Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

[Note: I received an advance reader edition of this book]

In the vernacular of professional wrestling, there is the concept of the “cheap pop”. A cheap pop is when the face or “good guy” character gets an easy reaction from the crowd for not doing all that much. Often, this is done by name-dropping the city where they are currently performing. When the wrestler says something like “Nothing is going to make me happier than beating you up here in the great city of Philadelphia!” the Philadelphia crowd goes nuts. The fans get their ego stroked a bit because an object of their esteem is saying something nice about their city and by extension, something nice about them, which makes them feel good. It is a “pop” in that it is a favorable crowd reaction, but it is “cheap” in that the performer didn’t really have to do anything to earn it.

Cheap pops come in many forms. Many wrestlers are known to have catch phrases that the crowd can say along with the performer which makes them feel like a part of the show: “If you smell what the Rock is cooking”, “Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?” “That’s the bottom line because Stone Cold `said so”. The performer doesn’t have to do anything creative to get the reaction, it is just something that serves as a means to bring the crowd into the experience without doing something difficult and dangerous like actually performing or telling a story.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a follow-up to his 2011 nostalgia-laced Willy Wonka meets It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World-esque mystery adventure Ready Player One. Ready Player One had flaws but it was largely enjoyable based on the pacing and unraveling mystery of the story.

In Armada, Cline name drops The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game early to give a wink and a nod to the audience that he knows he is just largely rehashing old ground, but he’s in on the joke and so are you now as well. Armada plods along largely content with fulfilling the promise on the book jacket. The first act sticks around for far too long. If Lightman would just read the damn book jacket, he could be clued in on the plot before the midpoint of the book. If you are looking for a story with subtext and mystery, as was at least mildly present in Ready Player One, you will be disappointed. There is one major twist that happens three-quarters of the way through the book, but it is heavily foreshadowed and so the reader just kind of shrugs and continues with the TitanFall fan-fiction.

Unfortunately, it seems Cline puts more work into connecting with the reader via cheap pops than he does by connecting with the reader through engaging plot or characters that have to overcome any kind of adversity or internal conflict.

Armada is laden with cheap pops. I refuse to count, but I would estimate that there is at least one pop-culture reference per page. Some are subtle; others not so much. There is nothing wrong with references and nostalgia if it furthers some other goal in the story, but in Armada (and to a lesser extent Ready Player One), it serves only as an attempt for the author to build a character or scene without any real character- or world-building.

I know plenty of folks who speak in the nerd lingo, but no one drops constant references to external things in such a forced way like the characters in this book. While reading, I was reminded of this Hawaii Five-O scene with horribly obvious product placement. However, Cline isn’t getting paid by his reference antecedents in the book. He just does it to prove nerd gravitas. That’s with the best intentions applied, of course. With the worst intentions, he provides this non-stop pop culture nonsense to distract from a vacuous, already done-before story with evenly spaced dopamine drip drip drips from things the readers remember and love. “Oh hey, He’s listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures album? I loved that!”

It may seem pedantic to rail on the use of pop culture references, but to me it devalues what makes the references powerful in the first place. Leeroy Jenkins was a funny web video from the mid-2000s. I can still go back, watch it, and laugh. But a reference to Leeroy Jenkins provides nothing new except a reminder that something else was fun and good. Unless the thing making the reference has something new to add, then it just becomes like a recursive Xerox copy, getting more and more faded with each iteration. After a while, you are left with “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” that is so overused that the marrow has long been sucked dry from the bone and you never want to see or hear about it ever again. By the way, there’s an All Your Base reference on Page 89.

At the end of the day, Armada is inoffensive but largely a waste of time, much like a good deal of the pop culture it lovingly cuddles up to.

Seeds is out!

I made a print-and-play game along with a digital prototype. You can download the files and play the game here. Or you can help me by giving it eyeballs and reviews on BoardGameGeek.

