Given its focus on cute animals and an endless quest for food, at first glance Shelter seems designed to appeal to the average person on social media (Instagram foodies, I’m looking at you). Essentially a badger simulator, you play a mother badger trying to lead her five cubs to food and safety, and it never really gets more complicated than that. However, after only a few minutes you very quickly grow attached to your little badgelets, ready to kill every living thing that crosses your path if it means your family gets another meal.
The first thing you’ll notice will probably be the audio. Subtle but gorgeous, acoustic guitar mesmerises both as immersing background music and a charming riff that plays whenever a cub finishes eating. Almost as beautiful is the art style, depicting the game world almost like origami. However, this sometimes feels less like a design choice and more like a way to justify how jagged the polygon models are. The screen also always looks like someone turned the contrast all the way down on their monitor, then cranked up the brightness. This is less of a glaring problem in outdoor areas, but it just makes indoor ones such as caves seem really uninviting, not the warm family burrow you’d expect.
The controls are extremely basic, consisting of movement, action, sneak and sprint. Sneak is next to useless, as you move so slowly when sneaking that you can’t actually gain any ground on a moving animal. Given that you have a lot of ground to cover in each level and the ticking clock of five hungry bellies to fill, it’s tempting to just sprint everywhere. However, your cubs can’t run as fast as you can, so you’ll constantly be looking back to check they’re all still there. The camera doesn’t work so well in small spaces, either, often getting stuck inside a tree right when you needed to see what you were doing.
Each of the five levels is expansive and unique, ranging from crossing a river, to navigating almost complete darkness, to escaping a forest fire. Some of these have an irritating fusion of linearity and openness, with the worst of both worlds. There is often only one right way to go, but you are given very little indication of where that is, with only occasional landmarks on the horizon to guide your path. Furthermore, while in other games this could allow for some very freeing exploration, here it becomes rather more frustrating when you know your babies will be turning grey with hunger any minute.
To supplement the extremely short story (roughly 1 – 1.5 hours), Shelter also comes with a Nurture mode, which is basically a very slow-paced survival mode. The idea is that you venture out of your cave to scrounge for food, then once you’ve brought all you can find back to your cubs, you come back the next real-world day and do it again. This Animal Crossing approach means you can only play in short bursts of 5 – 10 minutes at a time, because there’s literally nothing else to do for the rest of the day. While new areas open up for you to explore after about a week, Nurture proved to be too much of a slow burn for me to stick with.
Shelter’s strength lies less in its technical features or gameplay elements, and more in the way it makes you feel. Losing a cub to predators or the elements hits hard; the loss made all the more devastating by the knowledge that your poor leadership was the cause. While the game gets markedly easier with fewer mouths to feed, admitting this to yourself is likely to make you feel worse, rather than better. Even frustration that you can’t move as fast or as freely with little ones to worry about isn’t really a detraction from the experience, but rather part of it.
In this way, Shelter isn’t really about badgers at all; it’s about being a parent.