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After playing the excellent Tales of Illyria: Fallen Knight on my phone, I wanted to take a break before diving into its sequel, Tales of Illyria: Beyond the Iron Wall. I looked through a few mobile games I’d grabbed at some point but never actually played, but I found myself casting curious glances at Desert Golfing instead, a game that I have played. Having heard good things about this minimalist, peaceful and relaxing game, I’d tried it out for a while on an earlier phone before eventually losing interest. Its scrolling desert seemed to go on forever, one single-screen golf hole at a time, but is it truly endless? I headed to google and spoiled myself with the answer: no, Desert Golfing does eventually end, after 10,000 holes. This knowledge transformed it in my mind from a simple time-waster into something I could devote more attention to, something I could work at bit by bit, knowing that each completed hole brought me closer to the conclusion. In short, I resolved to golf the desert. And now I have.
Desert Golfing first appeared back in 2014, for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android. It is an extremely simple game. It gives a side-on view of the desert, displayed with swaths of solid color, straight lines, and sharp angles. There is a golf ball and a hole. Dragging a finger on the screen creates an arrow showing the trajectory of a shot, and releasing it launches the ball with a satisfying thwack. That thwack, and the gentle rustle of the ball as it impacts the sand, make up the majority of the sounds in the game. There’s also a gentle “ding” when the ball lands in a hole, and the brief rumble as the ball is lifted from the hole onto a new tee, the screen panning right to reveal the next hole. The total number of strokes is shown at the top of the screen. That’s it.
Sometimes the holes are really easy, just a gentle roll down a hill and straight in. Other times huge peaks obstruct the way, or the hole is perched on a precarious ledge such that the ball must be hit just so. But there’s such a simple satisfaction to sinking each one, and it’s easy to lose a surprising amount of time to hole after hole. When most can be sunk in just a few seconds, why not play one more? The desert keeps on going, urging players to lose themselves in it. Yet it’s also so easy to pick up and put down on a whim. The desert will still be there when you come back. No rush. Only have a few spare minutes right now? Play a hole or two and then put it away for later.
Desert Golfing might have been too simple to be engaging if not for the physics of the sand. The ball loses momentum quickly when moving along the ground, digging itself into the sand after only a short distance. The sand also saps elasticity from bounces, keeping the ball from hurtling off the screen (and triggering a restart of the hole) too often. I learned tricks over time. First, the correct angle and power to putt across a flat stretch, such that the ball loses enough speed before the hole that it falls gracefully in, instead of careening past. Then, how to aim at an incline to get the ball rolling up and over hills towards the hole. Later, I learned to use hills behind the hole like backboards in basketball, pinging the ball off of them so it would bounce back towards the hole for an easy putt. And I learned the art of the hole-in-one, taking advantage of the maximum shot power to simplify the equation until the only variable is the angle.
Early on, I was measuring my progress by how many holes I’d completed, congratulating myself on each milestone of progress towards the ending. But Desert Golfing is long enough that my relationship with it changed over time. I started to notice subtle changes in the holes. Sometimes, water hazards appear, a surprising dash of blue against the sand. Even less often, rocks or other things show up, mundane objects that would be of no significance whatsoever if they weren’t so rare. I might encounter a section of desert that is completely flat, hole after hole, before some slopes reappeared. One part of the landscape used only right angles, forming a curious set of plateaus that went on for far more holes than I expected.
Eventually I noticed that the colors were changing, as night fell across the desert. Except, it wasn’t night, because now the sand is green? The colors shift over time, so slowly it’s almost impossible to discern, but they always return to the original orange eventually. My own experience of playing Desert Golfing shifted too, but it didn’t go back. My purposeful drive towards the end evaporated, and Desert Golfing just became a pleasant background activity. I’m the type of person who has trouble focusing during meetings or presentations unless I have something to fidget with, and I found Desert Golfing was a perfect distraction during lengthy virtual meetings (sadly, I’d never get away with it at an in-person meeting). But I’d also pick it up for a few minutes of procrastination here and there. Between finishing dinner and doing the dishes, or as a de-stressor in the evenings. I still enjoy playing big, involved games like The Witcher 3, but I don’t always have the energy to engage with an involved story and an open world full of decisions. Sometimes I just want to hit a golf ball into a hole.
