Gus van Sant’s Desert Golfing, or “Are 100 Hour Games Ever Worthwhile 2: Nihilistic Boogaloo”

Gerry Desert Golfing

Justin Keever | July 10, 2015

The most important piece of criticism about Justin Smith’s Desert Golfing wasn’t actually about Desert Golfing. Nope, the best article I’ve ever read about Smith’s critical darling was written almost three years before the game’s release by Michael Thomsen, who mistakenly believed he was writing an indictment of From Software’s magnum opus Dark Souls. Thomsen’s basic argument is that there is too much Dark Souls in Dark Souls: that the game makes its point, that “that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty” (a fair, albeit simplistic assessment) in its first 5 hours, and the remaining 95 hours it apparently takes to complete the game offer nothing but light, meaningless variation on this basic idea. Again, I must admit that at first glance, there is something to this assessment of Dark Souls, especially when one need look no further than the game’s most devoted fans, the PvP community, to see a host of people whose appreciation for the game extends only as far as the “useless junk” that Thomsen believes Dark Souls is mostly about: the particulars of its combat. These are people who have spent hundreds of hours experiencing light variations on the theme “the path to success is paved with rolling and backstabbing.” But I digress. Thomsen’s basic argument doesn’t hold up, as his basic understanding of what Dark Souls means appears to derive solely from the act of its play: that is, its difficulty remains more or less a constant, and so the ludically expressed theme of “life is hell” in turn remains constant. But this basic procedural theme doesn’t exist independently: it is an undercurrent of a story that explores how people respond to their own hellish existence, a story of grief, greed, and how desperately people will fight to maintain the status quo. The game’s setting, Lordran, is grotesque and sublime in equal measure: settings like Ash Lake and the Kiln of the First Flame are worth suffering to see. Thomsen’s assessment of Dark Souls as a repetitive exercise in relentless nihilism is accurate only if you remove its narrative aspirations and visual splendor, a notion which allows us to segue conveniently to Desert Golfing.

Desert Golfing, if you don’t know, is about golfing in a desert. That is, it’s a physics puzzler where the puzzle is always a variation on “get the golf ball in the hole,” the challenge of which derives from negotiating the topographic structure of the desert and the physics of the terrain itself. Not only does the player have to hit the golf ball over little hills and valleys, but they must also consider the way in which the desert sands effect the friction of the ball as it rolls over those aforementioned hills and valleys. But the particulars of Desert Golfing’s gameplay don’t explain how the little iOS game came to achieve such critical acclaim: the answer to that perplexing question lies in the game’s scoring system (for lack of a better term) and the interconnectedness of the game’s individual holes. Desert Golfing’s shtick is continuity. As you progress from hole to in-game hole, your score never resets. Instead, the player simply accumulates a running tally of total strokes that dates back to the very first stroke. Your score can only be improved, according to popular knowledge, by deleting the game and starting again. In a similar vein, all of the individual holes are actually connected to one another: whenever the player successfully sinks a ball, rather than cutting back to a menu screen or loading up a different level with no geographic relationship to the previous, Desert Golfing’s “camera”, as it were, simply tracks to the right, keeping the golf ball in frame while revealing a new hole. The golf ball rises up from the previous hole, and play begins again.

It’s Desert Golfing’s “constant march forward” that earned its multitudes of praise. Leigh Alexander has called the game “an exercise in accepting the past, or in surrendering to the things you can’t change.” Brendan Keogh likens the game to a “walking game,” (a la Dear Esther, The Old City, Journey, etc.) saying that Desert Golfing is less a game about golfing and more an exploratory journey through a desert. Neither critic is wrong in their assertion. In fact, Alexander quite saliently captures the core idea expressed in Smith’s game.

But Keogh isn’t really wrong only because his claims are so broad. He makes an observation at the end of his essay’s Second Act, in which he sums up a good portion of his argument by asserting that “in Desert Golfing, you are not simply playing golf, you are trekking across a desert through the act of golf. Golf is the thing you do in order to move across this desert.” I love these two sentences, because you can remove a few words and have a template to describe around 90% of videogames that graphically depict spaces:

‘In Need for Speed you are not simply racing, you are trekking across a city through the act of racing. Racing is the thing you do to move across this city.’

‘In Madden you are not simply playing football, you are trekking across a field through the act of playing football. Playing football is the thing you do to move across this field.’

