Review: A Short Hike (2019)

Friday, January 01, 2021

Claire soars above her aunt's cabin

Many games promise a world, and some even deliver1. A Short Hike definitely delivers, but its world is the size of a single (marvelous, gorgeous, detailed) island.

You play as Claire, a bird who’s visiting her Aunt May, a park ranger. Claire’s expecting an important call but needs to climb to the top of the hill to get reception. From this prosaic premise comes a meandering adventure.

The artwork itself is beautiful, although I admit its particular style of pixelation took me a bit to adjust to. The game keeps the exploration fresh by giving the various niches of the map their own plant life, palette, and weather. The cartoon style gives a nod at the stakes. While you are climbing, swimming, and flying, there’s no fall damage, no drowning, and definitely no infinite drops. Meanwhile, the Phone Call lurks in the background as Claire interacts with the various people around the island.

The game has enough allusions and similarities to Animal Crossing that it’s practically begging for the comparison. But while some elements might be an homage, the game is not merely an homage. For example, it manages to keep the self-directed feel of Animal Crossing despite lacking the variety of customizations and collectibles. And while it has a minor mechanic or two that’s nearly identical, the two critical ones, climbing and soaring, are all its own.

Vitally, it retains the charming smallness of Animal Crossing. Even though the title elides the cliff faces, tricky terrain, and at least one chasm you must pass to complete the “short hike,” it is a short game. One consequence of smallness is the nearness—you’ll often bump into the same characters repeatedly as you explore the island or (in my case) get lost. Several of the characters get short but rewarding little arcs, and it’s either Claire’s patience or desperation for a distraction that lets her get swept in the tiny problems of strangers.

A Short Hike is also interesting because it accomplishes some of what games with much larger worlds do—the verisimilitude, the blending and juxtaposition of areas that have their own character, and the feeling there’s always more to explore. Of course, if you sat down, determined to explore every last square of the map, you would hit a limit faster. It’s not hard to complete a loop of the entire island. Still, A Short Hike shows that a game doesn’t have to be enormous or sprawling in order to be immersive. That’s not new, but it’s maybe good to have a reminder in an era of Red Dead Redemption 2 and Breath of the Wild.

This is not to say we should make brevity the new trait we hype in games. (I for one am itching to dive into Breath of the Wild once I finally get a Switch.) But it’s cool to see short games like A Short Hike and the Frog Detective series see success.

Beyond interpretive or aesthetic reasons, my appreciation of short games is partly because of my time and priorities: I have limited time, and I tend to favor watching another episode from my Netflix queue or grabbing a book from my nightstand over opening Steam2. While this reason is less artistic, I do think it’s valid. Games, like any media, can absolutely go too far to accommodate what it thinks the audience needs or wants. But changing your scope to make your game easier to make or easier to finish can be a valuable constraint in helping you remove unnecessary elements allowing you to refine what’s left in addition to expanding your target audience. With care—and A Short Hike takes that care—you can adapt your game to your audience’s needs and wants without being patronizing or pandering.

While the mechanics are well done, they’re not perfect. Sometimes as the camera rotates, trees or mountains obscure Claire. Sometimes the rotation is enough that you need to change the keys you’re pressing because the directions are relative to the camera. It’s hardly a deal-breaker—I honestly forgot that until other reviewers brought that up—but it is frustrating at times and a bit of an anomaly in an otherwise polished title.

Despite those camera issues, A Short Hike is really a remarkable game—especially because it’s largely the work of one person. (After participating in a few game jams, I appreciate this all the more.) As much as my mind lingers on the many great moments in the game, I can’t help but wonder what other small worlds Adam Robinson-Yu and other indie developers have in mind.

Further Reading Watching

  1. I happened to be looking at an old Myst CD and it promises “A Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World,” if you’re looking for a sense how old this promise is. 

  2. A few friends are regular streamers so I probably watch people play video games more than I play them.