A Short Hike is a brief, delightful game set on an island with bad cell phone reception. The experience is perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling as if I’d taken a vacation to a seaside forest, while actually sitting, sweltering in front of my PC. It’s that good, and it is indeed — as the title suggests — short, coming to an end in one to two hours. At that length almost any detail can count as a spoiler, so if you are at all interested in the game I encourage you to read no further and go play it for yourself. It’s a satisfying, well-designed treat with style and heart that charmed me like few other titles this year.
A Short Hike starts with the view of a car driving down the highway. Inside the car the driver is bringing a young bird named Claire out of the city, and away from “everything going on.” Claire is you, and you’re visiting the island of Hawk Peak Provincial Park to visit your aunt May who works there as a forest ranger. One sunny day, Claire walks out of her cabin to find Aunt May sitting next to a campfire by the beach. She had just been sitting around waiting for a call, but there is no cell reception and Aunt May advises her that she will have to climb to the top of Hawk Peak if she wants to use her phone. Hiking to the peak is something everyone on the island has done at one time or another and Claire has been meaning to go herself. She might as well, since she’s pretty bored.
Setting out to hike the peak — so that Claire can maybe get phone service — you meander through the park’s paths and over its bridges and hills, meeting the other vacationing animals who are wandering about and camping on the island. There are shells to collect, coins to find, sticks that can be picked up and the occasional treasure chest sitting on a ledge or hill. Occasionally one of the other characters you meet will offer you small quests. One has lost a watch and asks that if you find it you give it back to them. “Don’t sell it on the internet, or whatever,” he says before you turn to go. You meet a fox who asks you how your day is going. “Would you say you feel lost and directionless?” he asks, before giving you a compass to help you identify which way is north.
There are many items scattered over the island to collect but the most valuable of these are golden feathers. One press of the A button causes Claire to do a small hop, while holding the button while falling through the air or jumping from a hill causes her wings to extend and glide. Golden feathers allow Claire to flap her wings, gaining a height boost. One press of the A button while gliding lifts you up and uses a golden feather, displayed in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen by feathers that turn blue when used and regenerate once you touch land. Golden feathers also allow you to run quickly, turning blue at a slower rate when your feet stay on the ground. The more feathers you find the faster you can run and the further you can fly.
Little of this would be worth describing in detail if there wasn’t such a simple, tactile pleasure in walking and flying around as Claire. Collecting golden feathers to fly higher and float longer is a delight because exploring the cheerful island is so calming, and because the movement just feels fun. The game’s compact simplicity extends to the inventory and actions with items like sticks and shovels. It is also present in the sound that accompanies the game, both the music that shifts and changes depending on where you are on the island, and the individual sound effects that accompany whacking a beach ball with a stick, digging in the dirt with a shovel, or bouncing off a sun umbrella that doubles as a trampoline.
As you collect more golden feathers and make your way up the peak you meet more animals going about their day to interact with. The conversations in A Short Hike are particularly good. Lines are given in small speech bubble bursts that break up the sentences and if you return to a character after speaking with them they will frequently remember your previous conversation. Early in the game you can even annoy one bird by repeatedly asking how to jump, causing her to eventually shout at you in all caps. There’s a lot of personality on display here. One character at the base of the peak selling golden feathers explains he’s selling them to pay back some of his student debt. Further down you might meet a pack running in a loop to train for an upcoming marathon. If you talk to one of them he will reflect on his chosen hobby, asking “What if running wasn’t my life, but I was using running to run from life?!” What if indeed.
I won’t say what happens once Claire reaches the top of the mountain, or how many golden feathers there are to collect, or what the bucket you find to water the island’s special flowers does. But I will encourage anyone in need of a break or breath of fresh air to pick up this small, brilliant gem and take a short hike to explore Hawk Peak Provincial Park. There are races to run, fish to be caught, treasure maps to follow and friends to be made. And no phone service. Like with most weekend trips out of the city, I was sad to see it come to an end.
A Short Hike is available now for PC, Mac & Linux.