Around a thousand holes ago, there appeared in the sky a lonely little cloud. It didn’t move. There was no rain. There it was, lodged in the heavens, as inanimate as the solitary cactus I encountered a few hundred holes earlier. These were both exciting moments: jolting signs of life in an otherwise lifeless wasteland of angular peaks and troughs the colour of a Martian plain.
In both cases, I stopped briefly to admire the dramatic new scenery before reluctantly moving onward, towards infinity and beyond, and a destiny unknown.
This is Desert Golfing. If you haven’t heard of it, the name is sufficient description. It’s a golf game, in a desert. A modest little download it may be, but this is a desert with no end: just you and your ball, and the hills and the sand, and apparently the rest of time in which to play. The controls are simple and the rules are straightforward. Get the ball in the hole. Avoid the traps, the slopes and the cliffs. Move onto the next hole. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Repeat forever, until you upgrade or get bored or whatever.
It appears a silly, diverting little game, but once you’ve played the first 750 holes or so – a feat that is all-too easily accomplished within a few days – something else takes over. Like those moments of random thudding existential horror that strike when you least expect it, moments when you remember that one day you’ll actually die and cease to exist for eternity, you are sometimes struck by similar panicked pangs: a sudden sense of the game’s wretched futility. You begin to understand that there is no end. There never will be. You are playing for absolutely no reason at all, certainly not glory, but you keep going, your addiction fuelled by its unerring ability to immerse you in its 8-bit landscape and impart an eerie sense of overwhelming solitude.
This sounds ridiculous. It’s just golf game, right? No. No, it isn’t. Desert Golfing, in spite of its inimitable simplicity, is more than a golf game. It doesn’t just provoke a feeling of brooding senselessness. By dint of creating a game so boring, so pointless, so repetitive, its developer has created something that challenges perceptions of the competitive nature of gaming itself. There is no menu. No options. No high score, no leader board, no reset button. The game boots straight into your own personal, boiling purgatory in which there is no option but to drive the ball forwards towards an unseen horizon. You cannot replay shots, or fix your mistakes. There is only one choice available, and that is simply to move on from your mistake, toward new holes.
It is at once both overwhelmingly boring and overpoweringly addictive. You cannot explain why you feel compelled to drive ever deeper into the infinite landscape of dunes, and yet you do. Sometimes you’ll work out your average. Perhaps it’s 0.005 better than yesterday. Perhaps it’s 0.0012 worse. But no-one cares. There’s nowhere to share it. Your score is, like the game itself, entirely devoid of meaning. So you just carry on. And on.
There is something else here. While many have already fallen victim to its primitive charm, plenty of people will play Desert Golfing and think it is absolutely terrible. It’s understandable, and perhaps that’s because its appeal will mostly be limited to the type of veteran games fan who browses the Playstation Network today with a kind of confused scepticism, baffled by games written for younger gamers reared on vast multi-player space operas with an impenetrable assortment of add-ons and game modes.
The people who look at Desert Golfing’s almost amateurish 2D world and aren’t appalled will be the same people who, as children, waited 40 minutes for a tape to load a game in which they guided an egg – a fucking egg – around a menacing universe of sharp pointy objects, instant scrambling just one errant flick of the joystick away, and who today find modern gaming largely incomprehensible. The kind of gamer for whom the prospect of charging around the guts of a huge spaceship while a sexually frustrated sixteen year old from Nebraska screams ‘faggot!’ over a microphone seems as attractive as a package holiday to Fallujah.
There is enjoyment to be had, of course, in driving around Liberty City shooting pedestrians in the head in glorious high definition, but Desert Golfing provides an altogether different experience, one more resembling a program you could type out the back of Commodore Format. And in this there is some comfort to those of us of a certain age, a reminder that games don’t have to resemble movies to be fun, and nor do you have to be a part of a huge, complex multi-player world competing against other people.
As the bewildering and messy GamerGate movement rumbles on, and modern gaming becomes a swelling billion dollar industry with all the terrible shit that brings, Desert Golfing is a welcome diversion. It’s like it’s 1987 all over again, when gaming meant swapping cassettes you’d nicked from Woolworths, or playing John Lowe’s Ultimate Darts, or coding a crap lottery number picker in BASIC, while games were written in bedrooms.
So actually, maybe this is what Desert Golfing is all about. Nostalgia porn for those who reach an age when they start to sound like their parents, lamenting decent, simpler times, despairing at the world around them. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it really is just a stupid little game, so simple it affords you the space to dwell on what it all means, when it doesn’t mean anything whatsoever.
Something to think about, anyway. Back in the desert, I drive forever forwards, trapped in this unknown and unexplored wilderness. On and on and on. And for the record it’s 2.581532416502947. Not that you care.
Follow Pete on Twitter – @petebrooksbank