In Shelter you experience the wild as a mother badger sheltering her cubs from harm. On their journey they get stalked by a bird of prey, encounter perils of the night, river rapids crossings, big forest fires and the looming threat of death by starvation.
What We Think
I would make a terrible mother.
I don’t think that’s the lesson developers Might and Delight meant for me to get out of Shelter, but it’s the one I walked away with. Oh, it all started innocently enough—my five cubs and I emerged from our cozy little cave to frolic through the forest with nothing but food on our mind. But less than an hour later four of my children were dead and I was terrified I would lose the fifth. My material instincts kicked into overdrive as everything I knew about being a badger was put to the test. Was I able to save the last of my offspring?
Badger Badger Badger
The world of Shelter is one of papier-mâché, of swaying grass and babbling brooks and leaves caught on the wind. It’s warm and inviting at first—minimalist instructions teach you how to run, pull up turnips and radishes, knock apples from trees and hunt frogs and foxes. While you yourself don’t need any food, your five cubs have bottomless stomachs. They follow you loyally, eagerly devouring whatever sustenance you find them. It’s hard not to become endeared to them as they waddle along on little legs and answer your calls with adorable, feeble cries. But badgers are far from the top of the food chain, and the vaguely sinister background music suggested it wouldn’t be long before my cubs got a tough dose of reality.
And indeed, as we walked through an open field we heard a hawk cry. An ominous shadow soared overhead—things had officially gotten real. As I learned in the game’s innocent opening, patches of tall grass were enough to hide us. So we ran from clump to clump, each time narrowly avoiding the swooping predator. It was surprisingly stressful.
We were nearly home free when I mistimed a run. Clive, trailing the pack, was snatched up with a pathetic yelp. Now gamers, as a rule, are pretty desensitised to fictional death—it happens so often it barely means anything to us. But I couldn’t help but feel mad at myself for screwing up and getting Clive killed. He had trusted me, and I let him down. I swore it wouldn’t happen again.
While finding food was still important, Shelter had quickly turned into something akin to a survival horror game. Night had fallen, and there were monsters in the darkness. I was nervous, yet I still found time to admire the game’s abstract sky.
The relaxing scene didn’t last. As we walked a twig snapped underfoot, sending the cubs into a panic. Before I could get them back under control lurking beasts claimed two of their lives. I had gone from five children to two—not wanting to tell Bumper and Trufflehunter the horrible truth, I convinced them that their siblings had gone to visit their grandma in a nice forest upstate.
I had broken my vow to not repeat Clive’s cruel fate, and I had broken it bad. And I was only two levels in! What had started as a delightful romp had turned into a nerve-wracking horror story. But I had to push on. My credibility, both as a gamer and a momma badger, demanded it.
Nasty, Brutish and Short
Little did I know that I was already roughly halfway through the game. If Shelter has one glaring flaw, it’s length. It took me 70 minutes to complete, and I can’t imagine even the slowest gamer spending more than two hours.
I’m generally not one to complain about game length—sixty minutes of amazing gameplay is worth several mediocre hours in my book. But budget conscious gamers should be wary. The 10 dollar price tag is a bit steep, especially considering that the game’s linearity limits replay value. Perhaps most disappointing is that the deadly hawk is encountered twice more—surely in a game this short there could be more enemy variety?
On the plus side, the brevity keeps Shelter’s other, minor flaws—like a camera that tends to get lost in the trees—from getting too annoying.
The only other irritating problem comes from trying to feed your cubs. Their fur turns grey as they grow hungrier, giving you a visual indicator of who needs to eat. But because of the way the cubs move around, feeding a specific one is imprecise and frustrating. I often tried to feed the hungriest member of my clan only to have a greedy sibling snatch the meal up. Food is plentiful enough that it’s not a huge problem, but it would be nice if you could encourage your cubs to share.
The forces of nature and my own misjudgement claimed Trufflehunter on the third stage, leaving Bumper and me against the world. The final two levels were harrowing and stressful—I half-expected a hunter to jump out from behind a tree and shoot the poor guy at any moment, but somehow I was able to see Bumper to safety.
Shelter’s poignant ending brought mixed emotions. I was glad that at least one cub would live to see another day, but getting the other four killed knocked me well out of the running for Mother of the Year. But I didn’t feel any need to try again, as knowing the game’s secrets would cheapen the experience. Besides, there are no second chances in nature. I’m just going to have to live with my mistakes.
Shelter could have been made with many animals, but the choice of badgers was wise. Aside from the Internet’s infatuation with them, badgers are famous for their ferocity when protecting their young. It’s a ferocity you’ll grow to share, and after playing many, many games where I couldn’t care less if my chump allies died it was an enjoyable—albeit nerve-wracking—change of pace. If you can afford the relatively steep price tag Shelter is well worth a look.