Hands On: Shelter

By Cara Ellison on July 26th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Sometimes I look up to see the sunrise over the hills

I am always counting my cubs. Ever since we left the sett, I have been looking behind me and counting my cubs. One, two, three, four… and a sudden panic that I have lost one, until he bounds up from whatever turnip he was investigating to join us. A sudden flash of anger happens in me. ‘You had me so worried,’ I want to say to him. ‘Never stray from us again. You never know what might happen.’ And then I worry that when I was young, I might have made my mother feel this way, and I feel ashamed because at the time I didn’t care.

Shelter, you are turning me into a mother, and until now I have not had one maternal feeling in my body.

So many turnips to eat!

That brilliant feeling of freedom unleashed as we bound out of the darkness of the sett and into the bright light of day; me and the cubs, we are so excited. The only things I have to do today are growl, walk, run, and pull turnips and carrots from their little nesting holes so I can feed my cubs, who follow me wherever I go, and if they don’t I growl. As I scurry through the Japanese fronds of grass and through frothing white flowers, the cubs are worrying at some apple tree. They fade to grey when they are hungry and tired, so when I knock apples from trees for them I have to pick them up and feed the ones that need it most, or they will…

There’s that twinge again, when I see the faster, browner ones steal the food first, and the little grey one was too slow. I feel like I have failed. Next fox I see, I mentally promise myself, it will go to you, little one. I’m sorry I didn’t pick it up and give it to you, I should have known you were too slow. We’ll be okay. There is plenty of food in this vast forest, and we’re going exploring today. Look how beautiful it is! Look how the hedges and tall grass are waving at us, and the pale light is shining over the fallen oak trees…

I have decided to name my badger Ripley. There is something I always cruelly bring up to friends who are pregnant: the story of my fear of pregnancy, I say, always begins with my childhood memories of watching Alien when I was small. To me, the chestburster scene represents everything I fear about becoming pregnant. A small parasite growing in my body, feeding from my energy. Something that I ultimately can’t sustain. And then, when it is born, it will ruin me. They always laugh and tell me that they had the same fears, but that I would get over it. One friend told me that Aliens is the more important film. Because of Newt. She was right. I have to watch Aliens again.

Hiding

So my badger is named after the second incarnation of Ripley. And as I sit quietly in this bush, right now, my heart thuds against my chest because I can’t see where my cubs are around me, and there is a bird high in the sky who wants to swoop down and eat them. I can’t count them, when we are hiding. I just have to trust that they are there. I have to trust they won’t run out into the street -

The field. I have to trust that they won’t run out into the field.

Don't make me turn this log around

This moment here becomes the most tense of your journey in Shelter. It is this moment, where you are waiting in safety for your cubs to get to you, and you know there is a bird of prey up there, screeching and threatening to fly away with them, that you are the most scared. The dreadnaught flies overhead, its curling black shadows draping over your young and you are paralysed. You count them and urge them to you, you will yourself into a little badger magnet. You growl a few times to have them come to you. Come on, you think. Come on. You can make it.

Beautiful dangerous

It is night time now, and I have survived with all five. But this only makes it worse. They are a lot of mouths to feed, and now…

Now there are wolf growls, and my cubs squeak and run on ahead of me and I panic like crazy, growling for them to come back but they won’t – I learn to follow them, run up to them. Everything is horrible. The tall bamboo fronds seem jagged and unfriendly, like monsters by the water.

Leaves linger in my vision like little minnows, settling in the air, but I am trying to catch frogs by the stream without losing sight of my cubs. In order to catch frogs you must rush them and then bite, but the rush leaves your cubs behind, vulnerable outside of your vision, so I am afraid to do it. But they are getting hungry, and we have to get out of here. I have to feed them. I wander on, to see if there are turnips. Now I am running, to find food.

But one of my cubs falls out of my vision. There is a growl, a screech!

Now silence. I cry out at my monitor, and a feeling of intense sadness falls around me as only four cubs run up to my side. I feel numb as I carry on, and I wonder if I will get over it.

The situation only gets worse. Frogs are the only food we have found, and my catching them constantly has my cubs fall out of sight.

Agony, as another cub is lost to a silent black growl in the night. I feel huge loss, somehow, at the fact that a little badger graphic has disappeared. What a silly thing, I tell myself. What a silly thing.

Day breaks again, and we are in a bright forest. I run about with joy again: look cubs look! Look how many foxes are here!

...

One of my cubs is taken by a sprawling-winged bird. We hide in grasses for the rest of the day.

