This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/-WQU5m5vzMs
It’s March 2021 and I’m tired. Not only has my state recently come out of one of the most intense lockdowns in the world, but I’ve also been working non-stop for over a month in a crazy workload-spike that I’ve had no choice but to push through. And on top of all that, the last two times I tried to organise a holiday so I could sit on a beach and let the sun bring me back to life again, untimely Covid outbreaks ensured that neither of those holidays happened. I’ve now been running on fumes for longer than I can even remember.
In an attempt to break the monotony, I picked up A Short Hike, and I’ll admit I did this purely for the fact that it had the word “short” in the title because — after a month of non-stop work — I needed to feel the satisfaction of just completing something. The game is about Claire, who goes on a trip to an island with her aunt May on a much-needed holiday. But she is preoccupied with receiving a phone call that is clearly troubling her, which we don’t learn the details of until later.
Claire may be a little cartoon bird person, but I sympathised with her much more than I expected to. Being a city girl, she’s a bit ambivalent about her trip out of the city; she needs the holiday but feels like she can’t live without cellphone reception. In her ambivalence I recognised the constant push and pull that sometimes takes place inside my own head — I don’t think I could ever feel fulfilled without the energy and endless opportunities of the city, but when it all gets too much, I dream about retreating into a little shack on a remote island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but the chatter of seagulls and the swoosh of the waves. Still, I know that if I really did that, I would pretty quickly lapse into boredom, and the endless mental inactivity would become its own source of anxiety. Claire’s hesitation about taking this trip mirrored my own mental struggles — disliking the social isolation of nature but needing a break, wanting to relax but not being able to get out of my head, trying to be in the moment but craving the stimulation of my work and hobbies, both needing my phone and hating my reliance on it.
I also saw my own issues with anxiety reflected in Claire’s anxious temperament and constantly-worried mind — heck, one of the reasons I picked up this game is because I just needed something easy that wouldn’t strain my already-frayed nerves. Initially, Claire stays in her cabin rather than exploring the island, and when her aunt tells her about the amazing updrafts on the mountain peak, Claire’s initial response is full of negativity — isn’t it dangerous?
And just like Claire, I felt myself start to unwind as I slowly gave in to the charms of this island. The other holiday-goers are an adorably quirky bunch from the fun-run participants (a bunny and a turtle) to this extremely intense kid who graciously lets you into their international rock-climbing club of two. As you collect golden feathers by exploring the island and interacting with the other animal-people, Claire is able to fly higher and farther. To me, these feathers represented Claire’s integration into the life and rhythms of the island. As she becomes ingrained into island life, the residents increasingly accept her, despite her being an outsider from the city. And as she internalises this acceptance, she can fly and glide more freely. It makes me think of the mental freedom that happens when you go on holiday — the sense of “letting go”, of losing your worries and relaxing into a place, harmonising with its slower and more lackadaisical pace. Freeing yourself of any notion of plans or schedules and just, going with the flow.
A Short Hike perfectly captures that laid-back vacation feel of having no particular goals and doing things “just coz”. You can collect feathers with the laser-focus of getting to the top of the mountain and receiving that phone call, but you won’t want to. After an hour of playing, I’d forgotten there even was a phone call to receive. The game invites you to do things not because you have to, but because you feel like it. You can hunt for buried treasure, go fishing, wear a variety of cute hats, or compete in a parkour-race, and you will because it feels nice to do. Playing this game, I felt wonderfully, aimlessly idle, like I had all the time in the world to do nothing at all.
But what really surprised me was that A Short Hike vividly reminded me of the exact kinds of things I used to get up to as a kid on seaside trips. I came across these kids, who have made up their own game called beachstickball, and I was instantly transported back to childhood trips to the beach, playing improvised games with whatever ball or stick or other object was at hand. This guy’s camping gear reminded me of the little caravan we used to stay in on our trips to the coast. We used to huff and puff up to the nearby outlook just like Claire hiking up to Hawk Peak. And the game seems deliberate in its evocation of nostalgia — just look at the gorgeous sepia tone the landscape takes on when you get enough distance from the ground, like the world is turning into an old, aged photograph before your eyes.
To make it to the end of the game, you need to use all your golden feathers to climb the sheer mountain cliffs, and I know that the golden feathers are just a way of gating progress so you don’t finish the game in five minutes, but I still think there’s something to the fact that Claire couldn’t have done this at the beginning of the game. It’s only through the freedom and lightness of being that she’s gained on her little island adventure that she can reach her more challenging goals. In a similar way, I hope that the small burst of positivity and nostalgic comfort I got from this game will help me to keep climbing the mountain that is life right now.
After you’ve reached the summit, there’s nothing left to do but glide back down the mountain and complete your journey, right where you began. It was a bittersweet flight back down, like that final walk back to the car after you’ve packed up the tents and the beach towels. And just like the last look back at the ocean before you pile in for the ride home, I made sure to savour that descent, looking over how far I’d come in such a brief time. As I slowly glided back home and the music swelled, I started crying. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, but then again, the best holidays always end too soon. I’m just grateful I got to take this short hike when I needed it most.