The Stark Reality of the Desert

In his documentary film The Wild Goose Chronicles - a collection of his travels across the world in the wake of his failure to succeed in Hollywood, portions of which are serialized online as Flingading - filmmaker Trent Harris observes that the desert is the best place to capture reality.

Indeed, Harris is obsessed with the desert. Almost every one of his works includes a physical desert as a location, whether it's the arid plains of Utah (Rubin & Ed) or the sweeping dunes of the Sahara (Wild Goose Chronicles). To him, the desert is the purest expression of existence; a place so stark, so devoid of distractions, that one can gaze upon their true self.

Conversely, there is no such artistic direction in the game Desert Golfing. We are not told that it is intended for the player to eventually give up, or that the desert simply continues forever. We are presented, rather, with the naked reality of it. Here is the desert, here is your ball, here is the hole. Golf.

Any(Body)/(Thing) Can Be Interesting

Harris' most influential motto is that if you follow somebody and film them for long enough, you'll end up with a compelling documentary. He then went on to test this theory by filming his own journey across the world in search of interesting stories, gathered together as The Wild Goose Chronicles.

In watching his documentary, we are treated to the ups and downs of Harris' life, including what could be considered the tedious bits. His girlfriend leaves him, so he gets drunk in front of a campfire and sings a song. He investigates serial graffiti in the Utah desert that reads "Joe is a nut licker." He chases an antelope. He wanders around near some hills to look in holes.

But he also talks to cannibals in Africa about why they eat people. And travels through Cambodia to learn about its land mine crisis. And becomes part of a caravan in the Sahara. We are treated not just to the mundane lows of his life, but also the highs, the adventures, the oddities that most of us could never experience. Harris' life is just as interesting as he thought it would be, all because he filmed himself for a long enough time.

Take, then, the highs and lows of Desert Golfing. Each slope it its own story, even if that story is just a litany of balls hit at it, over and over, until one finally sinks. The literal ups and downs of Desert Golfing's landscapes are transformed into metaphorical ups and downs, the narrative oscillations that keep a story interesting, and the result is a game that accurately captures the principles that anything can be a good story. Even hitting a small golf ball through an endless desert, forever.

If anything, the tedium only adds to the experience in the end. We are taken off guard by Harris' international journeys because they are prefaced by his mundane exploration of his home state. We are surprised when we see a cloud or a pool of water in Desert Golfing because all the levels previous were featureless expanses of sand and sky. The mundane is given transcendental interest because of its association with those highs.

Anybody and anything can be interesting. All we have to do is take the time to follow it.

The Lens of Reality

Trent Harris' obsession with reality does seem at odds with his films sometimes. Almost every one of his films utilize surrealism alongside stark realism, drawing a contrast between the mundane (wandering through a desert) and the ridiculous (burying a frozen cat).

This juxtaposition makes it clear that Harris is not so much a surrealist filmmaker as a hyperrealist. His works show stark naked reality, and then attempt to explain the inner reality through surrealism. We learn more about the characters by understanding their fantasies, and in a fashion we also learn more about Harris himself.

Take The Beaver Trilogy, his best film. It's the same story - a natural showman performing in drag in his conservative Utah town - filmed three times. The first short film was a documentary starring a man credited as "Groovin' Gary", and the subsequent two short films were recreations with a budget and some real actors (Sean Penn and Crispin Glover, specifically). Its blending of reality (the first short film) with the unreality of film (the subsequent dramatizations) calls into question what is staged and what is real. By using the core story of Groovin' Gary - already a compelling dramatic arc - and adding to it, notably by including a near suicide scene at the end and inserting himself as a sleazy and manipulative director, Harris reveals more about the titular character as well as his own guilt than the first movie ever could have. The refraction of the story through Harris' neurotic obsession to "get it right" means that three otherwise mundane movies, viewed as a single entity, create their own sort of fantastic reality.

While Desert Golfing lacks the obsessive neuroticism that led Harris to recreate the same film three times, it does have its own sort of surrealism. It is linear, but flaunts that linearity by never ending, instead continuing as a line forever. If you stop playing for three years and return, your score will always be the same, forever unchanging. Where Harris' surrealism is about the ceaselessly changing nature of life, Desert Golfing's surrealism is about the inherent absurdity of static permanence in a medium as choice-centric and ever-changing as games.

And then, much like Harris in The Beaver Trilogy, we build our own stories within the confines of Desert Golfing. Despite, or perhaps because of, the abstract minimalism, we are compelled to set goals for ourselves, screenshot interesting holes, and play with the physics of hitting a ball across the desert. The starkness of Desert Golfing provides the perfect slate upon which to self-reflect and build our own reality. And ultimately we like it because there is joy in even the simplest of mechanics.

Desert Golfing and Trent Harris have the same thing to say about reality. It is always changing yet never-ending; its starkness is not an absence, but is rather a blank slate to build real stories upon; reality and unreality are not fixed points, but rather ever-evolving concepts pushed and pulled by creative forces; and that there is joy to be found in every facet of the world, especially the mundane.

Lost In The Desert

It's hard to talk about games sometimes. There is simultaneously so much to talk about and so much that has been said. Unless you're willing to chase after the weird in favor of abandoning the mundane, you are left behind.

Perhaps it is pretension that makes me want to write about Desert Golfing, a game that came out in 2014, and Trent Harris, a man very few people are aware of. Both of these things are old, out of time, out of place; two facets of reality long abandoned by those who would examine and interpret them. Perhaps I write this piece out of the feeling that I am out of place myself; the notion that I am writing for an audience who no longer reads, a medium that no longer cares about my work.

But, like Harris, I believe that if you look at anything long enough you'll find something interesting. It doesn't matter whether it's the latest high-profile release, a popular story in the gaming community, an obscure and unappreciated film from the 80s, or even the way the cardinals flock into a tree before eating. We can always find new things to talk about, new connections to forge, if we simply take the time to sit down and appreciate the mundane.

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