There is a God and He is in a golf game.
You won’t find Him at first, though. Much like the various religions that portray Him, His existence transcends human understanding. He is behind every drive, chip, and putt in the world of Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational. He directs everything around you – he is you. Or rather, you’re him. Except you’re not. Sure, to play a video game is to accept a position of power and be gratified at what you’re capable of, but we’re also meant to become the character we’re controlling. I’m not God, I’m Yuna: the cute golfer with a cheery disposition and lovely plaid skirt. I want to experience the world through her eyes. Unfortunately, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational insists my range of actions is more important than Yuna’s, and for every action she’s capable of, I can do ten times more thanks to the Vita’s touchscreen. She can adjust the angle, impact, and direction of her stroke to place the ball exactly where she wants it with the face buttons, but God can grab and place her wherever He chooses. If I’m meant to inhabit Yuna and accurately direct her to hit the cleanest drive, just who is this invisible force moving her around against her will?
Part of this God complex can be attributed to the sports game genre. While modern game designers are concerned with removing the high scores, lives, menus, and fail states of the old class of game design to make players better connect with the character they’re assuming, sports game are generally happy working within the establishment. To play a sports game is to engage in a simulation where we control multiple athletes co-ordinating a strategy in Madden, or assume the role of a celebrity in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational upholds all of these values behind an exuberant shine of pastel colors and enthusiastic anime character designs. It’s all very fun and infectious, pulling you into the experience with a strong visual design that celebrates your every movement. Underneath the sheen however is the same clinical detachment of the player from the character so common in other sports games. But where other other games only express this through numbers and spreadsheets, controlling a swarm of characters instead of one, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational challenges the traditional by limiting you to one character a course and reining in your range of actions. Control of your golfer is divided between touchscreen and face buttons on the Vita, a convenient decision for the player but one that retains the same detachment Clap Hanz were trying to avoid with the emphatic character design and colorful world.
This dissonance comes from the assumption that since you’re in control of your golfer, you’re expecting interactivity to involve using your character to touch, feel, and speak with the people, creatures, and things within the world. Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational upsets this balance by spreading the controls and what your character can and cannot interact with across the face buttons and touchscreen. Yuna is capable of nailing the three-button combo required to determine the power and impact of her golf swing, she can pivot and turn to fine-tune her shots, switch to different golf clubs to determine the pace of her drive, and so on. But what she can’t do is move from that stationary position, she is stuck in place until she hits her next shot. This is true in all situations but tee off in which an unseen force can move her starting position to whatever angle they want. It’s worth noting that Yuna is not disabled here. She has perfectly usable legs. For whatever reason, her range of movement is limited to co-ordinating a golf swing. That walking business? You better leave that to God: Master of Touchscreen.
God’s influence stretches even further with environmental interaction in Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational. Again, we have two opposing forces at work here. As a player, the environment of a golf course is an enemy; the various trees, sand bunkers, and different terrain are obstacles be navigated around rather than embraced. Yuna’s interaction with these obstacles is limited to hitting things with a ball, but there’s a surprising amount of interactivity within this basic action. The hills of the green all affect the momentum of the ball, and the rough grass and sand bunkers all need to be accounted for to use their features to your advantage. Water, at first callously swallowing your interactor whole to begin with, can be used to your advantage when you discover a specific technique to hit the ball and cause it to skip across surfaces. There’s still that missing element of touch so integral to interaction, though. Yuna can only use something else to touch things for her. In comparison, we can touch and rustle the leaves of any tree on the course. This isn’t a gentle breeze dancing through the branches, either. The entire tree visibly shakes and wobbles, a loud rustling breaks out, and nobody in the world bats an eyelid. Wouldn’t our concerted little golfer be distracted by such a sight? It’s already established that excitable foliage is a sign of godhood, but apparently it’s a pretty standard thing in the world of Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational.
The final touch-related oddity comes about through the interactions with animals or, like the other examples provided, just how little interaction Yuna has with them compared to us. While animals on any real golf course would be cause for concern, there seems to be a thriving zoo next to the courses here. There’s the typical woodland creatures like rabbits, squirrels and birds, but even bears and cats have found a home on the green, playing in the sand and drinking the water in the lakes. The animals often scatter when your first stroke comes barreling towards them, but a few stick around as you carefully line up your next shot. It’s pleasant and tranquil, if a little distant like before with all these lovely environments and animals you can’t interact with. A little prod on the touchscreen though and the animals that were once peacefully grazing perk up and sprint away from the omnipotent touch of the divine. Or were they simply agitated by your quiet movements while lining up for the next stroke?
And I know what’re you thinking: Why does this mysterious power bother me so much? A reasonable person would point out that every game separates character and player simply by having you hold a controller. They would say that everything you do in a video game regardless of whether or not it’s connected to your character is still you doing things, still you affecting things. I disagree. I’m the cute red-haired Yuna dressed in a lovely plaid skirt, and my range of actions with her is limited to careful pivots and a three-tap button system to determine the power of her golf swing. I honestly feel a little angry – even guilty – how much power the game gives me compared to my character. I want Yuna to feel the rough bark of a tree and shake the damn thing herself if she wants to. I want her to get close to the big, fluffy bears calmly scratching their backs on the green and playing with the bashful kittens. I want to take her through all the experiences I’m granted and all the actions she’s denied. She deserves the best. After all, she’s the one doing everything for me.
So, I’m the God in video games. I just don’t want all the power.