After more than five years in development, gorgeous-looking hole-based puzzler Donut County is out today. It's definitely not everything I had hoped for. Here's wot I think:
Donut County feels like a great idea in search of a game. In fact, I'd bet a good amount of money that this is exactly the way in which it was formed.
A few years ago, at the 2013 celebration of novel ideas that is GDC's Experimental Gameplay Workshop, Ben Esposito first showed his idea for a game mechanic in which the player controlled a hole in the ground. Then called Kachina, the hole could be moved around to cause anything above it to fall in, growing in size with the more it consumed. Esposito quickly demonstrated a few little ideas of how this could be developed into puzzles, with holes that consume fire being used to cook items above, or water filling the hole and then used to float objects. People cheered in delight. It was indeed utterly delightful.
In 2015 Esposito returned to GDC, to deliver a wonderful and humble talk about how Kachina became Donut County, and the lessons he'd learned on that journey. Aside from a couple of trailers, things have been pretty quiet since then. And now we have the finished game.
Donut County looks absolutely adorable. The art is great, and the physics modelling works perfectly with it as you topple larger and larger objects into your hole to clear the screen. Which is, pretty much, all you do. It varies this slightly as you progress through its two to three hours, little twists or changes for a level, but in the main it's about watching objects plop through a hole. And the truth is, that's very satisfying a lot of the time. But it's really not enough.
There are so many lovely ideas, but weirdly they each in turn go unrealised. Take rabbits. The primary logic of the game is, the more that falls in the hole, the bigger it gets, so it's a moment of lovely surprise that when two rabbits fall in, the camera zooms in to show hearts popping above, and the hole grows a lot larger. Naughty rabbits! Except, this isn't the ingenious solution to a tricky puzzle - it's just a thing that happens. Three times in the level, increasingly pointlessly. You don't work it out - you just do it because at a certain point, the first two rabbits are the only things left on screen small enough to fit in the hole you've currently got.
Better is the frog, which is fired out to catch other objects, but then as soon as it's appeared it's gone. Later comes the catapult, which lets you fire certain things back out of your hole, and again seems like it should offer all sorts of interesting situations. But once again you just do the one available action, and it works, and then that's that. This is endemic to the whole of Donut County, where your actions are inevitabilities, where progress is about doing what there is to do, and then the level ending. Gosh it all looks and sounds completely splendid as you do it, but it is, oh so appropriately, a very hollow experience.
The levels are interspersed with story scenes, which tell the tale of what the hole is all about, with what I'd argue is some degree of helpless reaching. A raccoon, you see, owns a donut shop. But everyone who ordered a donut from him instead had their local area fall down a hole he controlled by, um, an app on his phone. Each individual's incident is then played out by you, before returning to the location a thousand feet underground where a group of anthropomorphised creatures and one human berate the raccoon, who acts as if he's done nothing wrong.
I don't want to dwell too much on the style of writing, because I really can't tell if it's just that I'm done with the Night In The Woods-style aloof faux-millennial chatter, or if there's something particularly over-arch and dismissive here. I adored it when Oxenfree did it, I liked a lot of how Night In The Woods used it to alienate and endear, yet here it just grates for me. But on the larger scale, I don't get it, I don't understand why this group of unintroduced creatures are sneering at each other in this game at all, and I'm absolutely certain none of it was necessary. I don't think any narrative justification for the hole was needed, and while it eventually reaches a ludicrous finale that makes its own sort of sense, I found myself wishing they'd all be quiet so I could get on with playing the game.
Oh bottoms. I really wanted to love this. Since 2013 I've been quietly enamoured with the concept. And when it looks and sounds this good, when the systems all work, it's such an anticlimax. Every now and then it seems as if it's about to blossom out into a proper treat, where you might need to use your brain a little here and there - there are machines to operate, popcorn to pop, trees to set on fire - and then it goes nowhere. I think there could have been a Donut County that, perhaps with a less meandering development, might have been a really quiet, gently ingenious puzzler. This feels like a game instead more focused on trying out tiny ideas before getting distracted by the next. The penultimate level hints, I think, at what could have been. But what is, sadly, is a very middling execution of an extremely lovely idea.