I first played Freshly Frosted at night, for a few hours before bed. I went to sleep, and dreamt of donuts. The next morning, I woke up and instantly went out to buy a dozen. I couldn’t get the idea of warm, neat, colorful, sweet donuts out of my mind.
Fundamentally, Freshly Frosted sounds like it’s less about donuts and more like it’s about machines. It’s a puzzle game about laying down tracks of conveyor belts that will get donuts from point A to point B. Along the way, they can pass by machinery that will apply, in order: frosting, sprinkles, whipped cream, and cherry toppings, with each level requesting a certain amount of donuts with specific toppings. So it might ask for a plain, two frosted, and one with whipped cream, but you’ll need to apply frosting and sprinkles before the whipped cream can be added. The puzzles grow increasingly complex, adding more topping stations, tricks like merging conveyor belts, and of course, more donuts. It’s all very mechanical sounding, when you describe it that way.
But actually playing Freshly Frosted is anything but. Its intricate conveyor belts are set atop a pastel cloud wallpaper lazily drifting by as you sort your donuts out. The donuts themselves are all tidily frosted by soothing, rhythmic machinery gently bap-bap-bap-ing toppings on to the beat of a gentle soundtrack that intensifies when your factory starts up, and quiets while you think about your next move. Each level is introduced with a relaxed voiceover that encourages the player, waxes philosophical about life, and of course, imagines more and more donuts. The donut machines are (per the light story introduction) constructs of the speaker’s mind, but after just a few minutes of donuts, music, and color massaging my brain, I felt like the donuts could be my own dreamy thought experiment too.
Freshly Frosted’s magical, chugging donut factories were conceived, funnily enough, on a train. Ally O. Taylor and Ty Taylor tell me the idea was born during Train Jam 2019, based on the prompt “circuitous” and Ally O. Taylor’s interest in making an “adorable donut game.” Along with programmer Amanda End, they put together the first playable version of Freshly Frosted in about four days during a journey from Chicago to San Francisco. Despite such a short time in the oven, the version of Freshly Frosted that emerged from Train Jame was, per Ty Taylor, “very playable” and even included a lot of the more complex mechanics that don’t appear until quite late in the final version.
I have had literal shower thoughts where I’ve invented levels. The tile in my shower is a grid…I would just stand there and imagine donut factories.
At the time, Train Jam had a booth at GDC showcasing the games made on its cross-country journey that year, and the feedback the team received from players checking out Freshly Frosted encouraged them to go “full force” on development. One key element that’s been significantly fleshed out since its Train Jam beginnings has been the sheer number of puzzles: going up from a single box of a dozen puzzles to, appropriately, a dozen boxes with a dozen puzzles each. Ty Taylor, who designed the majority of these conveyor belt puzzles, admits that puzzle design is fairly difficult, especially given the specific feelings he wanted to convey with Freshly Frosted’s donut machines.
“Early on, we wanted one of the core tenants of Freshly Frosted to be satisfaction,” he says. “We wanted it to be satisfying to watch, satisfying to solve. And I also wanted it to be either satisfying to look at initially, so that means all of the ovens and delivery counters and stations where it’s pretty symmetric or arranged in some interesting pattern, or maybe it looks like chaos, but at the end, there’s only one solution that all falls into place.”
Whenever he got stuck, Ty Taylor says he would “just fiddle around with things,” placing donut start points, end points, and decorations at random before trying to solve it. Usually, these random placements would be impossible. But they helped him think through different ideas for interesting kinds of solutions, allowing him to reorganize his random creations into functional, creative puzzles.
“I have had literal shower thoughts where I’ve invented levels,” he adds later. “The tile in my shower is a grid, a bunch of different colors. So I would just stand there in the hot water and imagine donut factories in the shower.”
Screens – Freshly Frosted
Another, more recent development to Freshly Frosted has been the addition of a light story fully written by Ally O. Taylor, who tells me they researched a number of ‘donut facts’ for the writing alongside incorporating their own personal history with donuts. Some of these donut facts, they tell me, have turned out to be humorously controversial with streamers playing Freshly Frosted.
“Automatic donut making, so donut factories, are older than sliced bread,” they say. “And if you want to be technical about it, sure, cutting bread with a knife is in fact older than automated factories, but automated bread cutting is younger than automated donut making.”
In addition to writing, Ally O. Taylor also took on all the voice acting for Freshly Frosted. They say their work on both was heavily inspired by sleep meditation apps, such as Headspace, which they use frequently.
“I really wanted it to be meditative and a little bit about mental health, but not aggressively about mental health,” they say. “I didn’t want it to be so much about it, that it doesn’t actually serve the purpose of being meditative. If you get too deep into it, it’s not going to make you feel better. It might make you feel worse instead. So that’s why I wanted to keep it lighthearted for that reason.”
I really wanted it to be a little bit about mental health, but not aggressively…If you get too deep into it, it’s not going to make you feel better.
On top of all the other satisfying, meditative elements is Freshly Frosted’s soundtrack by Josie Brechner, which transitions seamlessly between what Ally O. Taylor describes as “lofi beats to make donuts to” while the player is working on the puzzle to, as Ty Taylor calls it, a “donut dance party” when the puzzle is finished and the factory activates. Brechner also designed Freshly Frosted’s sound effects with an ear toward satisfying sounds, such as the tiny pops heard upon placing conveyor belts and the rhythmic bap-bap-bap of machines that syncs perfectly in time with the music as the factory churns out donut after donut.
With Freshly Frosted out now, the team is happy with its reception thus far as well as their own work on it. It took them several years, mostly working on the side while full-time on other projects, but they tell me the slow pace meant they never crunched and were able to release a “nice, completed game” without burning out. It’s a tidy, full, decorated donut box.
“I think the thing about Freshly Frosted is when you look at it, you know what you’re getting into,” Ally O. Taylor says. “You’re getting a very cute, wholesome game that’s very sweet and just light. And maybe there’s a little bit more meaning than you might expect when you first look at it, but not so much more. And if you don’t want that meaning, you can also turn off the narrative in the settings. So people aren’t surprised when they play it. The people who buy it know what they’re getting into, and they love it.
“ … I put a lot of myself into it because it’s my art and my writing and my voice with you the whole time. And a lot of the voice lines come a lot from my personal personality. There’s so much of me in it. So whenever people say they like it, I’m like, ‘Oh they like me.’ I’m so glad they like me.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.