Adam Robinson-Yu’s A Short Hike – Is A Delightful Surprise
11 Aug, 2019
You won’t devote days to it, but A Short Hike is a small marvel, joyous and buoyant, a bubbly platformer with heart. Set on a gorgeous pixelated island, the game follows the adventures of Claire, a rectilinear bird who’s taken a day or two to get away from the city.
It’s a vaguely Chekhovian plot; Claire finds herself amidst nature, without much to do, surrounded by characters who at turns charm and frustrate. Nominally, your task is to reach the top of Hawk Peak, the only place on the island with cell reception. Claire is expecting a phone call, so you set off in search of the trail. The island bristles with footpaths; some lead you toward your goal, while others venture further afield, but A Short Hike is more about getting lost on the way to your destination than rushing to reach a prescribed ending.
It feels a bit like going to summer camp; the world of A Short Hike is alive with brief, diverting activities, most of which come with rewards crucial to your continued progress. Stroll across the island and you’ll find ample opportunities to pass the time. You can collect glittering seashells on the beach, or dig in the sand to find buried treasure. You can fish, netting rare catches to sell for in-game currency. In one out-of-the-way spot, you’re invited to play Beachstickball, a made-up game that eschews competition for collaboration, and higher up the mountain, a wiley opponent challenges you to a meandering race, one in which flight becomes the key to success.
Discovering these mini-games is just as fun as playing them. I don’t usually like to explore too much (open worlds make me nervous), but in my first hour of play, I surprised myself by charting an idiosyncratic course across the island, marked trails be damned.
There’s real joy in scampering from sand to forest to snow, and real effort, too. Getting to the top of Hawk Peak takes work. To climb higher, you need to collect Golden Feathers, which allow you to flap your wings for a nifty double jump (helpful when you’re falling off a ledge), run at speed and climb treacherous cliff faces.
As you venture into new areas, Mark Sparling’s soundtrack evolves to match the moods of your environment, shifting from bouncy calypso to icy synth washes. Despite the variety, I found the music a little twee, as if the game were bashing me over the head with its cuteness. Nobukazu Takemura’s “One Day” would have been perfect, a synthetic confection bleeding nostalgia for the organic.
A Short Hike is compact as a gem. It’s tightly-scripted; everything matters to your journey. There’s no fat to trim (Chekhov would approve). I finished in about three hours, and I’d liken the experience to watching a short film. There’s a beat and pace, a rhythm to the shots. There are shots, too, cinematic shots, angular and sharp, then languid. Timing is crucial to the game’s charm. The camera is restrictive, much like a frame; you see only what you must and no more, the focus on Claire and her place in the immediate environment, which is lush and vibrant, a faceted jewel in the sea.
The dialogue is tight and genuinely funny; it’s written for older millennials, wry, dripping with irony. Your friends in A Short Hike are like your friends in real life, only a bit more effusive. They’re bossy and caring, distracted and joyful, self-referential and self-involved. There’s a cadence to how people talk, a real phrasing to the dialogue that often surprised me. The game is a joy to read, witty as Achewood in its best moments.
I loved A Short Hike, in no small part because it’s so short. I’ve often thought that no play or film should be longer than an hour, hour-and-a-half at the max. In part, it’s because I prioritize aesthetics, and aesthetics can be gauged in the blink of an eye; the style of a game (visual, auditory, mechanical) is usually apparent from the opening, even though the story may take some time.
But I also want my experiences to be comprehensible in their entirety, from start to finish. I have a bad memory, so I prefer objects that can be held in the hand. A Short Hike is a game on a bird’s scale, built for short attention spans and eyes attuned to novelty. It’s a brief diversion; in some universes, it would be a mini-game, but by the end, you’ll feel as though you’ve had a complete experience, one filled with minor accomplishments and miniscule delights.
WHAT DID IND13 THINK?
FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS
You won’t devote days to it, but A Short Hike is a small marvel, joyous and buoyant, a bubbly platformer with heart.