Donut County is a game about how ignorance and avarice swallow everything in their path.
Specifically, it is about a hole that opens up in the middle of a charmingly stylized pastel Los Angeles, its circumference growing larger with each person, palm tree, and building that falls into its gaping maw. Donut County has often been described as a reverse Katamari Damacy — the charmingly bizarre game about incrementally rolling up a ball of ephemera until it’s large enough to collect land masses and clouds — but creator Ben Esposito disagrees. “I think it’s more like Katamari,” he says. “It’s about ordering stuff and pathfinding. Your scale defines what objects can go next.”
Also like Katamari, which in later incarnations ends with rolling up a ball so large that it consumes the solar system and devours the sun, Donut County’s central mechanic is destruction. “The only properties of the hole is that it moves and it gets bigger when something falls into it. The hole is made to destroy everything every single time.”
The hole is being controlled by mischievous raccoons that are hungry for trash (and by the player). Their cupidity quickly becomes an existential threat to all of the people and things that define the city, condemning them to a subterranean life at the bottom of the void. It’s not hard to get from there to a gentrification analogy, but Esposito makes it clear there’s a lot more going on in this sweet, savage little game.
While it’s always had a hole at the center, Donut County began its life as a different kind of lacuna: an absence of knowledge. Its original name was Kachina, a reference to spirits in the religious traditions practiced by the Hopi Tribe. Esposito first encountered the idea of the kachina through the brightly colored kachina dolls sold at roadside gift shops in the Southwest, and he was immediately drawn to their colorful aesthetics. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s something so rich here,’” he says.
“It ended up being a response to going through the process of realizing that you’re being a jerk.”
He decided to weave the kachina dolls into a game, not only because they had a “ready-made aesthetic” he liked, but because it seemed like “a cool talking point to use this indigenous art.” But after over six years of Esposito’s research, self-examination, and eventually humility, the game transformed into something very different.
“What it ended up being about was a response to going through the process of realizing that you’re being a jerk,” says Esposito. “That’s the central theme of this game.”
When Esposito first presented an early prototype of Kachina at Indiecade 2012, it featured that same voracious, expanding hole, although instead of iconic LA landmarks, it was swallowing teepees, totem poles, and kachina dolls. A description for the game said it drew “readily from Hopi folklore” and invited its audience to “play with the creatures and artifacts of North American mythology!”
The initial response at the festival was positive, even earning Esposito financial support from the Indie Fund organization. Not long afterward, however, he read a blog post by Indigenous educator and activist Debbie Reese on the site American Indians in Children’s Literature that pointed out his ignorance. “Teepees and totem poles have nothing to do with the Hopi people,” Reese wrote. “They obviously have no idea what kachinas mean to the Hopi people, and they also likely have no idea that calling the religious traditions of an Indigenous people ‘folklore’ is derogatory.” She closed by saying, “I’m going to tweet this post to Esposito. Maybe he can change it before it is finished.”
Although chastened, Esposito responded in a way he would later describe as “embarrassing”: he doubled down. As he later explained in a presentation at the Failure Workshop of the Game Developer’s Conference, “There were plenty of things I could have done at that point to address it. But what I ended up doing was the worst thing: I decided to prove her wrong.”
He spent about a year doing research and trying to figure out how to tell the story in as authentic a way as possible, including reaching out to Indigenous professors as well as members of the Hopi Tribe. He soon realized why it had been so difficult to find published resources on the subject: they were not stories intended for him. Ultimately, he decided to completely overhaul the game and abandon the kachina theme. “I couldn’t do it justice because they didn’t want me to do it justice,” said Esposito at the Failure Workshop. “They didn’t need me to do it justice.”
So he decided to throw out all of his work and start the game over from scratch. “You have to figure out how willing you are to go to do the right thing,” says Esposito. “I think it was easy for me to do because there is no one telling me, ‘Oh, you have to do this anyway because we invested all this money into it.’ I could confront myself and say, ‘I’ll throw out a ton of work to do the right thing.’ And it was not that difficult to do when it came down to it.”
The result, after several more years of work, was Donut County. While it still features the core, voracious mechanic — the hole — the world surrounding it isn’t based on Indigenous culture, but on much more familiar territory: Los Angeles, the city Esposito calls home. “My reaction to being in this appropriative creative mindset was, ‘I’ll make it about a place I live, because I know it,’” he says. “And then, suddenly, it was such an easy story to tell, because I’m actually familiar with the subject matter.”
Many of the levels are based around LA landmarks, most notably a coffee shop that boasts a giant donut atop its building, a clear analog for the iconic Randy’s Donuts. The shop is staffed by a young woman named Mira and her best friend, a talking raccoon named BK. It’s a front for a raccoon wrecking company that is opening up holes around the city to steal trash — or anything else they can get their paws on.
“I think that aspect of the game will make people be like, ‘Yeah, I can see how he is an asshole.’”
So what happens to the things that fall in the hole? It doesn’t take long to find out. The non-linear narratives of the game jump immediately from the introduction of the holes to the ultimate aftermath of the raccoons’ greed, where everyone and everything in Donut County has been swallowed up and is now living at the bottom of the hole. “The game is over at the beginning,” says Esposito. “And everyone’s like, ‘What do we do?’”
The subsequent levels function as flashbacks as people tell the stories of how they found themselves underground, though you play through them as the hole — or perhaps as the raccoons controlling them. BK also winds up underground and is asked to answer for his role in the destruction of town as a member of the wrecking company, though he refuses to accept responsibility.
“He’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m the victim here,’” says Esposito. “The whole game is about convincing him that he’s being an asshole.” The story runs parallel to Esposito’s own resistance around listening to the people whose culture he wanted to consume and appropriate without input or permission, and it’s one he hopes others with a similar mindset will be able to hear. “I’m trying to do it gently, in a way where if you’re the kind of person who might be perceived as someone like BK, it’s not calling you out… I think that aspect of the game will make people be like, ‘Yeah, I can see how he is an asshole.’”
Despite the circuitous and often humbling path he took toward the final version of Donut County — including the publication of a suspiciously similar (and vastly inferior) game prior to Donut County’s release — Esposito says it was worth going through the process because he “managed to turn it into something good.” Not merely because it is delightful to play, but because it transformed the game’s goal — and his personal goal — from pilfering someone else’s culture to learning how to listen when the people inside it speak.
“The real task is changing someone’s mind,” says Esposito. “It’s getting them to empathize with you. And that can be the hardest thing to do.”