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- Donut County
Donut County may have originated from a tweet from a parody Twitter account but it’s mainly straight from the mind of one man named Ben Esposito. Esposito has worked on games like The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch with other teams but he is one of the sole creators of the eccentric game about holes and raccoons. He recently sat down with Game Revolution to talk about those trash pandas along with his thoughts of the game’s reception, dumb drones, and more.
Game Revolution: The Donut County reviews are out. How are you feeling about the reception?
Ben Esposito: I feel… really good about it. It’s obviously not a game for everyone but, in general, people have been really positive about the things I was excited about. People mention they like how intuitive it is and they like the story and characters. That stuff has been really exciting to see. And I knew I would get some criticism for how long it is but I don’t really take it personally because I didn’t want to make it longer. I can’t make it longer.
I’m just a guy who made this game and it took a long time. I’ve made my peace with the length and I think that the story doesn’t overstay its welcome. So overall I’m pretty happy with it.
It hasn’t really hit me yet. Give me like a month or so and I’ll be able to tell you how it all turned out. I’m excited that it’s out. I’m excited to see people make videos of it and stream it and take screen shots and stuff. That’s the stuff that makes me feel good about it; when people are sharing it and relating to it.
GR: I was expecting a really dumb, goofy game. And I got that, which is nice (in a good way). But it also has a surprising amount of heart with BK’s arc and his redemption story. So what was the process of not just making this a jokey, meme game and actually putting a story into it?
BE: I think I actually arrived at it the other way. I kinda had some ideas of what the story should be about at its core. I iterated on that a lot and there were many different versions of the story that all didn’t work except for the one that you see before you.
I started with that kernel of moving the hole around is a bad thing. The fun of the game is you being evil and it’s about the erasure of this place. I had those concepts and from that, I knew that if I was going to talk about something like that, I had to do it in a lighthearted way. And I wanted to make it a funny game because I think the way to talk about subjects that are kind of serious like that is to disarm people a little bit and not politicize it in a way that’s gonna turn people off or make them not receptive to it.
So the humor is this valve so that people could get in there and feel comfortable with the content of the story. And then it unfolds and hopefully you feel for the characters and you understand the arc and you deal with a somewhat troubling subject in a light and approachable way.
GR: So you always wanted to have an arc for the shitty main character?
BE: [laughs] Well, until the end of 2016, I was really resistant to making you play as the bad guy for some reason. I don’t know why. I knew it would have made sense. I was trying different versions of the stories where you were playing as Mira [the human] instead of BK [the raccoon “protagonist”] and it was kind of about watching this town get erased but not doing anything about it and her guilt and finding out that she’s responsible for all this happening. It culminated with you realizing that you were the bad guy and I was scolding you for being a jerk.
And I didn’t think that worked. It wasn’t effective for what I wanted to talk about. Because people know they’re playing as a jerk. That’s literally what the game’s all about and what every second of the game is spent doing. So that was why the last version of the story was me realizing that you should own up to fact that you’re being this asshole character and make him funny and relatable in a human way. And have his arc be him going from a known asshole to kind of a nice guy. [laughs]
GR: The quadcopter is a great recurring bit that crescendos in a pretty awesome way. How did come about? It seems like a random throwaway joke at the beginning and then it’s the crux of the story.
BE: [laughs] It was probably about halfway through working on the story that I realized that the bad guys are raccoons and the raccoons are basically tech bros. BK is just a gamer. That’s just his personality. He’s a hardcore gamer. I think at the time, this was a few years ago, that was right when the boom of quadcopter news was all over the place. Like Amazon did their video of drones delivering packages to you.
So it was this thing that somehow became center stage even though you just look at it and go ‘Wow that’s a stupid toy. Like this is changing the world? Are you serious?’ So that was why I thought it would be funny if all the raccoon characters not only didn’t understand that putting everyone in a hole is bad but they thought that getting a toy is what made it all worth it. The great symbol of [that is] this tech toy which gets so much more importance than it actually should and it dictates the conversation in a way that it really shouldn’t. So I love the idea that they are totally motivated by quadcopters.
GR: That’s a lot deeper than I thought it would be. [laughs]
BE: It’s also just stupid. So it works on whatever level you care about. [laughs]
GR: So you’ve said multiple times that you’ve taken inspiration from Katamari Damacy. But the biggest difference to me between the games is that there is not any source of stress in Donut County. What made you not want to go down a more traditionally gamey path with scores and timers and such?
BE: It was this time in 2012 where there were a lot of indie games that were a lot more toy-like and had more of contextual puzzles and a few games that really inspired me to think about games and puzzles differently. Windosill was one of the main ones at the time by Vectorpark. That blew my mind. It came out on iPad. I loved how intuitive it was. A kid could play it but also I found the language of the puzzles interesting.
Katamari was an influence insofar in that I made a game about scale and ordering and you’d grow but that’s kind of where it stopped. I knew it was going to be a puzzle game. After that I knew I wanted to make a game that I could hand to anyone. Even though it doesn’t rely on normal game logic, people are able to figure out what’s going on intuitively by playing with the physics and treating it like a toy. So I was like ‘OK, no failstates. It’s gonna have puzzles and no timers.’ Everything grew out of that notion.
GR: But you can fail the boss fight and the cutscene for losing is pretty hilarious. How did you think of that?
BE: You weren’t supposed to be able to lose the boss fight when I first made it. Then I figured maybe it should take a while for you to lose. And then someone at Annapurna was like ‘Dude, something has gotta happen if you lose.’ So I was like ‘Hmmm… what would be really stupid?’ Like what would be unexpected but not surprising once you know the characters.
Click to the next page to hear about the game’s journey to the PS4, a deafening sound bug, and updog.