-- A. A. Milne
It's raining. I'm standing in in knee-high weeds. I set my bag down in a puddle and extract a muddy 9-iron. I wipe the grip as best I can on the front of my faded "Tears for Fears" T-Shirt. With little joy, I hack at the orange ball embedded in the mud. It leaps like an arthritic frog 20 feet into the fairway.
"Beautiful day," says Jeff. And he's serious. There's no where else he'd rather be on this October morning than here, on these patchy, muddy, miserable, municipal 9 holes. He looks out from the brim of his umbrella, grinning maniacally. He shoulders his bag. "You can just call yours nine -- let's putt."
Golf. I hate golf. At least, I did until Wii MotionPlus and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 made it all make sense.
For me, golf has always been an exercise in controlled failure. I've never considered myself a "golfer," but the nature of being in my 30s and trying to have a career in the '90s meant "business golf" was mandatory. I resigned myself to the inevitable, and bought cheap clubs, a cheap bag, cheap shoes, and expensive lessons. I became just good enough that I could go on a client's golf outing and be an effective clown. I could talk the game, which meant I could socialize, and the social experience would make up for the fact that my golf game was a long, slow slide downhill from 2-over par, each-and-every hole.
In other words, I have played just enough golf to know exactly what I've done wrong after every agonizing stroke. A game of golf -- a real one, in the real world, with the cigar smoke and golf carts and people I generally don't like -- is 5 hours of self-aware penance for my transgressions in skill.
I had not played golf, real or virtual, for over four years until last week. Last week, Tiger Woods for the Wii arrived in its brown Amazon.com shipping box. I'll be honest, I bought it almost exclusively because I considered it a tech-demo for the Wii MotionPlus controller -- that little nubbin of plastic which promised to take my Wii controller and make it an extension of my soul. That it came with a golf game was simply an unfortunate coincidence -- a poor substitute for the one-on-one multiplayer swordfighting game I'd been dreaming off since the first YouTube videos of the Wii surfaced.
To my surprise, Tiger Woods has made me love golf.
I should warn you that it's extraordinarily difficult for me to separate my Tiger Woods experience from the Wii MotionPlus hardware.
As a checklist of features, Tiger Woods is entirely what I would have expected having never played a previous iteration of the franchise: a set of well rendered courses, a customizable golf career, and a bunch of mini-games. Golf is simply not that complex a game when compared to Madden-level football or any other number of mediocre-yet-detailed EA Sports games. At its core, golf is a game my 5-year old son understands perfectly: you whack a little ball into a cup that starts out very, very far away.
The in-person game of golf is only interesting because of the environment itself (many golf courses are indeed stunning places for a nice walk), and the subtlety and unpredictability of each shot: wind speed, greens conditions, the vagaries of every lie, the fractal randomness of the courses themselves. I suspect that every version of Tiger Woods, not only on other systems, but in previous generations, does a good job of modeling those exogenous subtleties. After all, by definition there have been ten versions of this game in which to figure out how to model sweet spots and sand traps.
But as an experience, not just an environment or a system, golf is really just about hitting the ball. Sitting on a couch, that act could easily be just a matter of flicking thumbsticks and hitting buttons. The swing devolves to RPG-like-skills and sussing out the system in order to translate the unnatural inputs of the controller into the natural outputs of the golf swing.
And that's where I have a hard time separating the game from the hardware. The feeling of swinging a virtual club with MotionPlus is simply astounding. Putting, driving, chipping, getting out of bunkers -- each just feels right in the same way that hitting the drums in Rock Band feels right compared to generating the same inputs with four buttons on a controller. As I approach each shot, the tapes from all those grudging golf lessons play in my head -- putt through the ball, chip like you're tossing a horseshoe, hit the sand not the ball, make your drive a 360 degree circle of club. And after each dismal failure, a quick hit of the replay button shows me exactly what I've done wrong. Each swing feels like my swing, not a disembodied representation. Each swing matters.
I'm sure it's not perfect. I'm sure that I could figure out how to mimic the perfect swing by simply flicking the MotionPlus through a 10 inch arc on the end of a string. But a quick switch to the normal Wiimote was enough to make me realize I could never go back. It's the difference between a 1970's transistor radio and $500 Sennheiser headphones.
That sense that "I'm really playing" immediately made me long for the aspect of the game that I actually occasionally enjoyed when confronted with an 8AM T-time and a cigar-smoking heathen: the social aspect. To EA's credit, they've bolted their own community system into Tiger Woods, and it actually works. Yes, you can punch in the 128 digit number for your Wii Friends, but more practically you can also just enter EA login. If you've played Spore or The Sims or any number of EA games online, chances are you already have a profile, if not a populated friends list. Once in an online game, the system works extremely well: players take shots simultaneously on a thirty second shot clock, and competitors' positions and ball trajectories show up as colored ribbons, making it easy to crow about great puts and long drives. But there is no representation of the other golfers at all -- just those colored dots and lines.
To make up for this, Certis and I decided to build a holodeck out of 2000 miles of copper and two MacBooks. We set up the laptops with their cameras pointed at us head on, as if we were watching a golf buddy taking his swing from the comfort of the cart. A quick skype video call later, and we recreated the real-world experience of golf with surprising accuracy and far better access to bathrooms and cocktails. Geeky beyond belief indeed, but also extremely satisfying. Watching Certis jump up and down like a little girl after sinking a 40 foot putt simply won't get old. Nor, I'm sure, will the cavalcade of profanity and virtual breaking of clubs that ensue when I go 7 over par into the wind over a lake.
Perhaps it's too much to expect the current generation of consoles and games to deliver this experience on a regular basis. MotionPlus almost seems to have been designed with Tiger Woods in mind, and not everyone is going to go to the trouble to set up a laptop in their living room solely to look like a fool for the entertainment of their distant friends. But I can say this: Tiger Woods + MotionPlus + Full Screen Videochat is the most connected I have ever felt to a videogame. It's not perfect. It isn't truly a holodeck. But it is definitely the vector on which the future lies. And it is very, very good.