Welcome to Staff Picks, the series where you can get to know our staff by hearing about the things they love. In this installment, Olivia shares a new addition to her list of favourite video games.
If you’re a 90’s kid like me, pixellated games are probably a one-way ticket to Nostalgia Town for you. I remember whole summer days when all ten-year-old me needed was room to sprawl out on the rug and my Nintendo DS.
I didn’t play video games for most of my teens. In university, however, I found myself falling in love with the medium once again - and discovering the unique and vibrant world of indie games to boot.
That’s when a friend suggested I try out a little game called A Short Hike.
A Short Hike is an open-world exploration game by Canadian indie developer Adam Robinson-Yu. It also recently won the Grand Prize at the 2020 Independent Games Festival. The creator was one of the first draws for me; we’re all about supporting independent Canadian artists here at the station, and that includes independent Canadian game developers, too!
WATCH: A Short Hike's official trailer
I still love the peaceful, pixellated games of my youth and, lately, I’ve also been really enjoying exploration-focused games that allow you to roam at your own pace (most often known as open-world games). So, when I read a review describing A Short Hike as having both of these elements, I was completely sold. I picked up the game on Steam, thinking that it seemed perfect for me – and how right I was!
Before even starting the game, I spent some time just lingering on the beautiful menu screen, watching the sky shift seamlessly through reds, purples, and blues. In my experience, when you feel a rush of contentment just looking at a game’s menu screen, you know there's good things in store!
Upon choosing "new game", you’re introduced to the playable protagonist, Claire, an anthropomorphic bird who’s visiting her Aunt May, a ranger at Hawk Peak Provincial Park. Claire’s expecting an important phone call when she learns that the only spot in the park with phone reception is the summit, so she decides to make the hike all the way up. This is, in essence, most of the game’s central plot.
…But it’s done so well. As you might have guessed from its title, this is a short game, but it’s absolutely packed with heart and humour. Nearly all of my time reading text was spent either grinning or outright laughing.
On her way up to the summit, there’s a whole cast of characters Claire can meet and help with their various troubles. Seeing how well-written the character interactions were right off the bat motivated me to seek everyone out, and the heartwarming, funny, and sometimes outright profound dialogue was a reward in and of itself. For a game this short to have so many memorable lines and characters is an impressive feat.
The in-game dialogue drew me in, but even once I finished the game, the art, gameplay, and music kept me coming back. With its wispy white clouds, icy-blue winter landscapes that sparkle just so, and turquoise rivers running through deep green forests, playing this game feels like running through a pixellated work of art.
Upon finishing the main game, just like finishing a real hike, all I wanted to do was stand around the summit and admire the view forever! Now, I didn't quite take it that far (or poor Claire would have never come down), but opening up the game, choosing an area, and just taking in the scenery never fails to make me smile.
I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the gameplay, but my favourite part is probably how flying works. Claire begins the game with the ability to glide, but you can gradually unlock the ability to fly higher through collecting stamina items called Golden Feathers, which are also gradually used up when you run and climb.
I felt driven to collect every feather and max out Claire's stamina purely because flying in this game is just plain delightful. It's smooth, intuitive to master, and quite forgiving; it's also nice and relaxing, since there's no fall damage in this game at all. The soft sound of air rushing past and the twin trails Claire’s wings leave behind as she glides are little details that make the experience extra satisfying. While soaring and swooping around the mountain, I actually found myself spontaneously singing “A Whole New World” under my breath more than once. (It stuck, and I will now probably forever associate that song with this game.) In conclusion: fantastic flying mechanic, woosh out of 10.
Pictured: The game's gliding and diving mechanics in action.
Finally, let's talk tunes! Composed by Toronto-based artist Mark Sparling, A Short Hike’s soundtrack is one of the best examples of cohesion between a game and its music I’ve ever heard. Exactly like the game itself, it feels like every piece of the mix is coming together to say you're free; go explore.
The light, full touch on the chords, the delicate, textured percussion, and the sparkling high notes all contribute to a sense of lightness and perpetual upward motion that fits very well with the game’s central goal and mechanics. This is especially true, I think, of tracks like “Somewhere In The Woods” and “A Short Flight”.
My favourite track in the game, though, is “Snow, Lots of Snow”, which manages to move into darker, more suspenseful territory without losing the lightness and charm that defines the rest of the soundtrack. Try listening to it and tell me you can’t practically hear the wind howling!
Another unique feature of the music is how seamlessly it transitions from area to area. As someone who’s hiked a few trails in her time, I can tell you it’s very easy to get so focused on reaching the end that you don’t stop to take in the view. The way that transitions in the music serve as a gentle nudge prompting you to look around when the location changes compliments the spirit of the game just as much as the music itself does.
A Short Hike’s soundtrack is one of the best examples of cohesion between a game and its music I've ever heard.
The soundtrack album features “Short Hike” and “Long Hike” versions of each track, for those who want the option of hearing the layers in the mix together or separately. It also includes GameBoy demo versions of selected tracks for all your chiptune needs! Personally, I'm always fascinated by how a different arrangement or soundfont can cast a familiar theme in an entirely new light, so listening through this album was a treat.
LISTEN: The official soundtrack to A Short Hike by Mark Sparling
In short, I went into this game expecting a short, heartwarming experience with open-world exploration elements and came out with way more than I’d bargained for in the best possible sense. This is a game that combines whimsical dialogue, beautiful and varied art, satisfying gameplay, and a score that ties it all together with an airy flourish. It’s an experience that’s true to the spirit of a real hike while simultaneously taking full advantage of its medium. Truthfully, I’ve never been happier that I got back into video games.