Igor Simić has always maintained a penchant for dark commentary on the world around him. One of his earliest games, called Children's Play, asked the player to run a factory staffed by children and keep them from falling asleep on the assembly line while a mutated teddy bear spouted critiques of sweatshops.
It was while he recorded music for Child’s Play that he met his future collaborator on Golf Club Wasteland, Shane Berry. In the studio break room Simić heard Berry's voice for the first time, and immediately cast him as the horrifying teddy bear.
From there, the two began a working relationship that spanned several videos and short films, with Golf Club Wasteland ultimately their first commercial attempt at a game. They and their fellow collaborators all had day jobs at its onset, so they began brainstorming something they could easily make in the evenings after work.
"I remember a couple of us were watching TV, and [Donald] Trump was becoming more likely a viable [presidential] candidate, and it was becoming reality," Simić says. "And also, Elon Musk on the other hand was more in the zeitgeist not only as an entrepreneur, but as a public figure. And also, Bernie [Sanders] was talking about the 1%, and somehow all of that coalesced in my head, and I realized, 'If Earth undergoes a massive climate change catastrophe, from the perspective of someone like Trump, who is a real estate guy in golf courses, that's a clean slate, because then the whole Earth can be a golf course.'"
Their vision coalesced further in 2017, when a viral photo of golfers finishing their games as an Oregon wildfire blazed behind them made the rounds.
The idea for a golf game jived with their need for a less complex project, too. Simić tells me the team never aimed to create a realistic golf game with Golf Club Wasteland. His development touchstones were simple ones: minimalist golfing title Desert Golfing, Worms, and an MS-DOS game called Gorillas where the player types in an angle and force in order to throw bananas at another gorilla across a city.
The finished product, Golf Club Wasteland, is a lovely, haunting experience. It takes place in the post-apocalypse where almost all human life has been wiped out. Earth is now used solely as a golf course for the ultra-rich who escaped to Mars during the catastrophe that destroyed their home. Its visuals are minimalist but striking, featuring courses plotted out through demolished brutalist architecture with looming neon signs, roaming wildlife like ball-kicking cows and a towering giraffe, and empty buildings. It's a lonely game that's more about the light puzzling involved to sink a shot despite all the destruction than it is about a high score, though you can play to finish in as few strokes as possible if you like.
Scoring well does unlock journal entries that give insight into the story and world of Golf Club Wasteland, but even if you're missing most of your shots, you can pick up the vibe just fine from the music. Golf Club Wasteland is tuned to its own radio show called Radio Nostalgia From Mars — a mix of stories, call-ins, safety public service announcements, and chill music underscoring the desolation of Earth as you golf. The dissonance between its relaxing tunes, the strange government warnings, and the melancholic stories shared by the world's inhabitants are not just the perfect background to hellscape golfing — they're integral to understanding the world you're golfing in.
Berry derived Radio Nostalgia from Mars from his own experiences in audio, ranging from being in a death metal band at the age of 12 to DJing, a career in the Japanese underground techno scene, and commercial audio work. But most fitting to Golf Club Wasteland's score was his work doing cable radio in Tokyo — producing radio shows that fed into cafes and convenience stores to a few million listeners.
"Not only did we have to produce all the music [for Golf Club Wasteland], we also had to come up with a story, basically, within the radio show, the world of what's happening on Mars," Berry says. "The premise is so absurd that we found very quickly on that if we made the radio show heavily satirical or lent towards a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams kind of angle, it didn't lend itself to the pathos and the reality of the game, despite its kind of crazy premise. It became quite interesting to explore the plausibility of that world and the reality of the insanity of going to Mars."
A chance encounter at a Frankfurt art exhibition further aided Berry and Simić's desire to ground Golf Club Wasteland's absurdism in reality. There, they met a woman named Janet Biggs, who had worked as a part of the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah where scientists simulate what it might be like to actually live on Mars. They spent an evening with Biggs, listening to her tell stories about her day-to-day life in the habitat.
"It was in that meeting that I realized that the reality was absurd enough," Berry says. "We didn't have to do anything other than just describe what it would really like to be on Mars, and that would be funny and humorous within itself and lend a kind of plausibility to the game. So, there was a balance between this humor of the signs and the building marred with this plausibility of the radio show that's kind of self-referential and kind of irreverent, but also kind of leaning more towards realism than it is towards the absurdity of the underlying premise."
As you can probably tell, Golf Club Wasteland doesn’t shy away from political themes and commentary, and in fact explicitly embraces them. Simić says they did want to veer far away from anything that could come off as preachy, and described Golf Club Wasteland as "anti-escapist entertainment" — it relates to real life, sure, and climate change is treated as a fact of reality, for instance. Berry adds that they wanted to be very explicit, too, about the idea that just moving to Mars to escape reality isn't an easy option for humanity.
"We can barely live underwater, and we can barely live in a desert for a couple of weeks without major problems, and a lot of those problems stem from us being human and being emotional creatures...It's not going to be pretty moving to Mars," he says.
Simić adds: "Perhaps one thing that people could take away as a point or a message or something of that sort is in the stories in the Radio Nostalgia from Mars soundtrack, the stories are mostly just regular people of different nationalities who wrote together with me a memory from their past life on Earth, since they're recounting from Mars. And in reality, these memories are of simple things, like a walk in the park, cycling in your neighborhood, having coffee, singing, dancing with friends in Havana, in Italy, in Berlin, and so forth. So, these are things that we have now, but the radio and the game attempt to make you think of things that you have now as if you had lost them forever. That's an emotional kind of message."
Golf Club Wasteland was almost a hard sell for me given the thorough saturation of my daily life in alarming news headlines about a darkening future. I don't want to pretend there's anything soothing about the idea of any kind of apocalypse, especially one inevitably presided over by the 1%. But Golf Club Wasteland's portrayal had an alluring calm to it that worked for me precisely because of how at odds it was with its subject matter. If the rich play golf on our ruins, it will be precisely like this — serene, unbothered, and careless as a ball rolls through a broken satellite dish, slides down a bemused giraffe's neck, and lands with a soft thud on the ruined surface we used to live on.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.