Welcome to Interesting Indie Investigation, the series where I go through a list of super-niche, unpopular games that I’ve been accumulating on my phone, in an attempt to finally delete the note and come out with an array of new and exciting indie game experiences!
Next up on the list is Donut County, a cute little game about using a hole to destroy everything in sight. Every aspect of this game is beautifully simplistic; the art style is made up of solid colors and simple shapes, the music is soothing and unintrusive, and the controls are simply moving the mouse cursor.
It’s a very relaxing game overall, since you can never actually fail. It has light puzzle elements, but for the most part, all you have to do is work your way up the food chain, eating bigger and bigger things. It’s really fun seeing the camera zoom out as you progress, from eating small rocks and books to devouring entire buildings, giving each level a really satisfying sense of pace.
The game consistently showcases interesting ideas in each level, keeping gameplay interesting and ramping up the stakes—by introducing small tasks such as cooking soup or lighting fireworks—without getting so complicated that it would disrupt the zen-like flow of it all.
A story seems unnecessary in a game about a giant hole consuming everything in sight, but the narrative is surprisingly captivating. It’s told from within the hole itself, 900 feet below Donut County, and is mostly made up of flashbacks to how the destruction of the town unfolded. The dialogue might have overused its text message motif a bit, but the character dynamics, and the humor of the outrageous scenario, are charming enough to carry it. There are some pretty wholesome moments between Mira and BK, and even some character development! The game doesn’t really make sense or explain anything that’s happening, but the storytelling did a great job of keeping me invested despite its absurdity.
Overall, I would highly recommend Donut County. It’s a perfect game to spend an evening relaxing with.
Although, of course, I couldn’t leave it at that, because Donut County got me thinking about the nature of relaxing games, and what makes them work.
Recently, I was playing Diablo 3 with a friend and we were having a decent amount of fun. But when we both died, instead of the game sending us back to the last checkpoint, we respawned with no punishment.
This completely destroyed my enjoyment of the game, because now, instead of playing carefully and getting tense when I was close to death, I carelessly smashed my way through enemies, not worrying about getting hit at all. Hell, dying even became a strategy, since I could heal fully for free when I respawned, instead of having to waste precious healing potions. I felt bad, but even though I would’ve had more fun if I tried as hard as I did before, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, knowing that there were no stakes. It was like a gamified existential crisis.
Donut County is similar to Diablo 3 in that it has no fail state. But I still had fun frantically collecting items into my ever-expanding hole. Why? In his video “How Game Designers Protect Players from Themselves,” Mark Brown says that “many [players] will simply gravitate towards strategies that will most likely lead to success—regardless of how enjoyable those strategies might actually be” (0:31). In Diablo, for example, the easiest strategy was to mindlessly spam buttons with no regard for the enemies’ attacks whatsoever, so that’s what I did.
To solve this issue, he said that games could either encourage or discourage the behavior they wanted to see from the player. In Diablo’s case, they could have me sent back to the last checkpoint as a punishment for dying, to motivate me to focus on avoiding enemy attacks. As it is now, there is no reason to put in the effort to be better at the combat, when there is no reward for being good and no penalty for being bad.
Even though Diablo is not necessarily meant to be a relaxing game, it is designed to encourage that same zen-like flow that Donut County was able to successfully achieve. Diablo fails where Donut County succeeds. Leonardo Da Sidci points out the reason why in his video, “How to Make a Relaxing Game.” “A relaxing game needs to have systems and mechanics in place that require the input of the user to be engaged... The reason we play games is to be engaged, whether it’s through story, mechanics, ideas, whatever. If we wanted to relax and do nothing, then we could just watch Netflix, which is fine, but we’re talking about games, and on a base level the player needs something to do” (3:25). In Diablo, I failed to be engaged because I was able to mindlessly attack and still win, whereas in Donut County I had to purposefully choose my targets, since sporadically grazing over objects does not consume them.
By having objects take a moment to get sucked into your hole in Donut County, the game forces you to think about what you want to consume next. This simple restriction makes a huge difference in forcing you to pay attention and care about your actions, without forcing you to be super-fast and accurate. Even though Donut County was more laid-back than Diablo 3, I felt more engaged because the game actually had expectations of me. In other words, Donut County actually gives you something to do.
Patrick Fagan is currently working on some small solo game projects and videos. He loves drawing, playing games, watching shows, and listening to music. Before Champlain Arcade, he worked on his middle school newsletter.