Thoughts: A Short Hike

shorthike_track

A Short Hike spread through my online community of friends like some sort of viral plague. The first person to buy it posted their initial impression to our Slack: “Wow, this is lovely!” Shortly afterwards a second “X now owns A Short Hike” popped up in my Steam activity feed, and the person responsible posted their initial impression: “Wow, this is lovely!”1. Things snowballed, and pretty soon the activity feed was nothing but people on my Friends list buying A Short Hike, and then gushing about it in Slack: “Wow, this is lovely!” I’m a cynical curmudgeon at the best of times and am naturally disinclined to loveliness in all of its myriad forms, and treated these descriptions with the appropriate degree of scepticism; calling something “lovely” always seemed like it was one step away from calling it “nice”, which is the word you use when you really want to damn something with faint praise. When those same people started seriously talking it up as the best game they’d played this year, though, I decided I might as well spend a few hours seeing what all the fuss was about.

So I went and bought A Short Hike. Booted it up. Started playing it.

And immediately thought: Wow. This is lovely.

A Short Hike is an absolutely charming little game that takes Breath Of The Wild’s mobility mechanics — gliding and climbing — and builds around them an almost perfect distillation of the wider macrocosm of open world games. You’re a bird-person called Claire, and you’ve come to the idyllic Hawk Peak National Park for a well-deserved holiday. There’s just one tiny snag to resolve before you can properly start relaxing, though: you’re expecting a phone call, but Hawk Peak is all the way out in the boonies and there’s no cellphone reception. The only place where you can get a signal is the summit of Hawk Peak itself; sadly your holiday hut is situated on the coast at sea level. Thus you set out on a quest to scale the mountain, overcoming various obstacles and getting to know the various anthropomorphic animal inhabitants of the park along the way.

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This would, of course, be a lot easier if Claire could just fly all the way to the top of the mountain. Unfortunately despite being a bird she starts the game in a curiously flightless state, and is only able to glide during a descent; this lets her travel some impressive horizontal distances but does absolutely nothing for her goal of scaling high altitudes. In order to actually climb Hawk Peak she needs to acquire Golden Feathers, which function as her stamina bar. One Golden Feather allows one double-jump; multiple Golden Feathers can be used to chain together multiple jumps. You don’t get a huge amount of vertical clearance on jumps, unfortunately, so at first they’re mostly used for platforming. No, the thing that’ll actually get her to the top of the mountain is good old-fashioned climbing. This functions much as it does in Breath Of The Wild: approach a vertical surface and hold down A to start climbing it, which will drain Golden Feathers. Once you’re out of Golden Feathers Claire loses her grip and falls — there’s no fall damage, so the only thing hurt will be her pride — and some of the longer cliff faces leading up to the peak require a minimum of seven Golden Feathers in order to scale.

This Golden Feather hunt is the core of A Short Hike’s gameplay. There’s a couple that are plonked into the environment just off the obvious route to the summit before you reach major obstacles, so that you don’t have to turn back if you’re one feather short, but the rest require at least some work to find and reach. Some of them are visible from observing points, but in high places that require gliding down from an even higher altitude to reach. Some of them are hidden on platforms and in nooks and crannies that require some exploration and experimentation to reach. Some of them can be straight up bought from NPCs, but this in turn requires you to scour the world for cash to buy them — there are coins and chests littered all over Hawk Peak, but the feathers are expensive and you’ll need to pick up a lot of money to buy them all.

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The majority of feathers, though, require you to interact with Hawk Peak’s inhabitants and fellow tourists in a variety of fun activities. These range from finding lost items for people, to visiting a set of specific described locations in order, to getting a high score in “beachstickball” (volleyball with a stick). As activities go they are simple yet engaging, and some have surprising depth since a key part of A Short Hike is that you’re not given any kind of map or quest log; you have to learn and remember the layout of the island, the things you need to collect and the places you need to go. Nothing you have to do in A Short Hike takes a particularly long time; appropriately enough for a game about hiking, the major portion of it is taken up with walking, climbing and orienteering.