Later we come to a huge river, and I notice somehow that my cubs have gotten much bigger lately. Only two of them now, I think, and they are almost my size. Feeding two of them is so much easier, I think –

And I stop myself.

It is raining

We have to cross the river here, and the rain is lashing down on us, swelling the riverbanks and making huge waves course down strong rapids. I dip my toes into the water to test it, and am almost swept away. I get it, I think. I have to get them across, somehow.

I time it so that we run across together, just after the last wave went. We make it, and I feel such triumph I run past about twenty turnips in celebration, even though the cubs are jumping up and down like fleas all over them. “Hahahaha we made it!” I yell at them, even though they are computer badgers. They are still busy with some turnips.

I lose one to river rapids soon after. I look at my remaining cub and promise myself nothing will happen to him. But now, the forest is on fire.

This. Is not good.

Great jagged flames crackle in our ears, it suddenly flares in front of us, coming towards us, almost taunting us to get close as if it were a matador. I am very afraid but we move forward, trying to find paths before it creeps up and consumes us. At least my cub is big now, stronger, faster, and we keep close as we run. We will find a way out.

Eventually, we run out onto a plain where the fire can’t touch us. The shuddering fear of being inches away from walls of fire recedes, and we run out into tall grass again, happy.

Something happens, I can’t make out what, and I slow. I can’t walk as well, between tall grasses now, and suddenly I see something. A shadow on the ground. The curly black wisps in wing formation. I look behind me at my cub and he’s fine, just running away to the grass.

But I am hit, and I slow. I’m not going to make it to the grass.

But Newt’s fine. But Newt’s fine, I think. I watch Newt trot away, his tail disappearing in the fronds.

Yes, I think. Yes. This game is any good. It is good. It is good. Yes, I think. Yes.

Shelter was recently Greenlit.

Damn it feels good to be a badger.

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92 Comments »

Top comments

  1. Sinomatic says:

    “Hahahaha we made it!” I yell at them, even though they are computer badgers.

    It’s those sort of moments, where you utterly forget yourself, that make (single-player) gaming for me. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this now.

  1. Chalk says:

    Looks good!

    Looks like we are entering a new golden age of gaming! :)

    • Gap Gen says:

      Not just a few, specific good, but any good! Any at all! Apparently.

      • Cara Ellison says:

        A popular thing people ask me after my previews is, “YES BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?!?!?!”

        Here, the answer would be yes. I thought I’d preempt in a helpful fashion.

        • Gap Gen says:

          I suppose we’ll have to wait for a review to find out what combination of good it is, or whether it is simple a singular good out of all possible good? But still, the news that it is at least one good is comforting.

        • grechzoo says:

          I mean zero offense, as i love your writing,

          But I feel like you might get asked that question so much because your writing is very often focused on the prose, and personality of the article, and therefore its very difficulty to gage your actual enjoyment of the game in question (indeed sometimes its hard to gage to the game itself).

          I dont dislike it, RPS is my favourite site, filled with my very favourite writers, and I enjoy every article. I certainly do not want any of you to change. But sometimes it can be a little hard to get a grasp on the opinions and experience you had with a game.

          I loved this article, enjoyed the read, but honestly I have to do further google research to really find out more before I have any idea if I’ll like it.

          • Cara Ellison says:

            This game was moving, slightly scary, and quite uplifting at times. It is difficult to keep your cubs alive. I think that’s what I intended to say. If you didn’t get that I accept that it is a failure on my part.

          • cowardly says:

            That was very much what I got out of your article. I understood exactly what the game was, both mechanically and emotionally, and all in a style that I immensely enjoyed reading.

            What I mean to say is : different people have different ways of reading articles, and maybe it is true that for some, this was not clear enough in its appraisal of the game, but in my view, you did a fantastic job of being both engaging and giving a feel for what Shelter will be like. I’ve had my eye on it for a while, but now I’m absolutely sure I’ll be getting it as soon as I can.

          • grechzoo says:

            Cheers Cara for the reply.

            I probably just needed to be in the right frame of mind while reading. Don’t change anything though, I’ll just read it twice next time :)

            Cowardly, I see your point, but want to stress, I’m a well read man, I can read between any line, and unlock the mystery of just about any metaphor :).

            I was more pointing at a general theory as to why Cara may be getting the “Did you like it?” comments. And personally pointed out how I was still unclear on the exact mechanics of the game.

            I’m not sure if that’s Cara’s job though, because if her writing gets me thinking about and researching a game, that’s probably better than the normal PR blandness.