Review: Darkest Dungeon

In many role-playing games (although I much prefer the genre title “dungeon crawlers” due to no actual role-playing happening in most of these games), the player chooses a number of characters to join his or her party. Then he or she goes out and levels these chosen characters up to level awesome and everyone who stayed home remains level noob. Every once in a while a contrived story event or a desire to switch things up will cause the player to dip into the reserves (oh no, you can’t use Aeris anymore), but often you just get the characters you start with, whether that was a good initial choice or not.

What attracted me to Darkest Dungeon was that it eschewed a few of the standard tropes of indie procedural dungeon crawlers. One of the unique mechanics is that characters get stressed out when having to deal with monsters, when injuries to party members happen, even when walking around in darkness. If a character gets too stressed out, he or she develops some sort of mental or personality defect.

After each dungeon trip, instead of zipping to an inn to heal up and repeat, characters need time to process what they’ve been though. Characters do this in different ways: some pray, some self-flagellate, some turn to booze or gambling. But these methods of mental healing take time and so the player must dip into reserves for the next trip. This is a great example of a mechanic supporting a unique dynamic. Many games have had switching out characters or permanent injuries before, but few have made it a part of the core game loop to keep the character choice interesting.

Sometimes these personality effects are mild. I have seen characters that are paranoid and will refuse to be healed by other party members, characters that are kleptomaniacs and will take treasure for themselves instead of the party, and characters that will only go to brothels to heal when going back to town, leaving that option unavailable for other characters. While the characters are randomly generated and every character of a given class looks alike, these quirks and foibles end up being meaningful. I have a healer that I just don’t take out unless he is the only option because his stress levels build too quickly in the environment I’m exploring.

There are other attractive differences. Combat is based on one-dimensional positioning. Your party lines up in single-file 4 deep and enemies can line-up single-file 4 deep. Some attacks only work if you are in positions 1 or 2. Rarer attacks hit the back characters, so that’s a smart place to keep weaker characters. However some attacks affect the order of your characters, pushing your warrior to the back line or your priest to the front. Then you must decide whether it is worth it to spend turns rearranging or make due with what you have.

Since one of the main mechanics is the party’s torchlight levels, most of the game is played in washed-out shadows. The palette of burnt orange and browns gets tiring. The narrator should be annoying when he repeats lines, but the delivery and the awareness of game situation make it less irritating.

The UI is a bit confusing in a number of places. The map window should know to focus in the direction of unexplored rooms, but for some reason you have to use your right mouse button and drag to manually move the map around. There’s no way to navigate to new hallways from existing rooms without using the map widget, despite being able to exit through doors in the hallways. Some menus have two options and the coloring makes it unclear which is the selected and which is the unselected option. The game shows you a lot of data, but doesn’t prepare the player to receive it as information. It’s clearly a game that was developed by a small group who understood it and tested with a small early access group that watched it grow because some of the mechanics are entirely inscrutable without referring to a wiki.

For example, I had played for three hours before knowing that I could heal traits in the sanitarium. Obviously, the text in the UI told me I could. However, when I dragged a character in, I received a list of traits in yellow text. When in the dungeon though, yellow traits are positive and red traits are negative. I did not realize that my negative traits were mixed in and could be selected by clicking on them as they looked like static text referring to positive traits. There are many small usability nightmares haunting this game.

As you earn money, you unlock abilities of the town to heal and upgrade your poor adventurers. This is a straightforward gameplay hook. However, a few hours in, I felt that I had seen everything there was to see. The power of your group scales very slowly. Items earned tend to be balanced such that they all involve tradeoffs, increasing one stat while decreasing another. This is fine in a multiplayer setting, but I do not feel much more powerful at level 4 than I did at level 1.

Dungeons can end up being exercises in long backtracking sequences as there is no way to jump to completed areas, especially in large branching dungeons where the goal is to explore 90% of the dungeon’s rooms.

