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.