  2. Felixader says:

    I am ashaken a bit. If that is something you say in English.

  3. Kefren says:

    This sounds so sad… And I’m reading the 1979 Alan Dean Foster Alien novel at the moment.

    Cara, with regards to children and pregnancy, this old story of mine represents the same kind of feeling as you mention. http://dropbox.aber.ac.uk/?rhvMGxLx (Only available for 7 days).

    • Sleepymatt says:

      Hey Kefren, thank you for sharing that – I can’t quite say I enjoyed it as that doesn’t quite fit the somber tone, but it was good writing. As a man that is unlikely to end up a parent, something in that story spoke to me – not the final darkness of it necessarily, but the failure of those who are parents or expect to be parents to realise that there can be something else in life with equal value, that perhaps all that sacrifice is not the ultimate expression of our humanity for every one of us. For me and my wife, having each other is what we have, and will be enough for us I believe. We are quite sanguine about our circumstances, but it often seems beyond the comprehension of others that we can be.

      Anyway, on topic: Baby badgers eh? Well, probably better to lose them to an aerial predator than to the cull…

      • Kefren says:

        Many thanks for the comments, they’re really appreciated. I interviewed a range of women before writing that story. What is strange to me (in a good way) is that of the couples me and my girlfriend spend most time with very few chose to have children – sometimes through conscious decision but also sometimes due to just having such full lives anyway, that there never would have been a good time without giving up on the things they loved spending their lives on. As you say, there are many paths to fulfilment but often our culture hammers home certain messages that imply there is only one, and it is nuclear.

    • phuzz says:

      My freind has just given birth, and I can definitely see the parallels with Alien. When the kid pushes his little arm or leg out it does make the skin bulge just like alien, and I guess a C-section is only just preferable to having your guts ripped out…

      • Kefren says:

        It’s weird how alien a human baby is compared to the adults we normally hang around with. An adult domesticated dog probably has more in common with a human adult psychologically then a newborn baby (newborns can’t even focus on things properly, the world is a mishmash of overpowering sensations and chaos).

    • arisian says:

      I agree, both your piece and Cara’s were well written. Oddly enough, a fetus (yes, pre-birth it’s a fetus, post-birth it’s a baby; that’s just the way the medical terms are defined) actually qualifies for the biological definition of a parasite, and it’s quite an efficient one. If there’s a resource shortage, the human body will actually provide essential nutrients to the fetus before the pregnant woman; she can actually starve while the fetus grows at a healthy, normal rate. Babies, while also sort of parasitic, are much less direct in their control mechanisms, making them somewhat less efficient. Another fun fact is that there’s functionality in the brain that has the specific purpose of making sure that women will not accurately remember the pain of delivery. Your brain is literally wired to forget what it felt like, so that you are more likely to do it again. Yay, science! Also, reproduction is terrifying.

  4. X_kot says:

    I’m really looking forward to this game, yet dreading it. Very much like how I felt about Cart Life.

    Thanks for the immersive preview, Cara.

  5. JB says:

    Yep, looks like this will be another of those games I really want to play but it’s almost hard work to do so.

    I think I’ll manage it though.

    For the little badgers.

  6. Pich says:

    Those textures are N64 level

    • GameCat says:

      I like them. They’re very unique.

    • DXN says:

      Holy fuck you’re right! What were they thinking!!! WHAT A SHIT GAME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Shooop says:

        Holy fuck he was totally calling the game shit just because he noticed the textures are very low-quality!

        You’re a fucking mind reader!

        • Faxanadu says:

          Why else would he state the obvious.

          Not to mention how irrelevant graphics are for a game like this.

          You’re not much of a mind-reader.

          • Cunning Linguist says:

            Graphics are relevant to at least some of us. Personally I find low-tech 3d extremely ugly and unpleasant to look at for any lentgh of time. Something very gross about these lame digital simulations of the real world.

            The move to 3D was a big crime against art in the digital medium, and it was done purely for money-making reasons- which is why it’s so ugly.

          • Faxanadu says:

            He disliked it because there’s not enough bling bling and you dislike it because it’s a crime against art.

            You’re both very much out there.

  7. RedViv says:

    We’re getting a good mum game before a good pa game? MISANDRY rears its head again!

  8. BurningPet says:

    I will buy this game and never play it. i wont be able to stand losing my little digital badgers.

  9. nindustrial says:

    I wasn’t terribly interested by this game when I first found out about it, but this write-up really made me intrigued. Also, your friend’s pointing to Aliens & Newt as a retort is very clever.

