Dania’s weekend had been dominated by one thing only: her newly-purchased copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. As soon as Friday evening rolled around, she slammed the cartridge into her Switch, named her abandoned island (“Cool City”), and began the process of building the new life she’d have in the game.
At least, she did for a few hours each day. Animal Crossing‘s newest installment shared the series’ long-play structure, with the brightly-colored animal village running dry of fruit to resell, or fish to catch, by the end of a two-hour session. After that, it was time to sleep until the next day. Of course, the date on the Switch itself could be altered, jumping to the next day––but Dania was less interested in time traveling to get achievements.
It was in one of these lulled states that Eleanor found Dania, on Monday afternoon––slouched in a chair, scrolling on her phone, as the Switch sat idly by.
“No new Animal Crossing content today?” asked Eleanor.
“I burned through it already,” sighed Dania. “It’s the fourth day of the game, I don’t have any in-depth relationships with my townsfolk yet. I could just fish endlessly, but it gets repetitive.”
“Well, perhaps that makes the experience last longer,” Eleanor suggested. “Otherwise you could finish the game in a weekend.”
“I guess,” Dania said. She slumped over to the other side of the chair. “It’s nice that Animal Crossing takes its time, how the gameplay changes year-round. But it’s not the most complex game at the outset. I wish there was more room to explore things.”
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “Have I showed you A Short Hike yet?” she asked, with a grin.
“It’s a game that came out last year,” Eleanor explained. “Shorter than Animal Crossing, for sure. You can absolutely finish it in a weekend, or even a day. But it might be what you’re looking for.”
“A Short Hike…” Dania sat up straighter. “It’s on Steam?”
“Here, I’ll bring it out,” Eleanor smiled, and left to grab her laptop.
– – – – –
It was two hours later that Gwen walked in the front door, home from work, and found her flatmates on the couch, cuddled together under a blanket, with the laptop perched between them.
Gwen gazed at the scene from afar, saying nothing until Dania turned towards her.
“Gwen!” she cried out. “Come and join us!”
“What are you doing?” asked Gwen, walking over.
“Playing A Short Hike!”
Gwen sat down, looking over Dania’s blanketed form at the screen. On a pixelated mountain landscape, a purple bird with a scarf was running around the hiking paths, occasionally leaping off the cliffs and gliding slowly onto the beaches below.
“I found it last year,” Eleanor explained. “Dania wanted to play something where you got to go exploring. So we started a new game and she’s been making quick progress.”
“You’re a little bird named Claire,” added Dania. “And you have to get to the top of the Hawk Peak so you can make a phone call.” Onscreen, Claire leapt off another ridge, soaring around the side of the mountain.
“And what’s in the way?” Gwen asked. “What’s the obstacle?”
“Nothing, really,” Dania said. “I mean, you need to collect Golden Feathers, because they help you to climb. It’s basically a stamina bar, like in Zelda. And you can find those lying around the island, or people give them to you. But that’s basically it.”
“It’s more about the journey than the destination,” Eleanor said, warmly. “Hawk Peak is filled with people, some of which have funny little narratives you uncover as you play. Most of the time, it’s not the typical fetchquest objectives you get in an RPG. It’s not always obvious how the conversations will benefit you moving forward.”
“There’s the sand castle kid,” Dania said. She flew down to the beach, where a frog sat on the sand, surrounded by towers of sand.
“I’ve turned my sand castle into a sand city!” he cheered.
“Aww, that’s cute,” Dania cooed.
“You’ve run into him before?” asked Gwen.
“Definitely,” Eleanor said. “The game map isn’t too big. It doesn’t take long for you to loop back around if you’re walking the perimeter. Although, I do wish they had some sort of unlockable in-game map. It would be nice to set checkpoints, so you’d know how to get back to a specific place.”
“The mountain does look a little similar, no matter where you go,” Dania said. “I mean, there’s a section where it’s always raining, and once you get high enough up there’s snow on the ground. But you walk through a lot of spring forests and sunny beaches. Things tends to blend together.”
“Still, perhaps that’s part of the appeal,” Eleanor said. “It’s not supposed to be a game where you run from objective to objective. It wants you to slow down, enjoy the journey, maybe make progress when you happen to run into it.”
“Although I imagine the speedruns of the game are pretty short,” Gwen offered. “Ten minutes, maybe fifteen.”
“Try three,” Dania said. “We looked them up.”
