Originally pitched as a physics-based toy that let you “play with the creatures and artifacts of North American mythology”, Ben Esposito’s Kachina quickly became one of my most anticipated games back in 2012, with its vaguely Katamari-in-reverse mechanics that allowed you to swallow up successively larger objects with a player-controlled hole that grew wider every time something fell in.
After its showing at various festivals throughout 2013, including last year’s HORIZON conference, news about the game went somewhat dark, as Esposito simultaneously continued development on Perfect Stride — the first-person skateboarder he’s creating with LA game collective Arcane Kids — as well as that collective’s numerous side projects like the cult hit Bubsy 3D.
Still primarily a game that “explores negative space” by making the act of removing objects in the world the player’s primary objective, Donut County will now follow the story of a teenage girl working at a Los Angeles-inspired coffee-mug-shaped donut shop who, according to Esposito, takes delivery of a box of donuts from mysterious raccoons, which then begins to open holes all around the county as she eats them.
For all the Southwest native visual underpinnings of the original Kachina, Esposito told me back in 2012 that, more unexpectedly, one of the game’s biggest influences was Bruce Springsteen. “Bruce Springsteen is the boss,” he wrote. “His songs are about specific places like the New Jersey Turnpike or Asbury Park, places that are super rich in meaning to him. Maybe that meant more when live music was popular. His themes are universal, though. I want to bring some of that to the games I make.”
That seems to be an idea even more apparent and central to Donut County, so I asked Esposito to explain what Los Angeles meant to the game, and what the game would be exploring about the city, which he tied together succinctly like so: “Los Angeles is full of holes.”
“There are some literal ones caused by earthquakes,” he explains, “but the hole is any process of erasure — it swallows up places and things. Like, there used to be a restaurant on La Cienega that you had to walk through a whale’s mouth to get into, but restaurants come and go.”
“What about people? Cultures? What are some of the forces that cause groups of people to disappear?” he continues. “Los Angeles has a history of rapid expansion which causes a lot of people to be displaced and you can bet it’s the people with the least amount of power. People who are systematically oppressed… Yikes, wait, let me backpedal for a minute. I love donuts!”
“When I moved to L.A. a few years ago, what struck me the most was that there is a different donut shop on every corner, and they’re all independently owned,” says Esposito. “That was really weird to me coming from New York, where there’s a Dunkin Donuts on every corner. New York City has been going through the process of gentrification for a while now, but I didn’t really connect that back to donuts, until I learned that Dunkin Donuts is now about to move into Los Angeles.”
Still deep in development, Donut County will serve all these ideas together via the main character’s donut-induced daydreams — including a deeper dive into where the holes are coming from, and where everything swallowed whole eventually goes. Interested players can get their first introduction to that at Fantastic Arcade in September, or follow development at the game’s new website to learn more about where and when it will be coming to you.