Developer behind award-winning golf game: Good design can get the player to burst out laughing in surprise

Anne Clausen from Triband game studio is the game director of WHAT THE GOLF? Illustration: Triband

The content of this article is solely the author's own opinion.

When I tell people that I am a game designer, they say something like “What is that?” And after explaining that I design systems, rules, and levels in computer games, I have more than once experienced that they follow up with: “But what is your real job?”

But if I had to give a slightly deeper answer to what a designer actually does and what makes a designer good, it is that it is a person who knows how to talk to the player.

It is kind of like when I see my 3-year-old walking with a glass of water and there is a sock which he has not noticed lying on the floor ahead of him. It is the same kind of thinking we use as game designers.

Many designers may already have that intuition, which is why they are good designers to begin with. But it is also something you can work on. In game development circles, I often hear about how important it is to playtest. But I do not necessarily think of a playtest as a test of the specific level or game mechanic I put in the player’s hands. For me, it is more of an exercise in seeing my game through other people’s eyes. What does this look like, seen through the eyes of a player? For example, does it look like something dangerous to stay away from? Or does it look like something you can pick up? What are they drawn to, what presumptions do they have? The only way to learn this is by watching real people play your game, over and over and over again.

What does the player expect?

When I attend a playtest, the least interesting thing for me is to hear the players’ ideas on what I should do with the game. On the other hand, I look very closely at how they play the game. What are they drawn to? What are they trying out? What can they not be bothered with? What are they not doing?
And this is something that I have had to think about a lot while designing WHAT THE GOLF?. I am currently the game director of WHAT THE GOLF?, but I only became part of Triband, the company behind it, after the game was finished. However, I have helped create all the updates. And this required many hours of analysing the existing game before I was able to put my finger on what a good WHAT THE GOLF? level consists of.

And that is something that is very central to WHAT THE GOLF?. The understanding of what the players expect. Because you need to know what they expect to be able to turn it upside down and give them something completely different. You managed to get the golf ball to the flag? Good work. You cleared the level. Then comes a new level—again with a flag. The player hits the ball towards the flag, but the flag suddenly moves and runs away from the ball. And this is what causes the player to laugh for the first time. Because in the player’s head, we had an agreement that in a game of golf, flags stay where they are, and the balls needs to reach them.

We tease the player, and it is super important to us that we can laugh WITH the player and not AT the player. An example of this is that we lay out the difficult parts of a level early so that the player does not just almost reach the end only to be mauled off the course by a runaway car or similar.

Tension and release

WHAT THE GOLF? is a comedy game. I do not really know how official of a genre that is, but if I write it here, maybe we can agree that it should be one! Tension and release are an absolutely central element in comedy. A stand-up comedian says something that sounds taboo or uncomfortable, the audience becomes uneasy, and then the comedian releases the tension with a punchline that turns the whole situation upside down. (By the way, if you are interested in knowing more about comedic devices, I recommend Hannah Gadsby’s show “Nanette” on Netflix.)

But how do you translate that into a game? Each level in WHAT THE GOLF? ends with one or more words displayed on the screen, and sometimes this is where the joke is. Because maybe you are about to hit the ball, and suddenly it is the hole on the golf course you are hitting instead. And maybe that hole should not reach the flag, but a bigger hole in the shape of number 1. The player is usually perplexed. This is super weird. What’s going on? I don’t get it? If you see people streaming this level, they often say something along the lines of a hesitant “Whaaat?” The tension is created. But when the player reaches the target and the hole goes down the number 1, the screen displays the punchline “HOLE IN ONE”. The player laughs and the tension is released.