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One Player's 21,000 Hole Quest to Beat the Seemingly Endless 'Desert Golf'

For two years, a glitch halted Luke Yagnow's progress. Then, everything changed.

Patrick Klepek

Patrick Klepek

Image courtesy of Captain Games

This week, Luke Yagnow joined an elite club, becoming the second (known) person to beat Desert Golfing, a game not meant to be beaten. After four years of patience, somewhere between 300 and 400 hours of persistence, and help from the designer of the game, Yagnow has finally achieved his goal. There’s no more Desert Golfing to play.

Part of Desert Golfing’s hook is how you can basically keep playing forever; every simple new stage is procedurally generated, and it just keeps going. That said, it also means it’s possible for the game to come up with a hole that’s literally impossible to complete. The game’s designer, Justin Smith, knew this could happen. It was a consequence of a game Smith didn’t expect to take off the way it did, and why Smith was shocked when a player managed to see the game’s ending in 2016. It was pure luck.

“To get to 65,535 without reaching an impossible hole is really quite improbable,” said Desert Golfing designer Justin Smith in an email this afternoon.

Yagnow wasn’t so lucky, and two years ago, hit the same infuriating wall others had.

The hole that stopped Yagnow's progress, the "impossible" hole.

“It's straight up impossible,” Yagnow told me, pointing to the 2,599 attempts he made, trying to bend the hole to his will.

When I showed the image to Smith, he called it a "a classic impossible hole."

Part of Yagnow’s reluctance to move on, fueled his thousands of pointless shots, was adversity he’d experienced from earlier stages. A handful of holes took thousands of shots before he managed through, often a combination of “weird bounces and luck.”

Yagnow discovered Desert Golfing after hearing former game critic Chris Remo, now a composer and designer at Campo Santo, talk about the game on his podcast, Idle Thumbs. (It’s a very good podcast.) It didn’t take long for the game to sink its teeth.

“I played it a lot at first and got up to about hole 5,000 or so within a month,” he said. “It's a great game for playing in short bursts, at work while listening on conference calls, listening to podcasts, while the kids are at swim practice or between attempts to get my son to sleep, etc. You can start and stop in a second's notice. It's low commitment.”

Desert Golfing became part of his life. But this hole was different, and forced Yagnow to give up. For two years, Yagnow figured his Desert Golfing journey was over. Then, a miracle. Last November, Apple’s App Store prompted him to update Desert Golfing. A patch added two things: support for Apple’s iPhone X and “no more impossible holes.”

Yagnow’s own “impossible” hole had disappeared, replaced with a brand-new one. The roadblock hole had stalled at progress hole 14,758, but his daily routine had returned. Slowly, Yagnow began plucking through Desert Golfing’s challenges, one hole at a time.

Then, around hole 21,700 or so—he’s not exactly sure—he reached a body of water.

When you hit the ball into the water, the ball disappears. Nothing happens. No credits screen. No congratulations. No fireworks. That’s because you’ve reached the “end” of Desert Golfing—the closest the game has to an ending, anyway.

Yagnow isn’t sure how to feel about the game being over just yet.

“It became such a go-to for me that I feel a strange sense of loss for not being able to golf in the desert anymore,” he said. “I love the ending and wouldn't change it, but man, that's just something I like to do when I have a free minute or three.”

He's currently looking for a new game to play.

But what prompted Desert Golfing, a game from 2014, to get a meaningful new update?

“It was getting depressing reading my email each morning,” said Desert Golfing designer Justin Smith. "People were running into impossible holes and spending thousands of shots trying to beat them. They would email me in total frustration and I'd have to inform them, personally, that it's game over. It's a pretty anticlimactic ending.”

For a time, Smith considered these emails eternal punishment for “bad code,” but decided to do something about it. The actual fix, however, was a bit of a cheat.

“I couldn't fix the impossible holes algorithmically,” he said. “Instead I manually played through 10,000 holes and re-generated the impossible ones. So now after someone updates, whatever hole they're at, they'll get to play 10,000 more, then [see] water.”

The water wasn’t always part of the game, either. Desert Golfing’s original ending was somewhat of a middle finger. Around hole 2,000—a number he considered absurd at the time—he placed a magnetic repulsion around the hole, making it impossible for the ball to land inside. And yet, some clever players managed to get around it.

Thus, Smith moved the ending goalposts to something more thematically consistent with Desert Golfing. Players eventually found a hole in an infinitely flat desert, and every time they beat it, there would be another hole on an infinitely flat desert.

“Predictably, some people were playing through for thousands of holes expecting to find a secret on the other side,” he said.

That’s when the water showed up. Finally, game over.

In December, Smith ported Desert Golfing to PC and added it to Steam. He’s “pretty sure” this is the end of the road (desert?). Then again, Smith has said that before.

“I'd rather do a sequel than another update,” he said. “It feels good. It's a solid ending. I've always had a loose definition of the word 'infinite.'”

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