Most spatial games are, in some sense, exploratory journeys whose fundamental nature is hidden by challenging mechanics: what makes games like Dear Esther or Eidolon or The Old City interesting is the way in which they strip that challenge away (or at least make it minimal) and confront us with the notion that moving from point A to B is gameplay in and of itself – games like these expose us to the very essence of the modern videogame. According to an interview Keogh summarizes, “Smith finds these games boring and wishes they had a bit more challenge.” In layering (and subsequently forefronting) challenge overtop an exploratory journey, Smith has not reassessed what an exploratory art game can be, he has made a typical goddamn videogame. I explored the desert of Desert Golfing the same way I explored Velen in The Witcher 3: through challenging activities that just so happened to lead me through an environment. Desert Golfing is perhaps more tolerable than its mobile physics-puzzler peers thanks to a refreshing dose of visual and auditory restraint, but Smith certainly shares Rovio’s mainstream game design sensibilities all the same.

But even if we accept Keogh’s assertion that Desert Golfing is in some way notable because it is an explorative journey, it’s still not an especially interesting journey. “Desert Golfing is a game about moving across a landscape and seeing what is there, seeing what surprises the designer has hidden in the landscape,” writes Keogh. What surprises are there? None, really. There are minimal additions to the landscape, including (and limited to) a cactus, a rock, a cloud, and lots of hills, as well as a color palette that changes very gradually from a harsh red and orange to cool greens and blues purples (so gradually that I’m nearly 400 holes in and have not detected any perceivable change in the environment’s color). Keogh calls these “exhilarating revelations;” for me, they never rise above minor variations. These are minute changes that feel significant only because the game feels determined to trap you within an aesthetic status quo, surprising only because the game is so resolutely unsurprising. A version of Desert Golfing where little landmarks like the cactus and the cloud are exhilarating, perhaps comforting, sights is easy to imagine; but it is not the version of Desert Golfing we have available to us. But in this iteration, the “sights” of Desert Golfing have no impact or meaning. They are simply things that are there, which appear to be remarkable only because they exist in an environment where nothing else does. But that Desert Golfing undoes its nothingness in such a way as to make these occasional minute inclusions to its landscape trivial. Because while no other natural physical landmarks exist, there is always a flag, signifying that we are not moving through an empty land, but playing on a course.

And the omnipresence of the flag signals what may be Desert Golfing’s most egregious error: that it fills its empty space with a game. Desert Golfing is dually enjoyable and tedious in the manner that so many mobile games are, insofar as it keeps you just focused enough to alleviate the worst boredom, but is uninteresting enough to let the player reinvest that focus into more immediate matters should the need arise. It fills an empty space and time with something to do. And just as it temporarily fills empty time in the lives of its players, the game fills the empty space of its own simulated environment. Its empty desert is not, in fact, empty: rules and objectives exists in that space, robbing the desert of the sense of ‘nothing’ that it requires to make its minimal variations meaningful. The player is never allowed to experience the potentially harsh, frightening atmosphere of an empty desert because Desert Golfing transforms that environment from a space to simply exist into a space to play. The player is never allowed to feel that visual emptiness because the game, at that special intersection between entertainment and utter pointlessness, occupies Desert Golfing at a more immediate level than the big picture of the desert environment itself.

This distinction is perhaps best elucidated by demonstrating the profound difference between looking at a screenshot of Desert Golfing versus actually playing it. In screenshots, Desert Golfing is intimidating. Maybe it is just the rhetorical hyperbole that tends to be paired with images of the game, but when presented out of motion, it’s a bizarrely commanding sight. Take this shot of the game’s first hole:

desert golfing

Outside of the context of the game itself, this imagery takes on something of a new life. You can feel the vastness of the desert in the featureless sky. The sharp pentagonal flag takes on an uncaring, almost threatening dimension. The jagged edges and two-tone color palette recall the aesthetics of some hard-edge abstraction or Suprematist works. There was a period in 2014 when games academics on twitter communicated solely through screenshots like this, presented with little to no context, as though each of the screenshots they were sharing held some kind of predetermined significance. That is the aura of Desert Golfing in still images.

