Growing up, I’ve enjoyed a fair few sports. Playing rugby is a physical thrill I’ve never actually recaptured. Supporting a football team is a tumultuous, daily adventure with a great sense of camaraderie amongst people you’ve never met before. Tennis, well, I’ve never played Tennis, but Virtua Tennis and Top Spin were cracking games, weren’t they?
Golf; Golf is fucking boring. It’s a sentiment What The Golf repeatedly hollers. It’s one I fully get behind, and despite the game’s evocation of the sport, What The Golf really isn’t a golf game. And that goes some way to explain why it’s such a blithely wacky experience I, a staunch golf-disparager, enjoyed thoroughly.
Portraying What The Golf through text is hard to do, as it’s a game that not only attempts to shatter the logic of golf itself, but as a traditional video game, it doesn’t conform to any set genre. To begin with, you put balls into holes like you’d expect. Quickly, sinking balls transforms into instead launching yourself, the person swinging the club, into the holes, and deforms further into flinging the golf club itself, then you’re putting a golf hole inside the other golf hole. Hole-ception.
There are a few conventions we can depict to lay some foundations. The game, broadly speaking, revolves around getting an object into a hole, similar to golf. You wind up shots with a chosen degree of power (illustrated with a red bar), release and the object flies in the direction you point it at. That’s it. Otherwise, What The Golf breaks every convention: golf conventions, video game conventions and its own conventions too.
Going into it, I knew What The Golf was silly – I think a blind monk could sense that – but upon playing the first hour, it’s clear they took the game in a direction far more ludicrous than I expected. This is why it’s so hard to lump the game into a camp. It goes from standard sports simulation to gyro-controlled first person shooter, to top down racer to shmup. The line connecting them being the hole. Get whatever it is into the hole, or flag when the game decides to jump into the less depth-perceptive 2D realm. It’s jarring in the best of ways, and truly impressive on a technical front. The sheer number of different perspectives the game comes from appears too plentiful to be true. I never got the sense that one style was half-arsed, or shoved in at the last minute. All of them feel integrated and planned, intentional and designed. While some, like the 2D sections for example, are used more abundantly than, say, the first person puzzles, the latter still feels so refined that they could have easily built a game around that sole style. In essence, each of the different perspectives feel designed as if they were the primary mode of play.
There is another conjunction between them, to be fair, and that’s the art style. It’s bolder than a CBeebies art show, tossing colour around like it has paint on tap. Textures and terrain have this half-gooey quality to them, as if the world was made of playdough. It’s fitting in many ways. For one, it feeds into the game’s propensity to change. As the game twists and contorts into different modes of play, the visuals remain the same, like a kid mashing clay together to build anew. It’s also unabashedly playful. It’s hard to get annoyed with the game because it looks downright fun, again, in an infantile, whimsical way a child toys with creative puzzles like Lego. There’s a certain queerness to it however, uncanny almost, as objects like people and animals like horses and sheep are molded cleanly and cheerfully, yet clearly lack life. It doesn’t really affect the tone of the game, and it could be a reach on my part, but it feels like every object in the game – with their lack of animation – appears toylike, playing into the child’s sandbox visual aesthetic.
Digging deeper into the gameplay, What The Golf is split into 8 or so “worlds” with an overworld connecting them all. In the overworld, you tap the golf ball around as you’d expect from any simple golf game, putting it into flags which subsequently launch you into a more specific, honed level. To start with, both the levels and overworld exploration are basic and serve more to ease the player into the games’ controls, at least as much as they can before it goes mental and switches what type of game it is anyway. The aforementioned sequence of putting incredibly ridiculous objects into the hole occurs first, but the game quickly descends into madness as you transcend dimensions and “putting” becomes a gameplay feature of the past. Instead of whacking a ball, you might hold a direction to boost a rocket forward, or maybe you’ll control a man wielding a bow and arrows, guiding the latter through the air, or perhaps you’ll define the moment you release a bowling ball from a revolving arm to knock down 100 pins. It’s hard to describe the progression the game goes through without simply listing the order in which the game introduces new mechanics. Playing What The Golf is a game of constantly asking “okay, but they can’t get sillier, can they?”
They can, for the most part, although in some sense I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t translate to the overworld. The individual levels are where you want to be. You want to be jumping between them as quickly as possible, since getting hit by fresh minigames in quick succession is a hilarious, ecstatic and jarring experience, in the best of ways. Controlling an office chair was one of the first moments in the game where I was just astounded by the detail they put into the game’s physics. “It really makes you feel like desk chair” is what I’d say if I was a hack. You glide across the terrain like you’d expect flimsy plastic wheels to glide in real life, the same inertia and friction to slow you down, the same careful rotation of the backrest as you slide towards the hole, it’s what you’d find if you pushed a real desk chair. I might sound mental, banging on about the tactility of pushing a desk chair, but it’s true. The game gets a lot of the texture of controlling objects in the game so well, which is why it was underwhelming that the overworld exploration didn’t contain the same joy.
