Earlier this year I got to play Donut County, a game I was very hyped for. As I laughed my way through the game, I had to wonder exactly what was going on in the mind of the man who made it. Then I found out that developer Ben Esposito is responsible for helping make games like Tattletail, What Remains of Edith Finch, and The Unfinished Swan. Ben also works with Arcane Kids on some extremely strange things such as Sonic Dream Collection and Bubsy3d: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective. What can someone like that share with me? Well I had a talk with Ben to find out.
TechRaptor: So for those who are not aware, can you just give a quick run down on Donut County?
Ben Esposito: Yeah, of course. Donut County is a physics puzzle game where you play as a hole in the ground and you start out really small, and when you put stuff into it it gets bigger and bigger. There's puzzles that involve shooting things back out of the hole and getting things stuck into it. The story of the game is that you play as a raccoon who is piloting these holes to steal peoples trash in a town called Donut County, which is based on Los Angeles. So it's about the repercussions of sucking everything up into a hole.
TechRaptor: So where did the initial idea for Donut County come about?
Ben: The original idea was kind of a joke. It was based on a game jam we did in 2012 where there's this parody Twitter account of Peter Molyneux called Peter Molydeux and it would tweet a bunch of game ideas that are just ludicrous and crazy and silly. It was really funny, and we decided to do a game jam where we all just take one of his tweets and we just made a quick game version of that. So I was looking around and I saw one that was really simple, it was "you play as a hole". Then I think it said something silly like "you move the hole around and objects fall onto targets."
I thought the hole in the ground was really interesting, so that was the prototype in like the middle of 2012 I think, and I kind of knew based on that, that there was something really compelling and something interesting about, like, the physicality of and the mystery of being one. So that was like... I then fleshed it out. What does this world look like? What is the goal of the game? And what do you really do in it? That's what took such a long time to figure out.
TechRaptor: Why, in Donut County, why do you play as a raccoon? How did that come about? Or, I guess, you play as the hole, but why is a raccoon moving the hole around?
Ben: [Laughter]. Well I noticed pretty early on that... This was not really the intention when I started making the game, but I realized you're just playing as the villain. And it's kind of messed up when you really think about the way you're dismantling people's homes, and you're just like this endless, consumptive, force. I initially resisted the-- resisted having an evil character that's controlling the hole for a while, but I thought the story would make the most sense if you were kind of, like, complicate in the evil of controlling the hole. So the raccoons come into play because raccoons are this, like... unstoppable, very adaptive, trash consuming force that can take over a city. So they kind of became like a symbol for the gentrification of Donut County, and it was inspired a little bit by me moving to LA and being the victim of an ongoing raccoon assault against my apartment complex. So that journey of living with raccoons, uh... inspired the villainous nature of the raccoons in Donut County.
Plus, raccoons are really cute actually. They're evil but they're cute.
TechRaptor: They are evil and adorable.
TechRaptor: Did you win against the raccoons that were assaulting your apartment or...?
Ben: Oh no, I just left. I couldn't handle it anymore.
TechRaptor: Oh. [Laughter.]
Ben: They were scary! I wouldn't want to run into one of them at night. They used to sleep in the washing machines in the basement. So you'd open it up and see a raccoon in there and just close the door and walk away.
TechRaptor: That's pretty hilarious.
Ben: I just couldn't live that life.
TechRaptor: So is this related to... Earlier, way earlier, back in 2013 you made a game called Brooklyn Trash King. Is this the same Trash King?
Ben: Yes, actually! I don't even [at this point the mic cut for a second and I lost what Ben said.] --the Trash King from Donut County is supposed to be the Trash King from Brooklyn Trash King. This is like a sequel to that game. In an extremely— in the loosest sense possible. The idea being that the raccoons, having conquered Brooklyn, made their way to the west coast.
TechRaptor: Is there any really cool ideas for Donut County you had that ended up in... I guess it would be the raccoon trash pile?
Ben: [Laughter.] I had lots of experiments that I did in terms of, like, trying to find interesting puzzles with the hole. So... one thing that I really wanted to explore that just didn't end up working out technology wise was that I really wanted the hole to be able to move on walls or ceilings or arbitrary surfaces. The idea being that... it would kind of actually... it became a lot more like Portal that way, because you could have the hole grab something on the bottom and move the hole up to a wall then launch it out and get it to launch objects to specific places. But... technologically speaking, it was quite difficult to get it to look right, and there were a lot of design problems getting the hole to move around and on to those surfaces and what could be moved to. It was just way more complex as a puzzle than I really wanted to do with the game. I wanted the game to be very intuitive and kind of... I don't want to break your expectations in terms of how the hole works, I don't want to break your expectations of the kind of stuff that goes into it, the context for it. So there was that.
Also... [Laughter.] I was kind of going off the rails at one point in the design, and I had a prototype for a smelling mechanic. You could smell smells with the hole. Like it would scrunch up and it would make a big [Ben makes a sniffing noise] sound. I don't really know what I was thinking, but there would be like, you know... a window with a pie on the window sill and maybe that would bring you inside of the house, or that would bring you into a memory of like... growing up in a home where they baked pies? I don't know. I didn't include that mechanic for probably pretty obvious reasons.
