A new Animal Crossing game is rare enough that, every time another one comes around, I’m convinced this, finally, will be the time I get into Animal Crossing. Nintendo’s marketing, promising a world of colorful animals who want to be my friends (and take my money), gets me every damn time. And then, inevitably, I actually play the new Animal Crossing and I’m forced to confront the reality that actually playing Animal Crossing is no fun. I don’t want to spend hours customizing my home, or tending to the latest endless and mindless task. The reality is Animal Crossing isn’t for me, and I’m not asking Animal Crossing to change. But it remains the case that I still, desperately, wish there was a way for me to hang in that world.
The answer to that plea, it turns out, is the delightful A Short Hike, a game distinct from Animal Crossing in so many ways, but is very much vibing on the same energy. The best way I can pitch A Short Hike is a combination of Animal Crossing and Night in the Woods.
I hadn’t heard of A Short Hike until a few days ago, when I sent out a request on Twitter for people to recommend small and overlooked video games for me to check out. The response was overwhelming, with hundreds of people tossing suggestions my way. One of the most consistent suggestions, however, was A Short Hike. The trailer sold me on it immediately:
You’re a bird with a single mission: reach the summit of this island. We should put “mission” in quotes here because while reaching the summit, the one place with reliable cell reception, is ostensibly the point of A Short Hike, it’s very much a suggestion. The story of A Short Hike is what happens along the way towards the summit, and how often you will be confronted with a fork in the road, get lost, and spend 30 minutes getting lost and meeting new friends.
Which brings us back to the Animal Crossing comparison. These are incredibly different games, with A Short Hike placing an emphasis on story, characters, and mechanics (flying around feels incredible!). You spend a lot of Animal Crossing defining your own story, while A Short Hike is very much about a specific character within a story. The two share similar aesthetic trappings, collectible elements, and a love of talking animals who love to chill, but that’s basically where it ends. The reason I see a line between A Short Hike and Animal Crossing is because, like I said, the two share a vibe. And whereas I have been unable to tune myself to the same frequency of Animal Crossing, A Short Hike is extremely my thing.
Part of what I loved about A Short Hike is how it pushed back on my natural inclinations as a video game player. I like ticking boxes. I like progress. But there is no map to follow in A Short Hike, and the game does not keep track of the various quests you can participate in. You quickly gain access to a compass, but it’s basically useless. A character will ask for a favor, but you don’t have to do anything about it. Nothing is required. There are signs pointing in various directions, some more useful than others, but the actual layout of the island is deliberately sprawling; the game hopes to divert even the most dedicated player, the person who wants to knock the “mission” out as soon as possible, off the beaten path.
I’m the kind of person who, when faced with the opportunity to go left or right, will end up going down the left path for a little bit before getting anxious, heading back, and walking down the right path—just in case I missed anything. I had to let go of these hangups in A Short Hike because there was no other choice. This is a game where you need to just...be in the moment, and see where it takes you. Those types of games don’t usually work for me; I’m drawn to structure. But part of A Short Hike’s brilliance is how it deploys juuuust enough structure to push you along, while continually disrupting whatever plans you originally had.
“OK, I’ll head down this path and see if I can find that watch for that person I talked to.”
Heads down path, gets turned around, can’t find a way back, finds person who wants to play a version of volleyball where you hit the ball with a stick, spends 20 minutes playing this surprisingly delightful mini-game and totally forgetting what led me here in the first place.
Which, side note: the volleyball game, called beachstickball, fucking rules.
It’s a surprisingly emotional game, too. I can’t remember the last time a game managed to hook me the lives of a series of characters so quickly, to the point that I refused to stop playing the game, despite “beating” it, until I’d finished a quest line that involved collecting enough money to pay off someone’s debt. It was a grind, the kind of thing I usually roll my eyes at in games, but I really wanted to help. There’s not much writing, either, but what’s there is brutally efficient in tone, simultaneously weaving between snappy jokes and straight up heartbreak. The game’s ending? Pretty gut punchy for an uneventful trip up a mountain!
I could keep going! In fact, I will! Because I need to mention another important part about A Short Hike: its title is not a lie. A Short Hike is short. All told, I spent a little more than two hours doing nearly everything the game had to offer, and in those 120 minutes, it managed to leave a more lasting impression than games I’d spent dozens of hours throughout the year. But A Short Hike’s memory will linger long, and one day soon, I’ll have to go back.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is email@example.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).