Moving from level to level in the first 6 or so worlds is straightforward and pedestrian, only the last few exhibit some idiosyncrasy. For example, most exploration in the earlier worlds are merely hallways containing flags, additionally dampened by unimaginative backdrops. In one of the later worlds, you hop from island to island in a boat to find flags, whereby finding the levels is a game in itself. Furthermore, the only true reason to explore in the overworld is to find relics of sorts, which for the most part are locked behind a door found at the end of a world, of which only open when you fully complete a level. In the seafaring overworld I just mentioned, a secret relic can be found at the bottom of the map if you sail away from the action and snoop it out. It’s a shame, because ultimately the parts between levels – even in later worlds which do the activity better – just feel like padding in an already short game. The relics serve no purpose and I don’t feel anything when I pick them up, they’re just sprites representing the world you’re in afterall.
Additionally, most of them are, as I said, just behind a door which unlocks when you fully complete a level. Completing a level fully comprises 3 stages. When you first enter a level, it’ll center around a bespoke mechanic, driving a car for example or pushing a desk chair. Once completed, you’re spit out of the hole, which you can then jump back in and complete a further two objectives to claim a crown. These crowns are what unlocks the aforementioned relic doors, and the objectives gating the crowns are as mixed a bag as could be. Some of the additional objectives are extensions of the main level itself, becoming sillier and subsequently more enjoyable. Some, on the other hand, are time trials or par limits, having you complete the level you just did in a certain amount of time or strokes, which I found to be lazy, dull and highlight inconsistencies in the games physics. The way I played the game is the way I’d actually disencourage people from playing it, as I played every level to completion before moving on. As a result, I found myself getting a tad frustrated with some of the par limit objectives, and that barrage of niche, unique mechanics along with the associated glee found in it was fettered by my unwavering persistence to complete a level in its entirety. Like I said, the biggest negative I find with this system is the conflict between the objectives which elevate the core gameplay, and the objectives which sloppily waste your time. As with many things in life, you remember the negatives, and the par limit levels swell my mind to boredom even now.
And to avoid sounding hypocritical, I know I praised the games physics before, that’s not what I’m talking about when I claim “inconsistent physics”. The moment to moment interactions between yourself and the objects you control are superb, but contain an element of randomness to them. This is understandable; a good physics engine will always have interactions which won’t be replicated due to the amount of variables. However, when a level wants you to do something with precision, it’s hard not to feel cheated sometimes by shots which go further than you would expect, or an object hitting another in a weird way. This is made worse by some levels which err on the side of “wacky”, slippery and greased up like many terrible meme games like Goat Simulator or Gang Beats, which use bad physics to shroud a lack of substance. By and large, What The Golf is unequivocally not using this system, but some levels do rely on a certain degree of wacky physics for humour, which only serve in my case to annoy me.
While on the topic of other games however, and as a means to talk about one of What The Golf’s best aspects, let’s discuss parody. Like with most comedy, parody is a touchy subject owing to the subjective nature of one’s humour. With video games, by far the most common type of parody I see are games which emulate a style or genre and critique it specifically. Think the offbeat Earthbound for JRPG’s, Hypnospace Outlaw’s gaudy depiction of 90’s cyberspace, NotCoD’s trite spite towards military shooters. Some of them suck, some of them don’t, but many share the common thread of focussing on one particular theme.
What The Golf says pox on it and nicks the gameplay of completely unrelated releases: it gets the first person shooter treatment several times, utilises the red and white aesthetic of Superhot along with using the time mechanic, has you navigate a spotlight infested field as a cardboard box a la Metal Gear Solid, jump through orange and blue portals as Portal’s companion cube and has you wanting to die by accurately reproducing Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy. Truly, What The Golf is, in my opinion, the superlative parody experience, for sheer diversity alone. Again, the way in which the game manages to bounce between so many different styles is amazing, the only drawback being how these parody portions place levels which don’t attempt satire feeling less inspired and fun. I can’t put into words the belly laugh I let out as soon as I noticed how perfectly What The Golf copied Superhot’s slowdown mechanic. As a result, the levels which followed it that took more original physics based silliness just didn’t hit me as powerfully as they otherwise would have. They’re not bad by any means, but the parody levels were on another level.
And that’s where I sit with What The Golf. It’s one of, if not the best parody games I’ve ever played which sadly doesn’t do parody as often as it should. I could note the lackluster soundtrack as another flaw, but ultimately it didn’t really matter, as the sound of my own laughter covered it up anyway.