That aura bleeds away with surprising rapidity when one actually plays the game. In part, that is due to the accompanying sound design: the pleasant ‘tok’ of hitting the ball, the soft thud of it hitting the sand, and the chirpy beeps that sound when the ball lands in the hole grant a levity to the experience that undercuts the harsh minimalism of the visuals. But the deeper issue is the way in which the game itself refocuses your attention in a way a screenshot or a video doesn’t.  The game does not demand that one admire the emptiness of the desert: the game demands that the player carefully studies the nondiegetic indicator of shot power and direction. It demands that the player watches the ball’s trajectory as it flies through the air, note the way the sand interferes with its roll when it lands, and observe the ball’s relationship to the hills and the hole before hitting it again.  Desert Golfing strips its environment of its ambience by willfully reducing itself to its most utilitarian components. But Justin Smith’s game isn’t entirely unique in this regard: coincidentally, the way in which the game refocuses the player’s attention to the power/direction indicator and the ball is similar to the way Dark Souls (and its predecessors/successors) create lavish environments, then force the player to focus the majority of his/her attention on the bottom-center of the screen due to the almost-constant need for the player to know where they are in relation to their environment, and react accordingly when an unseen threat emerges. There are a few key differences that make Desert Golfing singularly flawed in a way that Miyazaki’s games aren’t. First, the tendency for the Souls games to make the player tread the same path over and over alleviates some of the need to be constantly aware, allowing the player to give the rest of the frame more consideration on repeat visits. But far more importantly, the Souls games, and nearly every other videogame that could qualify as an “explorative journey” have a movement system that is free to some degree from the element of challenge. That is to say that there are periods of down time, with minimal to no challenge, wherein walking is just allowed to be walking, a means of getting from point A to point B. In these moments, the challenge-focused, utilitarian considerations of the environment are forgotten, giving way to considerations of atmosphere and theme. When the shooting stops in Fallout 3, that living room wall is no longer a piece of cover, but a relic of a way of life long past. Desert Golfing’s issue is that it never stops being a game. In most games, you are usually moving through environment A via activity B. In Desert Golfing, you are always moving through a desert through the act of golf. Its rules and challenge are linked to the way you move through the desert, and its shtick of continuity means the player is never able to retread a familiar environment to appreciate it fully. One could conceivably stop playing, and let the ball sit idle as they take in a small chunk of the environment, true, but to do so is to willfully disengage with the game in a manner that most games don’t require. To be clear, looking can absolutely be an act of play, and one is not “not playing” Desert Golfing when they are not actively aiming a shot. To be still in Desert Golfing is to play Desert Golfing. But if you want to remove yourself from Desert Golfing’s ludic considerations, you must literally not touch it. If you touch the screen, you initiate the aiming of a shot. All of Desert Golfing’s active interactions are tied to its challenge, doubly so because you can never reattempt a hole to get a better score: every shot is tied to the player’s overall performance, whether they like it or not. The game’s interests do not lie in moving the player through its environment; they lie in making the player play golf. And when that is the environment, less a journey through a desert and more an afternoon at the range, the game loses any and all of its bite. The desert ceases to be a desert, and becomes a backdrop to something the game deems more important. It’s no longer threatening and intense. It’s just quiet and inoffensive. Like a mural of Pinehurst hanging up in an outdated hotel.

Alexander’s piece delves somewhat further into what the play of Desert Golfing means and the kinds of thought it elicits. Whereas the permanency of Desert Golfing’s score simply reinforces the sense of travel to Keogh, Alexander is able to parse out something resembling a theme. And as I said, I agree with Alexander: Desert Golfing is a game about coping with and accepting past mistakes, a rejection of the comforting lie of transience that most games attach to our mistakes.

But that idea is expressed as soon as the player reaches the 2nd hole. After you sink that first shot, watch the perspective track to the right for the first time, and see that little number at the top of the screen stay right where it is, you’ve seen the full extent of the language by which Desert Golfing expresses itself. Each hole is a repetition of the same sentence, which the game feels the need to repeat literally thousands of times over. “What’s done is done, and you can never go back.” The longevity is necessary for the second half of that sentence, I must admit. If the desert only took a few hours to traverse, then starting over to get a better score would be trivial. Desert Golfing has to be long. But, it does nothing with that length: its landscape is not worth exploring, and its gameplay becomes any more complex. Of course, part of the supposed charm of the game is its commitment to its minimalism: simple visuals, simple sounds, and no extraneous layers of new mechanics. The game’s simple, stationary system is the reason it holds any appeal at all. But when a game expresses one idea, in one very specific, invariable manner, for hours on end, it is very easy for that idea to become lost in the monotony. As I near one thousand in-game strokes, I no longer consider that number’s meaning: I don’t reflect on how far I’ve come, and I certainly don’t consider reinstalling the game in a meaningless and futile attempt to improve my score. It’s just an entity, a thing that grows in increments that I ignore.

