Shelter is in an Indie game that was recently released on Steam Greenlight and was developed by the same team that brought us Pid. The idea behind Shelter is to experience life as a mother badger who must fend for her cubs, protecting and nurturing them as they make their journey to new lands, presumably to find others of their kind as badgers are usually sociable creatures. On their pilgrimage they must overcome daunting birds of prey, the hunt for food and the brutal environments that must be crossed. The point is to give you that feeling of over-protectiveness and to experience loss, just like how a mother badger in the wild would. It’s to show how brutal the real world can be and why it’s necessary, the circle of life if that’s not too cliché. Shelter does manage to get this point across but it tries maybe a bit too hard.
No information, no instructions, a cute mother badger in a burrow with her cubs. This is how Shelter opens and it’s extremely refreshing to not have a bunch of pop-ups, tutorials or NPCs constantly bombarding you with information on what to do. So naturally you start to press buttons, beginning with ‘WASD’ if you have any PC gaming sense at all and learn that you can move as expected and rotate the camera with the mouse. Next up is to simply explore your surroundings and search for the goal but when trying to leave the burrow you are forced back in for reasons unknown, all the while you are followed by four cutesy little cubs. At the starting area there’s also a greyed-out cub lying on the floor, which got me right in the heart as I presumed the poor thing hadn’t made it, due to the inability to interact with it. After clicking about in confusion and not being allowed to leave I learnt that I could carry food in my mouth, so I grabbed the nearby carrot and tried to leave again to no avail. This is when it hit me, that I could save the cub! Dropping the food next to the starving cub instantly revitalised its colour and energy and off we were, a big mother badger and her new-born stumbling cubs.
In just a few minutes the game had allowed me to teach myself most of the main mechanics and then continue onwards through the labyrinth burrows as the credits rolled and calming music played. In all it’s a great opening to the game and getting to see the world as you emerge from the dark hole kind of takes your breath away. The art style is unique with the colours being soft and brushed like a watercolour painting and everything looks like paper-craft, with edges having no roundness to them. This for me was what I liked most about Shelter; it looked and sounded amazing, and that was just a few minutes in. It’s one of the best introductions to a game I’ve ever played because of it’s simple elegance. Unfortunately, not much longer into the game it starts to head down-hill.
Once you’re taught how to stalk and pounce prey such as frogs and foxes and you understand how to avoid being attacked by the preying birds, there’s really not much else to the game. You make your way through the linear environments avoiding obstacles and feeding your young with the food you find or hunt, it’s very simply but never boring. The reason it’s never boring is because the entire game is on average, only an hour long (or should I say an hour short) and this hour is split into several sections each with different gameplay elements. I’d like to note that I’m not saying that how good a game is, is directly related to its length because that’s never the case but for a game like this, that tries to get you to form an emotional bond with your character and cubs, there is just not enough time or personality development.
The sections that the game is broken into include a night stage (which I suppose is the only one that really makes sense considering badgers are nocturnal), a stage with a forest fire and a stage with harsh rivers that must be crossed. In all of them you must continue to search for food to feed your cubs but it really isn’t that difficult as food is strewn about everywhere just waiting to be knocked from trees, plucked from the ground or killed, so the main concern is each section’s unique environmental hazard. For example, in the dark stage you are surrounded with an area of light that you must keep you cubs in, in order to protect them from unseen predators. It sounds simple but occasionally a sound such as a twig breaking will send your cubs running away in fear and you must keep up to secure them. In another stage a forest fire is burning the tall grass that must be used to hide from the preying bird forcing you out into the open where you are unsafe.
With each stage’s unique hazards it’s not easy keeping all of your cubs alive and this is where the meaning of the game shines through. Losing a cub is a harsh punishment and it makes the player feel guilty, it was my fault for not being patient or keeping an eye on them properly. Unfortunately there was one part that ruined the experience for me, when there was no cover, no danger and I was peacefully running towards the end of a section when all of a sudden I heard the familiar shriek of the hunting bird and saw its shadow pass over me and my cubs. I kept running to the cover that’s wasn’t far off, almost closing my eyes in fear when ‘swoosh’, one of my cubs was taken just in time for me to get to cover and turn around to see it all unfold. At first it was saddening but then I realised I didn’t have a chance, I never had a chance. I was in an open area minding my business at the end of the level, I couldn’t have retreated as it was equidistant to the exit anyway – the loss was scripted, unavoidable.
Realising this I really didn’t care anymore about losing the cubs, I no longer felt guilty as it was unavoidable, the game wasn’t punishing me it was simply playing out how it was supposed to and that took away a lot from my experience. You could argue other games have sad scripted moments but here there wasn’t even enough time to bond with the cubs and it has to be at least one or the other, either let the player bond and then remove the character to simulate grief or have it be the player’s own fault to provoke guilt. Otherwise the gameplay is hardly necessary at all, especially when it’s incredibly easy; instead, Shelter could just be a story about a mother badger losing her cubs one by one to the harsh wilderness and convey the same effect. Shelter is a nice experiment and overall a shocking experience but it’s £6.99 price point, hour long gameplay, no replay value or challenge really hurts it. Whilst I did find my heart racing on several occasions and almost stopping in those tense moments where you must remain hidden, Shelter does try incredibly hard to evoke emotion.
The ending is a real heart-stomper and without spoiling anything, the whole experience does come together with the few-second cutscene that runs after the credits, that honestly did hit me hard and just stunned me where I sat, as the game ended and faded to black. This was Shelter’s high point, it did exactly what it aimed to but no where near to the standard of something like Thomas Was Alone and that game was about coloured quadrilaterals! But it created that bond with the player by giving each character a personality, something extraordinary and the more you learnt about them the more you felt you knew them, making the idea of losing them all the more worse. Although, once again the art style and music of Shelter must be praised, it was something special and really pulled you into the world. In the end I did enjoy Shelter but I don’t think it’s for everyone and unfortunately, instead of condensing an experience to fit a smaller time-frame, it felt more like the experience was just cut short.