This whole thing smacks of gaming
Donut County, a 2018 game by Ben Esposito, is overflowing with dumb jokes, an aspect of the game I was immediately taken with. Its music, dialogue, and even “Trashopedia” are full of obscurity just for the hell of it—snakes are “alive spaghetti with the ability to hate,” bunnies “want to destroy everything and they don’t know why,” and the game is about swallowing an entire city with a sinkhole to earn a toy drone. Donut County leans into its nonsense, and in doing so, speaks directly to a nonsensical audience: my generation, “the Millennials.”
Esposito didn’t set out to make Donut County the pinnacle of weird humor. In fact, it began with no dialogue or text at all. “It was always supposed to be this kind of funny physics experience,” he tells me through a Skype call, “but I wasn’t able to tell the story I really wanted to tell without the dialogue. I realized it was a kind of arbitrary restraint that I put on it. Once I started to actually write the characters, it totally found its voice.”
“Making a totally wordless game while trying to tell a story is actually really, really time-consuming and really difficult,” he adds. “I know from talking to other people who have done it in the past, and it’s like this burden you carry the whole way. And that’s the burden I was carrying. But I realized there was kind of no point to it, because I love writing and I love having a sense of humor… A lot of games could use a lot more humor, so once I made that turn I was like, ‘This is great, this is exactly what I should be doing!’”
Esposito was heavily inspired by Twitter circa 2012. In fact, Donut County was the result of a 24-hour “game jam” in which developers based their projects on the tweets of a Twitter account parodying the often overly ambitious game developer Peter Molyneux. One tweet in particular stuck with Esposito, and he liked his prototype so much that he went on to flesh it out into a full game over the next six years. The final result is a silly, relaxed experience where a single raccoon destroys a city—and his friendships—for an arbitrary toy. That story is mostly told by a group of townsfolk talking at a campfire. Yet almost every character speaks in short, sarcastic phrases and text-speak. In a way, each character acts as a Twitter persona, aimlessly conversing back and forth.
“I was really interested in Twitter as a platform,” explains Esposito, “when there were a lot of writers emerging, doing the super-absurd type of humor where they would adopt characters. One of the main survivors of that would be Dril, who’s like my favorite account from the time.”
“I thought that was a really fun exploration,” he continues, “and I thought that type of humor was really authentic in a way. You could use sarcasm, and you could use roundabout ways of talking about things that are actually important to you. It was a kind of safe space to do that. Some people abused it, obviously, but I thought it was really cool.”
“Tweets have to be concise,” Esposito says, “and so the story had to be concise by necessity. I wanted to use the size of the dialog box to help dictate the pace of the conversation and stuff like that. And so it was more out of necessity than like, trying to have a deliberate conversation.”
Earlier this year, adventure title Minit adhered to a similar principle. Developed by Kitty Calis, Jukio Kallio, Dominik Johann, and Jan Willem Nijman, Minit kills its protagonist every minute. Players explore and solve puzzles in a fascinating, goofy world, sixty seconds at a time. This restraint means that dialogue has to be concise—the end results read like the same obscure tweets that inspired Esposito.
“It was really important for us that every NPC had a strong personality,” Nijman says in an email, “as it’s just a person standing there, saying a quick line of text. But it also gives the world a sense of place. So it’s quite similar to the 140-character limitations of Twitter.”
“I think in some way, Twitter jokes have become a part of our sense of humor since we come across writing like that almost every day. Minit is a game that never puts a lot of emphasis on the dialogue, it’s up to the player to dig into it or not. This is an industry built around creativity, self-expression, and passion, but we’re also making entertainment—so probably have some fun with it!”
More so than Twitter, Nijman says Minit was inspired by Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which first aired in 2010 and uses a similar style of humor to both Minit and Donut County. “Not necessarily the writing, but what really inspired us is how every episode is such a different adventure, and Minit tries to capture that spirit. No matter what direction you head in, there’s always something different waiting for you.”
Unlike Minit, Esposito says Donut County wasn’t inspired directly by any such cartoons. “But I think the humor that was happening around that time had that absurd, self-referential nature,” he says. “That definitely fit into it. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly influenced by any of those shows, but I feel like it comes from that era. It’s weird because that era’s kind of gone now.”
Minit’s cartoony adventure leads to many places: a hotel without guests, a factory with rude staff and long waiting lines, and a mostly-empty shop. “We wanted to make something approachable and friendly,” Nijman explains, “but thematically it’s also about a lot of very normal problems: bad customer service, shitty working conditions, stress. It’s something a lot of people can relate to.”
That humor and relatability can be a foot-in-the-door to grab attention—something that Esposito echoes, saying, “I think that the humor is really meant to make you more receptive to the overall scenario that’s happening. I think humor is such a good way into talking about something difficult. It’s so much easier to disarm somebody with a joke to get them to listen to your grand idea than it is to have a work that feels a little too [ideologically] challenging or feels hostile from the outset.”
There are countless examples of titles that adapt this absurdity and silliness to their world; Minit and Donut County are just recent endeavors. In fact, Esposito mentions the similarities he found between his game and Night in the Woods, which has launched on multiple consoles in the past two years. Nijman expressed his fondness for 2017’s West of Loathing.
Like dumb Twitter jokes from a half-decade ago, these experiences linger in our minds in spite of—or perhaps because of—their brevity. As Nijman puts it, “Trying to get a lot of charm out of something so limited helps make it shine.”