In retrospect, I seem to be complaining quite a bit, however I quite enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for about six hours of total gameplay. If you really enjoy the dungeon crawling genre, you will likely get a lot more playtime out of it. It takes some big risks in a number of places. In some aspects, it whiffs embarrassingly. In others, it knocks it out of the park. I think the attention to character choice dynamics is particularly admirable. It is a game worth playing.

Market Luck

Another year, another breathless article coming out of a GDC talk about how if you just design right, you will make ten million dollars. This year’s “example” is Crossy Road. But you can walk into GDC every year and find a talk from someone who made a million dollars and whose pass your admission subsidized telling you that all you have to do is work hard and smart like them and then Step 3: Profit.

The slides have a similar cadence even:

  1. “Hi, I’m DEVNAME from DEVSTUDIONAME. We made GAME. It did pretty well, I guess.”
  2. Slide of some gratuitous stat like 100 million active players or ten million in revenue or a screenshot of the game’s icon at the top of the App Store chart.
  3. [This part is optional, usually only included if the presenter has some understanding of the Hero’s Journey] “We failed a lot getting here. Here are some of our learning experiences of games that didn’t do so well.”
  4. “Then, we applied these N MAGICAL PRINCIPLES and we made a gazillion dollars. I’m giving you these GAME DESIGN SECRETS now because I’m still the struggling artist at heart.”
  5. GAME DESIGN SECRETS are obvious or clearly only appropriate for their title and not reproducible. But the presenter adds a lot of graphs or numbers to make it look like science.
  6. “Please fill out the survey and tell them you liked me!”
  7. Presenter is never seen again OR Presenter is seen again after being acquired by a big company.

I’ve been to nearly a dozen of these kinds of talks. I’d like to say that I grew wise to it early and stopped going to them, but I fall into the cult of personality like everyone else. The only example of one of these talks in recent memory that I remember not fitting this mold and being actually full of actionable, useful things was Vijay Thakkar’s Words with Friends postmortem in 2012.

There is a desperation in the industry that leads to the willingness to believe that luck is not a huge factor in success. I understand this desperation better than anyone. If we believe that luck is a huge factor, then all our hard work on design and analytics seems like a waste of time. Nay sayers to luck fall into confirmation bias. They choose to not remember the games they have played that were good but not commercially successful or the games that were commercially successful but not good. Instead, they only remember the games that were good and commercially successful and conflate that they were commercial successful because they were good. Maybe we don’t choose to ignore them. Events like GDC reinforce a selection bias. Besides the niche “Failure Workshop”, no one gets invited to talk about games that didn’t go gangbusters.

A GDC All Access Pass costs $2,000. That is comped if you are a speaker. There’s a reasonable financial impetus to want to speak at GDC. I figure the real impetus however is prestige. And when you submit a talk for GDC, one of the boxes you have to fill out asks what the audience’s takeaway(s) for the talk will be. “Well, shit” the would-be presenter thinks if he or she doesn’t actually have anything useful to discuss, “I better drum up some lessons so I can get this free badge.” A takeaway of “We did some things right and some things wrong, but that wasn’t the determinant of our success” doesn’t sell yourself to the people doing the selection. If there is one thing us game designers know, it is how to sell ourselves.

There were over 11,000 games submitted to the iOS App Store in February 2015 alone. There are hundreds of thousands of games alive and kicking at any given time, just on that platform. If there was a special sauce to success, then the average game would make a sustainable income-not, at the most generous estimate, $4,000. Minimum wage is a better bang for your buck.

That doesn’t mean that making games is a fool’s errand. I teach students every day whose dream is to make games. If I believed that there was no reason to do so, I couldn’t morally do what I do every day.

What I want to resist is the notion that those that are successful did so in a reproducible way. This is why some clones succeed and some fail. Temple Run got lucky in a world of exploding endless runners. Then they built off that fame.  Flappy Bird had singular organic growth. The clones that followed that mirrored it in every way and even improved on it didn’t have the seed of luck. Farmville was a complete clone of Farm Town, but it succeeded. Rovio pretends that Angry Birds was a success in game design and that it isn’t just Crush the Castle.