TechRaptor: Would the hole have the memories or the raccoon?
Ben: That's a good question. I don't know. It was an extremely high level of abstract thought. So if anyone can figure out how to make that a mechanic in a game, I'd love to know that. I want to see it.
TechRaptor: So before Donut County you made a game called Tattletail, or you worked on a game called Tattletail rather. How did the idea for that one come about?
Ben: That one came from my partner Geneva. She had lots of stories of Furbies not turning off, going dormant, and living in the closet and occasionally saying creepy things from in the closet. She was always terrified of it, and so that was the genesis of the idea. Everyone kind of knows Furbies are creepy, and they have this kind of creepy lore to them, this creepy aura. We had been playing lots of horror games at the time, we're really into story based horror games that we were seeing on YouTube, and so she designed the Tattletail and the Mama Tattletail because she's a cartoonist and she's super super talented. I looked at it and I was like "Wow. This Tattletail really gets a reaction out of me. I don't know if it's good or bad." And she was like "If you're reacting to it then it's a good thing." It was creepy and weird. So we knew that we could totally make a fun horror game based on these characters.
TechRaptor: So were Furbies just always creepy or is that something we just decided on later after the fact?
Ben: I don't know. If you watch the commercials it feels creepy. Like if you go on YouTube and watch the commercials. I don't know, there's something just vaguely sinister about them.
TechRaptor: Yeah, there was. [Laughter]. So there's like a massive tonal shift between Tattletail, where there's a creepy Furby killing children, and Donut County, where you're a fun raccoon dropping things in a hole. Was that tonal shift really hard to work around, or...?
Ben: [Laughter.] I really do like having kind of a really broad range in terms of who the games are for and the feel and the tone of the games. Like I think it's really fun to explore the limits of different genres and categories and stuff. It wasn't-- it's not necessarily hard to kind of, like, dig into what the genre expectations are for something like a horror game, but it kind of hard to switch gears and really explore something that you want to feel new and something that fit into a genre.
That was kind of the challenge with Donut County, it was like... what do I really want this to feel like? I know I want kids to be able to play it, so I know the content has to have a certain... there's like limits of the types of things I can put into it, and also I have to kind of craft a sense of humor around something like kids who are playing with their parents could enjoy. Also I want adults to enjoy it, because I want to have a certain level of sophistication. So it was actually a challenge to figure out what the tone would be for Donut County, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out because I think its got a pretty unique sense of humor. But it was a lot harder to do that than it was to figure out what Tattletail would be like.
TechRaptor: Now when you're not working on games as Ben Esposito, you're also working under Arcane Kids.
TechRaptor: Where you make a lot of really really weird things. Such as the Sonic Dreams Collection. Which... I guess I have to ask why.
Ben: It's because it's the ultimate Sonic fan game.
TechRaptor: It is the ultimate Sonic fan game.
Ben: Well, it's more of a fan experience. It's an experience.
TechRaptor: It definitely is an experience.
TechRaptor: Also under Arcane Kids you did Bubsy3d: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective.
Ben: Bubsy3d.com, yeah.
TechRaptor: Yeah. Do you personally feel responsible for Bubsy's revival?
Ben: [Laughter.] That's actually something we talk about a lot, because after we did that there was that revitalization of, like, bringing back-- making a new Bubsy game and stuff. I don't want to say that we're responsible, because it totally might not be true. I'm glad that we can be part of the revival of Bubsy in terms of people's general awareness of the characters, because we love Bubsy. We made it, you know, the most loving tribute that we possibly could. Same thing with Sonic. I'm honored that we got to be part of that, like, cultural movement of bringing back Bubsy.
TechRaptor: Now are you surprised that neither Sega nor... uh... I don't know who owns Bubsy, I'll have to check that later, but neither Sega nor Bubsy's owners have asked you to take down the games?
Ben: Both times when we were about to hit publish on those games we'd look at each other and we'd say "is this okay? Are we going to get into huge trouble?" But so far no one has ever said anything to us, so... We're two for two on hijacking beloved characters. I don't know how much we're going to push our luck in the future, but we've been kind of surprised that there's been absolutely no response from the companies that own those franchises. I'm just going to keep my head down and just, you know, smile knowing that we got away with it.
TechRaptor: I'm actually surprised no one from Sega has said anything considering their Sonic Twitter account is basically almost as if Sonic Dreams Collection was a Twitter account.
Ben: So he has, the Sonic Twitter, has acknowledge that they're aware of the game. They have not said anything beyond that. Or at least they've hinted that they know about the game, but... No one sent an e-mail! So we're just going to keep it up.
TechRaptor: Also under Arcane Kids you did Capsule Silence XXVI with the band Anamanaguchi. How did that one come about? Did you talk to the band, or did they come to you?
Ben: They contacted me, because I had run into them a bunch of times and I had really liked their music and stuff. We had always wanted to work together in some capacity. So yeah they had this really, kind of, weird concept of making a game that was a kind of digital version of their living space/work space were you could kind of like get this really intimate look into what their interests are and how they make music and kind of showing both the good and the bad. So I thought that was a really really interesting way to release music, and I wanted to be part of that experiment so I developed the idea-- well they had this broad idea of like making this epic fake space RPG called Capsule Silence and I thought that was super super fun.