  10. lowprices says:

    I don’t think I could play this game. I think it would ruin me. Hell, reading the article alone almost brought me to drunken, emotional tears, you devil you.

  11. Barberetti says:

    Not too keen on the washed-out look, but the game sounds interesting.

  12. Koozer says:

    *inhale*

    Badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger

  13. RIDEBIRD says:

    This game seems brilliant and something actually emotionally effecting.

    That’s why I can’t play it, I think. I’ve cared about few human AI characters in games, but I can’t deal with constantly looking after my cubs and being terrified they’ll die. What if something takes them :(((((((

  14. tnzk says:

    One of these nights, Cara, you will have a dream of a badger cub bursting out of your chest.

    Chestburstbadger.

  15. Aberaham says:

    pretentious “art” schlock

  16. Blackcompany says:

    This game will be a profoundly effecting piece of interactive fiction. The first time a person plays it. And that, to be fair, should be the only time one plays it.

    This game’s greatest weakness is, unfortunately, that one will eventually wish to try and save all of the cubs. And one will fail. And thus wish to try again. And again. Until eventually one becomes numb to the intended tugging of the heart strings and instead sees only the end goal of preserving five digital representations on one’s screen throughout the game.

    In short, Shelter is a game that I believe should be played once – and only once. Buy the game; support a dev willing to do something like this. Because making this game is a risk. But play it only once, allowing the emotional nature of the game to tug at you. Let your badger’s story be its story – and move on. Before the nature of human beings has you trying to “win” this game and any emotional connection to your little badgers is lost in a mind numbing grind to save the very things to which the game intended to connect you.

  17. Solrax says:

    I may have a new favorite RPS writer. Thanks for the brilliant preview Cara!

  18. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Cara and Cobbett are the worst mothers – they spoil us with articles and then leeeaaaveee us for daaaays…

    All we have left to do then is to mope in the motherly warmth of Nathan’s mop…

  19. Universal Quitter says:

    I feel for you, Cara. My wife had the “alien” dream while pregnant, and she hadn’t even seen those movies yet!

    I guess the Alien franchise has hit that “bigger than Jesus” level of saturation in at least American culture, if not the rest of the West.

  20. Faxanadu says:

    I would rather a child play GTA and drive over innocent pedestrians than lose a badger in Shelter. The latter scars you for life. I hope the game is pegi 18+.

  21. bill says:

    That “oh crap where is my kid!” moment is the scariest thing in life.

    Ps / I get that Alien was about sex and Aliens was about motherhood. But what the hell was Alien 3 about?

  22. cptgone says:

    What a wonderful game concept!
    and from the makers of Pid, a platformer i like a lot despite my general dislike for the genre.

  23. Josh W says:

    That thing about alien sucks, that film is supposed to deal with people’s discomfort about pregnancy, embodying a certain set of neurosies. Here’s an example analysis that points some of that stuff out.

    That it had exactly the “right” effect on you at an early age is sort of annoying; people worry about the effects on kids of watching horrific stuff, often overplayed, but this seems an example of exact communication of a phobia.

    Someone needs to make some hardcore psychadelic but positive films about birth..

  24. Sinomatic says:

    “Hahahaha we made it!” I yell at them, even though they are computer badgers.

    It’s those sort of moments, where you utterly forget yourself, that make (single-player) gaming for me. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this now.

  25. Shooop says:

    Wow, this is an excellent article. Not my kind of game, but you’ve done a hell of a job writing about it.

  26. hjd_uk says:

    Great stuff :)

    Although whats with the graphics’ contrast? Looking at those screenshots is making me think I have cataracts.

  27. Vitty says:

    Let’s hop you dont have to deal with rampant farmers with shovels and terriers….

  28. fitzroy_doll says:

    I am looking forward to this game, but I am a little disturbed that the badger activity cycle has been depicted inaccurately. Badgers are nocturnal, so the entire game should take place in the dark. They also subsist on earthworms, insects and grubs, not frogs and turnips (though they would certainly eat those if they were available). They are very social, so where is the rest of the clan? Why are they on this journey in the first place? So many problems.

  29. Synesthesia says:

    Wow, amazing write up. I’m a bit moved. Now i want to play this! I think.

  30. lowprices says:

    At the risk of being clichéd: Obvious troll is Obvious.

  31. lowprices says:

    EDIT: Aaaand the reply function doesn’t seem to have worked.

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