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Donut County, Katamari Damacy, and how best to respond to the impending death of the Anthropocene
I am well, thanks for asking
After playing Donut County, I feel secure in saying that Katamari Damacy had the exact right amount of terror. It wasn’t something I appreciated about the cult classic—a game I heartily enjoyed on the PS2 when it launched, much to my parents’ obvious confusion—until I played the unequivocally chill Donut County, where no one seems all that bothered by giants holes appearing beneath them and taking away everything they’ve ever loved. Contrast this with Katamari Damacy, where everyone is, quite rightly, freaked the fuck out by a little green man rolling a sticky ball around and subsuming people, places, and things at an exponential rate. The most terror anyone seems to experience in Donut County, by contrast, is that they might be out of range for donut delivery.
Donut County is a game where you play a hole in the ground that sucks up things and drops them underground. The game is told via a frame story in which BK, a sentient raccoon who works a very Gig Economy Parody job for a donut delivery app, has already dropped an entire town’s worth of people into the underworld, all of whom, gathered around a fire, proceed to tell BK (you) how much he stinks. The dialogue is fine enough, though it skews too much toward affected millennial text-speak to my tastes. After each person tells you why you’re just the absolute worst, you proceed via flashback to the part where you do the bad thing they said you did, which in each and every case is that you dropped all their things into a hole. The game proceeds in this ABAB format (drop things in hole; hear about how you dropped things in hole; repeat) for much of its short runtime before BK eventually makes things right via, of course, making more holes in the ground, only to suck up the bad guys this time instead of the good, or at least chill, guys.
Donut County could be read as a metaphor for our collective nonresponse to the climate crisis. That’s my take, anyway. In the face of the demands of capitalism, which the game tackles in the form of some surface-level commentary on gig work, we all seem content to let metaphorical holes form beneath us while we work our little jobs and collect our little money that we then redeem for rent/food/things/the sense that we are in control. Does the game merit or encourage this reading? No, probably not, especially since the conclusion, despite featuring a joke about how a character is such a capitalist, seems more about the value of friendship and the myth of self-reliance. I do think Donut County seems interested in the idea of complacency and the dangers of going with the flow in a system that actively works against you, but as to what it has to say about that complacency, I am unsure.
It doesn’t help that the gameplay is boring. In Katamari Damacy, Donut County’s clear influence, the act of sticking random objects to a ball is fun in and of itself, as your katamari becomes ungainly and comically awkward to maneuver until you subsume more wriggling humans and, yes, donut stands, growing ever more larger until eventually the absurdist premise reaches its logical endpoint: the consumption of entire continents as you roll a ball big enough to devour the world.1 Fun! Weird! But most importantly: fun! Donut County, by contrast, never quite reaches that level of absurdist escalation, and purely mechanically, moving a hole around never feels fresh or interesting in the way a sticky katamari does. Some additional object-launching mechanics are added to Donut County later on, but they’re too little, too late and don’t solve the central gameplay problem, which is that there isn’t enough variation on the theme.
But I think it’s the terror, really, that’s missing. Maybe that’s what I liked about Katamari Damacy in the end. Not the silly premise. Not the amazing music. (Okay, yes, the amazing music.) But the terror. The reasonable terror we ought to feel, and act upon, if the world around us started to fall apart. Donut County is the whimper to Katamari’s bang, and I guess what I’m taking away from this chill game is it’s high time to freak out and make some noise.