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Get lost and find yourself in ‘A Short Hike’

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A Short Hike key artwork.

Whether it’s 40-plus hour epics, RPG grindfests, or endless idle apps, gaming today often assumes a huge time commitment. In comparison, A Short Hike is a novella. The itch that this brief excursion intends to scratch is so specific that there aren’t many games that compare to it so neatly.

A Short Hike is “a little exploration game about hiking up a mountain” developed by Adam Robinson-Yu with music by Mark Sparling. You play as Claire, an anthropomorphic bird who comes to visit their Aunt May, a park ranger at Hawk Peak Trail. Claire is driven by an unknown force to take the trail toward the summit of Hawk Peak, a feat you have not yet accomplished.

Beyond moving around and navigating menus, there are three key mechanics to the game: running, climbing, and flying. At the beginning of the game, you are given no clear direction in which way to go beyond intermittent signs and dialogue from NPCs, which forces your curiosity to guide you. Your stamina for the aforementioned mechanics are tethered to the amount of Golden Feathers you collect, which immediately become obvious items to acquire as the elevation naturally gates you off from venturing forward.

Gameplay from A Short Hike.

The park is populated by dozens of visitors that have their own intentions, jobs, and activities. Their associated sidequests appear organically and it always seems that when one is almost completed you discover two more. You are rewarded with new interactable items that allow you to revisit parts of the park to fish, grow flowers, or dig up treasure. Before you know it, you are steadily moving up the mountain, overcoming any obstacle along the way.

At this point, you have listened to the music swell and fall dynamically to the environment’s autumnal palette and “big and crunchy pixels.” You feel grand overlooking a coastal shelf, letting the waves and wind wash over you. Ten seconds away from you is a campground with a lake, where you can laze around on the beach casting your line out for pike. The haze right above you is a chill mood setter, accented by piano and violins. You have made it this far and can go just a little bit more.

Gameplay from A Short Hike

The feeling of accomplishment as you reach Hawk Peak is augmented by your short hike. Kind words you’ve exchanged along the way parallel your inventory of experience. It’s difficult not to be humbled by all this in what seems like a small story in a small world. Fulfill Claire’s story, spread your wings and glide down. Tell me it doesn’t belong in a list of greatest video game moments of all time.

French philosopher, Guy Debord coined the term dérive. It is “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances” meant to create location-specific unplanned journeys. A Short Hike is dérive incarnate. The game suggests that unique relationships with the world and its denizens is a degree of freedom worth exploring. A Short Hike raises these questions in the player’s mind: What connotations does this have in our daily routines, communities, and interactions? One thing is certain: designing in tandem with this concept is worth recognition.

A Short Hike has pulled off a magic trick with scope, space, and time. You can complete this game in a few short hours, but I can guarantee that its magic dust will stay with you for much longer. Not all games need to be long to say something deeply affecting, and those are the stories we always find time to go back to.

This version of A Short Hike was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.

A Short Hike is developed by Adam Robinson-Yu and is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch.

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