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.