In Shelter, you play as a mother badger - tasked with keeping your five cubs alive. And while it may sound and look like an offputting piece of pretentious art, it’s one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve had all year.
For one, Shelter is most definitely a game. Indie titles can often move so far away from normal mechanics that they lose all sight of why people play games, stuck in a casual fugue that can soon become boring. But there’s a real challenge here, all based around a struggle for survival in a dangerous world.
You’re introduced to the needs of your cubs in an oblique way - one baby lies curled up and grey at the beginning, a plant nearby. Bring the food to the cub and he’ll revive, his coat transitioning from a deathly hue to the warm dun of his siblings.
Count them, five in all, each distinguished by a different pattern on their hides. Then it’s time to leave the safety of the set, in a quest for food that quickly becomes an adventure in survival.
The controls are very basic - move, run, crouch and grab/attack. Apples can be retrieved from trees by headbutting them, plants, frogs and rats caught and fed to whichever cub is ailing. And braver mothers can stalk foxes from cover, leaping on them with a killing blow and allowing all her cubs to feed at once. A proud moment.
Swedish developers Might and Delight (who also made Pid) firmly resist turning the game into merely a work of art. While the graphical style of pastels and surreal touches is gorgeous to behold, there’s always a forward momentum, intensified by the changing seasons and weather conditions.
Day falls to night, when your cubs can easily become startled and run away from safety of their mothers care, and the moment of your first rain shower is startlingly beautiful - though moments later you’ll learn the deadly consequences of the deluge. And later still, a forest fire thrusts you into a moment of blind panic, scrambling between flames and counting your remaining offspring.
There are other dangers too, most keenly the gigantic birds which can scoop up your family whole. I lost one cub to the flood and another to the avian threat, a single plaintive squeal the only hint that my family was dwindling. There’s no drama, no final farewells. Their brothers and sisters still need me, and there are many miles ahead.
There’s a tension here between game and art, and Shelter uses that energy to create a short and incredibly engaging tale that also manages to have a powerful and emotional message. Life can be fleeting, death a moment away and the cycle is bigger than you or me, it goes on beyond our joy or sadness.
Crucially, for me, there’s enough game here to make the experience feel less nebulous than some artistic projects. The mechanics may be rudimentary (and sometimes a little frustrating) but they’re consistent and you’ll fail down to your error rather than the games. And you will fail, Shelter isn’t a game with an optimal win state. In a very real sense, loss is the point of the experience.
Short, functional and beautiful to look at, Shelter manages to create an uncanny connection with your onscreen offspring in a few brief scenes before doing its best to rip them from your bustling bosom in harrowing fashion and schooling us on life and loss and the horrors of nature.
Available from GOG.com now.