Crafting a tiny open world: A look behind the scenes at the creation of A Short Hike

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Crafting a tiny open world: A look behind the scenes at the creation of A Short Hike

How Adam Robinson-Yu took inspiration from hiking to create a pixelated paradise.

Hey everyone! I’m excited to announce that A Short Hike is coming to PS4 this fall! A Short Hike is a little exploration game about climbing up a mountain.

In it, you guide a bird named Claire up to the peak, freely exploring the mountainside and helping other folk along the way.

I started working on the game after going on a few road trips along the west coast, hitting up as many hiking spots and natural landmarks as we could. I really fell in love with hiking, and I started to wonder if I could capture that experience as a video game.

There were some specific moments I wanted to capture, such as the moment of respite upon reaching the summit, and surveying the landscape from a new perspective. But generally, I wanted to try and recreate the peaceful meditative feeling you get as you explore the world around you.

To help create a sense of freedom, I tried to design the game as a tiny open world. I wanted to encourage exploring the road less travelled, and have your curiosity be rewarded. This meant I had to design around the player going the exact opposite of the obvious route, and have the game’s pacing still feel good!

This led to the creation of a variety of mini-games to discover on the off-paths and break up the hiking. After adding in fishing, boating, and (a form of) volleyball, the game was starting to feel a little more like a little summer getaway – a love letter to those breezy summer days without anything to do and all the time in the world.

For the most part, I’ve been working on A Short Hike by myself. Between the programming, design, art, and testing… I’ve had my hands full! One thing I found difficult was the writing. Although the game is light on story, I did want it to be meaningful to me, and I wanted to touch on some of the fears or worries I have.

In a previous project, I had hit a creative block with the writing, and I really struggled with putting something together I was happy with. So for A Short Hike, I tried to take a more improvisational approach. Once I started writing dialogue the same way I chat with my friends over text, it came much more naturally, and helped me find a voice for the game.

Since I was doing most of the art myself, I took the opportunity to experiment with the style. I was interested in trying to create a 3D game where the pixels are a core part of the aesthetic, the way retro 2D games often are. While 2D games have been refining pixel art for decades, 3D games have been working to hide pixels as much as possible. I wanted to see if I could make a beautiful (and readable) 3D world using as few pixels as possible.

This choice defined the rest of the art direction, leading me to use flat cohesive shading and no anti-aliasing. I added a soft outline effect to objects to help them stand out, and stay readable with so few pixels.

I feel like the low-resolution can help the world feel lush, and let your imagination fill in the details. However, some people found the pixelated look less endearing, so I included the option to fine tune the pixel size to your preference. On PS4 Pro and PS5, you can even view A Short Hike in 4K!

The one thing I didn’t have a hand in was the music. When Mark Sparling was creating the soundtrack for the game, he suggested creating a dynamic soundtrack that evolves as you wander around the island. He sent me a labeled map of the world outlining his plan, and I implemented it according to his design. Instruments will fade in and out depending on where you are, creating variations on the main theme. String instruments will chime in whenever the player is flying, and trumpets swell as you pick up speed in the motorboat… I think he’s really made something special!

While I’ve worked on other games before, this is the first big project I’ve released mostly on my own. It’s been a real journey getting here, and I’m really excited to bring it to PlayStation! I hope you enjoy exploring the world I’ve created when it comes out this fall.

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