I’ve made a helpful chart for you to predict your game’s success. If you go to GDC, you will only ever hear about topics that touch the yellow states. Follow it with your game of choice in mind.

Game Revenue Predictor


I have what I consider to be a lot of Steam games. For some of them I’m not entirely sure where they came from. I could have bought a bundle for one game and it tagged along. I could have had it pushed to me from IGF, but since judging is over, I cannot check. Or maybe I bought it and just forgot.

PARTICLE MACE (all caps) is one of those games. I saw it sitting there in my library untouched and due to the penumbra in my heavenly rotation of responsibilities had an hour or two to myself to try something without the taint of preconceived reasoning for why it was in my library in the first place.


PARTICLE MACE uses the simple Geometry Wars artistic styling, which is appropriate, since much of it’s play aesthetics feels cribbed from that title. Yet it cribs from the bits of Geometry Wars that are not themselves cribbed from Robotron 2084. In Particle Mace (no more caps, it tires me), there is no shooting.  Instead, your ship drags around the titular particles, which are your only defense against invading asteroids and creeps. Thus, the game plays much like the Pacifism modes in Geometry Wars at a very base level. Because of how the particles trail around the spaceship, a common dynamic is to try to fly in circles to get the mace to swirl around in a violent circular pattern. This makes the game similar in some way to Michael Brough’s recent game Helix, although since I am playing on PC, it doesn’t suffer from the finger occlusion problem that made Helix a very difficult go for me. Particle Mace is also out on iOS, and I can see it suffering from a similar problem there, but I haven’t played it there so take it as you will.

Sometimes your body tells you first whether a game is right for you instead of a rote spreadsheet-like mental calculus. As I played, my tongue slightly poked out of between my lips, my breath coming and going only when gameplay allowed the spare brain space for the luxury. I haven’t felt this sense of flow in an action game since Super Hexagon. Particle Mace shares the <60 second core loop* of Terry Cavanaugh’s game, yet I feel Particle Mace is actually able to be completed by non-cybernetic players.

I have spent most of my time playing the “Mission” game type, and it is a perfect framing for the main game mechanics. Players are given three tasks to do within the game world based on destroying specific units, traveling to specific locations, or avoiding death in certain ways. This would be a standard implementation of a modular achievement system if the goals didn’t conspire with each other to create unique scenarios. For instance, I simultaneously received a task that kept me within a tiny space along with a task to not destroy asteroids. The tiny space quest suggests a dynamic of frantically bouncing around your allotted space, but the task which forbids the destruction of asteroids means that zipping around will likely cause your mace to whack into the desultory asteroids. Since the tasks constantly cycle out upon completion, you are often reexamining your strategy instead of just frantically trying to stay alive. The normal “arcade” mode feels aimless in comparison.


One can certainly ignore two of the tasks at any time and focus on one of the three, but that feels like it eschews the random beauty of pairing the tasks together, almost like a childhood dare: “I bet you can’t eat three pancakes while balancing on one foot.” Either task is simple but together they become silly and fun.

Meeting certain criteria unlock new ships and other bric-a-brac, but I’m not far enough yet for that to be much of an incentive. The credits are a playable level which, had I been involved in the making of this, would have pleased me as there is actually a reason to go into the credits screen.

There are additionally menu listings for a co-op arcade mode and a death match. Both use controllers and require two folks in front of the screen, so I have not been able to try either. I am imagining death match to be a lot like ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS, another quick-cycle game that requires controllers and feels compelled to scream its title at the players. I have no evidence from which to make that judgment.

If you have played and enjoyed any of the games I’ve name-checked above, you will likely have a blast(as I did) with Particle Mace. It’s on Steam,, and Humble. And iOS, but I’ve got unfounded concerns there.

* The expansive stats screen tells me my average life is actually 26 seconds.


