A worthwhile journey.
Hiking can be a challenge in the pandemic. While getting outside is a lower risk activity, it can be challenging to find uncrowded trails where you can maintain a safe distance from other people. Luckily, A Short Hike recreates the best parts of hiking, its physicality and all the odd social interactions that come with being in the outdoors. A Short Hike allows players to enjoy the outdoors and the culture of adventure from the comfort of their home.
Its physicality is built upon the weight of its movement. Claire, the game’s birdlike avatar, moves around the world like a normal hiker instead of a seasoned adventurer. She walks and swims relatively slowly on the trails and lakes she explores. At first she is unable to even climb past some of the obstacles on the trail and must find golden feathers that serve as a source of stamina. Unlike the acrobatics of Nathan Drake or the extensive mountain climbing of Breath of the Wild, A Short Hike emphasizes how physically strenuous it is to climb through the limited stamina of each feather.
“A Short Hike’s world pushes back against the player. The world doesn’t feel hostile, but it also doesn’t cater to Claire or the other hikers.”
Even in the air, Claire has a sense of weight that makes the more fantastical movement feel grounded. Her gliding is peaceful, but descends quickly back to the ground. When she flaps her wings to get a mid-air jump, she does not bound into the air, instead making a small ascent before diving down.
These brief moments exploring the sky are like finding a clearing in the woods creating a sense of openness and freedom, albeit one that always leads back to the trail.
A Short Hike combines its movement with the small scale of its world to highlight the physical aspects of hiking. Unlike the multi-day journeys of Breath of the Wild or Skyrim, A Short Hike recreates a comparatively simple day hike. The mountain Claire summits is one found in a partisan provincial park rather than one in the formidable Himalayas. Climbing to the peak in A Short Hike mirrors the struggle of trying to hike up a small mountain or difficult bluff; while the struggles and victories are small, they’re also personal.
In addition to the small scale, A Short Hike’s world is willing to push back against the player. While it does not treat nature as a dangerous force like many survival games, the cold peak of the mountain shows how weather can make hiking difficult. By locking feathers spent in the cold, it recreates the feeling of the elements sapping your energy as you hike. The world doesn’t feel hostile, but it also doesn’t cater to Claire or the other hikers.
Instead, it feels indifferent, just like the weather that hikers face.
While A Short Hike’s world and movement recreates the feeling of physically hiking through a world, its characters and dialogue highlight the best parts of interacting with people while outdoors. It understands the eccentricity in outdoor hobbies and uses that to create interesting and sometimes silly social situations.
One situation that highlights the characters’ eccentricity emerges while heading to the climbing walls. While this section serves as a brief tutorial on climbing, it also showcases two personalities extremely common in outdoor hobbies, that of the serious climber and that of the laid back.
One of the climbers is extremely intense, going on and on about how big their climbing association is and the importance of climbing, while the other is a relatively relaxed and welcoming climber who seems exasperated with the other climber’s intensity and elitism. The interaction between Claire and these climbers is both funny and an amusing representation of the awkward moments of interacting with people in any scene as a newcomer.
Despite the occasional elitist and jerk, A Short Hike’s characters are extremely friendly. They have their quirks and issues though they seem genuinely welcoming.
While outdoor spaces are not always friendly to everyone and can suffer from elitism, A Short Hike takes the best from these spaces and creates a virtual outdoor community. Claire is not creating deep social connections, but is instead engaging in the generous friendliness that can permeate through the best outdoor experiences.
The fetch quests remind me of a pay-it-forward attitude that has hikers helping each other and working together. Being able to help find someone’s watch or see an experienced runner giving a newbie a sweat band helps me remember the times that I have both helped and have been helped by other people in the outdoors.
“A Short Hike succeeds in creating a virtual outdoor community.”
However, the one thing that cemented A Short Hike’s ability to recreate the feeling of being outside for me was the final phone call at the peak of the mountain.
Editor’s note: The next two paragraphs contain what may be considered end game spoilers. They are vague in nature but reader beware.
Claire’s conversation with her mother highlights both how someone’s personal life influences how they enjoy the outdoors and how that feeling of nervousness can permeate through someone’s hike.
I’ve had those phone calls when I was working outside and it can be nerve wracking not knowing if someone is okay or to find out that someone was in the hospital after-the-fact. Even though Claire’s mother is fine and Claire succeeds in climbing the mountain, that heaviness can seep into the rest of the outdoors and it can be hard to clear your head, even when surrounded by nature.
Even with a heavier ending, A Short Hike commits to showing the best parts of the outdoors. Its physicality creates an enjoyable journey and its social interactions make that journey memorable. That journey can be challenging–or even a little strange, at times–but it always feels worthwhile in the end.
A Short Hike is available now on the Switch eShop as well as popular PC storefronts including itch.io.
William Dowell is an entertainment freelance writer and musician. He has written for SyFy Wire, Unwinnable, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more. Follow him on Twitter at @Shmoo505 and check out his work at williamgdowell.contently.com.