Wot I Think: Shelter

By John Walker on August 29th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

A badger simulation. PC games! Shelter, in which you are tasked with raising young badger cubs in the cruel confines of nature, is out now. While clearly I can’t better Lucy’s world exclusive review from last week, I can only hope to add my own thoughts. Here’s wot I think:

I can’t handle the responsibility! Games ask me to save the world over and over, and sure, I can cope with that. But to protect the life of five tiny badger cubs? Please, I cannot carry this burden.

Shelter is, unquestionably, affecting. It’s also enormously charming, beautifully realised, and entirely unique. Playing as a shuffling mother badger, you begin in a small burrow, one of your cubs grey and lifeless, the other four bustling around you, nagging for snacks and attention. Quickly realising that there isn’t enough food for your brood around here, you begin trundling into the outside world. And so begins your Watership Down-meets-Tarka The Otter-style adventure.

Which is to say, death is imminent at all moments. From above, alongside, and within. Five cubs is an awful lot, and food is not abundant. Snuffling turnips, carrots and other root veggies suffices only so far, and can only feed one badger baby at a time. As each rapidly shows signs of hunger, then fatigue, you need to make sure you’re incessantly providing dinner, and doing your best to make sure each is fed equally. But at some time you’re going to need to give them a bigger feast, and that means catching something bigger, like a fox. And that’s going to involve some careful sneaking, and a lot of luck.

Although you can feed them as much as you like, but that won’t defend them from the dive-bombing attacks of a bird of prey. Only keeping them safely in the long grass, or tucked inside shelter, will do that. And badger cubs are wont to roam.

Shelter surprised be by being a linear tale. I had imagined it would be more open-ended, more of a doomed survival sim than a fixed pathway. I’m still in two minds about whether my fantasy version might be preferable, but I can assure that its prescribed route still creates a really splendid game. It allows for set pieces along the way, along with changes of time and season, creating a series of acts for the story, and an understandable beginning and end.

For instance, the section set at night plays extremely differently from any during the day. Here you cannot allow your cubs to go more than a couple of feet from you, lest they be snatched away in the dark. And that means not only rapidly responding when a noise causes them to panic and run away from you, but also to remember not to wander off too quickly if one is eating. Which I did. And I never saw that cub again. I’m still not over that.

Winter clearly offers more immediate challenges than Summer, and while the game stops short of introducing elements like needing to keep the furry beasts warm, the seasonal changes punctuate progress and allow for wonderful palette changes.

And what a palette. The game is ludicrously pretty, the most striking and attractive game I’ve played since Proteus (although the two don’t look anything alike). Its distinctive style is perfectly realised, every creature, tree and cloud lovely to look at. And that makes a massive difference in a game where, on the surface, you’re simply shuffling a bumbling badger and family slowly toward an unknown destination.

Of course, in reality the game never feels that way. The weight of responsibility of caring for your cubs is a non-stop pressure: the desperate searching for food, the forced-calm of trying to sneak up on larger prey, and the mad panic of desperately dashing to cover as you hear the awful screech of a bird over head.

Losing a cub is a monstrous experience, but it’s odd how quickly you adjust to it. Where once there were five mouths to feed, now there are only four. And life gets easier, the burden grows less, and the cubs grow bigger. That cruel unblinking stare of nature becomes deeply apparent, as you realise that five cubs were birthed so that at least some might carry on your genes. You’re a part of that process now.

It doesn’t help that the badgers are ridiculously gorgeous, their cartoonish faces seemingly grinning, and their little lives achingly precious. Each has a distinctive marking on its back, making it easier to remember who’ve you’ve recently fed, and easier to miss them if they’re no longer around. Curse you nature! Stop being so mean to little furry things!

I think some will be frustrated by the linearity. Like I say, I can’t help imagining a version where the world is procedurally generated, and my goal is to see how many cubs I can see through to adulthood in an open world. Maybe that’s the sequel. But taken as what it intends to offer, Shelter is a really beautiful thing. It’s smart, simple, and deeply moving. No, I didn’t cry. But I did gasp, whelp, and sigh a lot, either with relief or shame. For its bargain £7, it’s unlike anything else you’ll have played, and well worth exploring.

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44 Comments »

  1. GAmbrose says:

    Do you have to avoid being culled by humans whilst spreading TB to cattle?

    • Mirqy says:

      yeah, but only if you try it in real life.

      • latina168 says:

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    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Everybody knows the answer to diseased badgers is not culls, it’s sacks and trebuchets.

    • Theremings759 says:

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  2. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Gah! That’s what games look like when you turn the gamma all the way up. Odd choice of style.

    • Perjoss says:

      My guess is that the team behind this could not afford office space so they all met up in the park on a daily basis to make this game on their laptops. The weather was great so they never felt the need to remove their shades. The game actually looks perfectly normal to them.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      I admit the trailer made it seem a lot more attractive than the screenshots, but I’m still not sold on the visuals – the whole dry, bleached colour scheme does very little for me and the polygon count is way too low/not really used artfully enough for my liking. Okami is “ludicrously beautiful” in my book, not this (perhaps unsurprisingly I think of Proteus as bland at best, ugly at worst). Reviews, and Cara’s excellent preview, are still tempting me, though I doubt I’m buying it any time soon.

    • Turkey says:

      Yeah, the lack of contrast is pretty painful on the eyes.

    • crinkles esq. says:

      It looks like they used global color tinting as a low-tech way of providing atmospheric changes such as day/night, seasons, and weather. The result doesn’t look that great however. I don’t mind the polygons, but that washed-out look is far from what I’d call “ludicrously pretty”. But to each their own I suppose.

      The game concept is really great though, and the execution seems well-done.

  3. NailBombed says:

    Mushroom, mushroom…

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Nature: Eternally mean to furry things.