I was privileged enough to be allowed to be an Independent Games Festival Judge this year. For those who don’t know, the IGF is one of the premier games competitions in the world and always has new and interesting ideas in the mix. How judging works is that judges are randomly assigned games based on the listed platforms that they own (for instance, a judge would not be assigned an Ouya game if they don’t own an Ouya). Judges then download and play the game and then can choose either to not nominate the game for any awards or nominate a game for one of the awards. After the judging period is over, the totals of nominations go to the juries who then play the nominated games and choose a winner. As for my role, I got to play about 100 new games. Some were broken and/or uninspired and you would wonder why a person would spend the registration fee on submitting. Others were weird quirky ideas that wouldn’t find a home anywhere else. Some were bona fide achievements that compare with any “AAA” game at retail.

The juries got it mostly right! The submissions were an embarrassment of riches, so it was hard not to. Let me tell you about some of the games you might not have heard of or played. I don’t think these are the top 5 or anything nor do these represent what I voted for. I gave thumbs up to lots of things. These are just the ones I want to talk about.

Hand of Fate

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Hand of Fate got totally snubbed. No nominations, no honorable mentions. Nada. Which is a shame because it does so many fun, interesting things. Hand of Fate mixes a deck-builder with a dungeon crawler and a 3rd-person brawler. It’s the sloppy kind of mix that I honestly enjoy. None of the parts really shine on their own, but taken together as a whole they are wonderfully compelling.

The best part of Hand of Fate arguably is your antagonist. He sits across the table from you as you play his game and narrates all the action. Given that the very design of the game necessitates the repetition of encounters, you would think that the game would shy away from particularly interesting or in-depth audio cues as their repetition would be grating and pull the player out of the story. That much is true. So the narrator has multiple lines per encounter that seem to draw on not just what he has said before, but also context within the game and within previous games.

This is the kind of polish that most AAA games eschew as unnecessary and most indie games cannot afford to consider. Kudos to the folks that are responsible for this.

Side note: the antagonist’s hands bother me. They are way too big for him and since he is always pointing to things and moving them around, you always notice. I don’t know if that is supposed to be on purpose, but it uncanny valley’s me out. I know they gave him the face covering so they wouldn’t have to animate the facial features, so clearly they understand the importance of the visual fidelity of the character.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine is the most depressing game of The Sims you will ever play. You control three survivors in an active war zone modeled after Serbia in the Balkans War. By digging around, trading, scavenging, and creative utilization of resources, you need to attempt to keep them from being hungry, sick, wounded, tired, or from an overwhelming weltschmerz.

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On one overnight raid, I broke into a home with two elderly residents. They got angry, but once I realized they posed no threat to me, I pilfered all the food I could carry from that house back to my hideout. In any other game, the designers would guilt you at the scene and leave it at that. This War of Mine not only strains the mental health of the characters when they do something antisocial, but the world itself reacts. In the previous example, my character became distraught at what he had done and had to lay down for a while. Other characters at the house talked about it. I truly felt like an asshole. These people are just trying to survive too. What right did I have taking their food? In a later incident, I chatted with a priest at a church and decided looting his area would not be the best idea. I came back later to find squatters who mention that they had to clear the priest out. This immediately changed my temperament towards otherwise cardboard NPCs.

These kinds of details create not only a rich, believable world but also serve to inform meaningful decisions for the players that go beyond min-maxing and affect the aesthetic. Here is a war game where you don’t control the powerful and you don’t fight for God and Country. It’s bleak, but it is beautiful and was one of the great surprises of the contest.

It got a Grand Prize and Narrative nomination, but not a Design nomination.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

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This game was made by eight people. I find that so hard to believe, even partially understanding photogrametry. It’s a beautiful game and my new PC was built just in time to take advantage of it. It takes place in a rural setting where every tree and rock feels authentically made for just that position. I was less impressed with the game itself, although it is worth playing. If you are going to make a game where you mostly just wander around though, the scenery should have to be as beautiful as this.

