Donut County: Cute, Engaging, and Immensely Satisfying

Donut County is a cute little indie game that scratches a very specific itch. With gameplay akin to Katamari Damacy, it makes the player feel like a very powerful janitor. Every level starts off with you cleaning up the “mess” on screen. This cleaning alone makes for a satisfying experience as you pick up piece after piece trying to figure out which one you’re supposed to pick up next. But what you may find surprising, is that by the end of the level, you also feel powerful. Since you begin each level as a small hole in the ground and grow as you progress through it, you experience a very fast power scaling loop. At the end of each level, you really do feel like a powerful being that’s just finished his weekly tidying-up.

User Interface:

We’ll start with the main menu. It’s simple, straight-forward, and with just enough color. And it’s got a cute little backdrop that introduces the main characters. Nothing felt wrong here at first, and my only two criticisms are minor.

After you’ve started a game, the “Continue” option is introduced above the “New Game” option, removing the 3:3 balance the menu started with. Secondly, the “Trashopedia” option is fairly meaningless. It just shows you all the objects you’ve collected so far during gameplay with some funny text attached to it. The descriptions here did feel appropriate to the game; however, I don’t think I would’ve missed out on much if I didn’t come here after I was finished. It just felt superfluous. They could’ve probably removed “Trashopedia” entirely, placed “Options” where “Trashopedia” was, and shifted the stuff on the left down. That would leave it at 3:3 with good categorization and no meaningless menus.

As far as the options menu is concerned, I didn’t like how each letter was so spread out for the label. It also had this weird hypnotic animation to it. The music here and the motion of the background did feel synchronized with it, but it just didn’t feel right to me. This menu sort of felt like an out of place acid trip. As far as the actual options go, I was happy. All the important stuff is there. Nothing excessive. The labels at the top could be swapped around though. I would’ve put “Resume” on the left and had “Stats”, the cog, and “Quit” on the right. What makes this menu awkward is it’s a derivative of the pause menu.

Now we can see where the awkwardness began. Why these menus are intertwined is a mystery to me. Just make them distinct and avoid the strange overlapping. I can only assume there was some sort of resource/time/budget constraint, and this was the solution. All-in-all, not the worst.

The last thing I want to mention about the UI is the level introduction. Just look at it. It’s so simple and clean. I love it. This is an amazing example of a modern UI.

Gameplay:

The gameplay is pretty clean and fun. As mentioned before, it does kind of evoke emotions related to a janitorial power trip, but it also feels exactly like it’s supposed to. The pace of the gameplay matches the game’s vibe. The basic game mechanics (hole moving and growing, the gravity, etc.) feel complete. The game eventually introduces a new mechanic that builds on the first, and it doesn’t feel out of place. The physics system in this game is rather simplistic, simultaneously feeling a little unpolished and just right. It feels more like an intentional design decision than a mistake or constraint.

Story Exposition and Characters

The story was short but not in a bad way. The characters were charming. And there was this wonderful layer of humor weaved throughout all of it. The one thing I had a serious gripe with was the cell phone dialogue exchanges. They make you click reply as if to give the player some semblance of control, but it just feels like normal dialogue exchanges with extra work and no benefit.

Breaking the Rules can be Fun Too

Game design at its core is creating a ruleset. Good game design is creating a ruleset and making it fun. Obviously, a ton more goes into game design than just making rules, but this is the baseline. If an amazing and beautiful world is created, but there are no rules, it’s not a “game.” It’s just… space. It’s a world where nothing can be done but observe. Games need to be interactive. The players need to be able to do something and have it be consistent within the game’s context. When a game does unexpected things, when its results are inconsistent, it’s not a feature. It’s a bug. Unless, of course, the rules are meant to be malleable, meant to be inconsistent. What if the player is given a degree of control? Does that make for good game design?

This is certainly the case with Baba Is You, a 2D puzzle game developed by Hepuli Oy. Each level in this game is laid out in blocks on a grid. How these blocks interact (or don’t) however, is often up to the player. The objective of the game is simple: the player must move whatever block is labeled “you” to whatever block is labeled “win”. What this means is the player character can change depending on what the player does, and the same goes for the goal. This starts out as relatively simple, but as more and more block types and labels get added, it very quickly becomes increasingly unclear how the player must change the rules in order to progress. This is what makes the game challenging but also interesting and fun. Each level feels like an exercise in visual programming, using problem-solving skills and creativity to bend “reality” to your will. And when that doesn’t work, doing it again and again until it does.

Baba Is You is an excellent example of creating a base ruleset and letting the player build upon it in fun, thoughtful, and engaging ways. Giving the player power over game rules is usually a very dangerous thing, but in the right context and when handled the right way, it can not only define a game but be precisely what makes the game fun in the first place.