One of the vistas of A Short Hike, a casual adventure game.

A Short Hike is a casual exploration adventure game from adamgyru. I know am by no means the first to be to make this analogy, but A Short Hike is pretty much a one-take Animal Crossing, with a well-woven yet gracefully casual narrative.

You’re Claire, a bird that’s stuck on a trip, desperate for cell reception. Distressed by not being able to get an urgent call, your Aunt May tells you that you may be able to get cell reception at the top of Hawk Peak Provincial Park.

Distraction is the name of the game here. Sure, you have your plan to get to the summit of Hawk Peak, but while you’re working on that quest, the various animals send you every which way. You are in control of the best use of your time in this game—if you want to explore around, go fishing for hours, or stroll around and chat with fellow hikers, it’s all your choice. There’s no way to go wrong. It’s vacation time, and everyone in Hawk Peak Provincial Park is happy to see you, wants to help you or has a small task for you.

The racoon painter I found in A Short Hike.

  • it’s been one of those days
  • would you say you feel lost and directionless?
  • um, maybe
  • well, I’ve got just the thing for you—take my compass.

As one example of an encounter on this adventure, I encountered a raccoon that was painting the beautiful landscapes around Hawk Peak. While their paintings were lovely, they kept feeling like their paintings were missing an angle. In my first encounter with the raccoon, I complimented their portrayal of the coastline. Still, they expressed dissatisfaction, expressing that they’re achieving “a more abstract look.” Each time you meet them, they’re working on a different landscape, and they’ve got a distinct impression of their painting. It’s adorable and immensely relatable—I never quite like my own work.

A Short Hike is also a bit of a collect-a-thon. Sticks, shells, coins, feathers, or fish—you can find just about anything strewn about the world. And there’s almost always a use for these items. Jen, a fellow bird, wants shells to make into a necklace. Sue is a sweet rabbit who lost her lucky red headband. You can take on the task to help them out!

This cat is missing their camping permit in A Short Hike.

  • where’d you leave the permit
  • you’re not gonna believe me
  • what?
  • a fish ate it
  • come on…that does seem a little fishy

This game crossed my radar because of the hype, which is well-deserved. I’ve been a bit of a stress-ball the past few days, and this gave me two much-needed hours of chill. The PS1-style super-pixelated world is beautiful, and the soundtrack is one you’d want to listen to even outside the game.

A Short Hike is rated as “Overwhelmingly Positive” on Steam, which is just about right. (Don't forget that buying on itch supports the creator more, and you get a Steam key, too.) You should take some time and enjoy a A Short Hike through Hawk Peak Provincial Park yourself.

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The frozen clocktower, a moment before midnight, in a screenshot of Moment to Midnight.

Moment to Midnight is a pixel art interactive fiction game by taxiderby, daisyowl, and cherof, created for Ludum Dare 45.

You start as a lost stranger, woken from the dark by a strange lizard. Stuck without any controls, the lizard gifts you abilities to let you listen and advance. Moving along, you start your journey of meeting and interacting with villagers of this sleepy little city.

The player reveals her name, Lyst, in Moment to Midnight.

A sudden prophecy

It turns out that all the clocks in this town have stopped just before midnight, and it’s up to you to find out why. The city, stuck in a permanent nighttime, doesn’t progress. Timekeeping devices refuse to work.

Your goal, as Lyst, is to investigate the prophesy—that a beast can restart time—and seek a resolution by climbing up the town’s clock tower.

Along your journey, you meet a sweet mix of townspeople that each helps you with your goal—like granting new abilities. There’s a lass here who pre-purchased a years' worth of vases—who’d do such a thing? An old man needs you to help him find his glasses. You alarm a sleepy sentry who asks, “What’s the danger? When’s the danger?”

The player talking to the old man, being told to play a game to find his glasses.

Go climb the tower

Because it’s a game jam game, it isn’t a particularly deep game, but that’s okay—it manages to do quite a lot in its short duration. The atmosphere, music, and the game’s unique take on ability progression certainly make it worth the short play.

It might be worth it for you to talk to everyone a few times. If you backtrack through the sleepy town, you might find that some people’s dialogue has changed.

Moment to Midnight is a delightful little narrative game with good music and good vibes and is a pleasant way to spend 15 minutes of your time. It’s available for Windows and macOS on itch.io.

A screenshot of the fool riding a tarot card in the Apple Arcade title Sayonara WIld Hearts

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pop album video game developed by Simogo, known for their previous titles Year Walk and Device 6. Featuring a half synth-pop, half EDM soundtrack from Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, Sayonara Wild Hearts is like no rhythm game you’ve ever played. It’s probably fairer to say that this is a playable animated music video.

A screenshot of the first level of Sayonara Wild Hearts, Clair De Lune

Let’s Pop

The musical immersion of this game is outstanding. Each track is a different level of the game, revealing a bit more of the story of our heroine, a masked biker we know as The Fool. There’s driving and flying bits of the game, where you steer to pick up hearts and collect points. There are also quick time events—like striking at enemies with a sword. There’s also teases of shooting and bullet hell mechanics in some levels.

Tapping to and playing along with beat feels good—especially when it gets tricky, like tapping offbeat to emphasize bits of the melody. It’s the best version of tapping your foot to the beat, except you get a score for it.

The album itself is incredibly catchy and stands alone as an excellent album outside of the game. It’s got a dreamy, atmospheric vibe to it that calms you down despite the high-BPM of some tracks. It became the soundtrack I put on while preparing dinner last night, and I’m listening to it while writing this.

A screenshot of Sayonara Wild Hearts, showing the the Dancing Devils

Hearts & Swords

This game is astonishingly clever, and each level brings something new to the table. My jaw dropped more than once, completely inverting my expectations for what this game is.

Parallel Universes is a level where you play against the twin-like allies, Stereo Lovers. As the Stereo Lovers snap and clap along to the beat, you’re flipped between two parallel game universes, each one with bits to pick up and obstacles to avoid. The goal is to foresee what’s coming up in your path in both worlds and avoid it. I’ll be honest, I struggled a bit in one segment this track, but there’s no severe penalty for actual failure: the game never sets you back far, and will let you skip a small chunk if a segment is too hard. I stuck through it, and I am glad I did. (And, if you can’t swipe fast enough, turn up the sensitivity in settings.)

You’re chasing scores in each level, with different benchmarks for bronze, silver, and gold. You’re likely not going to get gold in many levels on your first playthrough, and that’s okay. I doubt anyone playing will feel that the music or visuals are repetitive. After you complete the game for the first time, there’s even an Album Arcade game mode that unlocks—you play the entire game/album front to back, and earn a score from that. (Probably a perfect game mode for a long flight.)

The Stereo Lovers swinging their swords in Sayonara Wild Hearts

The World We Knew

The aesthetic is something else too. It’s punchy and purple in the best way. It leans on bright and minimal thin lines for key artwork, which provides a sharp contrast from the quiet, dark blues and purples of the backgrounds. If you’ve read my previous posts, I might have mentioned “vibrancy” of color a time or two on this website, but holy hell, this game is in your face with its über-colorful aesthetic, and boy, it’s on point at all times.

The game uses tarot lore to tell parts of the story. The heroine is the fool, which is one of the cards in a tarot deck. At times, you’re riding along a level on a tarot card. The tarot base becomes the driving backbone of this dreamy spiritual and really glam vibe of the game.

Oh yeah, Queen Latifah is the narrator for the game too. (Who would have thought?) I didn’t realize it was her voice until I hit the credits the first time, but it’s excellent casting. Her voice brings such poise and confidence to the narration and is the right choice to deliver the narrative through-line of the story.

Riding a motorcycle in Sayonara Wild Hearts, in the level Begin Again.

Wild Hearts Never Die

Sayonara Wild Hearts is published by Annapurna Interactive, which seems to be winning my heart “best publisher” feelings, for the sheer number of indie titles that I love they’ve published in any capacity this year. (Telling Lies, Journey, and Donut County come to mind.)

Sayonara Wild Hearts is available for free with an Apple Arcade subscription. It’s also available for PS4 and Nintendo Switch for $12.99. Each stage only takes a few minutes so that you can play in discrete chunks, but a typical front-to-back playthrough will take just over an hour of your time.

This game is so chill, and I probably would have had this post up a few hours earlier if I didn’t get completely immersed playing it again while taking notes for this post. Let Sayonara Wild Hearts steal your time (and heart) too.

Screenshot of the coffee shop in Notebook Detective, before you gain entry to the speakeasy.

Notebook Detective is an atmospheric mystery game from students at Breda University. Uncover the mystery of a murder that occurred in a speakeasy set in the 1920s.

While investigating the murder, you hear the stories of three narrators as they discuss their perspectives and information about clues.

The UI contributes to the mystery of this game. As you advance into the speakeasy, different world objects serve as interactive elements in the puzzle. You’ll have to hunt out the correct combination for a door, tune a radio station, or find a phone number to dial. You also take notes by dragging around words in your notebook—anything can be a clue.

The Speakeasy in Notebook Detective, with a blood stain on the ground.

As you uncover the mystery and start to put the pieces together, do know that you only get one shot to make your guesses, or else you have to restart and find the clues all over again. If you don’t know you know the answer to something, make sure you’ve unlocked all the clues and available to you—there’s twelve—and have gone over each of them in the notebook carefully.

It’s worth playing Notebook Detective to take in the art and atmosphere. While it may not be the most story-heavy experience—check out Speak Easy for a similar atmosphere but a stronger story—the art-heavy environment and innovative UI are worth your time. Notebook Detective is by a team of students from Breda University. I played version 1.1, and my playthrough took about 45 minutes.

Drifting aimlessly near a sunken crane in The Things We Lost in the Flood.

In The Things We Lost in the Flood by Dean Moynihan, you drift around in a rowboat in a post-apocalyptic, flooded wasteland, sending and receiving messages in bottles from fellow players.

This is a game about loss, discovery, and creation. You're sailing through a flooded world—a flood caused by a tap opening in the Atlantic Ocean that "never really stopped." Drifting by ruins and ravaged buildings, your goal is to make sense of what happened to the world. While exploring the lost world, you also discover notes which other players have left in the world, you can also leave notes for other players.

You hold a great responsibility in shaping the experiences of others in the game too. Sometimes, people will leave critical hints that help you make sense of something you didn't understand, and you owe it to others to leave notes that might help them with their experience—or choose to throw away the bad ones. The game also provides prompts that help create a semi-philosophical atmosphere, such as "what are you afraid of."

Searching through the darkness for messages in bottles in The Things We Lost in the Flood.

Intriguingly, a game that subsists on sharing notes with anonymous players still manages to be enjoyable and thought-provoking. I uncorked a wide variety of personal letters, stories of peoples anxieties, loss—you name it. This artificial wasteland you're drifting seems to create a somewhat safe space for some people.

It's worth diving into The Things We Lost in the Flood. The outcome of this world is shaped on cooperative gameplay, so you won't necessarily get a complete experience after any set play period, but it's good to jump in for quiet introspection in the scope of a video game. It's available free on itch.io, for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

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