It is good, then, that A Short Hike takes so much inspiration from Breath Of The Wild for its mobility mechanics. If you’ve played Breath Of The Wild you’ll know how good the climbing and gliding felt there, and the same is true for A Short Hike. Gliding is a ton of fun all on its own; launching yourself from a high point and soaring above the park’s inhabitants as they go about their business is serenely peaceful, but if you’re in a particular hurry you can sacrifice some of that height and dive to gain a huge speed boost that gets you to where you need to go as quickly as possible. As you pick up more and more feathers your ability to chain jumps together starts to resemble actual flight, complete with Claire flapping her wings on every jump. There’s a couple of hidden items you can pick up to boost the height of each jump considerably, and when you have those plus all twenty of the Golden Feathers you can practically fly all the way to Hawk Peak’s summit without caring about any of the awkward scenery features along the way. The sense of progression from being entirely grounded to becoming absurdly super-mobile is wonderful.  It’s something that’s clearly had an absolute ton of work and polish put into it to produce something so simple and which feels so satisfying to do; AAA games like Anthem wish they had a flight mechanic this refined.

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Because the simple act of getting around is so enjoyable it’s easy to quickly forget your original goal of reaching the top of Hawk Peak and lose yourself in exploring the park, and you’ll quickly discover there’s a whole other set of activities that don’t provide feathers or help you along to the top of the mountain in any way, but which have been included because they’re just that fun. Things like treasure hunts, and parkour races, and (of course) a fishing minigame with 15 different types of fish to collect. You end up talking to just about everyone in the park, not because they might have something shiny for you, but because you’re genuinely interested to see what they have to say. And every single one of these interactions is delightful. There’s not a hint of negativity in A Short Hike. The writing is pleasant and encouraging without being twee; a little bit of millennial angst does make it into the game, but not enough to be offensive.

That’s something that extends to the environments and music as well. If you can get over the jagged voxel style of the graphics (I didn’t have a problem with it) and the somewhat disappointing draw distance whenever you’re looking down on the park from a high vantage point, then A Short Hike ends up being an astonishingly pretty game. The colours used are warm and vibrant; the animations on the rivers and trees imbue the park with a sense of liveliness that’s often missing in open world games; and each area of the park has a fairly distinctive look that both adds variety and aids navigation. Above all, Hawk Peak is an extremely calming place to run around in, surrounded by nature and completely isolated from the troubles of the outside world. It’s like somebody managed to realise the ideal holiday destination I carry around in my head and put it into a video game.

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Possibly the most remarkable thing of all about A Short Hike, though, is that it packs all of this detail, all of this sensory wonder, into a game that, if you fully engage with everything it is offering, is about three hours long. It’s potentially only twenty minutes long if you beeline straight for the mountain summit, but that’s not the point of A Short Hike.  There’s absolutely no bullshit make-work or filler content present in the game. Everything you do is worthwhile, and everything is fulfilling. It doesn’t feel like a three hour game; it feels like a full-fat open world experience, and after finishing it I was shocked to see that my playtime was that low. Somehow its short length is ideal — A Short Hike is precisely as long it needs to be for you to experience all of its comforts without overstretching itself. And anyway, even if I was inclined to complain I couldn’t really justify it when the game is called A Short Hike: the clue was in the name, and it’s priced at an extremely reasonable £6 to assuage any remaining concerns. I spend more than that on lunch most days.

Really, I can’t say enough good words about A Short Hike and I am really, really struggling to think of any bad ones. The worst thing I can say about it is that the camera controls are a little too restrictive for my tastes, and when that’s the only real piece of criticism I can level at a game I’m forced to concede that it’s something special. Playing it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, as it is a perfectly-formed piece of meditative escapism that’s sorely needed in this day and age. Certainly when I look back on 2019 I doubt I’ll remember any game quite as fondly as A Short Hike. It is, in not so many words, a lovely game. And if A Short Hike has taught me anything it’s that, sometimes, simply being lovely is more than enough.

  1. I’m paraphrasing somewhat here, but the sentiment is accurate and one person used those exact words.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: A Short Hike

  1. ilitarist says:

    >There’s absolutely no bullshit make-work or filler content present in the game.

    You know, this is the best thing you can tell me about the game to sell it. Lately I’m trying a lot of my unplayed games and find all of them lacking mostly because they feel made of filler. This is why I probably gravitate to strategy games all the time, those don’t have filler (outside of the second part of every 4X game ever). I loved hours spent in something like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey but it was conciously made to milk my concentration.

    You’re so positive about a game that looks like it’s trying to get too much out of PS1 hardware that I suspect trolling. Anyway, you sold it to at least one person.

    • Hentzau says:

      I think it’s because A Short Hike has zero progression systems beyond getting golden feathers, and you only need a very small number of them to get to the top of the mountain, which is the only concrete goal the game gives you. Anything else you do in the game is something that you are *choosing* to do for its own sake. The game never tells you that an activity will reward X amount of gold or XP; it leaves determining the value of playing it entirely up to you, and you engage with it as much or as little as you want. Which is a great way to make something feel rewarding and fulfilling, I think.

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