"Nature reserves the right to inflict upon her children the most terrifying jests."
There's this tragic photograph that's been haunting for me the last half decade. It's actually three separate photographs, possibly video stills, that depict a mother duck and her ducklings crossing a sewer grate. In the first frame it's the mother duck and maybe ten ducklings on one side of the grate. The second frame is captured right at the start of their brief journey across the grate. The third frame is the mother duck and just one duckling on the other side staring down at the sewer grate. Presumably the rest of her very small children fell down in the sewer grate and are at the bottom or fell to their death or are otherwise gone forever.
It's a powerful image. The entire thing could have been photoshopped, or the mother ducklings could have been miraculously rescued somehow, but the point is miserable things happen to animals and most of the time no one's there to witness any of it. It just happens. I have no idea if animals experience the considerable sadness I gathered from just looking at pictures like this, but despite their expressionless faces you want to believe there's some catastrophic sense of loss or regret lurking somewhere inside.
Shelter, a game from some ex-GRIN folks at Might and Delight, relates a similar sentiment. I actually considered just posting that picture as the complete review because it basically evokes the same feeling from a divergent source. It would simultaneously say everything and nothing about Shelter, but it almost might do a disservice to people wondering if they should buy it, which is why we're all here.
Shelter is game where you play as a mother badger charged with the task of taking care of her baby badgers. If you walk or run in a direction, they'll trot behind at a slightly slower pace. Cubs also need to eat and as their mother you can dig up vegetables, knock down fruit by ramming trees, and even sneak up and kill a few smaller animals. There's something slightly charming about popping out of the tall grass, capturing a fox, and watching as it feeds all five hungry children.
As one might expect, the law of nature states a mother must protect as well as provide. The soaring shadow of a predatory bird presents Shelter's first instance of danger and perhaps its most effective imagery. Mechanically, the idea was for me to run to different patches of tall grass to make it to the end of the "level." At some point I incorrectly calculated the time it would take for my baby badgers to trail behind me and I heard this whooshing noise as the bird dove down. There had been a few close calls before, but this time, as we reemerged from the grass, I counted four children trailing behind me instead of five. I lost one.
It just happens. There's no dramatic music and no action on the part of the badgers; life presumably just goes on. Nature's indifference is one of its most obviously and unintentionally ruthless assets and Shelter incorporates these facets into each of its levels. A night time level presents a lit vision circle that subjects your baby badgers to danger if they run outside of it. A treacherous river needs to be crossed, but pumps out waves your cubs may not be able to withstand. Fire's ravenous consumption of everything in its path makes you reconsider whether or not you have time to dig up that carrot or chase down a frog. Shelter's points are blunt, but it's probably the best it could do given its modest trappings.
Unfortunately some technical issues shoved some unintended thorns in my experience. Shelter's camera, affixed to mouse movement, is problematic. Rotating around and finding yourself looking inside a rock polygon feels like a problem from a generation ago, and it doesn't help that it can happen at inconvenient times. Worse, at one point on the second level I picked up a vegetable with my mouth and then couldn't drop the vegetable for my badger kids to eat. It got stuck and two starved to death. If I had quit the game Shelter would have restarted me from the beginning of that level, which I chose not to do, but it still felt like an unfair blow from not from technical rather than contextual reasons.
Shelter's message may be a little too on the nose for its own good. It's certainly effective, but after the first incident it all sweeps across the player without the slightest bit of grace. Breaking down into not-great stealth segments, odd path finding, and simple mechanics doesn't make for a very interesting game. Tokyo Jungle, despite belonging to a fundamentally different genre, assigned better mechanics to relate similar context and emerged in a much better position. It's not that Shelter is bad, but rather how its point is established in the first level and repeated under slightly different circumstances the rest of the way. Then again, Shelter only lasts ninety minutes and the ending is quite nice, so perhaps it's a bit too bold to say it's not without some merit.
If nothing else, Shelter's art and music make it an attractive proposition. It's not cel-shaded, but everything has this beautiful painterly look that makes Shelter feel like it was ripped from a children's storybook. Tiny details like a tree full of owl faces, the different patterns on the backs of your badger babies, foliage and creatures that look like paper mache, and a scorching twilight rain shower add a lot of character to Shelter's pallet. The serene music is also effective, as are the percussive instruments used to simulate the surrounding world. For most, myself included, Shelter could be sold and appreciated on these elements alone.