One thing I love about indie games is the sheer eagerness with which they address topics and scenarios AAA games would never touch. Take today’s topic, for example. A Short Hike is a game about a young bird-lady vacationing to a sleepy, idyllic national park. There’s no grand twist to that narrative, no threat or danger that dogs her steps, and not even the faintest whiff of cynicism about it; in short, it’s almost the antithesis to the modern AAA game model, and I honestly, deeply love it for that.
A Short Hike (PC [reviewed], PS4, Switch, Xbox One)
Released Jul 2019 | Developed / Published: Adam Robinson-Yu
Genre: Adventure | HLTB: 2 hours
So, as I said, our story here concerns our protagonist, Claire, and her visit to the secluded Hawk Peak Provincial Park as a holiday. Her aunt is a ranger there, so Claire gets to hole up in a lovely little cabin tucked away near the beach of this gorgeous island park. Anyway, it turns out Claire has never made the local hike to the top of the mountain, but she finds herself compelled to do so because she needs phone reception in order to make a call. Claire is cast as a distinctly modern heroine; it’s way too relatable that she vacations to an area of stunning national beauty and prefers to stay indoors on her phone! Claire’s motive behind the hike – her phone reception – is both a bit absurd and also equally easy to sympathize with, frankly. You might perhaps expect the game to make some sort of commentary on nature vs technology, or maybe to indulge in a little eye-rolling at the expense of our hero needing her phone, but that is simply not the case. The truth is, A Short Hike belongs to a heartwarming modern tradition of rejecting such judgmental positions. I talked about this when discussing Frog Detective and its humour, but it seems to be a pattern in more modern writing and I love it.
I think the word I’m trying to find to describe the attitude that A Short Hike carries with it is “kind”. It’s kind. It’s sweet, and caring, and feels humble. It’s an atmosphere that ends up a constant companion during your playthrough as you amble, climb, and glide around the cliffs and forests of Hawk Peak. I’ve played other games that are built without threats but sometimes this ends up resulting in a walking simulator that struggles to give the player a sense of impetus and drive. A Short Hike cheerfully avoids this though; part of the joy of playing it is in the sheer charm it exudes. It’s present in the dialogue with the other park-goers, giving the game a tangible feeling of life and busy-ness, it’s present in the rambling exploration as you crest over another hill and find yet more to play with in its compact open world, and it’s present in the simple, solid gameplay loop that keeps you trundling along. When you cut standard gameplay mechanics like threat and combat you need to find some other way to push your players along, and A Short Hike manages that with aplomb.
In all honesty, I expected A Short Hike to be a walking sim from the name alone. I suppose a cynical response to it might label the game as such, but I don’t think that would be a fair assessment. I was pleasantly surprised at the way it invites you to interact with its world; make no mistake, A Short Hike really wants you to explore the park and sink into its easygoing, languid-summer-day approach to quests and content. The park itself is both bigger than I expected but also small enough to be easy to find your way around, although the swinging camera occasionally makes it a bit disorientating at first. Importantly though, everything about the park is distinct; you can find yourself wandering along the golden beaches and turn inwards into the swaying grass around the visitor center but it’s not long before you head deeper and discover the thick forest trails around Good Creek, or stumble upon the tranquil Meteor Lake, or even start attempting to scale the craggy walls of Hawk Peak’s titular mountain. Everywhere feels notably unique.
It’s also achingly beautiful. You can set the game’s graphics to be heavily pixelated so it runs on all sorts of systems but if you crank it to its best (also not a huge ask of hardware, given it ran very nicely on my laptop) it looks stunning. A Short Hike uses a kind of polygonal PS1-but-good style to the visuals, yet another similarity to Frog Detective alongside the style of writing, and I feel like keeping that balance between a striking look and being playable on as wide a range of systems as possible is both an important consideration for indie games but also part of what makes A Short Hike so easy to recommend. The character models are pleasingly simple, with their big heads and stubby bodies reminding me a little of early Animal Crossing designs, but perhaps more importantly the actual park is gorgeous and expressive with a range of biomes to explore. It’s bright, it’s cheery, and it’s simple, which makes it fantastically easy to parse, which in turns aids the exploration in a very natural way.
Often the other characters you can meet, who are also enjoying the tranquility the park offers, will have some quests for you to complete. Some of these require you to scour the area in order to find what they want, so it feeds the need for exploration, such as an early NPC who requests that you gather seashells for some secret project. Often you’ll also just find folk who want to give you some tools with which you can interact with the world, and they’re built around encouraging the same kind of quiet simplicity; things like fishing, treasure hunting, and joining in with some kids playing a game they’ve made up. Claire can carry a large inventory of items, not all of which are for fun; some bits and bobs are more functional, such as a shovel for digging up coins, or a bucket for carrying water and watering plants.
The items you’re really after however are the Golden Feathers. These act as a kind of stamina meter, defining how many times Claire can flap her wings to gain height while gliding, how long she can run for, and, perhaps most importantly, how long she can climb for. These actions and how much you can do them form the primary roadblock to your progression. Climbing the mountain trail requires Claire to have enough stamina to make the hike, so the game both encourages you to explore the park, and to help the other folk there to gather even more Golden Feathers. It reminds me of Firewatch – appropriately enough, given that that game is also set in a national park) – in that it’s about finding the joy in exploration for its own sake. The end result is a marvelously placid atmosphere where trying to rush through it would be doing it a sincere disservice.
I want to reiterate what I said at the top here. A game like A Short Hike probably couldn’t exist as anything other than an indie title. It’s content in being calm and understated, and wants the player to revel in its world as much as possible, but on their own terms. At most it’s only a few hours of play, but it’s a lovely time regardless. There’s a school of thought in writing that the word “nice” is to be avoided because it’s worthless and squats, powerless in a sentence, but I disagree. Some things are genuinely nice, and A Short Hike is one of them; it’s nice, and gentle, and a simply wonderful time. There’s not a vast tonne of content, but everything that is there is perfectly balanced; nothing feels overwrought or like it ought not to be there, but instead A Short Hike is that rare beast, a game where everything included feels measured and right.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.