Shelter Makes Me Feel Like a Terrible Mother
First and foremost, this is what indie developer Might and Delight's newest game Shelter is: a badger sim.
You are, in essence, plunged into the role of a mother badger with a brood of five small yipping babies that toddle after you as you lead them through the swiftly changing landscapes. Your task is simple: lead them through the unfamiliar terrains; feed them with fruits, roots, and whatever other small animals you can kill; and protect them from the ever-present dangers of the outside world.
Released in August 2013, Shelter is rated E for Everyone - nominally a children's game, but as emotionally impactful and relevant to any adult. And a good thing too, because it is adults that are most likely to look past the polish and glamor of other triple-A titles to take a look at this game.
How do I play?
There is no narrative in the game, and the UI has been pared down to practically nothing. The visuals are stripped down the bare essentials, evoking a patchwork of different colors and textures wrapped around wire frames. Tutorials appear as single, unobtrusive images in the top corner to explain certain actions that your mother badger can take.
If nothing else, this emptiness of explicit direction, stripped-down landscape, and intuitive learn-by-doing nature all works together to give you the sense that you are, in fact, a badger. One that is imbued with your own personal characteristics and failings.
Without any obvious large-scale objective markers, Shelter relies on a singular path through the landscape, and scatters small points of interest along the path - a small tuft of radish around one corner, or an apple tree just on the horizon. You as the player must quickly learn what to do to keep your babies alive - or they will die.
And they will die.
The death of a cub hits you with a genuine feeling of loss and failure - not as a game player with a steadfast objective and a singular reward in mind - but as a parent, where the loss of your child is the direct fault of your own actions.
Your babies can and will be picked off by outside forces of nature: snatched off by terrifying noises in the dark, dying of starvation, or snapped up and carried away by giant birds of prey.
Your own very real characteristics come into play in this game - if you bolt at the sound of an ominous stick breaking or strange animal noises in the dark, your babies may stray too far and be devoured by those same unseen predators. If you get lost and easily turned around in vast landscapes without helpful mini-maps and objective markers, you may find yourself trapped in a spreading forest fire, or out in the open where large birds of prey patrol the skies.
When this happens, the death of a cub hits you with a genuine feeling of loss and failure - not as a game player with a steadfast objective and a singular reward in mind - but as a parent, where the loss of your child is the direct fault of your own actions.
Follow the music
The entire game plays like one long escort quest, but I have never seen an escort quest bring out such a sense of owed responsibility. Your babies squeak, chitter, and bark after you with an endearing regularity, and each piece of fruit or small dead animal that you drop in front of their hungry mouths is celebrated with a triumphant little musical chime.
The fantastic soundtrack follows you through each of the stages; sweet, immersive, simplistic, and lovely. It is also the first indication when something goes wrong - the music changes abruptly in tense moments, prompting your senses to high alert for the fateful shadow overhead, the distinct snap-crackle of flames - or a horrible, ominous silence.
These audio cues are what help you navigate the occasionally treacherous landscapes, though you are not taught straight away what you must do in order to keep them alive. You learn by doing - often with disastrous consequences.
Shelter plays out a story of Mother Nature's tough love. She puts obstacles in your path, but there is some way for you to learn and adapt to those circumstances. Life is hard and unfair, and this is a idea that strings you along as you progress through the game. Throughout the game, you will lose your cubs through your own mistakes, but you also learn from them and discover new ways to act and adapt in order for you and your babies to survive.
At the end, without delving into extreme spoilers, all of this is taken away from you - cheapening the gameplay in favor of underlining a point. You are ultimately left bewildered, frustrated, and wondering what on earth you did wrong - only to find that you didn't do anything wrong.
Life is unfair.
This is the singularly biggest problem I have with Shelter; the ending is abrupt and makes the rest of what was a marvelous experience feel hollow.
Other issues I had with the game are small: the control responses are sometimes clunky and unresponsive, causing you to occasionally click multiple times just to find out whether or not you've managed to pick up or drop the dead frog; the free-wheeling camera view often clips through objects around you, and can be quite immersion-breaking, particularly in small spaces like tree logs; and your babies can and will get stuck on walls, running endlessly into a corner trying to come after you.
Furthermore, though it is marketed towards anyone age 10+ it is evident that it is intended for mildly experienced players, not for those who have never played a PC game before. It takes your knowledge of default movement keys as a given - that WASD governs movement, and Left Ctrl makes you crouch or creep along.
It is also important to note that Shelter is very short - barely an hour's worth of gameplay. If I had known exactly how short it would be, I would likely have balked at paying the full retail price of $9.99 on Steam. With that in mind, the title does go on sale fairly frequently for around $4.99 and was recently in a Groupees bundle for as low as $1.
This is a game that was made to be an art piece. It is simple, charming, quite beautiful, and has no interest in creating replayabiltiy - in fact doing so would likely mar the experience with too much foreknowledge.
The visuals, musical score, and simplistic gameplay stitch seamlessly together to create a wonderfully immersive experience, and it manages to touch you emotionally in ways that few games can. It is in fact one of the few games that I actively sought out a soundtrack for, and was very disappointed when I couldn't find one.
(Might & Delight has released a very cute children's story book, however. Click the image above for the free .pdf!)
Although it hardly boasts a flawless finish, Shelter is an hour's gaming well spent if you are in a quiet, thoughtful mood and are looking to play something simple and easy on the eyes. I would definitely recommend picking it up.
You may wish to avoid naming your babies, however. It will only end in tears.