One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
Over the last ten years or so, the technical advances in video games have been breathtaking, even if this progress hasn’t always been matched by the creativity on display. I’ve walked Renaissance Rome and Victorian London, I’ve driven through a parodic version of Los Angeles and ridden a horse through the dying Old West. One of the most venerated gaming series, named simply Flight Simulator, is about to release its latest instalment, which lets you take off and land anywhere on earth. Judging from pre-release material, the way the game looks is out of this world – except it is this world. I half expect that if I were to buy the 2020 Flight Simulator and fly over its representation of where we live, I’d be able to catch a peek of a little virtual me, sitting at a computer and playing Flight Simulator. In terms of scope, fidelity and detail, video games offer amazing worlds – though all too often these worlds take a real, considerable toll on the people that create them.
What we’re seeing more and more, though, is small but beautifully realised worlds created by indie developers. Worlds that are more lo-fi and homespun, clockwork universes, even worlds made almost entirely of words. Worlds that don’t strive to recreate reality as much as possible so much as create a distilled version of a very subjective reality. These games may be much smaller in scope and shorter to play from beginning to end, but this needn’t make them any less breathtaking.
A Short Hike by developer adamgryu, which came out in 2019, is such a beautiful small world. In the game, you play as Claire, a young woman, who’s traveled to the island where her aunt works as a a park ranger. She’s not entirely happy with the enforced break, and this is due in no small part to her not getting any cellphone reception – though Aunt May tells her that she may be able to get a signal at the top of Hawk Peak.
At a glance, this may sound altogether precious and twee – which the cartoony, pixelated aesthetic, the anthropomorphised characters (Claire and her aunt are birds, other characters are human-shaped bunnies, frogs and the like) and the light, tinkly piano soundtrack may reinforce at a glance. But A Short Hike has a beautifully light touch; its writing is colloquial and and thoroughly nice, but this niceness never feels like an affectation. Exploring Hawk Peak Provincial Park feels like summer holidays, not the way they really were but the way they should have been. You collect shells, play beach stick ball, you explore the forest, find rusty tractors and an old graveyard, but mainly you enjoy the feeling of late afternoon – soon the air’ll get cooler, but not yet. Just now the temperature is perfect.
You have an aim and a motivation – to reach the top of Hawk Peak, to get reception because you’re expecting that important call – which gives A Short Hike a sense of direction, but you’re pleasantly pulled into two directions. Not being able to take the expected call is a source of anxiety, but at the same time there’s a whole island to explore and enjoy. Its nooks and crannies distract and soothe you, but they also prepare you for what the title of the game promises is a short hike – but it is actually quite an undertaking. Not the draining 100-hour undertaking that some of the gargantuan open worlds of AAA gaming impose on the player, but nonetheless something that takes an effort. A Short Hike is the perfect length to make these twin impulses work: you want to get to the summit, but you also want to stretch out the moment, before the phone call, because you both want to and don’t want to know what the voice at the other end will say.
And then you reach the summit. You enjoy the moment and the view. For a second you’ve forgotten about the phone – and then it rings. A Short Hike is comforting and sweet even before that moment, but adamgryu brings his story to a perfect literal and metaphorical high point. And then it is over. But in the one or two hours of time you spend on Hawk Peak, it leaves you with an impression of place and mood and moment that few games can muster.