At the intersection of dead-simple mechanics and extreme minimalist design is a mobile game known as Desert Golfing. I can forgive the developer for using the word "golf" as a verb, since this game has little in common with the actual sport, other than the fact that you're trying to get a ball into a hole.
Desert Golfing gives itself no sort of introduction: there are no cutscenes of any kind, and no instructions or tutorials to be found. In fact, the game never displays text of any kind other than the title screen (which you only ever see the first time you play) and the low-res digits used to number the holes and count your strokes. The only possible action from the moment you first start the game is "hitting" the ball using an Angry Birds-like sling-style drag-and-release mechanism. There is no menu, no pausing, no way to replay a hole, nothing but taking the next shot. Again. And again. And again. Until, if you're like me, you realize that you blazed past hole 18 and the numbers kept on going up.
While at first glance the graphics at first may feel lazy and unrefined, perhaps in part because the levels are computer-generated rather than designed by hand, there's a definite beauty in the simplicity to be found here. It feels as if both the mechanics and design were unrelentingly simplified right up until the point where the game stopped making sense. Why does the game work? Because the core idea behind it works. There are no gimmicks or fluff to get in the way.
And the game does feel somewhat polished, for all its extreme simplicity, so you might feel like it must be leading you to something — taking you on a journey through the desert to some grand secret that will make it all worthwhile. Surely it's not just desert forever.
If you decide to stick with it, you'll feel accomplished when you finally come across the cactus, but the excitement only lasts a few holes before you realize that it was just a random one-off graphic.
But wait! Is that a rock? A few minutes later, I found myself doubting whether I actually saw it since once again, nothing new seemed to be happening.
The landscapes get slightly more complex as you go on — there are more places to get stuck, some challenging slopes and plenty of cleverly-placed holes to make it more challenging to navigate through the endless desert. There's a good chance it'll keep you coming back, at least occasionally, since it's so easy to pick up and put down. It became my go-to game to kill a few idle minutes, and as the weeks passed I mindlessly finished thousands of holes, barely noticing when the colors of the sand and sky very gradually started to shift through reds and yellows and greens and a myriad of other nonsensical hues.
One day I reached hole 2866, which I now understand is a level that even the creator of the game thought was impossible for a while. I won't spoil the secret to it, but I will say that there's at least one hole that's harder: hole 3761.
As you can see, it took me well over 400 strokes to finally beat that one.
Over time, I slowly came to the realization that there doesn't need to be any overarching point to Desert Golfing. Why?
- It's genuinely fun, at least for a few minutes at a time.
- Since I've trained my brain to associate Desert Golfing with downtime, it's easy to reach for it when I feel stressed — after a few holes, I get an zen-like feeling no matter what my prior state of mind was.
- Perhaps most importantly, since there's so little substance to the game, it's strangely easy to put down.
Somehow it's that last point that makes Desert Golfing special. I never feel guilty about playing it since it helps me relax and rarely holds my attention for more than a few minutes at a time. It has the distinction of being the only game I have never deleted from my phone.
So, while it may not be for everyone, Desert Golfing is definitely worth checking out, especially for anyone with an eye for minimalist design. It's not every day that you come across a game this unique that works so well.