When searching for a new game to play, one of the biggest things I look for is a game that will connect with me emotionally. Difficulty, skill, gameplay–those are all icing on the cake to me, but are not the core reasons for why I play–or more importantly keep playing–a game. The story, the characters, and my mission all trump those features. Most game critics would argue they are the only things that matter which is precisely why I am at odds with them when it comes to the beautiful indie game, Shelter.
Shelter is a stunningly beautiful game in which you play as a mama badger leading her band of five little cubs to a new home. Along the way you must keep them fed, safe from environmental hazards, and away from predators. The game is simple which, while to many is its biggest failing, suited it just fine to me. Shelter isn’t meant to be a game in which you keep score, or get a better ending based on skill. Shelter is all about the relationship you form with your little ones, and that is what makes it a fantastic game.
Fairly early on you start to feel protective of your little cubs. The adorable little barks they make when they find food or are patiently waiting to be fed is the sweetest thing. While you’re walking you can left mouseclick to make the mama badger bark, and her little clan will bark and chirp back, letting you know that they’re all there and safe. Seriously, it was so freaking adorable! I barked at my babies all the time because they were just that cute!
Feeding the cubs is by far the easiest part of the game. There is food EVERYWHERE which some people have listed as a major failing of the game. I don’t really think it is though. Badgers eat a wide range of food so unless they’re in a barren landscape, food should never really be much of a concern. The food serves as a distraction from the real danger: predators.
The second level of the game plunges you into darkness with the only light being an odd halo around your character. While it doesn’t make much sense, it serves as a visual representation of the safe area for your cubs. I didn’t realize this going in, so when my first cub’s death scream and the snarling of its murderer met my ears, I froze in horror. What the–did I–was one of my babies gone? I let out a quick bark and my heart dropped when it was met with only four replies.
I had already lost a cub, and that hit pretty hard. Why wasn’t I more careful, why hadn’t I kept a closer eye on them? What the hell had even happened anyway? I vowed to be more careful and hurried off in search of more food. I dug up a turnip, gave it to the hungriest of my cubs (you can tell how hungry they are based on their paleness), and turned to find more when suddenly the growling and snarling of a coyote or wolf, and the terrified squeals of my babies started up again. I ran as fast as I could, praying they would follow, but all too soon another scream filled the darkness before all went quiet.
Now I was really feeling bad. In a matter of moments I had lost two of my five cubs. I ran up to the remaining three and just sat there in the darkness for awhile as I tried to figure out what was going on. Was something triggering the attack? Were they random? How on earth was I supposed to save my babies? Before long I realized a cub falling outside of my ring of light was what brought the predator on. I now had to force myself to wait for each cub to finish eating before heading off in search of the next tasty bite. Over and over I would start to head out before the cub was done, and the growling would make me hurry back to them.
Before everything was said and done, I managed to lose all of my cubs and it was the biggest sense of failure in a game that I have ever experienced. How had I let this happen? How had I been so irresponsible? The game didn’t end after my last baby died. Instead I was forced to wander around, unable to kill myself and thus end the game.
I restarted with my last remaining cub, vowing to protect it with everything I had. I would be the most overprotective badger the world had ever seen. And I succeeded–I got that poor little fellow to the beautiful field free from harm. But the greatest shock was still to come.
The game ends on a terribly sad note. Sad like Brothers which left me crying for ages? No, not that kind of sad, but sad nonetheless. I encourage you to wait for the end of the credits where you discover the full meaning of Shelter‘s finale. It got me thinking about mortality, children, and the very purpose of life. It was gloomy and yet fitting for a game about the natural world. I’m not sure what I took away from it was the intended message, but that’s part of its charm. There are no words, no spoken messages, just a story about a family of badgers and their struggle to live.
Many critics have argued that Shelter is too repetitive to be considered a “good game”. After all, there is really very little that you do. You find food, give it to your babies, hide from hawks, etc. But isn’t that how most games are? Really, truly give this some thought. Yes, obviously you do the same sort of thing throughout it, but in Call of Duty don’t you do the same thing over and over as well? In any game isn’t the whole idea that you get taught individual actions so that in the end they can be brought together? I mean look at Mario for heavens sake! Where’s the variety there!
So many game critics seem unable to understand games like Shelter. They just can’t comprehend that Shelter has nothing to do with skill or winning or losing. Shelter is about experiencing. It’s an incredibly short game (took me about an hour to finish I think) so obviously there isn’t that much to do. Of course, the other point of contention most reviewers seem to have with this game is the fact that it is so short. They bitch about not having enough to do, and yet complain that the game is too short. You know that had it been any longer they would have whined about how tedious it got!
Shelter is not a game for your average “I JUST WANNA KILL EVERYTHING! GO NOW!” gamer. I would argue that it’s not even for someone looking to be entertained on a rainy day. Games like Shelter are for those who aren’t constrained by the silly rules of what does or doesn’t “count as a game”. It’s for people who want an interesting experience that is also interactive. I could have saved all of my cubs, and in fact tonight I may replay it in order to do so. But if all you try to do with this game is win win win, you’ll miss out on the true beauty of it. In no other game has a character’s unexpected death touched me like this one did and I appreciate it for that. Do I think it could have been better in some ways? Absolutely, but all games could do better in one way or another so to say that the only reason you dislike it is because it “wasn’t challenging enough” means that you missed the entire point of it and I can’t take your review seriously in the first place.
Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it’s repetitive, but I personally feel that most if not all games are. If you’re capable of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and are looking for a touching experience, then the beauty and sadness of Shelter will be a great choice for you.