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Teeing off: the golf games embracing silliness

By Aaron Potter. Posted

Despite the funny little cars and fussy trousers, golf is often depicted with deathly seriousness in video games. Cautiously weighing up the green, needing absolute silence before you take a swing… the simple act of whacking a ball in a hole in as few strokes as possible can be enjoyable if done well, true, but it’s still commonly portrayed as a rather tense and stressful affair. Every so often, though, a golf game comes along with more arcade-like sensibilities and a willingness to poke fun at the sport; it’s a concept the indie scene has grown especially fond of in the past few years, as more and more studios have tried to fuse golf with comedy – to often wonderful effect.

As outlandish as its title implies, 100ft Robot Golf dishes up enough playful anarchy to attract players who otherwise wouldn’t so much as pick up a set of clubs. Set in a future universe where golf is attempting to make a TV comeback, indie developer No Goblin’s kaiju-sized golfer stomps across cities, moons, and mountains in its effort to get under par. The result is a bit like if Guillermo del Toro’s giant robot movie Pacific Rim had a crossover with Adam Sandler’s comedy golf vehicle, Happy Gilmore. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that such an imaginative premise was born out of the studio’s attempt to make an existing golf game more exciting. “Our co-founder [Panzer] does Let’s Plays in her spare time, and was asked to guest-commentate on a video of an incredibly boring golf game,” explains Dan Teasdale, No Goblin’s other co-founder and one of the chief creatives behind 100ft Robot Golf. “They spent the entire time making jokes to keep it from being a total drag, and ended up riffing on the idea of how much better it would be if you were playing golf in a giant stupid mech smashing everything to pieces.”

Following the recording, Teasdale and Panzer couldn’t stop thinking about how fun it would be if someone were to actually make the game they’d just invented in their minds. A few days of pestering later, and the duo had set out to create the “big robot golf game for real” – one that would parody the sport’s typical seriousness, and where destroying annoying obstacles would be just as important as putting the ball as quickly as possible. The team looked at other popular arcade golf games like Everybody’s Golf and Microsoft’s Powerstar Golf for inspiration. These were then used as a basis in which No Goblin could deliver its own mechanised spin.

Much of the comedy in 100ft Robot Golf comes from just how absurd it is that humans have built these colossal machines purely for the purposes of wielding oversized wedges and nine irons. Rather than solely rely on this idea, though, Teasdale and the rest of the No Goblin team wanted to squeeze even more laughs out of players. They did this by encouraging groups to block each other’s shots in real time, leaning into the game’s purposefully lo-fi presentation, and of course parodying the hushed commentary given in most golf tournaments. They just needed someone whose deadpan delivery would do the concept justice.

“The idea of having calm golf commentary always seemed like the perfect contrast to four robots knocking down skyscrapers to clear shots as if it was normal,” Teasdale points out. “For the longest time, internally, we pitched our vision of these commentators as ‘McElroy Brothers-types’, until we realised that we could just reach out to our pal Justin McElroy and see if he and his brothers (and eventually father, too!) were interested.”

With the internet superstars on board, the stage was set for groups of players to enjoy a different type of arcade golf game. But as well as offering a feast of giggles through chaotic course designs, wry commentary, and buildings to stomp on, Teasdale and his team thought another factor was vital: community. “Throwing people you have existing relationships with into a world filled with comedy mechanics that thrive on exploiting and potentially damaging those relationships is a big part of why the real-time golf mode works so well,” he suggests. “Obviously, we have a funny game in terms of narrative and setting, but one of the things we really try to hit as a studio is humour through mechanics.”

Comedy of errors

As outlandish as 100ft Robot Golf’s world is, it was always No Goblin’s aim to have the game’s golf mechanics be fun and reliable – the developer didn’t want to risk irritating players with untrustworthy physics. This is in stark contrast to some other comedy golf games, which consciously choose to play with the sport’s physics to humorous effect. But how do you strike a balance between comedy and frustration?

This wasn’t a concern with Triband’s What the Golf?, a lo-fi title the developer describes as “a game made for people who hate golf, by people with no clues or respect for the game”. In it, players work their way through a series of courses that start out familiarly, before quickly descending into a gauntlet of physics-based puzzles which happen to take place on a fairway. The idea of what a golf game can be is repeatedly challenged, and the results are hilarious. 

Like 100ft Robot Golf, it’s all about tapping into the sport’s potential for chaos, except here, the rules have been bent much further than in most other golf games – even those featured in this article. One course may have you trying to putt a porcelain vase instead of a ball, all while trying to avoid obstacles that might smash it. Another will swap the view to a 2D plane, asking you to avoid barrels as you land shots in the hole on the other side of the screen. In What the Golf?, no idea is too outlandish.

As well as taking imaginative leaps, comedy golf games can also span a wide gamut of genres. Golf Story proved this in 2017: it’s a top-down RPG in the style of Pokémon, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy – but who wants to engage in turn-based battles when you can beat your opponent in a game of golf? In some instances, the need for a character to hit the ball can be completely done away with. It’s more about getting players into the erratic action quickly – and again, infusing it with a strong social aspect.

Blacklightinteractive’s Golf With Your Friends offers a similarly social experience. Officially launched during lockdown in May 2020, Golf With Your Friends was already a hit on Steam four years prior, allowing up to twelve friends to compete on a series of crazy courses at once. “I think the enjoyment and humour of the game has a lot to do with the people you play it with,” says Kailan Clark, CEO and programmer. “The competitive nature and rivalry that you have with your closest pals naturally brings the hilarity.”

Watching multiple balls fly around the course alongside eleven other players might be entertaining by itself, but it wouldn’t be as memorable were it not for the deviously laid-out courses. Styled around the type of minigolf courses you’d find in your local town centre as opposed to long stretches of green, Golf With Your Friends has you putting through castles, haunted forests, volcanoes, and even on the Moon. Almost all these courses are designed to throw you off your game to a certain degree, as you and friends try to work out the quickest path to the hole. Luckily, physics remain realistic for the most part.

Building such devilish courses can be a rigorous process. “Designing 18 holes that keep the game fun and the users engaged is difficult,” says Clark. “We have to think of a theme that will be fun, interesting, and something different from the rest.” Once Blacklight has a simple layout, it’s a matter of playing each hole repeatedly, making tweaks, or redesigning entire courses if they don’t work. “Before partnering with [publisher] Team17, a map would take anywhere from three to five months,” he reveals.

The race to keep up with player demand was so important, Clark and his team opted to embrace the Golf With Your Friends community by introducing a level editor and other tools. “Both ball and game mode customisations are especially important to us, letting users play for rewards and customise their hats and trails gives players an extra goal and gives variety amongst friends,” he adds. “The variety of game modes adds spice to the standard game of minigolf and gives the user a different experience each time. Select a Mode, don your favourite hat, and you’re set to go!” Turns out playing as large bouncy eggs rather than balls offers a whole different experience.

Humour in games is, of course, subjective. This explains why the indies marrying comedy and golf approach the idea differently, but in ways that are seldom par for the course. Golf’s rules, meanwhile, are much more adaptable compared to most other sports, meaning common elements like outlandish course designs, gravity-defying physics, and a strong focus on social rivalries often pop up. But might we see Blacklight parody a sport like football next? “I don’t think the fan base for FIFA or Madden would appreciate an acorn-shaped ball being knocked around a candy-themed, low gravity field,” Clark says. “Or maybe they would! Interesting…”

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