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.

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Sitting Down

longest journey

“It would be great to take a few hours to just sit here and watch life pass by, but, duty calls!”

That’s what April Ryan says in The Longest Journey if you instruct her to sit on the bench outside of her apartment complex. It’s meant to be an innocuous statement, a gentle push for the player to keep them properly playing the game, but there’s a deeper implication about what the developer thinks it is to actually play a videogame. The suggestion seems to be that the game is in the activity: you shouldn’t sit down here, because sitting isn’t actively contributing to your eventual success. You should be running around Venice, collecting random items until you’re able to divine their obtuse purpose.  It’s likely because that statement’s innocent intent that I find it so interesting:  it presents this idealization of human nature – unwavering, consistent motivation that contributes to constant activity – as though it were totally natural. Maybe for a lucky few of you that’s the reality of life, and Ryan’s impulse to immediately rise from the bench seems totally reasonable. But to me, this little event is a symptom of a larger issue: the functionalist impulse that dictates how most videogames treat their player characters, i.e. how they are treated as tireless automatons designed to fight and explore until the mission is done or some arbitrary meter hits zero. Thankfully, videogames both big and small are becoming conscious of this (e.g. Wolfenstein: The New Order’s nail-on-the-head metaphor of the human brain inside the robot), but reflexive commentary just starts discourse around the problem, it doesn’t actually solve it. What’s frustrating is that The Longest Journey outright rejected one of the easiest solutions 15 years ago: placing value in relaxation by simply letting player characters stop and sit down.

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