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Hitchhiker review: a journey into the unknown

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Every now and again, you play a game which is hard to put into words.

I usually begin by making a list of the points I want to cover when I start to write a review. They might be simple things such as the way the graphics reminded me of another release, or more complex subjects like story connections and meaning.

I tried to follow this method with Hitchhiker but it was impossible. After completing Mad About Pandas’ latest release a couple of days ago thanks to a review key from Plan of Attack, thoughts about how it made me feel and what I think it was trying to say are still swimming in my head. They’re as hard to pin down as the narrative itself. It’s difficult to put into words but don’t take that as a bad thing: this has possibly been the most interesting gaming experience I’d had in 2021 so far and it’s going to remain with me for a while yet.

Hitchhiker is one of those titles where it’s tough to go into detail without spoiling what makes it special. I tend to roll my eyes when I see that sentiment expressed in reviews because it always comes across as an evasion of opinion, but this is a game which truly needs to be played to be understood. You step into the shoes of a young man who hitches a ride across America with a different character in five episodes, before realising they all know you in some way and getting lost in the mystery. More about that later.

At first, it seems like a hitchhiking simulator where you can’t do much outside of conversation, except examine a few objects inside the car and look out of the window. There are a few puzzles which need to be solved to progress: for example, at one point you’ll be guessing the answer to riddles posed by the radio DJ and then later, rewiring a light to get out of a tricky situation. Although they aren’t overly challenging, they do provide a nice, occasional break from the story.

I’d recommend Hitchhiker to fans of Kentucky Route Zero and Virginia. It took me on a journey into he unknown and it’s one I’m not going to forget for a while.

But the story is where the power of Hitchhiker likes. You’re a young man with no memory of who you are and where you’re going, and the only thing for you to do is hitch a ride to hopefully reach your unknown destination. The first person you meet is a raisin farmer called Vern who’s happy to chat to you about his life. Over the course of the next 40 minutes however, it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems, and you start asking yourself whether you trust this stranger and his words.

Why do you feel as though you recognise each of the characters but don’t remember them? And how do they know so much about you and who you really are? The next rides are just as intriguing as the first with Vern and, although it’s tricky to say who my favourite driver was, I found myself drawn to Sayed due to the backstory hinted at in conversation. Each of these people are curious in their own way with individual personalities, beliefs, and desires they may use to influence you.

I didn’t get the impression that the options selected during discussions did much to change the dialogue that followed, because each response was vague enough to answer any of the questions asked. This fits in wonderfully with Hitchhiker’s atmosphere though. It’s as if you’re aware the drivers are pulling the strings during these rides and, although they appear amiable enough on the surface, there’s an underlying feeling of something troubling that each of them is trying to hide from you.

An interlude during the rides gives some insight into their backstories. These are depicted in totally different visuals from the Firewatch-like graphics of the main game: one is told in black-and-white hand-drawn pictures while another is communicated through old View-Master images, for example. I found this switch jarring at first but, once I understand that these stories-within-a-story-were told from the characters’ individual perspective, the styles felt perfect for each of them.

It’s design choices like this which make Hitchhiker come across as something like a hallucination. It’s almost as if the other characters have stepped into your dream during the main narrative and you’ve visited theirs for a short spell in return during the interludes. Other visual components such as guiding fireflies, moving ketchup bottles and even tumbleweed balls with staring eyes add to the impression that not everything the protagonist witnesses or is told is the truth.

In certain sections of the game, it’s obvious that certain assets have been reused: scenery repeats outside the card window and the drivers all have the same way of fidgeting and checking out their surroundings. I couldn’t tell whether this was due to budget constraints or intentional design – but I’m going to go with the latter regardless because it worked. It seems to replicate that feeling of dreaming and noticing objects or people you recognise in situations or places where they don’t belong.

I must admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of Hitchhiker immediately after completing it. Several possible explanations are given for the protagonist’s memory loss and potential destination but pulling the threads of truth out of the narrative is challenging, and you constantly change your mind about what you believe during your playthrough. No definitive conclusion is given at the end of the game, and this isn’t usually something I enjoy; I’d rather have the answers handed to me than an open-ended tale.

But it’s now a few days later and I’ve changed my mind yet again. Although I still haven’t deciphered everything and some questions remain unanswered, I think I’ve figured out most of what happened to the protagonist – at least, my version of what has happened to them. Giving a firm conclusion to Mad About Pandas’ project would have removed some of that surreal feeling, and it’s thanks to some superb writing and voice-acting that I’m still thinking about it a week later.

While Hitchhiker won’t be to everyone’s tastes due to the way it tells its story, it’s a game I’d recommend to fans of releases such as Kentucky Route Zero and Virginia. It took me on a journey into the unknown and it’s one I’m not going to forget for a while.

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