“A Short Hike” is One of My Favorite Games of the Year
2020 has been a hell of a year. It has been unbearably hard for a vast amount of people, making leisure feel like a sin at times. Being stuck inside, fighting for your life, or those around you make the small moments feel even smaller. I had often found the quiet days where you get to sit back and watch TV, read, or play a video game, are the ones I dreaded the most when they used to be my favorite. Those are the days when I have felt most empty.
Looking back on these hard days, video games have maybe been the most important companion I have had. I have played more of them than I ever have, causing my relationship with them to change greatly. Going into the year, the game that I had so sure my game of the year would be The Last of Us: Part 2. Triple-A, big-budget exclusives have made up the bulk of my gaming experiences, and the first Last of Us is maybe my favorite game ever. It came out at a challenging moment when I was 14, and the game’s motto, “endure and survive,” became a creed for me. And, while I do genuinely love Part 2 for a long list of very complicated and personal reasons, it is not my game of the year. That falls to the small indie I played on a whim one afternoon: A Short Hike.
In a year where big studios have frustratingly catered to toxic fans, embracing marketing campaigns that seem out to relish their own barbarity and “edginess,” — of which Naughty Dog’s ads for The Last of Us: Part 2 are a chief example — I had begun to feel like there was no real balance between overly sappy sincerity and grim-dark torture fests. A Short Hike, made by lone developer Adam Robinson-Yu, is a brilliant example of the balance I was looking for. It is a cliché to invoke Pixar when seemingly cute stories have far more depth than anticipated, but playing the game reminded me so vividly of the emotional catharsis I felt after seeing Inside Out (2015) for the first time.
There is a true sense of honesty here. In these “uncertain times” (yuck), acceptance is hard because most often, what you are accepting is a sense of loneliness, of powerlessness to change outcomes. A Short Hike is about embracing that anxiety and finding stability within yourself.
(I am going to discuss spoilers going forward, so I recommend you experience these moments firsthand before reading further)
When losing a loved one, I find the anticipation of loss is the hardest part. There is no place to move on from; you cannot climb out of a pit before you find your footing at the bottom. The hours, days, weeks, months, and even years of seeing the signs are excruciating, always being on guard, waiting for a phone call with the worst news. It can all be so much that you lose sight of the precious moments that could be right in front of you. That is what A Short Hike is about: the paralyzing waiting, but also the way peace comes from acceptance.
The game follows Claire, a young bird who is spending time with her aunt after being dropped off by her mother at the equivalent of a national park. There is no cellphone reception, so she’s forced to fend for herself as her aunt shoves her out the door, refusing to let Claire wallow. From this point, the main verbs of the game are simple. You wander around, finding feathers to upgrade your climbing abilities or other items for the charming cast of characters around the park. These side characters offer a great deal of perspective for Claire, who realizes that struggle is not solitary. Everyone around her has their own problems or goals, and the game makes the great point to show them all as valid regardless of scale. However, it’s the final moment of the game that made it something I thought about for the rest of the year after I played it.
After an increasingly difficult hike up above the clouds, Claire finally reaches the top. It is a peaceful moment as Claire takes in the beautiful scenery, the quiet wind, and the sound of the wildlife, but then the phone rings. It is Claire’s mom on the other end of the phone, letting her daughter know that her surgery went alright and that they will be together again. It is the kind of call I have been hoping to get from my loved ones this year and never did. Claire’s Mom tells her that she is glad she did not sit around and mope, that she is glad she made it to the top of the mountain because that peak is a place she loved to go to as well. A gust of wind comes through, and at the instruction of her mom, Claire rides it. It is a cathartic moment that felt like a much-needed nudge in the right direction for me. The people we love do not want us to waste our time with worry but to spend the love and time we have on ourselves and those around us.