“The first time somebody was reading the dialogue, I had to leave the room. I was too embarrassed.” – How adamgryu overcame writer’s block and creative burnout in the development of a Short Hike

Adam Robinson-Yu

A Short Hike is a (mostly) solo project from Canadian developer Adam Robinson-Yu, also known as adamgryu.

The game follows a remarkably simple premise. The player is tasked with, as you might have guessed, taking a short hike. In this case up to the summit of a mountain in order to get a phone signal.

There’s plenty of side quests to distract you along the way, with a host of talking animals on the island who need your help, but it’s a distinctly low stakes experience. It’s a game perhaps best described as Animal Crossing meets Breath of the Wild (two games that Robinson-Yu points to as inspirations) – a colourful, friendly island that rewards exploration and experimentation.

The game released back in July 2019, but it has all the same qualities that propelled Animal Crossing: New Horizons to success last year – a sense of wholesome escapism and peace needed during a pandemic. Additionally, its ability to be meaningfully experienced even in short bursts feels perfectly timed for those of us suffering from COVID burnout, as lockdown takes its toll on attention spans and energy levels.

It seems appropriate, then, that the project itself was born from a creative burnout.

PARK LIFE

“I had been spending a long time working on a different game,” says Robinson-Yu. “I’d been working on a game inspired by the old Paper Mario titles. The newer ones have been kind of mixing up the formula, and I was interested in seeing a game that was similar to the older ones.”

And so, like all men of sophistication and taste, Robinson-Yu got to work on the spiritual successor to The Thousand Year Door that we all need, but do not deserve.

“I was working on that for about a year, I got the chance to show it at a bunch of events, and there was a decent reception. But I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it, and was feeling the pressure of writing a tonne of dialogue.

“After a year, I was thinking: What am I really doing here? I was in a lot of doubt, it felt like something was missing from the game. I was starting to feel pretty burnt out.”

In response, Robinson-Yu took a break from development, and had the opportunity to go on a road trip with some friends across the different national parks in Canada and the United States.

“I found that I really enjoyed hiking,” says Robinson-Yu. “I kept thinking, what can I take about this experience and try to put it into a video game? What can I capture about this?”

The early concept for the game was remarkably different to what would later become A Short Hike – Robinson-Yu initially envisioned a simulation style game, inspired by Rollercoaster Tycoon, with players managing their own national park.

“You had to like, sculpt pathways through the forest, put up trail marker signs and manage wildlife and stuff. That was like a very loose idea, but when I had that in mind, I started it as a little break project. I was putting graphics together in Unity and just seeing how it looked, experimenting with this low-resolution style.”

Early sketches of one of the game’s NPCs

A CABIN IN THE WOODS

The national park simulator game never came to be, but the concept of a game centred around hiking stuck with Robinson-Yu. In 2018, he attended Stugan, a Swedish video game accelerator that takes game developers from around the world, and accommodates them in a cabin in the woods to develop games together for two months.

It’s either an amazing creative opportunity, or the setup to the video game horror film that I desperately want to see, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience for Robinson-Yu.

“It was honestly amazing,” he says, “it was a really a really cool thing to be part of. While I was there I had these day-long game jams with the other developers. I pitched a hiking game, I guess that idea was still at the back of my mind. You had to get to the top of this mountain, where you’d find a hang glider and you’d fly back down again.

“Even in this simple project, I thought there was something kind of interesting about the stamina mechanic that we used in it, which is similar to the one in A Short Hike. Looking back it was a good proof of concept, that this gameplay on its own was interesting, and that it didn’t need conflict or violence – because I wanted to make a relaxing game.”

Perhaps due to the exhaustion from the Paper Mario-style project, Robinson-Yu was driven to create a more relaxing game, one that reflected the experience of going on a hike. But while the concept was appealing to him, he remained concerned that others may find such gameplay to be boring.

“There are a lot of other walking simulators out there that I find very inspiring, but a lot of them have a strong narrative core. And that wasn’t something that I felt like I was able to create. So I tried to rely more heavily on exploration itself being a satisfying thing. but I wasn’t sure if that could hold up a game on its own.”

SHORT BUT SWEET

As it turns out, his worries here were very much misplaced, perhaps thanks to the game’s length – it doesn’t have time to outstay its welcome.

While your playtime will vary with how long you want to spend exploring the island, the game’s central narrative (such as it is) can be completed within an hour or two.

“That year, I’d played games like Minit and the Frog Detective Game,” says Robinson-Yu. “I really enjoyed them, they were well received and they’re both very short games. It made me think, do I need to be working on a game that will take three years to make? I was almost jealous!

