What’s the point of Desert Golfing?

It was when I found myself tweeting my score that I realised that Desert Golfing was something a little bit different.

This peculiarly minimalist mobile game makes no demands on you: it doesn’t even have a start menu. Prodding at the screen or my phone’s softkeys yields no pop-ups, options, version numbers or credits. There’s no tutorial – but then why would it need one? It’s Desert Golfing. Desert… golfing. And we’ve all played Angry Birds by now so we know that you just drag your finger to power-up and aim, then let go to take your shot.

[as an aside, I’m always fascinated by mobile games that throw you in at the deep end. This applies to games generally, but particularly mobile games where those first few minutes are so important in a vast market dominated by million-dollar marketing budgets. Swing Copters is a good recent example – it literally does not tell you how to play. It took me 10-15 attempts before I worked out how to actually control the character: at which point I handed the phone to someone else to make sure they failed just as badly as me (they did).]

A cloud.

A cloud.

Back to Desert Golfing. You drag, you aim, you fire the tiny golfball at the tiny hole. Most holes can technically be accomplished in a single shot, although that’s somewhat optimistic given the terrain (and the fact that if an overpowered shot disappears off the right of the screen, you have to tee off again). Nonetheless, the game doesn’t give you any feedback whether you plant a pixel-perfect chip shot for a hole-in-one or whether you scrabbled around for nineteen shots before finally nurdling the ball home. Your overall score just ticks up, the screen pans right, and you’re onto the next hole.

And that’s it. Each hole is subtly different and the changing terrain presents its own challenges – but there’s nothing distinctive to separate them, with a few exceptions every two hundred holes or so.

Yeah, you read that right – two hundred holes or so. At time of writing, I’m on hole 1443, although that’s nothing compared to some people I’ve seen on Twitter who are into the 3000s. Is there an end to Desert Golfing? Given that it is apparently not procedurally generated, probably. Where is the end of Desert Golfing? It’s a question I don’t want to know the answer to, until I arrive at that end myself.

A cactus.

A cactus.

Playing Desert Golfing leaves me with a profound feeling of smallness (see also: Total Perspective Vortex). This is because Desert Golfing is one long, continuous trek through a seemingly-endless wilderness. In my fourteen hundred holes, I’ve encountered 1 cactus, 1 rock, 1 cloud and 2 chasms. The other 1400+ holes were just sand. It’s the least-interesting game world… ever. It is a desert.

But because your perspective is always fixed within that desert, you never know what’s on the next screen. Maybe there’ll be another cactus, maybe you’ll actually reach the end and get a giant “game over” sign… in all likelihood it’ll just be more sand. But the only way to find out is to keep going. Desert Golfing is a journey. Your progress is recorded, but not in the traditional, completion-percentage way – like a man lost in the desert, you only know what’s behind you, not what’s over the next dune.

Writing that last paragraph, I realised that I’m doing it again – exactly the thing that I was alluding to in the opening of this post. I’m ascribing my own metagames to a game that doesn’t have any. In the example above, the game is to advance a hole and have a small chance of being rewarded with a cactus or rock or other detail that breaks the monotony. The example I mentioned right at the top was when I found myself proudly tweeting that I’d not only got through four hundred holes of Desert Golfing, but that my shots-per-hole average was below 2.5.

The game didn’t give me that figure – I used a calculator. Yup, I took the two figures the game does give you (total shots and number of holes completed), divided one by the other, and then actually looked at the result and felt pleased. But now that I think about it – why? Desert Golfing doesn’t have a par score for its holes – so how can I possibly say what’s a “good” score? My reaction suddenly seems so arbitrary and – frankly – a little silly.

It’s precisely because Desert Golfing doesn’t give the player any feedback, or any measure of success/failure, that it leaves itself open to adding your own goals to it. Why am I still playing the game after fourteen hundred holes?

  • To find more rare “sights” like the rock or the cloud
  • To find out if there is an end, and what happens
  • To get a better score than screenshots I’ve seen on Twitter

Not that the game needs these goals – the core golfing mechanic is both fun and satisfying in itself and, thanks in part to the lack of load screens / logins / menus, a perfect time-filler for a play session of almost any length (you can literally achieve meaningful progress with just 3-4 seconds of play). Desert Golfing is a throwback to an age before achievements, badges and gamerscore, but, given that that’s the age we’re in, I find myself ascribing those mechanics to it anyway. Validate my desert golfing ability!

1000 holes.

1000 holes.

Spoiler alert – I gather that once you hit 1,000 holes on iOS, you get to view a global Game Center leaderboard. This in itself opens up the possibility of other mysteries – does anything happen when you hit 2,000 holes, or 5,000 or 10,000? It recalls the brief spell in 2013 where a large section of the gaming community seemed hooked on Aniwey’s Candy Box, an ASCII grind “game” that revealed itself to have surprising depth. The discovery of that depth was largely down to the aforementioned community of players around it, as noted by Leigh Alexander:

[Candy Box] gives the player very little direction or feedback, aside from an FAQ provided to answer very common sticking points. It’s so minimalistic that it recalls a beloved earlier age of games, when all of them were opaque and mysterious, and the only real way to progress was to share playground lore.

Having seen fourteen hundred holes of Desert Golfing, it seems highly unlikely that it will eventually open up to the same level of layered complexity that Candy Box showed us. But it doesn’t need to. The possibility of reward – however tiny – as you take another step into the unknown is more than enough. Even if I still have one eye on keeping my shots-per-hole average under 2.5.