Badger, Badger: A Review of Shelter
One look at Might and Delight’s Shelter casts it as Proteus with badgers. Shelter has the same lo-fi naturalism, the twinkling soundtrack, the abstract lushness of small animals. They’re all here, and they’re all beautiful, and sweeping, and majestic in miniature.
Of course, Shelter isn’t actually Proteus with badgers. It’s something more interesting: a game about motherhood, about survival, and about death. There’s exactly one word throughout Shelter—the title—and yet the game tells an intense, powerful story emerging from your actions. It is brilliant in the ways videogames rarely are, despite wearing many of the medium’s traditional flaws.
The games Shelter remind me strongest of are the third person shooters of the late 1990′s and early 2000′s. Specifically, it reminds me my own half-dozen aborted attempts to play Giants: Citizen Kabuto, one of the great classics of the period. It’s an awkward comparison, but Shelter is a bit of an awkward game. You control a pack of badgers—a mother and her five cubs—on a quest across a pristine forest. Along the way, you find food, hopefully enough to feed all of them. You hide them from predators. You keep them safe, in the way a parent does.
In practice, you can feel the videogame straining at the edges, and it’s beginning to fray. Food sits about haphazardly, with obvious signposting. The game’s hunting mechanism, of frogs, mice, and other small creatures, is simple yet obfuscated: I’m not sure I could tell you 100% how it works after playing the game, though I succeeded a number of times. Even then, hunting has no crunch, just an action performed in a videogame
The videogame bleeds through more its other challenges. In a nighttime level, your badger is, handily, a lantern. It emits light like a lantern in an early 2000′s stealth game. In one segment, you dodge giant waves by moving behind generously spaced rocks. Both these elements feel fake. They break up the game’s pristine landscape with obvious, familiar challenges, which exhaust more than anything. Even worse are the level transitions, which are shoddy in the way of 1998: you end a level and, unbidden, end up somewhere completely different.
These elements frustrate, but they don’t break the illusion. And at its heart, Shelter is the perfect parent simulator, in that you’re scared all the time.
Shelter starts you off with five cubs, each visually different. For the first section of the game, you’ll hate them: they’re slow, and they’re unwieldy, and you keep feeding them only because the game tells you to.
It doesn’t take long to get attached, though. Your children change as you go. Some get bigger. You get attached. I got attached to two in specific, who I named: Junior, who looked exactly like my character, and Bitey, because I called the big one Bitey.
I only got attached to two, and this brings me to the most important point: Shelter is a terrifying game. It’s not a horror game. It’s not manipulative. What it does is it gives you small, slow children, and forces you to duck from cover to cover to hide from incredibly dangerous animals.
I’m not even sure these predators can kill you. What I do know is, they can kill your children. Worse, they’re very, very good at killing your children. They’ll screech in from the unknown and tear them away from you.
Most terrifyingly, there’s a level of the game where I’m not 100% sure why my children died. You hear animals, big animals, you scatter, and when you come back to the group there’s one less of you. In a different game this would feel arbitrary: in Shelter, it is the nature of survival. Sometimes you die achieving your goals. Other times, something unknowable snuffs you out in a dark corner of a streambed.
What’s important is, the rest of the trip was me, Junior, and Bitey. It’s where the Proteus comes into Shelter: while there’s nothing random about the game, it produces narrative. These collections of polygons and code behaved differently, established quirks, and moved me. Bitey was big and fast and always took the food I offered, so I had to work to get Junior anything. He was smaller, slower, but he looked like me, and that made me happy
Shelter crescendos, too. It’s not a particularly long game—I beat it in an hour and change, though I’ve been told I rush through games—but it’s perfectly paced. It knows when to spring tension on you, and it knows—despite my complaints—when to hit you with a ridiculous gamey challenge. And when it ends, it does with the force of a speeding train, at the exact moment it should have.
And, by the end, Shelter has taught you what it’s like to be a parent. It’s a raw videogame. It’s rough, in pretty much every way. But there’s something so immediate, so magnetic about the concept, and something so unyielding and intense about its execution that will make it linger in my mind long after it ends.