It didn’t get nominated for Visual Arts, though. Look at that screenshot!


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Pry is the story of an ex-Iraq War soldier. I don’t even know what else to say about the story because how the interaction with the app plays out is so central to understanding the story.

There is largely one mechanic in the game that is manifested in two ways. First, you can spread your fingers to “pry” your eyes open or expand an element. You can pinch to condense an element or shut something. The game is played with a large amount of well-produced full-motion video. As you begin to understand more and more about the main character and his two comrades, you feel a growing sense of discomfort at the images you see.

I’m torn here because I really want to explain why this is excellent, but doing so would partially ruin the experience for new players. So I won’t. Pry is unfinished currently (it is missing chapters), but I will say that Chapter 6 is a postmodern masterpiece in slow revelation of details. It isn’t a perfect game by any stretch, but it does something new and interesting and has a hard time falling into any genre position. You can get it on the App Store now.

The Talos Principle

One of the problems of puzzle games in the new millennium is that the answer to any puzzle is just a YouTube search away. One of the privileges of getting to play this before its release is that I had no ability to Google the answer to any puzzle. However, that has bitten me as I am just completely stuck on a critical path puzzle.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game much in the style of Portal. I don’t want to explain much about the premise of the game as it unfolds in a compelling way, but you play a robot that needs to complete puzzles in order to satisfy a voice in the sky that claims to be your creator. There’s fun Philosophy of Mind stuff going on here, but other games have done that before just as well.

Talos Principle puzzles do not exist in a vacuum. First, there are the puzzles themselves. Complete them and get a little tchotchke that helps you unlock further puzzles. But there are secrets upon secrets that really open up the worlds. There are stars which are unlockable by solving puzzles in alternate ways. There are world-level puzzles that require the player to use materials across different puzzles in each environment. Then there are the weird pseudo-discoveries that are certainly secrets (I won’t spoil any), but are hidden throughout the environments. There’s so much clever content here.

Quantity is one thing. I’ve played hundreds of (mostly mobile) games that brag about their quantity and then just give you some procedurally generated crap where one element is just a permutation of another. The puzzles in The Talos Principle are tight and carefully crafted. I’ve seen forum postings that want this game to be co-op and I want to smack those kids silly. If you want a master class on design, here it is. You start with what you think is the obvious solution to a puzzle only to understand its limitations. Then you test edge cases and find all the edge cases to be wanting. Then you end up twisting your thinking around to get the pieces to do something new in order to solve the puzzle. You end up feeling like a genius, but it was all carefully crafted.

This game has impeccable design, an interesting narrative, a beautiful visual style, and thanks to an 11th hour change of Elohim’s voice actor, a well-rounded audio set. While other games are surely worth mentioning, no game captivated me this year in this contest or in the larger world of games like The Talos Principle.


There are so many more games I would talk about had I the energy that got no nominations: Roundabout (Loved everything about this. It’s silly, novel, and fun). Goat Simulator (Same aesthetic as Katamari Damacy. I watched judges who didn’t get it complain about it, so I guess it is not for everyone but I just keep going back to it. It’s something a normal studio would never try and that’s what makes indie games valuable). Apotheon (The most visually appealing Metroidvania in a crowded market.)

Anyway, I feel blessed and thankful to have had the opportunity. Support indie games!

Read in 2014

2014 was a silly year. I was in graduate school, so most of my reading time was spent on papers with titles that stretched into three lines and used words like hermeneutics. Nonetheless, I did just as well this year as I did in my previous grad-school-encumbered year.

2014: 27 titles, 10,248 pages, 28.07 pages/Day
2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 pages/Day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles,  10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008:  31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day

I’ll leave the gritty details to Goodreads. But highlights in fiction for me that I read this year were City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek, The Hydrogen Sonata and Ancillary Justice. Nonfiction was light due to aforementioned reasons.However, this is the year I finally read Rules of Play cover to cover and it is peerless.