  5. Hodge says:

    And the great gaming glut of August 2013 continues. My wallet may never speak to me again.

  6. Coldfall says:

    Re: ‘Proscribed’

    I think you mean ‘prescribed’

  7. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    Perfect, this is the exact opposite of my brief time spent with the game so far.

  8. cpt_freakout says:

    Great write-up, I’m now really intrigued about this. Any other stories of this game by anyone who’s already played it?

  9. Kobest says:

    As someone who occasionally accompanies hunters in his family, this game perfectly captures that the life of a smaller-scale omnivore is constant threat.

  10. lowprices says:

    I think this is a game I’ll have to say no to, at least for now. It looks great, but I only just finished To The Moon, and I don’t think I could take two games in a row that will make me weep.

  11. Syra says:

    I’m only going to say this once, and if you remember it you will be scrambling to youtube:

    Farthing M*therf*cking Wood.

    You’re welcome, nostalgia god.

  12. strangeloup says:

    Apologies for slight derail, but “shuffling mother badger” is very satisfying to say in an angry voice and feels line an almost-swear.

  13. damius says:

    The non-open world aspect is a huge disappointment for me since all this time I assumed that it wouldn’t be a linear experience. I avoid linearity in games like the plague.

  14. magos says:

    Does anyone know why my Humble Store download is providing what looks like an OSX .app file, rather than something I can bloody run on Windows?

    • pertusaria says:

      This is probably a bit late, but it did this to me, too. Re-downloaded this morning and had no problems; I imagine someone replaced the file on Humble.

  15. Lone Gunman says:

    Can we make our idiot politicians play this? Might stop them form culling all of them :(

  16. Mbaya says:

    I think I may buy this…I love the style, the cute animations and the adorable sound. But jeeze, I’m not sure I can bring myself to actually play it.

    I’m such a wuss and just hearing those cute little squeaks in the trailer made me well up, the thought of something happening to my poor cubs! :’(

    I’d have no issues if they were Aliens or Mutants…but not cute little furry aminals! I just can’t handle that…

    Much credit should goto the dev’s though I feel, it’s a great idea for a game and seems to be made very well.

  17. granderojo says:

    I wasn’t frustrated by the linear nature of the game, and it was emotionally resonate. I think as a game it also stands up better to scrutiny than Might & Brights past work with Pid, it’s look and sound are of the studios past quality but Shelter to me accomplishes what it wanted to do much better than Pid. That said, I was frustrated by the design of the ending. The game essentially taught me to do something, then the twist *SPOILER* the game forced me to violate one of the clear rules from it’s own rule book to progress to the ending. This isn’t to say I thought the ending was poor, I liked the way it ended thematically. I just think the delivery mechanism of pulling the rug out from under me was sort of bullshit. I really look forward to Might & Bright, they’re quickly becoming the studio I’m most excited to see what’s next from in Sweden.

  18. Woodwork says:

    More badgers on the BBC2 programme tomorrow – Friday, 9pm – The Burrowers with Chris Packham. Top nature TV but sadly lacking in puns about The Clash so far. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

  19. tossrStu says:

    But John, if you’re writing this, who’s grooming the badgers ready for the badger parade?

  20. thebigJ_A says:

    Too bad you’re not a honey badger…

    But I guess that’s too bad-ass.

  21. ScorpionWasp says:

    Hated this with a passion, and I have a huge boner for nature simulations (This is NOT a simulation. It should NOT get a free pass selling itself as such). I think this review, and particularly the last one’s omission of certain things borders on criminality.

    1 – I had to go and read a freaking guide to actually be able to get out of the burrow you start in. That’s the first two minutes, mind. The game doesn’t tell you what the keys do – you can’t remap them either – starts you with a cub white like the dead, not breathing or moving, not responding to your barks (oh, and the same button that barks does everything else too. Intuitive as fuck, yeah.), and expects you to divine that you should use the bark key to grab a turnip, and then bring it to a dead cub. And as absurd as that is in and of itself, I actually DID that, except the fiddly collision detection engine didn’t actually recognize it.

    2 – The “simulation” here is laughable. The same food spots respawn vegetables every couple minutes, killing any tension that mechanic could have generated. The “predators” in this game work *exactly* like, say, the guillotine traps in Prince of Persia. They move left and right in the middle of a path you have to cross, and you have to time your dash right. That’s it. Make no mistake, there’s zero emergent behavior in this thing. It’s completely “gamey” in the most negative sense of the word.

    3 – The game changes its own rules arbitrarily without even saying anything. Suddenly it decided I can’t dash anymore for god knows what reason (it’s the night sequence, but heck if that explains anything), and that’s that. Oh yeah, and if any cub strays from you at night, it’s insta-killed. I mean… I could accept that there are predators who stalk you, but keep their distance from the adult, dangerous badger. But I want that actually *simulated*, not this lazy ass insta-death implementation. I want to see the motherfuckers in the distance, be able to chase them away, see them react to what I do and don’t do, have them lose interest if they decide it’s too little potential reward for too big an effort. Again, tired, poorly implemented gamey mechanics reskinned to look like a survival simulation.

    And digressing a little, I used to respect RPS’s critical take on games, but I can’t help but feel that lately they’ll shower anything that happens to be indie with undeserved praise.

    • AlmostPalpable says:

      So you like this game and would recommend it to nature-enthusiasts because of how accurate and excellent it is? That’s great, man.

      I’m a bit disappointed they didn’t let you bite everything because badgers have very powerful bites for their size and should be treated like the wild animals they are when encountered in the wild. I love badgers but I wouldn’t try to stroke one!

      Why do the badgers in this come out so much in the day? They know nothing about badgers, what arrogant and ignorant bastard-charlatans they are.

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      Now _this_ is a little bit more like my experience with the game.

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