By Neil Merrett
Golf Story, released on Nintendo Switch in 2017, developed by Sidebar Games
Role playing games, even in some of their earliest turn-based and text-based iterations, are perhaps the most narratively complex and plot rich of all the genres in videogaming.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise, given that RPGs are traditionally built around the idea of playing the protagonist role in a sprawling multiple choice adventure that uses the player’s choices and interactions with others to drive the plot .
As opposed to more straightforward adventure games of yesteryear, where you may be charged with the role of some often silent protagonist, role playing games require you to interact with a range of characters throughout the world, as opposed to just hitting things with a swords.
As videogames have evolved, these different genres have tended to blur and marge together to create more immersive simulators, adventures games and even sports sims. Now any number of these genres have adopted the RPG approach to storytelling that puts the player in a specific role such as superstar athlete, conflicted tomb raider or a sword wielding weirdo in a ‘dressing gown’.
This brings us rather neatly to 2017’s Golf Story. This is an RPG that swaps out the classic genre tropes and conventions of a chosen one looking to master both sword and sorcery to restore justice to a morally complex world, with the tale of an aspiring athlete looking to pick up legendary putting and driving skills to honour a long lost father.
This is not to say that the game is without the occasional run in with supernatural menaces, or the all important need to find some legendary golf club or artefact of a bygone sporting age. But, as the title suggests, this is ultimately a story about golf and the trials of tribulations of rival clubs, the individual cost of ambition and the challenges posed by disruptive rodents on the fairway.
By switching from a world of dragons and flaming manifestations of totalitarian evil, Golf Story’s charm is in its attempts to bring a fantastical edge to the classic sporting tropes of practice, practice, practice, and the endless tournaments – albeit it with an accessible and entertaining golf game attached.
The people we meet along the way
That the central plot of a young man seeking to honour his father via their pursuit of greatness, – or at least a regional championship and a semi-passable handicap – is somewhat cliche is not really the point.
The story is mainly there to set up ludicrous challenges and quests, sometimes taking the form of tasks such as landing a ball into a crocodile’s mouth from 200 yards away. Yet within this narrative framework, there are a few memorable characters. The most notable of these is the ‘Coach’, a seemingly standard shaman-like mentor figure that underneath hides the incredibly human traits of hubris, doomed ambition and delusions around their place in the overall world.
Like any good wizard or sensei figure you may have experienced in an RPG, Coach starts off as a fairly standard videogame non-playable character (NPC). A character that sets the player their objectives and quests to move them forward in the game, while also providing what seems like sage advice on the intricacies of a good chip shot, and how to better level up your in-game skills.
Coach goes on to become a much more fleshed out figure with his own story line that explores the other side of the traditional father son story. In this case, rather than a child trying to prove their value in living out the hopes and dreams of their parent, Coach is a father trying to find his own place in a world where his own son has more than eclipsed his wildest ambitions and dreams.
The character’s nadir is perhaps when you team up in a boys vs girls pre-dinner golf tournament, where, after hours spent trying to live up to Coach’s impossible standards and strict teachings on smacking a ball around – the player makes a startling discovery about their mentor.
Coach is an extremely bad golfer, and something of a liability in a tournament against fierce rivals, but what can you do when you are a team brought together by happenstance?
This isn’t to say that coach is a fraud or malicious – like many of us, he has just sometimes fallen short of the life he dreams of living.
Ultimately, his teachings remain broadly sound and if nothing else, your Coach, like the game’s main character, is just looking for any old sense of purpose and redemption that can be found over the occasionally disappointing course of a regular human life. Although largely an excuse to set up a scenario where the player is tasked with rescuing some truly dreadful tee shots delivered by their increasingly terrible mentor, there is some very real world pathos in seeing two people push through their own inadequacies to become something a little more.
In the end, many of us may fall short of greatness in whatever ways we chose to try and realise it. Yet if we are lucky, we might just find people to share the load and push us forward, even with their own issues to deal with.
Even as his artifice is stripped back by the cruel revelations about his actual lack of ability, Coach remains with the player – for better or worse – from the beginning to the end of the quest.
But aside from his comedic value, the character is something of a breath of fresh air in gaming storytelling. There is real pathos to Coach. A mundane and ridiculous figure though he is. Not to mention he comes with his own whistle.
So for those well versed in the great RPG characters of recent decades, from Sephiroth or Auron of Final Fantasdy, to Geralt of Rivia or a mysterious woman with one name, it might be time to add Coach to the pantheon of great videogame characters in all his ridiculous glory.