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‘Donut County’ is a little bit about gentrification — and a whole lot of fun

(Courtesy of Annapurna Interactive)

Donut County
Developed by: Ben Esposito
Published by: Annapurna Interactive
Available on: iOS, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4

“Donut County” is an upbeat game about being a callous worker, someone entitled and destructive who thinks he is a good guy. For most of the game you upend the lives of people and ruin different environments with rollicking abandon. In between stages of sanctioned mischief, you’re greeted with the salty salutation, “Have a Garbage Day!” spelled out in shimmering letters beneath a droopy flower. Though “Donut County” gestures toward the topic of gentrification, it does so with wink-winks rather than somber, moral resentment. It’s far more likely to elicit a smile than to push one toward activism.

For a good portion of the game players assume the role of BK, a raccoon whose name conjures the idea of gentrified Brooklyn. BK has benefited from the recent influx of raccoons into the county. In their bid to corner much of the real estate market, the raccoons purchase a donut shop from a coyote whose life has taken a downturn such that he has to live in a tent. At the start of the game BK sends a text to his human friend and donut shop co-worker Mira, whom he finds in a less-than-chipper mood. Mira is miffed because of the honking sound coming from the moped-driving bird stationed on the street outside of her house. With characteristic indifference, BK tells her not to fret before cryptically adding that he is going to send “a donut” to her troublemaker.

The donut in question is a hole in the ground — sent from an app on BK’s phone — that players can move around using a mouse or a gamepad. Zip a hole beneath an object whose dimensions are less than the hole’s circumference and the object will vanish from sight. The more objects the hole devours, the larger it grows. After vanquishing Mira’s feathered noise polluter the story cuts to six weeks later, 999 feet below Donut County, in a large earthen vault. There, an irate Mira smashes BK’s prized quadcopter. When a stunned BK asks her why she smashed his drone, she replies it was in response to his destruction of the entire town. From there the game moves back and forth between the victims of BK’s donuts, who share their stories about how they became trapped underground, and the (devilishly fun) incidents that led to their predicament.

Growing your “donut”/hole so that it’s large enough to devour the objects in its path often requires solving small puzzles that are more clever than challenging. Thus, one puzzle may cause you to fill up a hole with soup to attract pests while another may cause you expel an object from a hole to hit a pertinent target using the catapult feature acquired later in the game.

Ben Esposito, the creator of “Donut County,” spent six years working on it. He said that the game was inspired by the twitter account @PeterMolydeux, which parodies the musings of the famous game designer Peter Molyneux. At a game jam in L.A. in 2012, Esposito, decided to run with one of the ideas thrown out by @Petermolydeux — to make a game about a hole in the ground. “I knew early on that it was going to be a game about erasure … about erasing a place, about the bittersweetness of that,” Esposito said. “I wanted to make a game about gentrification because it is set in [“an extremely fantastical version of L.A.”] but originally I was having a lot of trouble with that story because it’s not a clean one. It’s extremely complicated and messy and it hurts a lot of people and displaces a lot of people and other people stand to gain from it, and there is no easy moral that you can take away … It’s so interconnected with capitalism and the way cities are run etc., etc . . . I knew I couldn’t tell a story like, yeah, this is happening — oh, by the way, it’s bad — and here is the solution because there is no clean solution.” Esposito said that he decided to have players step into the role of a gentrifier because, “I think that is a good starting point for thinking about the problem, about how you may be affecting it one way or another.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the few hours I spent playing through “Donut County.” I was charmed by the game’s excellent soundtrack, funny dialogue, and by the breadth of its puzzles. BK’s journey from a clueless destroyer to a dissembling hero didn’t make me think any differently about gentrification but it did, for a spell, take my mind off other real-world cares which was welcome all the same.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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