“Wow,” Gwen muttered. She watched as Claire flapped her wings, rising up over another pixelated cliff. In the distance, a group of animals ran together along a racing track through the dark evergreens. Underneath, Mark Sparling’s softly acoustic score set a languid tone for the spelunking journey.
“Ooh, ooh, Dania,” said Eleanor, excitedly. “We should show Gwen how to play Beachstickball!”
“Yes!” Dania grinned. “I’ll try to find where that is.”
She took a flying leap into the air, and glided into the clouds. Below her, as she flew, Gwen could catch glimpses of other islands in the distant water––an unidentified animal with a fishing rod––a treasure chest nestled onto the small ridge of the cliffside.
“Get that treasure chest!” Gwen said. “It’s to your left!”
“Hold on.” Dania did her best to pilot Claire towards the chest. As she flew into the rock, the game fluidly switched from flying to climbing, with Claire’s stamina of Golden Feathers slowly fading in the bottom left corner. But she successfully made it to the treasure chest, which popped open to reveal a few coins.
“You can buy things, but we haven’t been, really,” said Dania. “Eleanor said you only need about eight or nine Golden Feathers to reach the summit. We’ve found all but one of the ones we have just lying around.”
“Golden Feathers is a very Banjo-Kazooie concept,” Gwen recalled. “So is jumping around a mountain searching for treasure.”
“A Short Hike steals good ideas from everywhere,” said Eleanor. “RPG, point-and-click-adventure, life simulator, Harvest Moon. There’s an achievement for catching all 22 species of fish, but I haven’t even started to do that one. Too reliant on luck.”
“Where are the Beachstickball friends?” asked Dania. She dove down, picking up speed before pulling up and landing smoothly on the sandy beach.
“The motion looks so fluid and clean,” Gwen pointed out. “How are the controls?”
“Simple enough,” Dania said. “There’s a run function––but again, you’re best taking it slow anyway. Flying feels really great, especially once you get a handle on picking up speed while diving. Sometimes the camera shifts focus suddenly, if you’re flying through one of the arbitrary separations between sections of the park. But besides that, it never feels like I’m wrestling with the controls.”
“The game also gets more forgiving as you unlock more feathers,” Eleanor added. “There’s 20 Golden Feathers in the game and the more you pick up, the easier navigating the mountain is.”
“Here they are!”
Dania had stumbled upon two figures, a bluebird in a baseball cap and a robin on a lifeguard chair, waiting on a sandy volleyball court. As she ran up to her side of the court, a prompt appeared.
“One two three GO!” shouted the capped bird, as he hit a beachball across the net.
“Hit it!” said Eleanor. But Dania swung, and her fishing rod failed to make contact with the ball.
“Oh, I’ve gotta equip the stick,” she said. Toggling to the inventory, she selected one of the six sticks she had acquired.
“All right, let’s do this,” she said, cuing up another game. The rally continued, knocking the ball back and forth, Dania making wild dives to the back of the court to keep the game going––but eventually, a hard drive sent the ball out of reach and a whistle sounded.
“I counted 33 hits!” said the bird in the chair.
“Nice work, Dania!” said Eleanor, beaming.
“Thank you,” Dania said. Onscreen, the bird was giving Claire a reward for reaching 30 hits: his own hat. In the corner, an achievement popped up, titled “Remember This Day Forever.”
“That’s a really sweet moment,” Gwen said. “Does the hat help you?”
“Absolutely not,” Eleanor said. “We got a Feather after 10 hits, but beyond that it’s just fun to interact with the residents.”
“We helped a camper find his lost hiking permit, which had been eaten by a fish,” said Dania. “And if we go back to the lodge at exactly 5pm, they have strawberries and toast!”
“It’s a small glimpse into the lives of the residents,” said Eleanor. “Just enough personality that they feel truly human. Night In The Woods did a similar thing, hiding all the answers from the player and leaving them longing for the rest of the world.”
“The game feels uniquely without anxiety,” Gwen observed. “Beyond the gameplay, in which the lack of threats or time limits means you’re free to wander your way to victory. All your interactions with the residents of the park happen without any fear of being mocked or made fun of. Everyone in the game is here to either help you, or to be helped by you. The very structure encourages complimentary play, and the cultivation of kindness.”
“And hey, I think we could use that, just about now,” said Eleanor.
Onscreen, Dania had climbed up another ledge, and now jumped and power-bombed the ground. Right where she landed was the sand castle frog––whose sand city had now grown into a sand metropolis.
“Hey, look, he kept building!” said Dania.
“Good for him!” Eleanor added, beaming. “Good for him!”
Image Credit: Adam Robinson-Yu