Whatever else they might do, many videogames act as fantastic models of late capitalist consumerism. Increasingly, whether a game asks you to save a princess, kill zombies, or explore lush, uncharted territories, it also charts player progress in the acquisition of otherwise arbitrary collectible objects. Sometimes these objects provide some sort of in-game bonus—collect 100 coins and earn an extra life—and sometimes they can drive in-game capitalist activity as part of a crafting system. But more and more games include large sets of collectible objects whose only purpose is to be located and added (explicitly or implicitly) to the player’s inventory. Relics in the Uncharted games, Riddler Trophies in the Arkham games, Mario’s stars, and the various masks, lost letters, and other sundries in the Far Cry games all exist in order for the player to remove them from the world.
In a digital environment, this process of consumption is clean and final, with no overstuffed backpacks or piles of unwanted tchotchkes to be dealt with. In developing his upcoming game, Donut County, Ben Esposito wanted to be a little bit more upfront about how consumption actually works.
“Think about a garbage dump,” Esposito says. “Garbage actually goes somewhere, and it’s really upsetting to think about.” We stuff all these things we don’t want in a hole, but even if we can’t see them anymore, they’re still there. “That’s an idea so frightening that it’s funny.”
Based on the vibrant colors and lively soundtrack of Donut County’s announcement trailer, Esposito’s game promises an experience more focused on fun than fear, a parable of consumption rather than a lecture or a simulation.
For Esposito, it all started with building a game around a hole. “I think holes are a good combination,” says Esposito. “They’re quite scary, but still we have a magnetic attraction to them because of their mystery.” Holes are an “impossible ontological problem,” he says, objects defined by absence, with enough space for both anxiety and imagination.
Or, in less abstract terms, waiting to be filled with the things we don’t want to look at anymore. For Esposito, this is tied strongly to gentrification and “how people and places and cultures and foods get erased over time,” especially in Esposito’s adopted home, Los Angeles.
“L.A. is a really interesting place because it was rapidly built up in fits and spurts of development that would level off certain areas and then build on top of them.” This development often not only wiped out existing landscapes and communities, but was itself so haphazard as to ensure its own erasure. “Whole cities were built inside of L.A. that weren’t planned properly so that schools were in the wrong place and had to be torn down or abandoned and rebuilt elsewhere.
“This is a process that has been going on for years. The history gets erased, and my question is ‘where does it all go?’”
Donut County takes on this question by asking the player to perform the role of the hole itself. There’s a girl, and an unusual if not terribly busy Donut Shop, but the player’s activity is focused on moving a hole from place to place to interact with objects in the world. At first, the hole simply consumes, growing larger with each object, but the objects don’t just disappear, and eventually they begin to assert the fact of their existence.
As the hole consumes, Esposito describes, the objects begin to affect the hole. “If you drop a campfire into the hole, now there’ll be a fire in there and you’ll see smoke coming out. What does that mean if you drop a whole bunch of fireworks into the hole?” As the game progresses, there are puzzles built on using the hole to combine different objects, but Esposito is also seeking to infuse these combinations with a sense of playfulness. “Donut County is supposed to be quite a funny game, a delightful game, and I think a lot of the humor comes from when we see two things go into the hole, off screen how do they interact? What’s the surprise here?”
It’s a combination of humor with an undercurrent of social satire that, if pulled off correctly, could invoke some of the better moments of The Simpsons—a giant pink frosted donut in danger of being bulldozed for a monorail no one will ever ride.
Esposito chuckled when asked whether Homer Simpson, the perfect consumer, would feel at home in Donut County. “It would be really fitting because he kind of acknowledges the damage that his work is doing, but he’s also totally okay with his lifestyle as part of it.”
But balancing delight and commentary in a play space is a tricky thing to do, and pulling it off may depend on making sure that the game, like a hole, has enough open space.
“What I would like,” Esposito says, “is for you to feel a sense of momentum and then get a moment of loneliness where everything is gone and you’re stuck with the ambiance of the space. I want you to not necessarily actively think about the implications of what you’re doing, but I want you to feel this kind of weight to things, and linger on the emptiness for a moment.”