Imagine being young and restless, with no income to speak of but a dream of being far away from where you are. The open road is calling you, but you don’t have the means to take the wheel yourself. Now imagine a simpler era, when that dream would lead to you packing up your few belongings and just getting in a car with a stranger, destination unknown. Ok, so maybe there’s not a time when any of us would have done that, but that era and those people did exist, and this is the world of Hitchhiker, by developer Mad About Pandas sits. Even if you wouldn’t get in that car, I’d wager you can imagine what it’d be like to be a leaf on the wind on the highways and byways, never knowing where you’d end up next. Hitchhiker, to my mind, is a whole mood.
It helps that Hitchhiker is gorgeous, and part of that mood is distant purple mountains, fields of tall grasses, and a soundtrack that really captures that freewheeling recklessness that a hitchhiker would likely be feeling, seated next to someone they’d only just met, on the way to wherever they’re willing to take them. You can almost feel the wind in your hair, and Hitchhiker really lets you enjoy that, even giving you the opportunity to bask in the ride and music before continuing the story. The ambience is absolutely perfect, and if the whole game had been a series of random stories along random rides, I think it’s done so well it would have worked.
Pretty quickly though, things start to get a little…weird. While you could expect a little weirdness when riding in cars with strangers, this is more of a Fear and Loathing meets Twilight Zone sort of thing. Here, too, things ramp up at a perfect pace, and soon Hitchhiker turns into a full fledged thriller, where you’re tasked with finding out who you are, where your girlfriend is, and who’s after you.
Things escalate quickly, though not so much so that you’re ripped out of the immersion. One moment you’re making questionable decisions about snacks and the next your entire world is upside down. I don’t want to give away too much, but the story ended up reminding me a lot of one of my favorite fictional podcasts of all time, Alice Isn’t Dead by the makers of Welcome to Nightvale.
On the surface, it seemed a lot like Hitchhiker could take a turn towards infamous games like Desert Bus from Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors. After all, you’re a passenger with no control over where you’re going and at least at the offset, it seems a little “gameplay lite.” You’re able to look around the car and even examine or pocket certain items, roll down the window and use the radio, but there’s not a whole lot more to do aside from making conversational choices here and there as you get to know your driver and discern whether or not they’re out to get you.
Here too pacing saves the day. Hitchhiker’s story is written extremely well and there’s almost always a sort of simmering tension as you traverse endless highways or cruise down empty streets, but that tension can quickly ramp up and boil over, and oftentimes as it does, some sort of minigame is introduced. You might suddenly need to ward off crows or decipher street signs, and do it fast before something terrible happens.
Each ride gives you a little more insight into what’s going on, and like any good story, brings up a few more questions about what’s really going on. There are little Easter eggs here and there for those who want to really decipher the tale, and objects you find on one ride and stash in your pack may become important later. Choices you make via dialog trees can have a huge impact on your story, too, but in the end, it’s all leading to one place.
I honestly enjoyed every moment of my time with Hitchhiker. Each new ride was a new piece of the puzzle, and each new driver interesting and puzzling in their own way–were these people actually trying to help me or was I going to end up vulture food in the middle of the desert? I could easily see it going either way from moment to moment.
Though I mentioned it before, it’s worth mentioning again that the artwork in Hitchhiker is absolutely stunning. Not only is it “pretty” though, it truly conveys a sense of quiet dread. Sunny, desolate highways stretch on forever, suburban subdivisions are a sullen maze of quiet, dark houses, the desert is vast and lonely. You never really feel at ease, or like you know where you’re going or where the next stop is. The ride isn’t full of inane conversation, either, with some drivers being quieter than others, giving you time to absorb the somewhat helpless situation you’re in being a passenger in a stranger’s car, and how few options you have if things take a dark turn.
Hitchhiker doesn’t overstay its welcome either, and wraps up its story in just a few hours over just a few rides. And, though given less emotional handholds than you’d expect, its conclusion not only neatly wraps up a lot of strange loose ends, but also has a distinct emotional impact. And while I’d never actually hitchhike, or recommend anyone else do so–I definitely recommend taking this long strange trip on your favorite console or gaming PC.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR
You can also catch us streaming games we’re reviewing and staff favorites on our Twitch channel.