Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Designer Ben Esposito has been working on Donut County for a long time—it was playable back in 2012, and has popped up at various expositions and festivals intermittently in the years since, even as Esposito worked on larger titles like What Remains Of Edith Finch and the subversive viral hit Sonic Dreams Collection. Donut County is a strange passion project, though, inspired by a novelty Twitter account, in which you mostly play as a hole, sliding around on the ground and swallowing portions of a candy-colored cartoon city. There’s always been something weirdly satisfying about this, dating back to its earliest iterations: gobbling up patches of grass, then cinder blocks, then lawn chairs, growing larger and larger until you’re sucking in cars and trailers and whole buildings.
Now that it’s finally released, Esposito has fleshed this out with a story, and there’s a lot of it—prolonged dialogs between cartoon animals all written in a twee, extremely online vernacular, in which characters utter “lol” and “LOL” aloud to each other and mostly act like shy kids playing footsy on Twitter. You can blast straight through it—I did—but it’s a shame, as it distracts from skillful technical writing elsewhere, like the faux-experience bar ticking up after each level, the upgrade menu glimpsed exactly one time, or the cheery victory-screen missive “Have a Garbage Day!” It might have taken a cue, in this regard, from the work it most clearly resembles: UsTwo’s all-time great mobile game Monument Valley and its sequel, which eschewed dialog almost entirely and instead confidently foregrounded its tightly designed physical spaces.
While Donut County is available for consoles, it feels at home on a phone, where you slide your finger around to directly guide the hole in the ground. And while it does have low-key puzzles that gently arc up in difficulty as they go, its pleasures are more aesthetic, with lush beats soundtracking your destruction and an appetizing assortment of pastel landscapes. Really, the all-important hole is a means to interact with Esposito’s beautifully rendered dioramas, which zoom from patch to patch in a given campsite or mid-city restaurant, telling tactile, three-dimensional stories as they go. A snake gets stuck in the hole, so you use it to prod a signpost; the hole swallows a campfire, then corn kernels, then erupts in low-poly popcorn. Esposito stacks up rickety makeshift bookshelves of milk crates and wooden planks, covered in ephemera, and you slide a hole under one to watch everything topple neatly inward. As in Monument Valley, it’s a thrill to merely play with these imaginary spaces, which are so rich with incident and character that they need little external justification. Donut County’s essential playing for fans of that game or the toy-like works of Keita Takahashi. Others should approach it like a real donut—great for a treat, but probably no substitute for a full meal.