At the start, Claire, the game’s feathered young heroine, faces the familiar modern-day problem that confounds innumerable vacationers to the forested regions: no cellphone reception. As it happens, her aunt, whom Claire is visiting, is a forest ranger that knows the best place to get a signal. To nip Claire’s anxiety in the bud, her aunt advises her to hike up to Hawk Peak, the highest vantage point in the area. Though not an easy hike, it’s long been a rite of passage in their family. (If you’re following along with the Zelda analogy, Hawk Peak is the opposite of Death Mountain — a place of peace rather than danger.)
Finding your way to Hawk Peak is a cinch. There are plenty of signs spread across the island on which Claire is staying to orient one in the right direction. Of course, there is a catch. To climb the steeper parts of the trail that wind up the mountain, Claire will need to upgrade her ability to climb over long distances. To increase her stamina, which also increases her ability to use her wings to glide across long distances, she must find a number of Golden Feathers that are scattered about the island. Many of them can be retrieved from elevated areas, while some can be bought from the visitor’s center or a scalper who buys up the local supply. Although it’s stated that people trekking up Hawk Peak should have at least seven feathers in their possession, more are recommended to make the climb less frustrating. Without too much difficulty, I found eighteen of the game’s twenty Golden Feathers before I reached the credits. In fact, I held off making the climb all the way up until well after I’d accumulated enough feathers to easily undertake the excursion. I was okay dragging out the experience to uncover every nugget of humor in the game.
As Claire wanders the island in search of feathers, she has the chance to engage in short interactions with other anthropomorphic creatures. A handful of the characters she meets made me lol. Among those she encounters are overenthusiastic athletes who trumpet their dedication to running and rock climbing, a guy who loves nothing better than to contemplate his next breakfast and a paranoid camper who frets that the watch he lost in the woods will be sold on the Internet by someone unscrupulous.
From these run-ins, Claire receives simple requests to find items — like a missing headband — or to do basic tasks such as helping to pick up a littered area. Because none of these activities are demanding, they never feel like quests so much as optional favors one can perform. Alongside these activities, Claire can participate in a race, play a game on the beach or fish to earn a little money. She can also use items such as a shovel to dig up buried treasures or a pickax to clear away debris to reach otherwise blocked-off areas. In this way, “A Short Hike” uses many of the conventions of the Zelda games, such as tools and stamina upgrades, for humbler purposes. The sum effect of Robinson-Yu’s design choices is an openly sentimental game with low-fi graphics that seems built to foster a spirit of comfort rather than risk. Twee as it is, it’s an achievement that shows how a familiar video game form can be made into something more quiet and unhurried than one might be used to; personally, I’m all for that.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.