Hitchhiker – A Mystery Game review
As my stoic baseball-capped companion drives past another dusty, golden-coloured wheat field deep in rural America, the radio starts talking. But in Hitchhiker – A Mystery Game, it’s not just talking, but talking to me. This surreal interactive visual novel plays out like On the Road if Jack Kerouac had taken even more illicit substances whilst penning it (if that's even possible). Sometimes it's a little too abstract, and its ending feels too abrupt, especially considering the slow, meandering pace of the experience leading up to that point. But until the sudden conclusion there's enough intrigue and creativity peppered throughout to make this unusual adventure worth the trip.
The game is split up into five chapters, and each sees you hitchhiking in the vehicle of a different driver in a different location. But it becomes clear during the first few minutes of your inaugural ride that this will not be your average road trip. You can't remember where you're going – in fact, you can't remember who you are at all. And the only thing in the bag you've brought with you is a single toothbrush. Which, whilst hygienic, doesn't exactly help when it comes to recalling your entire existence.
Across these five outings, you'll piece together how you came to be on this journey in the first place through chatting with your enigmatic driving companions, interacting with objects like photographs or other driver-specific items you find inside their respective cars, and solving the occasional puzzle. I played on the PC, which involved moving the first-person camera with my mouse and left-clicking to interact with things around my seat. You can also look up or down and click to select dialogue options when prompted. Some actions, such as winding down the window or kicking a can, do nothing to progress the story and are just there for something to pass the time, whilst others, like opening a glove box when asked to, will trigger the next event. Though it's still not much to do, it nicely replicates that feeling of being a little bored and restless on a long journey, and breathes a bit of life into some of the drivers' longer monologues which might otherwise drag.
Each chapter's location and puzzles are themed around its driver and what they're meant to represent. For example, Hops, a slightly confused and forgetful elderly man, takes the wheel in the second chapter and drives through endlessly repetitive suburb streets that all look the same, possibly to reflect his failing memory. One of the puzzles here sees you having to find a specific street name amongst the many road signs you pass – the only problem being that all the names have become anagrams of their true selves. Miss the one you need and you'll have to wait for it to come around again.
A later chapter has you picked up by Leah the waitress, so you actually start the section sitting across from her in a diner – you'll only get in the car halfway through. Whilst there's fewer puzzles in this part, you can play a mini-game of hunting out and clicking on objects that replicate around the diner for points, which ties into a story she tells you about a world where people buy robot doubles of themselves. Neither the puzzles nor mini-games in Hitchhiker are particularly taxing, but given that for the most part you're confined to a car and can never move around, the attempts to change the scenery and include some interactivity are very welcome and help keep things feeling fresh.
Without spoiling too much of the story itself, elements of the plot like the aforementioned tête-à-tête with the radio make this anything but just your normal car journey. The drivers appear to know too much about you, and the world doesn't altogether feel like reality. Supernatural occurrences like a collection of tumbleweeds suddenly turning into giant eyes leaves the experience feeling a little like Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel American Gods, with seemingly ordinary settings turning into something magical in the blink of an eye.
After ending each chapter, you're rewarded with a photo that triggers a short 2D flashback sequence that gives you a glimpse of a recovered memory from your (male) character’s past. Each ride also includes one or more 2D cutscenes, narrated by the current driver. Rather than relating directly to your journey, however, more often than not these are strange animated vignettes telling abstract tales, many of which wouldn't feel out of place of in a book of Donald Barthelme short stories with their dreamlike nature.
One of my favourite cutscenes comes from Hops, and is animated like a black-and-white sketch on a page. In it he recounts how he once slipped down the crack at the end of an escalator in a shopping mall and found himself trapped there with a motley crew of similarly unfortunate people for nine whole months. You may well wonder how any of this fits in with driving around a suburb, and whilst the idea appears to be to explore that chapter's themes in a different way, these cinematics do indeed feel a little jarring in their outright bizarreness, even given some of the strange goings-on in the game proper. And yet the writing for each of them is so strong that I didn't particularly care; the individual yarns being spun are so good that they're worthy of inclusion in a published collection.
Though the protagonist himself never speaks, each of the drivers is fully voiced and the actors generally deliver solid if not stand-out performances. The lone exception is that of the raisin farmer Vern, whose silky, husky tones are incredibly soothing to listen to. In fact, most of the game is relaxing to play as the fantastical postmodernist monologues wash over endlessly rolling, rarely changing landscapes. The monologues themselves can sometimes feel like a philosophy student and an English literature student have been given free rein to stuff in as many references and reflections on their favourite works as possible. It all needs a bit more editing to maintain that surreal air but maybe not feel quite as lengthy and pleased with itself. Instead, each driver comes across more like a seminar tutor debating your latest reading list, rather than an in-game character to connect with or relate to.
While not particularly detailed, the graphics are clean and look great, particularly the different locations you drive through. From the sun-drenched country highways to the quieter urban streets, the passing scenery all paints an evocative picture of the joys of travel (which feels particularly nostalgic whilst being stuck at home during a pandemic). The 3D character models can be a little stiff, especially in their facial expressions with lip syncing not always being on point, but as you're normally facing the beautiful road ahead rather than at your companion, this isn't really too much of an issue. Aside from the voice acting, the main sound here is the gentle thrum of the car engine as you wind down yet another road, interspersed with the occasional musical riff when an especially dramatic or mysterious piece of dialogue has just been shared. Together they provide a suitable backdrop to the philosophical musings, never too intrusive but always there to fill any silences.
It took me just over three and a half hours to finish Hitchhiker, and by the final chapter there were a lot of different narrative strands that needed tying together. Unfortunately, the ending felt very abrupt and unexpected rather than satisfying. Whilst I mostly understood what had happened in the story and why I was in this situation, it felt like the concluding chapter didn't do quite enough to weave everything together in a gratifying way. This is a shame, considering how much of the game is centred around rediscovering yourself and why you came to be in this predicament.
Once you unlock new chapters, you can replay them in any order again if you want to retrace your steps and choose different dialogue options, though there don't appear to be any alternate endings or substantially different branching paths depending on your choices. Satisfied that I had grasped most of the tale's many twists and turns when I reached my final destination, even with the rushed ending, I was happy to call an end to my car-hopping experience there. Hitchhiker – A Mystery Game offers up a unique roadmap of intriguing short stories and beautiful locations, with only its tendency to get lost in its own philosophical thoughts making the ride a little bumpier along the way.