Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
September 3, 2021
In most games, there tends to be a very tight-knit relationship between the gameplay and the story. The player character will have a story about defeating a villain, and you’ll jump and punch and kick to achieve that. There are comparatively few games that don’t work like this. There’s a kind of parallel between the gameplay and the story. They both exist in the same world, but there isn’t as solid and consistent a connection between the player’s interactions and the story in itself. Curiously, not a lot of games take this tactic, especially in an age where walking simulators, while not necessarily beloved, are relatively commonplace. Could someone take a slow, contemplative gameplay mechanic and layer a story on top of that? Well, Golf Club: Wasteland is trying to bridge that gap. In this game lies a broader tale of existential threats of unchecked capitalism and climate grief, but told through the lens of a golf game.
Roamin’ Mars – Tales of Earth via podcasts
Let’s consider the story as it stands. Capitalism has gone unchecked for too long. Earth has suffered tremendously, causing an ecological catastrophe. Among this chaos, the rich have boarded rocket ships to evade the cataclysm. The aristocracy has established an off-Earth colony to continue to live away from the withered husk of the world. The Earth remains a shell of its former self – a ruined dystopia. Earth exists as a tourist destination, in which the elite play golf among the detritus of the planet. “This, dear reader, is what we call a fantastical science fiction world set in a far-flung future with no bearing on current affairs of society”, I say. As I do so, I wink to the camera so hard that my eye starts to bleed.
But I digress.
Now, let’s break things down for a moment, the story is a bit of an odd duck in Golf Club: Wasteland. The in-game story is pretty much on mute for most of the game. The gameplay, as we will get to, feels very intentionally laid-back. The thing is, being laid-back is not the same as being empty. Anyone can make a game devoid of content, but the challenge is to keep people invested. So the game pumps a lot of work into telling the story in more ambient ways. Of course, the environmental design is a big part of this, but a bigger part is a rather unique narrative delivery for games: a fictional radio program.
Games with fictional radio stations are nothing new, but Radio Nostalgia from Mars is a rarer type, one that carries some of the narrative burdens. Radio Nostalgia from Mars has a very “This American Life” style to it. Characters come onto the show to share their monologue stories of the world that was, their grief, their regret, and their triumphs in the face of this apocalyptic adversity. There’s an impressive spectrum of emotions, characters and perspectives. The most notable was the first. The speaker laments the past, the ruined Earth. But as the soliloquy continues, it becomes clear this person is part of the rescue effort. There is this subtle narcissism that slowly bleeds into the story, a self-aggrandising image of a hero saving the poor people.
This speaks to the mood this game is setting. It’s pretty damn clear that we’re deep in the weeds with the satire. If you’re in any doubt, don’t worry, I’ve been told that the satire is well deconstructed in the $500 million “My Ticket Outta Here” Edition. There are jokes about making showers more efficient so people can have water to drink and such. It’s all presented with this layer of preposterousness. Yet, I could feel how paper-thin it was, not in the usual “the story is flimsy” sense, though. Rather, the veneer is so thin that it only muffles the truly depressing stuff. You don’t hear that things are bad, you are reassured that “we will survive it”. It’s a calming voice that is clearly masking a deeply unsettling reality.
My Lie in Ruins – Golf Club: Wasteland’s in-game story
The contemplative nature of the game betrays the rest of the story’s delivery. So, let’s start from the top.
The human race evacuates Earth and rich narcissists return to play golf, that’s the central premise. This is pretty much half of the proper, traditional narrative. Whilst the story is told in-game through Radio Nostalgia and other ludonarrative devices, it is also communicated in the intro through text boxes. I’m both unimpressed and confused by the choice to use text boxes to communicate your narrative. Were the developers scared of leaving people behind, or that they’d mute audio and miss out? Did they feel they needed to get the hook in immediately? In truth, maybe it was just to give them more freedom to take the radio stories wherever they wanted. Perhaps they felt they needed to put this premise upfront to keep people excited. Although with that said, it’s hard to not feel like the opening text boxes rob the plot of some energy, it takes away a lot of the potential.
“…the game felt like it tried to have its cake and eat it too.”
As such, the “in-game” story isn’t much to phone home about. There is in truth a character-led narrative, but to put it bluntly, it is anaemic. The radio show references the protagonist. The protagonist meets another character. The protagonist pontificates in a few text boxes. Stripped of all context, ignoring little gripes with clichés and such, I can see the merit. The character arc is nice I suppose. The problem is that it feels really poorly presented. Many say that symmetry begets beauty, but Golf Club: Wasteland’s choice to end the game as it started, with text boxes, is not attractive at all. The prose discussing the future of the characters ironically makes the whole thing feel inconsequential.
The narrative is an odd duck. It collects mostly at the extremes, with text boxes as a prologue and epilogue taking the lion’s share. It’s weird because otherwise, the story is so intentionally disparate. Sure, the radio disgorges soliloquies, but it feels like they’re just setting the mood more than presenting anything concrete. It reminds me of horror as a genre. Horror isn’t just a genre about being in danger, it’s a genre about feeling in danger. Set the right mood, fold in enough ambiguity, and the audience will fill in the gaps and make themselves scared. Golf Club: Wasteland feels a little like that. The atmosphere is set up to allow people to mull over the ideas presented and come to their own conclusions. Well, it seems like it is, but then the plot kicks in.