It was really fun to kind of develop the fake out of it being this unfinished epic RPG game and then, you know, kind of pivoting towards showing their, like, really intimate living space and kind of seeing unfinished songs and photographs of them and mementos and all that. So I thought it was a really cool project and I got to know them super well to kind of have my own take on what their rooms might look like, because I had to build it in 3D so... it was fun to interview them and get a feel for their personalities.
TechRaptor: Now when you guys "announced" this game, one site, I think it was GameSpot, ran a real news article about it and it led to a whole fake Twitter meltdown that was an ad for the game. Was that planned or was that just spur of the moment?
Ben: [Laughter.] Um... that part kind of got away from me. They were, the band, was super into the idea of like having this... authentic feeling break down to kind of, like... make the actual delivery of the cool interesting songs and the cool interesting content more surprising and feel more genuine when you're breaking into this, like, hacked copy of the game. But I think it did go a little bit to far, to say the least. You know, I hope it didn't upset people too much, but I see what they were trying to do and I did think it was pretty funny, yeah I think the GameSpot thing and the Twitter melt down might have been a little excessive.
TechRaptor: Yeah I remember I had to write the, well I didn't have to I chose to, but I wrote an article on that one because I was new to the site when it first happened and I thought like it was the most fascinating thing. The whole break down, the whole fake game and all that. So that was all really cool.
Ben: It was a really cool project. It was a little out of control.
TechRaptor: Now another weird game you worked on is called CRAP! No One Loves Me.
Ben: You're aware of this game?
TechRaptor: I've never played it. It's on your site. I'm literally just looking at your site right now, well not right now I have a list of questions, but at one point I looked at your site and picked a bunch of cool things. One of them was CRAP! No One Loves Me which was, and I quote, "available for a limited time in September 2015, it's now a rare game, who knows when you'll be able to get it again?" Do you know when we'll be able to get it again?
Ben: [Laughter.] Ummm... That's up to the Arcane Kids as a group, because it was kind of a sizeable project and something we've definitely talked about and we would love to have be available at some point. I don't have any idea of when that might happen. It would be cool though.
TechRaptor: Fair enough. Alright to get away from Arcane Kids, even though that whole thing is great and could be an entire thing on its own, to get back to the Ben Esposito of this interview. You worked on one of my favorite games of all time, for reals, What Remains of Edith Finch.
Ben: Oh awesome.
TechRaptor: You said you consulted on game design for a major part of development. Which part was that?
Ben: So I had worked with Giant Sparrow previously as a level designer for The Unfinished Swan, and then after that I started working on Donut County and was going independent but Ian Dallas, creative director for Giant Sparrow, asked me if I wanted to be a part of Edith Finch in like a prototyping capacity. So for the first few years of that project I would work with him and he would kind of have story ideas and super high level concepts, and I got to turn those into playable prototypes, a bunch of which turned into, or eventually evolved into, the stories that made it into the game. So you can kind of tell the ones that were influenced by my style because they're like physicsey kind of goofy games. So like the one where you play with the kite, and the one were you're on the swing set, and the one were you're in the bath tub with the frog, were based on prototypes I did at that time. Super super talented, amazing, people actually took them and executed on them and brought them to completion and I think they turned out really awesome. But I'm grateful I got to be a part of the project early on to kind of help figure out those mechanics because I think they came out pretty cool.
TechRaptor: Well I will say they have come out really cool, and I was very impressed by that game. You worked on The Unfinished Swan too, you helped with, uh... that game?
Ben: Yeah I got to do level design for... a portion of the game. A lot of, like the first half was already done when I got onto the project, so I was more responsible for the levels in the second half. I was also really happy with how that game turned out. I think that was a super interesting and very experimental and kind of challenging game to work on. I thought it was very exciting.
TechRaptor: I feel like that'd be a really tough game to do level design for, considering most of the level is something you can't see.
Ben: It was a really interesting process. It was kind of like interesting because... When you can't-- when you can only see into a tiny window of the level at once the details are extremely important in order to communicate the actual shape of the space. So it was kind of... it was not exactly what I expected. A lot of the time building levels for The Unfinished Swan was all about placing the details just the right way and having curves and forms at intervals that would kind of hint at a larger space. Making that not super confusing was a... was a real process of refinement. So it was a really cool challenge.
TechRaptor: Alright. So my last question is more of a joke than anything, but... Is the real Donut County the friends we made along the way?
Ben: [Laughter.] Yeah! Donut County is all about, you know, seeing things from someone else's perspective and being responsible for calling out your friends when you need to and also for accepting them when they apologize. So I would say that is accurate.
TechRaptor: Well I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I really enjoyed this, and it was awesome to get to hear all crazy stories about these games.
Ben: Yeah this was a lot of fun, thanks for chatting with me.
TechRaptor: No problem, thank you.
We'd like to once again thank Ben Esposito for taking the time to talk with us.