You'd never want to actually golf in a desert, but Justin Smith's <i>Desert Golfing</i> is one of my most important game experiences of 2014.
Landing your golf ball in a sand trap comes with a particular maddening friction. At least, I think it must – I can guess from watching it on TV, and from playing golf video games with my dad as a child. You aren't supposed to be in there. You need a pitching wedge to take the ball up and out – a pale, soft comet tail of resistance spitting up in the wake of your attempt.
You wouldn't want to golf in a desert. It'd be like one long exercise in futility, like a sand trap you never get out of. Yet, Justin Smith's Desert Golfing is one of my most important game experiences of 2014, a silent and endless slog, just me and my slingshot finger pitching a tiny ball from one awkward, lonesome hole to the next, with a soft and distinctive "tok".
In his excellent critique of the game, Brendan Keogh asserts Desert Golfing is more about crossing a landscape – with the unique physics of its soft dunes, weird peaks and precipitous recesses – than it is about golf. As he writes, just as a person who really wants to put a ball inside a hole would never choose such an odd instrument as a golf club, a person would never cross a desert by golfing. But maybe that's one of gaming's defining traits: "To strive for some goal through inefficient means."
In Desert Golfing, concentration-intensive, precise taps toward each featureless, procedurally-generated stage's goal take you from one screen to the next, and the only factor to manage is how long it takes you to get there. There are no stars, no pop-up congratulations, no level select screens and, importantly, no re-dos. The closest thing you have to a "scoreboard" is simply a count the game keeps of the total number of strokes you've taken. A record of your shame, and of all the tiny movements you can't take back.
It's not totally unlike a weird, stripped-down Angry Birds. You pull, and you aim, and you watch the tiny dotted line of your trajectory adjust to the subtle roll of your fingertip. You do it on the bus. You want it in your idle moments, and the cumulative expense of your time becomes increasingly absurd, even as your secret pride ratchets up.
Except, not very long ago, I realised I kind of hate Angry Birds. Moderately engaging slingshot; ugly cartoons; capricious blunt-force physics. Green and squinting pig-orbs may or may not be sufficiently pinched between ever more absurd arrangements of wood and glass. That's basically it.
You mostly think about what you've done and what you've yet to do, and whether you might spend real money to scratch the itch for more. And not that much about the comic projectiles or the black-eyed, roly-poly puke-green pigs, or whether their egg theft situation is even plausible.
And then there's Angry Birds Star Wars, Angry Birds Transformers, Angry Birds stuffed animals, a board game, a Hot Wheels car. Last time I was in the Times Square Toys "R" Us in New York City, there was a veritable Angry Birds fucking shrine. This iconoclasty, for a game that is "addictive" and monetises well. This mean little pick-and-flick.
In recent months, my job in video games has taken a hard left turn toward hopeless territory. When rhetoric as mild as " games should be made and played by anyone who wants" is so wildly offensive as to trigger a harassment campaign, you frankly start to wonder what you're doing with your life. For example, it seems obscene that as a woman you will probably have to consider your personal safety if you ever become successful doing anything with video games. It seems as improbable as infinity holes of golf played for eternity in a sand trap.
Let's be real: you have to have some deeply-felt beliefs in order to be a person over the age of 30 who is devoted to video games for their whole living. You must derive some intrinsic joy from creating them – or, as a writer, you need to have some damn good reasons not to be dissuaded from your belief that they are worth talking about with actual intelligent adults. Either they matter a lot these days and you just have to convince the normies, or they will matter someday and you want to be part of that frontier – Calamity Jane in the establishment of that dusty new vocabulary.
When it comes down to it, I received some death threats – and some stalkers, no less obnoxious for their year 3-level tactics – because I have consistently asserted that games are for everyone. To make that case, I can link to this sophisticated roundup of feminist critique, or I can talk about narrative games that are about walking and looking instead of twitching and triggering, or games made by artists or for celebrity branding. Virtually anything.
Yet, none of that is ever as digestible as asserting: "Everyone plays games, because everyone has Angry Birds and Angry Birds is everywhere." So I'd been saying that a lot, and then I went to Bali with the intention of escaping work and the internet, after everything that happened in my field in 2014.
I found myself walking around a lagoon that lay opposite a temple. The water was prohibitively dark, and dotted all over with sinuous lilies. I saw some roosters and a dog, and some children crouched fearlessly in the dark water, fishing with little lines they held between their fingers.
And then, lying like a raw sore on the edge of this lagoon, I saw a red Angry Birds notebook. The perturbed bird, its garish cartoon colours and glaring eyes, was on one of the kids' spiral notebooks. Everyone has Angry Birds and Angry Birds is everywhere. I felt the jaundice of guilt. I shouldn't have said that. I don't want a world like that.
It may sound florid to call Desert Golfing an exercise in accepting the past, or in surrendering to the things you can't change, but if you ever find yourself awake at 1AM, wracked with anxious insomnia, your entire surreal world coming down to a tiny white pinpoint on an endless desert golf course, you'll start to understand.
If the reason you can't sleep is power fantasies and business models and death threats and Twitter, you might feel that Desert Golfing – an utterly pure, random-generated, consciously unfettered and un-monetised golf march through a sand trap to infinity – is this year's most perfect video game.
It really is about crossing the desert: beginning with a hope against hope that you'll reach the other side. That there is another side.
Creator Justin Smith said that, theoretically, Desert Golfing can generate a sort-of end – an impossible stage – eventually. He himself encountered one in the "upper 2,000s".
You can pull and flick and "tok" on for ages, until finally you can't any more – until the world itself dead-ends you. All you have after that is the cold, simple numerical record of everything it cost.