The failure of Desert Golfing’s repetitive structure is tied to the inability of procedural expression to intellectually sustain a work over a prolonged period of time. Procedurality has long been one of the most overrated facets of the videogame: it’s the foundation of some of the most tedious, exclusionary academic studies of the medium which often prescribe certain “desirable” behaviors onto the whole of the medium, behaviors that most games have little concern with. Critics interested in procedure are critics that believe that videogames are better off without characters, that games in general should act as “non-fictions about complex systems” rather than narratives about people; an idea which, depending on who you are, sounds either completely reasonable or bat-shit insane. Procedural expression on its own is interesting: the rules and affordances of a videogame obviously communicate ideas and themes. For example, shooting in Grand Theft Auto isn’t meaningless; it’s an expression of both power and of alienation from the world on the part of the player and the protagonist. But the ability for procedures to sustain an experience in a legitimately meaningful way is directly tied to the complexity of those procedures: it’s useful to think about procedurally expressive games in terms of “process intensity”, or the tendency for a program to emphasize processes over data. Processes, in this definition, are algorithms and equations, whereas data refers to things like images, sounds, and texts. Supposedly, the higher the process intensity, the greater the potential a game has for meaningful expression1. We can accept this statement as true only when a game has an invested interest in procedural expression: deeper, more complex processes inherently mean more expressive potential only when a game lacks any kinds of aesthetic or narrative ambitions.

Desert Golfing is a game with no aesthetic or narrative ambitions and low process intensity. Its rules are simple, with no hidden depth or variation (no matter how many hilariously over-complicated diagrams you draw up). Now, simplicity is not inherently a sin. But it is not a coincidence that other games that simultaneously have low process intensity and are invested in procedural expression are often short browser games: first, these games are often political and therefore publishing them for free on the web democratizes their work in a way that spreads their message more effectively; secondly – and more relevantly – they are able to effectively express their ideas quickly and concisely, and recognize that extending the work’s length will add nothing to those ideas. Games like Molleindustria’s The Best Amendment or Sophie Houlden’s Press Space to Lie are simple, but far more effective thanks in large part to their brevity. The former tends to end in a matter of minutes, and the latter, while lacking a strict “ending”, refuses to leverage challenge or progression as a means to enclose the player in the game past the expiration of their interest. The themes linger because the ideas expressed are not lost in extraneous challenges. Desert Golfing, on the other hand, is long enough to theoretically consume several days of one’s life, but it expresses all of its themes with its full breadth of ludic language in a matter of seconds.

There’s a way critics talk about Desert Golfing, as an “exploratory journey” through “forsaken dunes,” where you “hope against hope that you’ll reach the other side,” that evokes, for me, the Gus Van Sant film Gerry.  In that film, two friends, both named Gerry, get lost in a desert and wander through it blindly in an attempt to reach the wasteland’s end. When I see Leigh Alexander describe Desert Golfing as a “march through a sand trap to infinity,” I think of this sequence from the film:

Videogame critics desperately want Desert Golfing to be Gerry. It is not Gerry. It is incapable of being Gerry. For those of you who will inevitably not watch the scene I posted above, it is a scene in which Casey Affleck and Matt Damon step slowly through a seemingly infinite sea of sand, in which the camera slowly tracks behind them in a single, seven minute take. This is a sequence which excludes any of the ways Gerry delves into questions of identity, death, and myths of the American desert as they relate to drug culture and homosexuality. This scene excludes the pathos generated from the performances of Affleck and Damon. This is a sequence that, out of context, simply doesn’t have so many of the themes and ideas that make Gerry as interesting and powerful a film as it is. And yet, if Gerry was reduced to this single sequence, it would still be better than Desert Golfing. Desert Golfing lacks the atmosphere, the beauty, and the sheer dread. It lacks the humanity.

If Desert Golfing isn’t Gerry, then what is it? What is 2014’s “most perfect videogame2?” It’s a mirage. Just another barren tract in the badlands of videogame culture that appeared to the weary as an oasis.  It’s ad nauseam repetition of the same nihilistic sentence. It’s an exploratory journey with no explorer, a sightseeing tour with no sights to see. It’s a work of procedural expression without expressive procedures. It’s a vacuous time killer too tedious to be enjoyable and too enjoyable to be meaningful in its tedium.

When I think about my time with Desert Golfing, I don’t think about the cactus or the score at the top of the screen. I think about the time I wasted waiting for the ball as it sailed through the air. And then my mind starts to wander. I see a man, sitting alone at a desk. He checks his email, and then pulls out his phone. He looks at the time: it’s four minutes earlier than he thought it was. He scoffs, annoyed, and begins to place his phone back into his pocket. He pauses, and decides to keep his phone out. He opens up a cheap game he bought, and begins to play. Tok. He watches the ball skip past the hole and bounce offscreen. With a beep, it reappears. Tok. He watches the ball float lazily through the air. It lands in the hole, nearly bouncing out. As the game chirps and begins to move to the next hole, the man gazes at the digital sky. He sees his eyes reflected in the screen of his phone. They’re tired, sad. Waiting for something better. The man convinces himself the reflection was a part of the game itself. He has to. There’d be no point to it, otherwise.

1Bogost, “Process Intensity and Social Experimentation”; “Rhetoric of Videogames”

2Alexander, “‘Desert Golfing’ and Video Gaming’s Gradual March to the Other Side”


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