Some might say that beginning my residency as The Daily Cardinal’s video games columnist with an editorial on a mobile game is inauspicious. But amidst the several titles entangling me, none pull as much focus as the stark “Desert Golfing.” Described by iOS developer Adam Atomic (“Canabalt,” “Hundreds”) as “the ‘Dark Souls’ of ‘Angry Birds’”—perhaps the most absurd form of description, akin to the constant ringing question begging, “When will video games have their “Citizen Kane” moment?,” whatever that means—it is a spare experience that closely evokes the beloved RPG’s unforgiving indifference.
The game’s presentation is flat and hot; a light brown sky is delineated against a rough and imposing dark orange landmass. Like a construction paper collage, the angular hills defy the often-natural rolling dunes. Other times, the land towers above the small white ball at impossible angles, revealing the constructed nature of each hole. When the first prop appears beyond simple land and hole flags, it does so without fanfare, yet it simultaneously serves as a secret to be uncovered and a fascinating invigoration, an omen that, yes, there is more to discover in this vast wasteland.
The game presents itself in the iTunes store with a short haiku: “To see a world in a bunker of sand/And a heaven in a wild cactus,/Hold infinity in the pocket of your shorts,/And eternity in Desert Golfing.” It appears to be near endless. At hole 2172, I have yet to feel a need for the game to end. The furthest hole I can find a peer to have reached is hole 2884.
Yet the game must have an end, for it is clearly authored and personally manipulated; unlike “Minecraft” or “Flappy Bird,” each player encounters the same courses (as made evident only by a handful of diligent players posting screencaps to Twitter) and no one has yet reached an “impossible” course. The continuing journey towards the game’s denied conclusion is not so much a race as a pilgrimage. And, yes, those farthest along the two-dimensional path are reporting that there is something to see upon the horizon.
Swinging at the golf ball is performed exactly as one might launch a red bird at a Bad Piggy, albeit the game permits you to place your finger wherever on the screen you might like. Its difficulty often lies in the treacherous nature of its sand; most golf games use sand as an occasional trap, impossible to escape without using too many strokes. “Desert Golfing” offers no such escape from the sand, but as a result offers advantages one might not have previously perceived in the frustrating particles. Sand will catch a ball as easily as it will allow it to move each simple grain; the ball is capable of stopping on an incline if it arrives there at the proper angle, but will tumble or, worse, bounce if granted a bit too much angular momentum.
A simple score counter hangs atop the screen; rather than offer your average-per-hole or total strokes per 18-hole course, the game keeps a constant count, tallying your every swing as you ascend into the hundreds or thousands of holes. In one sense, this is freeing; there is no end in sight, allowing players to swing to their hearts’ content and improve their scores later, upon easier holes. Simultaneously, every swing takes on meaning towards the hole. There is no resetting the game and “starting over to improve one’s score;” your mistakes are only altered by improved performance over the continuing sands.
Time-wasting is often how mobile games are excused for their simplicity, but “Desert Golfing” offers a meditative experience. With so little detail, the focus must simply be on the mechanical; “aim, pull, release, observe, repeat” is its rhythmic drum. Games often feature this same rhythm; September’s largest release, “Destiny,” offers the same promise of the sublime upon the horizon and the same sort of “aim, pull, observe” rhythm, albeit with grander skyboxes and sand and a far smaller geography. “Desert Golfing” is available on iPhone and iPad for $1.99, and on Android devices for $.99.
Have you ventured farther than hole 2172? Let Alex know at email@example.com.