In Donut County, you control a hole. A literal hole, like the sort you swing golf balls towards or a sink hole. You move it around the ground at your leisure, using either your finger on the glass of your iPhone or the thumbstick of a Playstation controller. Move it underneath something small enough, and it will fall in. The hole grows larger. Large enough for bigger things to fall into it. You know you're done with a level when there is nothing left but the void.
There's a story to Donut County, one that establishes the logic of this weird world full of seemingly sentient sink holes. It turns out that when you're piloting a hole around, you're actually assuming the role of BK, a talking raccoon with a video game-esque app that allows him to send a hole over to another resident of Donut County, and promptly swallow everyone and everything whole. It's an app that BK has used a bit too much, because at the start of the game BK and the entirety of Donut County are thousands of miles underground, having been swallowed up by one of BK's holes. Each level of the game flashes back to how and why BK sent a hole over to a new part of town in the first place, and helps explain how he made an enemy out of just about everyone.
Donut County plays its cards loose and cute, with a bright, vibrant, pastel-frosting art style and text-message lingo. The specifics of its story are glossed over with jokes and charm, but you can parse them if you pay close attention. When you do, Donut County — a light, whimsical game that takes all of an hour and a half to finish — starts to look pretty dark.
Playing Donut County made me think of Twitter. Which is apt, because the game is inspired, in part by a tweet:
You play a hole, you must move around an environment making certain elements fall into correct targets at the right time.
— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) January 5, 2012
Like a lot of things involving video games, it's a tweet that needs a little bit of explaining. Peter Molydeux is a parody account inspired by the real-life video game designer Peter Molyneux. Molyneux, a giant of the '90s and '00s, was notorious for making games marketed with grandiose sentiments that they arguably struggled to live up to. Peter Molydeux, then, was a giant inside joke, a stream of consciousness feed of abstract game ideas bent towards the absurd.
In some ways, Donut County is a joke taken too far. It's extremely referential, both in the speech of its characters and the humor of its design — it's rife with jokes poking fun at video games, almost content to be an anti-game of sorts until its final act, when it pulls together its disparate ideas into a last string of challenges that are both tremendously satisfying to play and explicitly included as a joke making fun of games.
But the game also feels like Twitter. Mindlessly swiping your hole around Donut County to pull bigger and bigger things into the void doesn't feel all that different from scrolling down your feed — and no matter how far down you scroll you'll find nothing to catch you. Only the abyss.
This is why Donut County lingers in spite of its brevity, confectionary aesthetic, and chill hang-out vibe. At its core, you can find a lot of the nihilism that comes from a life lived online. It's the sort that results in the kind of gallows humor you see from people trying to eke out an existence on social media platforms that were sold as fulfilling a utopian ideal of connection, but in reality have led to the flattening of culture, the reinforcement of hegemony, the proliferation of harassment, and the distortion of truth. It's lol nothing matters: the video game.
Because in Donut County, the void is fun, but eventually, it swallows you too. And you knew it would from the start.