour experience made all the better when played on the Switch (duh). But you owe it to yourself to learn about its fraught development, as well as what it means to qualify your enjoyment of media.
From Ben Esposito (What Remains of Edith Finch) and published by Annapurna, Donut County first released in August 2018 for most systems, finally making it to the Switch and XBox One in December. It had already enjoyed years of good press as an indie darling when showcased at E3, Pax conventions and in several publications. It was exceedingly cute, seemed like some sort of potshot at gentrification, and had a lazy raccoon who worked at a donut shop glibly texting you.
The meat of the game’s narrative takes place 999 feet below the town, in a cave festooned with bits and pieces of the homes above. Instead of delivering fried treats to townsfolk who submitted an online order to the town’s Donut County franchise, BK the raccoon unleashed ever widening holes that swallowed grass, pots, chairs, cars, and even people. His friend and fellow employee, Mira, tries to pull the scales off BK’s eyes by prompting townsfolk to relay the tragic events following their donut craving.
Players take control of the holes in these flashbacks. Swallowing items expands the width of your hole, allowing you to progress up the physical scale of consumable commodities until a home or business or park is wiped clean to the foundations. In terms of gameplay, these light puzzles don’t offer much in the way of difficulty. Without a failstate, you can simply traverse the space, trying to finagle a lawn chair, lamppost, or rogue chicken into the black depths for as long as necessary. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. On the contrary, Donut County levels play more like miniature simulations, allowing you to goof around with the physics and interact with the space at your own leisure. There is no score, time limit, or objectives putting constraints on your enjoyment. Want to putz around the national park and scare chickens with a snake sticking out of your hole? Donut County is happy to oblige.
The color of both the world and characters of the game are another high point. Every townsfolk, from the hygiene-deficient cat chef to the conspiracy theorist possum, ooze charm in their design and interaction. As the story plays out, you learn about their own personal lives via the disruption caused by the hole infestation. Some of them are friends, lovers, sheltered shut-ins or bossy fence peekers. It provides a real sense of place to the levels you’ve been gleefully gobbling up.
What homes and locales you do eventually destroy are quaint and unique to their inhabitants. The Potters live near rocky mesas in a muted palette of browns and reds, their home tailored to an artist’s lifestyle. Coco the crocodile lives in a literal tin can, his lawn decked in cheap but comfortable lounge furniture. In the peripheries of these levels are signs of encroaching change and gentrification: multi-level apartment/business combos, a stretch of highway cutting across natural landscapes, the deserted older part of town gone to seed as residents move closer to the commercial district. Much has already been written about the game as metaphor in Esposito’s home in Los Angeles, so I won’t rehash that here. Suffice it to say Donut County has a largely disparaging view of throwing out a town’s character and personality for the comfort of the late capitalist, tech-driven future.
My one nitpick is how late Donut County decides to throw a spin on its core mechanic. By the time you earn a new toy, the game is near the conclusion of its roughly three-hour span, so players have few opportunities to enjoy it. I’d have liked to see more execution on the game’s main verb but not at the expense of artificially inflating the plot and dragging out the experience.
Pitfalls and Appropriation
Dig into the history of Donut County’s development, and you’ll come across the name “Kachina”. This was an early prototype around 2012 that, according to Esposito, borrowed heavily from “Hopi folklore”. Totem poles, teepees, and the carved figurines from which the game derived its names can be seen in screenshots and videos. Soon after, he was sent a response from Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman who runs the American Indian in Children’s Literature website. Reese professed disappointment in the crass and thoughtless inclusion of grossly generalized Native iconography (teepees and totem poles have no significance to the Hopi) and the damage the game would do to efforts to educate others about Native peoples across the country.
A post mortem article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun reported that Esposito was initially angry at her letter and set out to “prove her wrong” by creating a game as authentic to Hopi culture and religious beliefs as possible. Let me take this moment to clearly state something: this was a bad, bad move. Whenever a piece of art messily appropriates imagery and ideas from a marginalized group and they call it out, the correct response is never to double down in an effort to vindicate oneself and stick it to the aggrieved party.
The resulting game was, by all accounts, an ugly mess. Esposito eventually realized the totality of his error, apologized, and started over yet again on the prototype that would eventually become 2018’s Donut County. Reese, upon seeing the progress of the game in March 2015, penned a response to her initial letter that praised Esposito for the progress made and how transparent he was about his emotions and actions. She linked to a “Failure Workshop” he presented at the 2015 GDC Indie Game Summit, wherein he chronicled a series of bad decisions that resulted in personal awareness, growth and humility.
Much of the games press around Esposito and Donut County either expressed their own praise of his turnaround, or did not mention it at all.
I don’t relay these events so that you can cast judgment on Esposito. And please do not attack him on social media or in public; I never, ever condone that. But Donut County is an interesting and recent case of the public praising apologia. It is good when someone learns from their mistakes and takes the opportunity to grow beyond them. It’s how any of us become better humans and develop empathy. We should be careful, though, not to place too much significance on that act of public self-flagellation. For one, bad-faith actors like politicians and celebrities often make shows of their apologies when scandal goes public. It’s a common PR tactic that distracts from the original incident via emotional misdirection.
For the record, I do not think this was Esposito’s intentions. His GDC video and interviews since frame his ordeal as a teachable moment other creators benefiting from privilege could stand to learn.
But what often happens, as it did here, is that the media coverage and public attention leaves out the hurt and outrage of the aggrieved, post-apology. The articles I read simply state that Donut County’s developer spoke to members of the Hopi people and made the startling realization that they, too, had feelings that could be hurt. The Hopi, and indigenous people at large, were thus removed from the conversation. We consulted their wisdom and knowledge and thanked them for their time. Now, back to the real story.
It was patronizing at best and showed we often care more for the rehabilitation of people who transgress against minorities than any restitution. Perhaps it’s performative wokeness or our (read: white majority) own guilt projected on someone left in the cultural lurch, but we can’t and shouldn’t wait for the too-kind letters from someone like Dr. Reese to show us where and how and when we should be offended for the benefit of others. Fix the shit at home, first, people. Be careful, too, if your solution is to parrot takes from marginalized critics. Their lived experience is much different from yours, and appropriating emotions without understanding why is as dismissive as pushing them out of the conversation.
This is partly why I did not cover the problematic themes and imagery still present in the game. I am not equipped to tackle the subject and do it justice, but I implore you to seek out those who are and read their words.
I enjoyed my time with Donut County, not in spite of its fraught development, but in conversation with it. Questions about why elements stuck around or whether the concept deserved to be salvaged at all couldn’t be swallowed by that dang hole. I would not judge anyone who said this game was blighted earth and should have been scrapped. I also don’t judge anyone who spends three quiet, restful hours with it and comes away loving the game. It is up to each of us as individuals to reconcile our personal enjoyment of media. I can only hope that I prompted questions of your own.