Level Design: Hole 83 in Desert Golfing

Hole 83 in Desert Golfing.

Hole 83 in Desert Golfing.

Above is an annotated screengrab of Hole 83 in Desert GolfingDesert Golfing is a minimalist game with a surprising amount of subtlety. I’ve seen a lot of comments about it on Twitter, but little discussion of the level design, so I figured I’d give it a go after I grabbed this screenshot to show a friend a particularly devious hole.

First, a short explanation of Desert Golfing. Desert Golfing has essentially the same interaction as Angry Birds. You drag your finger to create a vector that defines the direction and speed at which you hit your ball. The object is to get the ball to stop in a hole, noted by a flag. If the ball leaves the screen, it is warped back to the original tee location. If you make it into the hole, the hole rises up to become flush with its surroundings, the screen pans to the right, and a new hole is revealed. Unlike most golf courses that offer 18 holes, Desert Golfing appears to be endless. Yet nonetheless, it keeps the player drawn to its simple presentation and physics interactions by varied and often maddening level design.

Hole 83. Hole 83 frustrated me so much that I deleted Desert Golfing. Then I redownloaded it and played the first 82 holes again just to get back to this level.

The first thing most players will try to do on this level is to shoot at about 45 degrees in order to hit the “green” area near the cup. However, in order to reach the green and not the slope before it, the player has to put so much force onto the ball that it will always end up overshooting the green and fall down the slope to the right, resulting in an out-of-bounds.

So what are the players options? I’ve annotated the surfaces above to show dangerous places to place the ball.

If the ball lands in the red-lined area I’ve marked as “Zone 1″, then abandon hope. Due to the vertical right wall of this chasm, there is no way to get this ball out of the chasm to the right. The only hope you have is to hit the ball out into the V-shaped chasm to the left of this area. This will likely cost you a few strokes or an out-of-bounds.

“Zone 2″ above is placed under an overhang of the green. If the ball ends there, again there is no hope. The overhang prevents players from hitting any shot in the direction of the hole from that position. At this point you must hit the ball gently to the right to the yellow area. But don’t hit it with much force or the ball will land in “Zone 3″ which is guaranteed to end in an out-of-bounds.Any shot with too much force is likely to hit Zone 3.

The yellow area of the green and the early part of the slope to the left of the green (between zones 1 and 2) is dangerous territory. Given the correct momentum and angle, the player can hit the slope and roll onto the green. However, most opportunities to do this will either be too slow and steep (leading to falling into the Zone 1 chasm) or too strong and flat, leading to falling off the green to the right and into Zone 3.

My strategy for this hole is to take one stroke to position myself in the chasm left of Zone 1, then hit a light arcing shot that lands on the flat part of the green. If this second shot is too light, it will fall into Zone 1. Chances are that most shots will roll off the green to the right, but a second-best scenario is that it ends in the small part of yellow-lined area off the ledge to the right of the green (right of Zone 2). From there, it is possible to hit a light chip-shot back onto the green, but God help you if you overshoot any of these parts.

The first time I played this hole, I rage-quitted after getting a +45 or so. After calming down and analyzing the hole, I was able to finish it with a +5. The hole made me think about it after dozens of straightforward holes where guessing-and-checking was sufficient strategy.

Worth noting is the amount of tactical decision making needed from very simple components. What are the pieces of Desert Golfing? There are holes, land, tee spots, and out-of-bounds triggers. That’s it. The ball is fired and controlled by implicit, consistent rules of physics. The land is variable in shape, but consistent in friction. The holes are consistent in shape, but variable in location.

There are thousands upon thousands of Desert Golfing holes, which leads me to believe that the holes were designed by algorithm. If this level’s design is due to chance alone, then bless the random number generator that created it as it provides a depth of play that is missing from most mobile games.

© 2015 Zack Hiwiller

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