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'A Short Hike' Takes a Nice Long Day to Reinvent the Walking Simulator

What happens when we focus on the joy of being rather than angst about meaning.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Aug 9 2019, 12:11pm

screenshots courtesy of 

adamgryu

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

A Short Hike is an extremely GIFable game, one that easily sells itself: control a little bird as it makes its way around an island. Glide. Be free. The final product lives up to the simple joys of those short loops: A Short Hike embraces the fun of running and flight while laying out a few mild puzzles for players to solve.

What's surprising, given the game's Nintendo-inspired presentation, is the ways that it feels like an inheritor of the walking simulator. A Short Hike (available now on itch.io and Steam) suggests a shift in what these games do and how they look. Combining familiar mechanics like fishing and N64-style collecting with an uncomplicatedly cheerful and expressive art style. It looks cozy and comforting, but beneath that exterior is a razor sharp freshness that should be the first game in a new genre.

The term “walking simulator” is itself contested, of course. There was a time when every game critic under the sun wrote a piece debating the term, and in 2016 Kill Screen interviewed a large number of developers to determine the general position on the term. The results were mixed, but the term seems to have stuck around as a kind of verbal shrug in the general direction of an idea. We could call them first-person adventure games or phantom rides, but what we’re talking about is a genre of games where being in a space, experiencing a world, and doing some basic tasks replaces the shooting, looting, or platforming game loops that support the vast majority of games.

With motion lines coming off its wings, a little bird swoops over a waterfall in a short hike

By and large, those games are from the first-person perspective and they’re serious. Dear Esther, Gone Home, Fugue In Void, What Remains Of Edith Finch, The Beginner’s Guide, and the extensive work of my frequent collaborator Connor Sherlock are all typical of the genre. You go to a place, you wonder at it, you experience a story, and you come away changed. Going to an ephemeral island and mourning the dead in Dear Esther or witnessing and hearing the oncoming doom of the human species in The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home uses pure tone to keep players thinking about what they did after the game is over. These games rely on vignette form to tell players just enough to keep them engaged and, hopefully, reflective once the game is over.

They aren’t all serious. The Stanley Parable or Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald are extremely well-crafted jokes. The Magic Circle is a big comedy angle on game development. But these games are funny in that classic intellectual way where you laugh and then say “ahhhh” when the revelation hits you. They’re games about games, reflexive in a fulfilling way, and they’re using humor to get you there.

This is all context for why I find A Short Hike so special. It is in conversation with all of the things that make these first-person walking simulator work so well: the small island you hike on feels like a real place, the situations and people you encounter are slight sketches with a lot of personality, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Like Florian Veltman’s Lieve Oma, A Short Hike anchors you to a very specific activity, a hike to get cell service, and then spins an entire world out from there.

A bird talks to a dog farmer over a campfire in A Short Hike, a new kind of walking simulator.

What makes A Short Hike so interesting as a product of this family tree of walking simulators is that it functionally combines the narrative and tonal chops of that genre with the activities of an Animal Crossing game. Like Firewatch or Paratopic, this game about bird hikes really expands the domain of what this genre is doing. Instead of merely walking, talking, and listening you collect coins and shells. You can fish. You can glide around and pick up treasure chests. You can use a water bucket to create bounce pads for easier access to higher areas on the map.

A Short Hike uses the basic structure of the walking simulator as a kind of disguise. Like the main character, you might think that you’re in for a short hike up to Hawk Peak to get some cell service. In reality, you’re in for a day of firmly experiencing this small island for what it is: a vacation paradise, a place for people to live and camp, and a plotted nature that you can stomp around in. Where Dear Esther constantly dangles the red light of the aerial in your face so that you know the direction you’re universally pointed in, A Short Hike doesn’t put your final destination in your face at all. The top-down 3D style means that you’re only going to encounter Hawk Peak if you want to. If you want to fish undisturbed for hours, well, you can do that.

What we can see here is a shift in the skeleton of the walking simulator. Think of it as a Saturday Simulator instead, a form of fun and leisure that has a goal and a definite end point but which doesn’t herd you toward that point in the way another video game might. A Short Hike is simply about the pleasure of spending time in a place with a myriad number of mechanical modes of interacting with the world, not walking through it, and this is so qualitatively different that I can’t wait to see what other experiences this inspires.

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