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The RPS Advent Calendar 2019, Dec 6th

Time to get some fresh air

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Hopefully you’re feeling outdoorsy, reader, because today, day six of the RPS Advent Calendar, we’re going for a walk. Mostly a walk.

It’s A Short Hike!

Graham: Claire, the bird protagonist of A Short Hike, is on vacation on a rural island. So far she’s spent most of her time lounging around her cabin, but today is the day she’s finally going outside – albeit reluctantly. She’s expecting a phone call and so is heading to Hawk’s Peak in search of phone signal.

Claire isn’t expecting to get much from her experience climbing a mountain, and neither was I. A Short Hike looks cute in screenshots, but I thought it would be pleasant and slight. A game to jog through and forget about. Instead, it turned out to be the most delightful game I played all year.

That starts with its movement. Aside from running and jumping, Claire can grapple her way up sheer cliffs and flap her wings to maintain altitude when drifting downwards, the duration of both determined by the number of feathers you’ve found while exploring. It’s simple enough, but it makes traversal feel like a Zelda game. You’re constantly poking around, looking for resources to extend your reach, finding shortcuts, and judging whether you’re strong enough to make that climb to the next area. There is satisfaction to be found in reaching the next place.

These movement systems would be nothing if the world itself wasn’t so delightful. The island is rendered with Nintendo 64-style polygons and jagged lines, but it’s teeming with detail. Flowers sway in the breeze, wind swooshes overhead, butterflies flutter around bushes, a sparkling ocean laps along the shore. Even when you stop your climb, A Short Hike’s world keeps breathing. There’s variety, too: climb far enough up the mountain and you’ll reach snow, which brings its own challenges and beauty.

Then there’s the people you meet on your journey. They’re all anthropomorphic animals, and talking to each one is a delight. There’s a yelling squirrel on the beach who can help teach you to climb, a rabbit running laps to practice for a race, a salty bird who is selling feathers to pay off his student loans. The game understands that the fastest way to make a character lovable is to show them earnestly trying, regardless of what it is they’re trying to do. That’s why I love the Muppets, the characters in Miyazaki movies, and now the forest creatures of A Short Hike.

Most of those characters have optional quests. These are small and wholesome in the best ways. For example, that sprinting rabbit has lost her lucky headband and asks you to help her find it, and there’s a frog on the beach who wants a smaller spade for building sandcastles. Everyone is trying but that doesn’t mean their ambitions are grandiose.

A Short Hike is short, but it turned out to be anything but slight. It’s dense, even. There are chests to find, a watering can which can turn flowers into springy jump pads, a shovel with which to dig up secrets, a fishing rod for fishing, secret shortcuts to create through the mountain… You’ll end the game’s two hours with an inventory filled with tools, and probably a handful of secrets still to find if you want to spend more time exploring.

I did want to keep exploring, and once I’d found everything there was to find, I kept playing just to hang out for longer in its world. Just as Claire found more than she expected on her mountain climb, I found more in A Short Hike. It’s a spiritually refreshing videogame – and how many of those are there?

Looking for a different door? Head back to the RPS Advent Calendar 2019!

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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