Alright internet, get your badger jokes and memes out now…I’ll wait. Okay, are we good? Good. I want you to get that nonsense out here and now because Shelter is a game that does care and doesn’t warrant a laugh or cheap joke. Playing as the mother badger to a group of five little babies has never been a more intense or caring experience than what the fine folks at Might and Delight have crafted. Now, I know what you’re saying, there has never been a badger game made before but I stand by my statement. Shelter is a unique experience that will make you care for the little bundles of love that are your squeaking kin.
In Shelter there are no score tickers, timers, kill counts, or lives. You play as the mother of five young badgers and your job is to escort them from point A to point B without any of them going hungry or starving. Shelter accomplishes the goal of informing you of duties without the use of clumsy tutorials or a narrator describing you each task. Instead, the game lets you walk around and figure it all out in an organic process that leads to understanding the world quite quickly. Shelter doesn’t tell you to grab the food, an onion, and bring it to your baby but you understand that it needs to be done before moving on. This lesson naturally teaches you the importance of food to your young’s survival. Controls are simple; you walk around with W, A, S, D keys and gather/attack with the left mouse button. You can also call for your young with the right mouse button and sprint/crawl with the usual Shift/CTRL scheme.
Before going on any further about the game I need to pay praise to the wonderful world that Might and Delight has crafted. The entirety of the game, be it in an open field or a damp cave, feels like it’s been hand stitched into a quilt that wraps the player in a warm and sometimes dangerous embrace. The landscapes are bright and colorful, with textures that can only be likened to Wind Waker and even then only slightly so. The art style of Shelter, much like that of the developer’s previous title, Pid, is one entirely unique to the game. Food is important, it’s your children’s lifeblood and it stands out in the world to make finding it fairly easy. This simple way of making the food standout from the world allows it all to feel, at the risk of sounding redundant, natural.
The standout graphical effect isn’t the only way to know food is around; it turns out your children are quite capable of helping you on that front. Your young's squeals and squeaks of delight when near a food source notifies you to ram into a tree or pull an onion from the ground. Ignore them at your own peril because, while it might be easier to run through the level and avoid danger, starving your young means losing them fast. Your children are all you have in this game; they’re your reason for being. As the mother of five it’s up to you to protect them from danger and make sure they’re safe. This means keeping an eye on them even when it’s hard to see, making sure they’re close by when predators stalk from above, and timing your every move with their slower movement speed in mind.
The threat of starvation is but one of many dangers that loom over your young. Birds of prey soar above, waiting to snatch small badgers for their own, the darkness of a cave calls to them, and forest fires aim to burn all in their path. Every level of Shelter starts off with a simple enough problem, your young need food. Their squeals and squeaks cry out to help and off you go, looking for sustenance. But then it all changes, something happens and soon food is an afterthought and the threat of death is one that becomes far more immediate. In one level a bird stalks from above and your only means of protection is the tall grass of a field. Your young move slowly so you must wait for them to be close before pushing forward, for fear that they may straggle behind and be snatched by the bird. This sense of immediate danger happens often in Shelter and to the game’s advantage. It’s not often that you care for a non-player character but in this case you care for five, and deeply so. Every time your young are in danger the sense of urgency was strong and immediate. Watching them run from cover to cover, as they just want to follow their mommy, is heartbreaking when it doesn’t go right and immensely rewarding when it works out. These are easily the best sections of the game and I only wish there were more.
This sense of life and death goes both ways in Shelter as it’s not always your young that are the prey of a hunt. Badgers are omnivorous creatures so animals are fair game as are fruits and vegetables. Stalking a fox in Shelter and landing the killing blow, knowing it will feed all of your young at once, is an incredibly satisfying moment. From high grass to high grass you crawl, hoping the fox hears nothing, and then, when close enough, you pounce on the fox and land the killing blow. Your young crawl up to the fox’s carcass and feast until they’re well fed. A mother’s duty is difficult but rewarding.
I must pause a moment to give credit to the phenomenal soundtrack created by Retro Family. They’ve proven their worth by composing a soundtrack that pushes you forward when you know you need to stop and care for your young. Each moment of danger is amplified by the music and when my group was in danger I felt as though I had a responsibility to protect them all. Forest fires wouldn’t stop me from protecting my children and no rapid river would take my baby from me. The music elevates when necessary and amplifies the motherly feeling of each moment, a soundtrack well-crafted indeed.
I have no children of my own, in fact I’ve never even babysat a child, but after playing Shelter I have the thought in my head that parenthood is tough. The babies you watch out for are so delicate and needy that you want to, well; baby them as much as possible. At times it’s easier to run towards the exit but you know that fearing for your own wellbeing will only hurt your young in the process. Shelter is a survival game in the basic sense but it’s also about exploration; that being the exploration of yourself as well as the beautiful world around you. Are you the type of person who will try to run from danger or will you stop and brave any harm to protect those you love, Shelter will tell you. The world is crafted in a beautiful manor, the soundtrack amplifies each emotion, and the gameplay, while simple, makes for a deep and moving experience. The ending of Shelter is emotional and powerful and something I replayed until I felt the full power of its message; nature is vicious and unforgiving. I believe 2013 is the year of heartwarming indies and Shelter is keeping that belief alive. Go pick it up and give it a try, you’re bound to find something unique.