After many months, I finally neared the final hole, and I began do doubt that it actually existed. Surely, Desert Golfing must go on forever? Had I stumbled upon some prank earlier, when the internet told me it had an end? Alas, I can now confirm for you that Desert Golfing does, indeed, end. Like everything else about it, the ending is simple and understated, yet the long journey there lent it a gravitas that few games can match. A bittersweet mix of satisfaction and regret took hold. I had golfed across the entire desert, a feat for which I could not help but feel proud, and yet it also meant there was no more desert to golf. How would I while away my spare minutes now?
That is why, in a move that would have shocked my earlier self, I immediately sought out the sequel by developers Captain Games, Golf on Mars. Unlike Desert Golfing, Golf on Mars is truly endless. Or rather, it contains so many holes that no human could hope to complete them all in their lifetime. As the official description states: “If you were a paleolithic hunter-gatherer gazing up at the Red planet one night during your traversal of the ice bridge connecting Russia to Alaska at the last glacial maximum 24515 years ago and a time traveler brought an iPhone for you and your tribe to ritually play a hole of Golf On Mars every 30 seconds, it would take until the present day to complete all the holes.” So, yeah, it’s endless golf.
But Golf on Mars is not the same as Desert Golfing. It’s similar, sure, but the physics simulation is different. The most obvious change is that the landscape now has curves. The ball can roll smoothly over hills and valleys, aided by the fact that the red sand of Mars doesn’t sap momentum as severely as the desert did. Then there’s the fact that ball spin is now modeled. Players can optionally add spin to shots by dragging a second finger up or down the screen before releasing the shot, but I have found this is only useful in certain rare circumstances. More often, the ball will acquire spin on its own as it careens over the Martian surface, often rolling right past the hole. All my carefully honed putting skills had to be readjusted for Mars.
Also, the holes are no longer the same for all players. They are procedurally generated, and, sadly, this sometimes results in holes that are impossible to complete. I’ve seen many holes that require going under large overhangs (which inevitably remind me of the album art for the Air album 10 000 Hz Legend), before backtracking and launching the ball over the top — possible via a new move that imparts a bit of extra power with a flick of the finger, necessarily sacrificing some accuracy in a pleasing tradeoff. Once, the overhang was so far above that even such an overpowered shot had no hope of reaching it. I had to pointlessly whack the ball around until I’d reached 25 strokes for that hole, at which point the option to skip it appeared. Having said that, some holes merely seemed impossible, until I found a (highly satisfying) solution, often through clever use of ball spin. In those cases, I was glad that strokes over 25 for a hole are not counted, because it often took me many more to nail the perfect shot.
There are some other new things too, like cacti that the ball sticks to (Mars has been heavily terraformed, you see, to make golf possible), and rock pillars that can be knocked around or toppled by sufficiently powerful shots. Shallow pools of water appear, rapidly sapping the ball’s momentum, and pits now take the place of the water hazards from Desert Golfing. Also, where overshooting a hole and going off the screen in Desert Golfing just caused a reset of the current hole, on Mars the landscape smoothly scrolls, so it’s possible to overshoot by quite some distance. But holes can be farther apart too, sometimes so much so that the next one isn’t even visible from the tee. Careful shots are more important for getting the ball close to the hole, and I’ve found myself relying on standard maximum power far less often.
Golf on Mars isn’t quite as minimal and peaceful as Desert Golfing, then, but I appreciate it anyway, because fundamentally it’s the ultimate sequel to Desert Golfing: golf that goes on forever. Enough of the calm, meditative experience remains, and I will never, ever finish it. A constant companion, indeed. Knowing that there’s no end doesn’t bother me anymore, but it does mean that I won’t focus so single-mindedly on it, like I did at the start of Desert Golfing. The golf will be there when I want it. But there’s also time to play other things.
If some calm, background golfing sounds like something you’d like in your life, I can recommend both Desert Golfing and Golf on Mars. Maybe you’ll even golf all the way across the desert like I did. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey.