I did not go into adamgryu’s A Short Hike blind. I had heard and read the critical reception, and saw it on multiple 2019 year in review articles. While I didn’t know exactly what awaited Claire at the top of Hawk Peak, I gleaned enough from people talking around it to know that A Short Hike, like many a deceptively bright and cheery indie game, had more emotional weight than the opening moments suggest. What surprised me even more than the finale at the mountain summit, was how going in with such expectations would affect my anxiety while playing the game. Not only that, but the many distractions along Claire’s path along the hiking trail also fed into my ADHD. A Short Hike managed to execute an experience which fueled the fires of two of my inhibitive mental divergences in a way which felt unexpectedly…safe.
My anxiety and ADHD are good friends. My ADHD loves to keep me busy with as many things as possible which aren’t the one thing I need to do at the moment, which is my anxiety’s cue to enter the stage and worry about all the time that was spent. Sometimes, my anxiety is the opening act, stabbing at my mind with intrusive thoughts and worst case scenarios which wave over my ADHD to distract me with anything it can manage to put off whatever is instigating my anxieties violent outburst. My experience with A Short Hike reflects the latter scenario. Knowing that something was waiting for me at the top of Hawk Peak made me dread making the climb and I was all the happier for any distracting NPC with a quest or minigame to keep me from making the climb.
Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit any number of video games with sidequests, all of which allow for distractions from a critical path. However, it’s the way anxiety is tied to the emotional something at the end of A Short Hike‘s very short critical path which framed the event in a way that makes it feel more specific than the usual screwing around in a AAA open world experience. The knowledge that whatever was waiting for me was mere minutes away, not dozens of hours.
Regardless of how short the critical path is, it takes at least a few hours to follow every thread A Short Hike unspools, and I was more than eager to explore each one. Whether finding a runner’s lucky headband or playing a round or twelve of “beachstickball,” anytime the game offered me something else to do besides making that climb, I accepted it with gratitude.
Why leaning into my ADHD felt safe in this scenario is because I never felt like any thread I followed lead to a frayed end or wasted time. The dialogue is so charming that letting the NPCs’ microfictions play out was reward enough, but oftentimes the game’s sidequests also rewarded me with an item — and perhaps even more important — a musing about loosening up. You don’t need to stress about a headband; it’s your hard work that wins races. Maybe you didn’t win in beachstickball, but maybe the other player didn’t win either because it’s not a competition, but a collaboration to build a high score and have fun.
What’s more, not only was I not punished with the burden of feeling like I wasted time, but when I finally reached the summit, I was reminded of what I always forget: it’s going to be okay. One of the most frustrating elements of my anxiety is that most of the time it’s hyperbolizing a situation into a crisis. Of course, there have been plenty of times in which my panic was justified. But for every one of those moments, there are hundreds of instances where those aforementioned intrusive thoughts of worst case scenarios have me spiraling over what turns out to be, if not nothing, certainly nothing to warrant gray hairs and lost sleep. Getting the car inspected, waiting on test results at the doctor or vet, finally making a call to someone who said they “need to talk.” These are all occasions which can go very south, lead to bad times ahead, or end up completely fine with nothing to reimburse all the energy spent worrying.
For my and I anxiety, each time I look ahead I can only see bad times waiting. Logic means nothing in the face of failing an inspection for something expensive enough to deprive me of a way to work. Past experiences stand no chance against the possibility that a test will reveal a life threatening disease in either myself or my loved ones. Optimism feels unattainable when buried under the myriad variations of bad news at the other end of that phone call. I’m thankful to say, even in times when my stressors have held more water than I’d like, I’m still alive today to write this. My worst case scenarios did not manifest, and in the end it really is usually just a molehill.
A Short Hike reminds me as much when Claire reaches the top of Hawk Peak. She receives the phone call she’s been quietly worrying over all day and the news she receives is good. Her mother’s surgery went fine, the worst case scenarios she built into literal mountains to climb were molehills, and she may soar back down the mountain with the weight off her shoulders and ease in her mind. Though I too spent my time with the game anxious about what emotional payoff awaited me at the end of the trail, I was reminded of the same anxious patterns which recur in real life. A Short Hike allowed those anxious patterns, as well as those which manifest through my ADHD, to play out in a safe and rewarding experience.
Plenty of games, independently developed or otherwise, depict and engage with mental illness by centering on suffering. Whether conveying suffering with the possibility of a player recognizing their own pain, or developers attempting to work through their patterns and symptoms, these games are often difficult for me to approach. Valuable though they may be, I don’t often come home from a long day eager to engage with my suffering through the media I consume. A Short Hike, while not explicitly a depiction of various neurodivergences, managed to reflect mine in a way that didn’t center on suffering. Instead, I was able to spend a couple hours in which the wiring of my brain didn’t inhibit my enjoyment. I don’t have access to therapy or medication for the time being, and most days I just have to accept the brain I have and do my best with it. A Short Hike seems to accept it just fine and invites it to take a walk for a while, no matter which direction in which it wants to wander.
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