(This post is adapted from an academic essay for the Entertainment Technology Center written in November 2018)
Designed by Ben Esposito, Donut County is described on the iTunes App Store as “a story-based physics puzzle game where you play as an ever-growing hole in the ground. Meet cute characters, steal their trash, and throw them in a hole.” Scrolling through the screenshots on the App Store, I was intrigued by the cute and pleasing aesthetic as well as the toy-like concept of a player-controlled hole in the ground swallowing everything in its path. I was skeptical about how well a story would fit into this aesthetic and how it could possibly be satisfying or interesting; but this question intrigued me even more. Turns out story fits in remarkably well and actually stars in this game, telling a tale of gentrification in Los Angeles.
The story of Donut County mainly follows two friends: Mira, a human, and BK, a trash-loving raccoon. Mira works at BK’s “family” donut shop where they deliver very unusual donuts. When someone orders a donut, a hole is delivered to their house…I’ll let the pun sink in. The hole, which is remotely-controlled by BK, narratively-speaking, then proceeds to swallow up the customer’s house, their possessions, and eventually, the customer themselves, growing bigger and bigger with each item that falls down its gaping maw. The game opens with Mira, BK, and a circle of their fellow humanoid animal townfolk sitting in a circle around a fire, apparently “nine hundred ninety-nine feet below [the fictional] Donut County”, in Los Angeles.
We come to learn that BK, as a raccoon, works for the infamous raccoon, Trash King, who wants to collect as much trash as possible. And that trash is everyone’s homes, possessions, and themselves—the raccoons can’t understand why anyone would see those things as anything other than trash. So the story and game continue as Mira and the townsfolk confront BK about his terrible actions and try to make him understand why their homes aren’t trash for the taking. BK, meanwhile, defends himself and his actions saying that he was helping people because ‘who needs that junk anyway’?
It’s not a far reach to equate this narrative with the narrative many poorer communities (often belonging to minorities) are currently experiencing in real-world Los Angeles. Gentrification has been an ever-present reality for some time as the city becomes richer and displaces the existing, poorer communities that were already there—communities that have become unconsciously seen as “trash” by the more affluent people in charge. It’s hard to communicate to a wealthy city council that a neighborhood, though physically rundown, hosts a thriving cultural community who may not want to see their neighborhood “spruced up” and modernized. Because if those changes take place, the neighborhood is no longer affordable and therefore no longer livable for its current occupants, just as the demolished lots are no longer viable homes to the citizens of Donut County.
THE GAMEPLAY MECHANICS
So how do the gameplay and the player fit into this narrative help convey the HARD truth of the story? Remember how the hole is, narratively-speaking, controlled by BK? Well, it turns out the player is controlling BK so the hole is actually controlled by the player. When BK tries to defend himself after being confronted by a Donut County citizen, the scene flashes back and the player takes on BK’s perspective as he “helps” remove that citizen’s trash (i.e. all their worldly possessions). The hole starts out very small but with each item swallowed, it gets bigger and bigger until the player has moved on from devouring a small potted plant to a large three-story barn, chickens and all. The interaction is easy to understand and extremely satisfying. I was actually disappointed that each level didn’t last longer and that there weren’t more of them—it’s an addicting toy.
After each level, you see the character whose property you destroyed falling down an endless hole as you scroll through a very tongue-in-cheek description of their possessions in the “Trash-o-pedia”. And even while seeing the consequences of the destruction I (as BK) caused, I wanted to consume more and more. The interaction mechanic of the game creates an interesting and somewhat uncomfortable connection between the player the gentrifying raccoons who have such disregard for the lives of the people whose homes they took over and destroyed. It makes the player feel complicit and even responsible for this destruction. It’s a tough pill to swallow but that’s only because we recognize the truth in it; the fun mechanics of the game are juxtaposed with the serious story being told which provides us with the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
THE VISUAL DESIGN
I’d also like to briefly mention how the visual aesthetics of the game help to convey this narrative of gentrification. The characters and environment are very cute and cartoony (think a low-poly Animal Crossing with boosted saturation) and they lull the player into a false sense of security and comfort. I believe this façade of cuteness and lightness is instrumental to the player becoming more susceptible to the harsh implication the game makes about them being a complicit gentrifier; you don’t realize what’s been happening until it’s too late. Again, the truth is made even easier to understand and acknowledge as it comes in this innocent-looking, brightly colored package.
The story ultimately ends after BK learns the error of his ways and steps up to help Mira fight the Trash King and restore Donut County to its original, non-trash state. The townsfolk are brought closer together and the raccoons go back to being the respectful, trash-loving raccoons they were before the Trash King took over. And the player, who was initially made to take on the role of the enemy, is able to make a change and right the wrongs they caused. It’s a powerful reversal that leaves the player feeling in charge and assuaged of the guilt they may have felt earlier. It sends a message that the dystopian world created by the Trash King doesn’t have to resemble our real-world future, in LA or anywhere else for that matter. It’s amazing to me that a game so seemingly simple could say so much, but here we are. Donut County, an adorable-looking, addicting toy of a game, managed to tell a powerfully true story through the eyes of an oblivious raccoon and, of all things, a hole.