Have you ever wanted to be a mother badger? If you’re like me, the answer is probably not! However, in this new offering from Swedish developer Might and Delight, you’re given that very opportunity in Shelter.
The game begins with you and your cubs in a sunken burrow, and it appears that one of your cubs is deceased. Thankfully, this is not actually the case—it’s really just a very clever way for the game to introduce you to the games’ feeding mechanic.
I’ll admit that I spent about a half hour wandering around this burrow, wondering what to do. It was purely by accident that I picked up a rooted vegetable as I clicked away in frustration while walking around. Then I realized that I needed to give this root to the “deceased” badger in order to revitalize it.
This impressed me as both a frustrating and clever design. The feeding mechanic introduced is that your cubs will start to take on a grayish hue as they get hungry, and since life forms die if they don’t eat, this informs you that you need to feed them. You can feed them with the aforementioned root vegetables or also hunt frogs, mice, and foxes for longer-lasting nutrition.
This sounds like a great idea in theory because you can select individual badgers to feed, and this mechanic allows for some great friction where you’re struck with the difficult decision of choosing which cub to feed. Soon you’ll realize that each badger cub has defining characteristics, like the number of stripes on its back, so you can then tell it apart from the others, and if you’re like me, you’d probably end up playing favorites.
The problem is that food is so plentiful that this is never an issue. It’s a fantastic idea squandered by some questionable design choices. Unfortunately, this is the thread I found throughout my review.
When you finally get out of the burrow, you are introduced to the real meat and potatoes of the game. Might and Delight give you quite a bit of time to wander the serene environment, and it’s a great feeling to just sit there, taking in the world. For the first time, you get a true sense of the visuals. The game looks almost to be paper craft or origami. It’s not graphically impressive, but the aesthetic flair of the game is something to admire, and I was really drawn in by it.
While you take in the visuals, the game also introduces you to the rest of its controls, which are very simple. Use the left mouse button to uproot vegetables or pounce, and hold down the Shift key to run.
So you’re wandering around, leading your adorable badger cubs through this gorgeous environment, everything calm and beautiful, but soon you’ll meet a bird, which introduces you to the true theme of the game:
This is a game about parenthood and loss. The bird swooped down and dug its claws into one of my badger cubs, and really got to me emotionally, as I ended up bolting for the nearest safe spot, a hollowed out log. While all of this is happening, dissonant, almost grating, music blared, which really got my heart pumping—and then there was silence.
When you come across that bird, you’re made aware of the reality you’ll be facing in the game world. I made it to safety with just one cub lost, but ask any parent and they will tell you that one is too much. Yet, while I mourned, I also had to be strong for the remaining cubs. I took a deep breath, waited for the bird to pass overhead, and bolted for the next safe spot, hoping I wouldn’t lose any more cubs. I passed the next bird, and looked behind me to see only two cubs scurrying towards me.
Might and Delight really nailed the task of making this game an emotional experience. I dare even the most hardened heart to try to not develop a connection to the cubs as they follow you around.
The game doesn’t have an explicit goal, but when you lose your first cub you realize that the aim is to keep these cubs alive at all costs. Keeping them fed is one thing, but keeping them alive is what will really drive your actions.
Unfortunately, this was the high point of the game, and it’s a real shame that Might and Delight kind of lost their way after this.
The game itself plays out in a very linear fashion; while the levels are quite big, there is a definite point A to point B. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I grew up on linear games, so I prefer the more purposeful objectives that a linear game can provide. The problem with Shelter, however, is that it repeats the same sequences multiple times, and for a game that clocks in at a little over 2 hours, that is a problem. The bird event that’s so exhilarating? It’s considerably less exciting the 3rd time you run into it.
The themed levels each introduce you to new and various environmental hazards you’ll be facing. The second level has a nighttime theme, with a beautiful background of stars and planets—but don’t get distracted, there’s danger lurking in the shadows. Wolves will gobble up your cubs should they leave your field of limited vision.
The third level is a torrential downpour with rushing rapids that will sweep your cubs away, the fourth level is a forest fire with falling trees and burning brush that will cook your cubs, and the fifth and final level returns to the more basic theme of the first level.
You’ll notice that we go from a verdant forest, to a charred forest, to a verdant forest again, and while sudden theme changes are not uncommon in video games, I felt that for a game in which the whole experience hinges on your ability to get lost in the world, it was kind of jarring.
The music isn’t so much composed of songs, but rather ambient snippets that change with the mood of the game. A soothing guitar will strum when you feed your cubs, dissonance assault you when they’re in danger … The overall sound design of the game is quite impressive. I played with a surround sound Triton headset, and the clarity of each channel allows you to hear which direction the bird, for example, is coming from. The sound effects were especially impressive on the fire level.
As I mentioned before, the game clocks in at just over two hours. On the positive side, this means that it’s easy to replay—which I needed to do since, the first time that I played it, all of my cubs were dead by the third level.
Interestingly, there is no game over if all of your cubs are killed. You just power on all alone, and while mama badger can’t die, or get hurt, and she doesn’t need to eat, it’s still a truly terrifying thing if you’re as absorbed into certain parts of Shelter as I was.
I eventually made it to the end with two surviving cubs on my second play through. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will mention that I loved it. It perfectly tied together everything the game was trying to convey, and it reminded me why I loved that sequence on the first level so much.
I wanted to really love this game, and I just ended up liking it. I’m a sucker for emotional stories, and parts of this game hit all the right buttons; unfortunately, most of the middle just fell flat. I still recommend this game to anybody who, like me, gets lost in emotional storytelling.
It’s short, but you will replay it. It drags on at times, but the emotional payoff does make it all worth it. Shelter is only $10 on Steam or directly from Might and Delight’s website, so check it out if you think it might grab you.