“With the game I’d been working on, it felt like development was just lasting forever and the end was nowhere in sight. The risk and stress of making a small game doesn’t seem as high. If you spend three years making a game, you kind of need it to be successful to make back that time.

A Short Hike was four months of development before its initial Humble Original release, and four or five months again for the Steam launch. If you’re only developing for that long, it doesn’t need to be a huge success to justify the time that you spent on it.”

A Short Hike doesn’t just owe its success to its length, of course. The joy of exploration is at the heart of what makes the game so charming.

The game’s world isn’t enormous, but there’s plenty of hidden secrets tucked away – from a secret fishing mechanic to a volleyball-inspired ‘beach stick ball’ competition, there’s plenty to keep coming back for once you’ve finished the game’s very brief story.

“I wanted to make a world that had lots of things to discover,” he says. “I wanted it to be a game that surprised the player with how much it had in it. It’s not a huge game, but if people spend the time in it, there’s more things to find.

“Things like the beach stick ball game and the boat, they’re on the other side of the island. I’ve seen playthroughs where people don’t even go to that part of the island, and they still come away having a good time with the game. I like the idea that there’s things in there that the player could have missed. I think that’s a cool part of exploration: not knowing what you could find out there.”

The player will encounter a wide range of characters while on their hike

WRITER’S BLOCK

A Short Hike may have spent a relatively short amount of time in development, but that’s not to say it was a painless project. Robinson-Yu found himself wrestling with the same issue that had held up the Paper Mario successor: trying to write dialogue.

“The writing was often hard,” he says. “For me, writing anything is difficult. There would be times where I’d placed an NPC somewhere, and they need to say something. So I’d try to write something and I’d think “Oh, this isn’t very good” and I’d procrastinate on it.

“When I was working on my RPG, one of the main things that I struggled with was writing, trying to come up with an interesting story and decent dialogue. And so for A Short Hike, I decided not to be too precious about the writing. Because it makes it too difficult to do.

“I just wrote it like I was talking to a friend on chat or something, just to get stuff out of my brain. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and I think that writing style works for me. Though eventually it got to the point where, once I started to really care about the story and the characters, it became difficult for me to write again.”

This came as a surprise to me. The game’s dialogue is exceptional, the right balance of conversational and hilarious that evokes some of the best writing from A Night in the Woods. Finding and talking to the various characters scattered throughout the island becomes a joy, as each interaction is usually enough to make you at least crack a smile.

That struggle of caring so much about your art that it becomes difficult to actually create is represented within the game itself. With enough exploring, the player will encounter a struggling artist, eager to paint something great but constantly convinced their work isn’t good enough.

“The painter, and their anxieties about their art and not being good enough, was me trying to project some of the feelings I had when working on my RPG, and other games. And because it was something I cared about, I had a difficult time writing it.

“But eventually, my partner helped me write an early draft of that character’s arc, which really helped me get over the writing block. So that’s one of the things that I came away with, that writing can be a collaborative process, which made it easier.”

People have, thankfully, since come to Robinson-Yu to heap praise on the game’s writing.

“I really appreciate that, because I was definitely very insecure about it. I remember watching people playtest it for the first time at public events. I brought it up to an event at the Toronto Public Library for a games event they were having, and the first time somebody was reading the dialogue, I had to leave the room. I was too embarrassed.”

With his worries about the game being boring, and his insecurities about its writing, it certainly came as a relief when A Short Hike was warmly received. As a Humble Original game, feedback was relatively quiet at first, as the title launched as an exclusive to Humble Monthly for the first few months – but the early reactions were positive.

“When you’re making a game, you can’t ever experience it like a player. There’s nothing that I can surprise myself with. So I watched some early YouTube reviews for the Humble Monthly bundle, saying that the Humble Original that month was one of the highlights of it. And that was really nice to hear.

“It gave me the confidence to put another four months into the game before it came out on Steam. I was able to add a lot of features, like the parkour minigames and the fishing, because at that point I knew that the game probably wasn’t going to be a failure.”

It certainly wasn’t. A Short Hike took home the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the 2020 Independent Games Festival, something that felt particularly significant to Robinson-Yu.

“That was really big for me,” he says, “ it was kind of a dream come true. I went to GDC once as a student, and I was like ‘man, I really want to go back.’ I wanted to make a ‘real game’ or something bigger sometime. I wanted to get nominated for IGF so I had a reason to go back to GDC.”

So with the IGF win, Robinson-Yu was ready to hit the GDC circuit with his award-winning game. Except there was one problem.

“…and then GDC was cancelled!”

Oh well. There’s always next time.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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