There is a wonderful sadness that lurks at the centre of some games, not because they are sad, but because they are beautiful and compact and filled with a sense of mystery, and because all of this stuff can only be experienced for the first time once.
By this measure, A Short Hike is a very sad game indeed. Which is weird because it’s also a thing of compact cheer, an autumnal delight filled with leaves moving from green to gold as warm waters rush and retreat against sand and stone like a slow heartbeat. Up above the beach and forests the rocks turn to snow and ice. Out at the horizon the whole world gives way to a dozy sepia, the outlines of distant objects beckoning in the mist. Everything is waiting to be explored. Everything I have found on my explorations counts as a spoiler. If I could tell you one thing from all of this, I would tell you about the object I’ve just now been given, the campaign, such as it is, far behind me but the wonders of the place still bright and filled with promise. I won’t tell you about it, though, because I don’t want to ruin anything. You only have one opportunity to experience this stuff for the first time, remember?
A Short Hike gives you a glorious little island to knock around on and just one real objective: climb to the top of the local mountain because there’s mobile phone reception available at the very summit. You play as Claire, a young bird of some sort who’s bored and on vacation. The genius of this set-up, I’m tempted to say, is not so much the island but the boredom. Here is a game from the very off that is about getting somewhere by going nowhere. You have an incredible amount of freedom in A Short Hike, and it’s the freedom of a long late-summer day with nothing much to do and nowhere you need to be. This is where some of the best of childhood exploration takes place, I think. A Short Hike does real justice to those empty days in the middle of the calendar.
There are a few skills to learn on your way up the mountain, but they’re gentle things and easily picked up. At the heart of a lot of A Short Hike’s more game-like systems are golden feathers. You collect the first feather to allow you to climb a wall, I think, and the more you get the longer you can climb for and the more double-jumps you can perform in the air. Climbing uses up feathers, which recharge unless you’re up high in the snowy peaks, in which case you have to find a thermal bath to warm yourself up again first. But gliding uses no feathers at all, and once you’ve got a bit of ground beneath you, you can glide for a very long time here, wings spread, landscape moving below, gentle distractions beckoning from everywhere.
Gliding reveals a brilliant truth to this game: everywhere on the island is actually pretty close by, but it’s all stacked and stuck together so that locations are always reappearing from unlikely angles. And since, once you’ve learned to climb, and run, and glide, you can go pretty much anywhere you want, there’s a real freedom to how you move from one spot to the next. My favourite part of A Short Hike, in fact, might lie with finding connections between seemingly disparate locations. The lookout point is a great place to glide to the top of the lighthouse from, for instance, while the top of the lighthouse is an ideal place for a swoop down towards a secluded campfire.
The stuff you’re doing in A Short Hike tends to be very simple, but delivered with lovely writing and characterisation. The island is filled with animals, all of whom want you to do something for them. Equally, it’s filled with a handful of simple tools that allow you to experiment. There’s a shovel and a pickaxe. There’s a bucket that – actually, I shouldn’t spoil it.
It took me about forty minutes to get up the mountain and see the end credits, but I still feel like I’m at the start of this game really. Each time I load in, I come out of my little cabin at the bottom of the mountain and feel a powerful sense of freedom, of a mystery calling from every corner. And that’s the joy of A Short Hike, I reckon: magically, even with most of the game revealed to me, I still feel like this is my first time with it.