Near the end of June, video game developer Ben Esposito put out a statement on Twitter. Like all of the best statements posted directly to Twitter, it was composed of screenshots of the iOS Notes app.
For years, Esposito had been working on a game called Donut County, but it appears that another developer, mercenary and shameless, had cloned his idea and beat him to market. “It stings a little,” he wrote, “after 5+ years of convincing people a game about a hole in the ground is a good idea, lol…” It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened — the tile-shifting mobile game Threes was famously cloned into the free game 2048. Anecdotally, and unfortunately, I saw a lot more of the latter being played on the subway.
The premise of Donut County (available today on PC, iOS, and PlayStation) is that the player controls a hole in the ground, and steers that hole underneath objects in the environment, causing them to fall into the void. As the hole swallows up objects, it gets bigger. Hole.io, the clone Esposito called out, used this general premise as well. Could it have been inspired by Donut County? Absolutely. But Hole.io owes more mechanically to the popular multi-player web game Agar.io, in which players try to accrue enough mass to subsume their opponents. After I described the hook of Donut County to a friend, she immediately likened it to Katamari, the classic series in which players roll a sticky ball around levels gathering objects until it snowballs into a planet-consuming bundle.
The point is: The tasks you are made to perform in Donut County are not particularly original. The hole mechanic is an iteration of established concepts, not an entirely new one. It’s not even a remotely difficult game. Luckily, though, Donut County is wonderful — a vibrant, thoughtful jaunt whose strength is a narrative and visual style well supported by the mechanics. The surrounding story doesn’t simply provide an excuse for the hole-steering; instead, the hole-steering helps make the player’s encounters with the characters and their world all the more engaging.
Obsessed with collecting trash, raccoons have developed remotely operated holes. One of these raccoons, BK, manages to swallow much of Donut County (in levels played as flashbacks) until his friends and neighbors — trapped 999 feet below ground — confront him. Those neighbors include all sorts of anthropomorphic animals, like a park ranger who’s afraid of snakes, a chef with dubious health-code standards, and a opossum skilled in the art of burglary.
Every level follows a similar flow. Your hole (sorry) starts small, collecting rocks, and bricks, and weeds, and then grows until it can swallow people and buildings. Sometimes the order of operations is key, like swallowing soup ingredients in the correct order, or getting two amorous rabbits in the hole to do … what rabbits do. Later in the game, your hole (again, sorry) earns the ability to catapult objects back into the air.
It’s all very simple, and none of the puzzles are taxing on the brain. In fact, everything happens with such smoothness and grace and deliberate, breezy pacing that the game takes on a Zen-like quality. Every object teeters and tips with what I can only describe as a softness, and the environments are changed and reframed in ways that escalate in absurdity without abandoning the game’s gentle nature. It’s remarkable that a game that calculates physics on the fly based around the concept of finagling trash into a hole could be so calming. And yet it is.
Surrounding that finagling are a lot of weird trappings. There’s snappy dialogue between the dozen or so cast members who are all mad at BK. There’s an RPG-like leveling system and in-game store that only exists for laughs. Some of the dialogue happens through text messages, though you can spam a duck emoji infinitely instead of progressing the conversation. There is a boss fight, complete with industry-standard, screen-wide, red health bar.
In this way, Donut County functions almost like a parody of a video game. I could throw any number of gaming-lingo buzzwords at it — a “dynamic physics-based puzzle game with light narrative and RPG elements” or whatever — and mask what the game actually achieves. That’s a big part of what makes Donut County great. Every piece of the game can be (or already has been) ripped off by lesser imitators, but it’s how they all fit together that sets the game apart. It’s easy to imagine thousands of games like Donut County, but it’s very difficult to imagine any of those games being better.