When we think about generative software — if we ever do, it’s not something that happens often I imagine — we think about spam bots sending us endless advertising emails, or maybe we think about algorithms generating endless Minecraft worlds to explore, or perhaps we think about the software system that makes our Spotify Discover playlists every week. But generativity is something far deeper than any of this — it cuts deep into a lot of fundamental things about us as human beings. Curiosity. Wonder. Understanding. A feeling of being tiny. A desire to be in control.
Videogames are still a heavily gated community in 2019, but if you’re able to explore you’ll find all sorts of generative experiences, each one tapping into a different part of this amazing form of creative expression. Some of them are like browsing a clothes store — your mind is seeing all of these puzzle pieces and thinking about the million ways they could combine to make new outfits. Some of them are like strolling along a beach looking for fossils — each stone and shell is uniquely chipped and warped, and your eyes dart across each one looking for something beautiful, something different.
This image is from a game called Desert Golfing. It is an unassuming game about playing golf. You hit the ball in the hole, and the screen scrolls to the left, and a new hole appears. Then you hit the ball into the hole again. Each hole is procedurally generated, made by a bit of computer code, but every player sees the same set of holes, meaning that if you download the game you’ll play across the same landscape I did. I am currently on hole four thousand, four hundred and thirty eight. In October of 2015 I wrote a blog post about procedural generation and I declared I was on hole two thousand, eight hundred and forty two. I lived in London then. According to my iPhone’s logs, I played hole one of Desert Golfing on 16th September 2014. I had just started working on a game of my own then. Across all this time I have picked away at this game’s vast landscape, most often on trains, in airports, waiting for buses, in other countries, away from my loved ones.
Desert Golfing is a space I go to when I’m trapped between spaces, a little universe that I carry around with me. It’s blank and uninteresting, there is no one to see or talk to, just an endless stretch of landscape which I hit a ball across. But as I do so I think about what generative software means, and what it can do. I marvel at a particularly clever level, somewhere in the late three thousands, and wonder if the game’s human designer could have possible dipped in and tweaked some parts by hand. I breeze past a dozen holes all on bland, flat plains, and contemplate how easy it is to ignore mistakes and uniformity when we are looking for challenge and intrigue. I get frustrated at a particularly unfair hole, and wonder if I will ever reach the mythical impossible hole that players cannot get past. Will my journey end there? And where will I be on the other side, in the real world? Perhaps back in London again. Perhaps I will have finished making my game. Perhaps I’ll never get there, perhaps iOS will update and render my save file useless, or I will accidentally lose my data forever in a freak accident.
As I pass each hole, I also realise that I will never see it again. The one you see illustrated here only took me a few strokes to clear. It’s gone now, as you read this, and I am somewhere else, just as this post will soon be gone from this website’s front page. But there will always be another bit of the desert to scroll to. I won’t ever see the end, just like you won’t ever see the end of things to read on the internet. It’s daunting, but it’s also comforting to acknowledge the limits of what we can do, or see, or know. And I like that generative software can help us learn that lesson a bit easier, even with something as simple as a little 2D golf game, by giving us a vast, near-infinite space. Even if you start tomorrow, five years after I did, neither one of us will get to the end. Slow down. Start next week. Play it another time. This desert is bigger than any of us, and that’s okay.