Shelter has been on my radar for a while. I mean, a game where you play as a mother badger caring for its young in this harsh reality that is life is certainly a unique experience that doesn’t come around often, if at all in todays fast paced, adrenaline-fuelled industry. It’s a new game from the indie studio Might and Delight which brought us Pid, and is certainly ambitious for this young studio. The very premise is emotional in nature, but does the game deliver on that emotion, or is it just a selling point in this crowded and hard market to break?
You start the game in a cave, with you (the mother badger) and 4 cubs huddled around a grey cub on the floor, moaning and crying. The game gives no prompts, no instructions, but you just know that you somehow have to help this cub out. It’s helpless, crying, and needs attention. You walk around the corner, with your other healthy cubs following you, to find a carrot. Taking this carrot to the sick cub helps him up and ensures he is now a healthy colour, and can follow you on your journey through this evil land. This simple introduction to one of the core mechanics of the game is extremely primitive, yet effective in communicating how to care for your young, and what will happen if you don’t.
For the first moments of the game, you’ll be slowly walked through this world. It doesn’t take long getting used to scrummaging for food, since your badgers are happy to eat anything from vegetables to frogs or even foxes. Giving food to individual cubs can be a hassle, especially when one is starving and grey, with each cub trying to grab food regardless of whether they’re full or not, but this at times only adds to the cub’s dynamism. Eventually, you’ll start coming across the real threats of the forest: birds of prey. These hulking beasts try to snatch your cubs if you stay in the open long enough. It’s fairly simple to avoid them at the start, but its worrying when one swoops in only to barely miss a cub. You genuinely care for them and don’t want to see one go.
As the game progresses, it’s the environments that bring new threats to your family rather than predators, meaning you have a lot more to fear. Each new area is unique in the way it highlights simple weather conditions that we may find sublime, but in turn become a new dangerous threat to this young family. Night time may not too frightening as we walk around with street lamps and paths, but for your cubs, even the slightest nose will startle them, making them run in any direction possible. One of the most emotive levels was when it started raining, which may seem like a trivial thing in our world, but for the badgers it brings threats around every corner, from the rivers and the hills. Everything in this world is a fight for survival, and you certainly don’t want to let a single cub down and let them die, because if they do, it’s not their fault, it’s yours, with the emotional guilt I can imagine being too much to handle for some players.
For all it’s emotion, Shelter isn’t without its faults. Some levels are frustrating, with some being so open you’re not sure where to go in order to continue across this scary world. My biggest gripe was probably trying to feed individual cubs, with the action button to put down food not working when in close vicinity to a cub, it was pot luck as to whether you could get your food to a hungry cub or not. Some may argue that this builds a family, with each cub having a personality; some being greedy and fat, with others being left out and weak. As much as I like this answer, and wanted to believe it myself, I can’t help but think it’s making excuses for a buggy game.
I may be saying this a lot lately, but Shelter is truly a game that could not have been any other medium. Films, Books and TV’s are all passive experiences that require you to have lived through the events they portray in order for you to feel empathy. Shelter on the other hand requires you to take care of these defenceless creatures, bidding to their every whim in the hope you can ensure their survival. Old passive media wouldn’t have made me feel empathy for these creatures, I’d see them on screen and wouldn’t relate as I am not a badger, so I couldn’t possible understand how a rainy hill could be threatening. But in playing Shelter, you are immersed in a world where all you can think about is your cubs, ensuring you grow attached to them like they are your own. It manages to tap into your own human nature, with every failure not only making me feel regret at a loss like a normal game would, but for failing as a parent, and as a provider. For Shelter to make me feel this way is truly a landmark experience, one that won’t gain mass market appeal, but for those of you who do decide to play it, you’ll be left with an experience others may never feel.