Creating this slow contemplative vibe doesn’t work with a strict narrative. Of course, this applies to the in-game plot, but let’s talk about another element. Golf Club: Wasteland, like many other games, likes to give players the standard “diary entry” plot. First things first, I truly am tired of this style of narrative. It’s such a boring way to portion out the story behind cheap unlockables. Every instance either gates some people off from the story or serves as some attempt to allow for both a deep story or none at all according to the player’s choices. However, all can have issues of detachment from the game itself, and of course, the writing may not be great. Golf Club: Wasteland can lay claim to those issues definitely. It really comes across as dry, overly flowery waffle. But it’s frustrating because it works against the contemplative nature of the game. The decision to then hammer in the protagonist’s internal monologue runs counter to this ideal. Let us pontificate about the character, don’t just tell us who they are, and don’t give us some saccharine ending that we may not wish upon them.
Heavy Rough – How a ruined Earth connects story and gameplay
The environment is a good touchpoint for the story. In a game with this level of contemplation, the setting is doing a lot here to invoke the right emotions. There is a good array of eco-horrors on display from glowing sewers to factories piled high with discarded consumer goods. Once more, the game here is succeeding when it lets the player think about the story. Of course, as a satire, it does lean a bit on the over-the-top nature of the world. It’s a cartoonish amount of death and destruction, I say before winking to the camera again in a more bitter fashion.
The husk of the world we explore is so good at communicating, that it also inadvertently communicates the central flaw in this game. The world is beautiful. There are amazing vistas that seep into your subconscious. Even if you’re not here for a sightseeing tour at the end of days, you’ll be thinking about climate change and capitalism and such. Aesthetically, and narratively, the course is fantastic. Mechanically, it oscillates between that design ideal of ‘it’s so good it’s unappreciated’, and being a source of frustration. For example, a lovely hole is set around a statue with surrounding scaffolding. The statue appears to be in the background. As it turns out, the neck was in the background, but the rest was not. Upon taking a shot, and randomly hitting the statue, it turns out it’s mostly in the foreground, without any real indication. It felt arbitrary, it felt inconsistent. It’s this inconsistency that makes many parts of the game hard to navigate. There were other instances like billboards that can blur the line between what is foreground and what is background. What is a true obstacle, and what is set dressing? On a more fundamental level, isometric walls and platforms, while aesthetically pleasing, make it difficult to judge distances, heights and angles.
Flop Shots – When the golf works, and when it really doesn’t
” Aesthetically, and narratively, the course is fantastic. Mechanically, it oscillates between that design ideal of ‘it’s so good it’s unappreciated’, and being a source of frustration.”
The gameplay perhaps isn’t supposed to be the real drawcard, so the gameplay is a bit so-so. It’s a pretty standard indie golfing experience. Holes are laid out in what amounts to a 2D side-on perspective, like a platformer. You’re hitting across, over, onto and into. Of course, as previously mentioned, this is in and of itself a contradiction with the style being a bit more isometric looking. This contributes to issues I had with the physics. Varying friction of materials threw a spanner in the mix, and overall I never felt completely dialled into the gameplay.
The holes are creative and well-conceived. There are a range of gameplay ideas here, there are pipes and elevators to transport balls, and various obstacles that extend beyond the standard golfing fare. Over time, the game ramps up in difficulty which for a while is appreciated, but at times descends into needlessly convoluted annoyances. They ran out of ideas, and that’s why I suspect the devs tried to give the appearance of a longer run time.
To fill out the duration, the game has three modes that are just the same game with some tweaks. Story mode is just playing through the course. Challenge mode is the story mode, but each hole has a stroke limit, and if you exceed it you restart the hole. Iron mode is Challenge mode, but exceeding stroke limit or hitting into a hazard and you have to start the whole course over.
I’ll put my two cents in and say, just play Challenge mode. Story Mode is virtually the same but with no consequences for anything. Whilst I’m all for easy modes in games, it just comes across as completely lacking in any kind of teeth. Conversely, Iron Mode is a game mode that you can play for half an hour and then lose all progress for a single mistake. It’s a ridiculous punishment that I think most people will find amusing before being incensed with fury and quitting the game for the last time. The modes are unique takes on the game, but really you’re just playing through the same course. Play through the course once and you’ve seen what the game has to offer. We’re looking at an hour or two of gameplay.
Drawing Parallels – On the relationship of Game and Story
But what of the parallel gameplay and story? Well, maybe that is why the story in this game felt so off base. See the reason so few games engage in this is it’s hard to pull off. Maybe it’s too hard to market a game with no real plot, which would explain putting the premise upfront. Perhaps not including story beats or diary entries feels prohibitive to those that wish to explore and investigate. It’s the wanting to please everyone that leads to this compromise that can devalue the unique ideas on display.
See the reason parallel gameplay and story is rare is that, well, it’s pretty hard to pull off. I’ve only played one other game that runs like this. Ironically, the other game was also a golf game. It speaks to how games, like golf, are very good idle games. I’ll go ahead and say that I think Golf Club: Wasteland gives me some level of hope for these kinds of games going forward. The problem lies in fully committing really. Be a ridiculous farce of a game, be a slow contemplation of human nature and morality, or be a happy ending focused morality tale. Attempting to do all three leads to a game that is sort of good at multiple things that often conflict with each other.
- Gameplay and atmosphere allow for an interesting contemplative experience
- Beautiful graphic style
- Radio Nostalgia From Mars is a good narrative vibe and mood-setter
- Text box intro and outro undercuts the contemplative style
- Isometric graphics make gameplay harder
- Gameplay is mediocre
Golf Club: Wasteland is a rather standard golf game bolstered by an experimental narrative approach. This iteration is, have no doubt, an improvement on the niche ideas therein, and for that, I applaud the developers. However, good as these ideas are, they suffer from feeling incompatible with each other. Everything is OK, with the distinct sting of feeling like they could have been great, given the right conditions.