by Quinn Levandoski
previewed on PC
Life Starts Outside Your Comfort Zone
Despite the warning of nearly every Greek tragedy I’ve read, I suffer from a (metaphorically) fatal flaw. I’m hubristic. Well, I’m hubristic with video games anyway. For whatever reason, my mind thinks that it knows what it wants in a video game better than anyone else does. Above all else, according to my most important organ, for me to really lose myself in a game it needs to have an engaging story, well-written dialogue, and tight controls. Unfortunately for me, this means that I’ve missed- or been extremely late to the party for- a number of awesome titles that don’t fit into these criteria. Shelter, an upcoming survival/adventure game by Pid developer Might and Delight, is one of those games that I probably wouldn't have given a shot if I wasn't given the chance to try out a pre-release version. I’m glad I did, because it just might be exactly what I never knew I wanted.
Badger, badger, badger, badger...
Living in Wisconsin, whether it be badger clothing, badger flags, badger cars, badger tattoos, or badger statues, I’ve seen badger everything. Or so I thought. One thing I hadn’t seen, until very recently, is a video game about being a badger in the wild. Shelter is, in simplest terms, a stylized badger simulator. I realize those words, when written in immediate succession, don’t exactly catalyze immediate reactions of excitement and awe, but that’s kind of the whole idea. Shelter isn’t about making you feel like a hulking behemoth or a legendary tactician. It’s about putting the player somewhere ordinary, some generic woods, and making it feel new by virtue of perspective. In the words of Pam Beesly, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”
Shelter starts out throwing players into its world inside of a cavernous hollow where they are in control of (what I assume is a) mother badger and her five cubs. Four are spry and followed me around the den, and one, colored pale gray as opposed to the brown of the others, isn’t moving. There aren’t any on-screen instructions. Is it dead? I’m not sure, but after a bit of looking around I find a turnip and decide to bring it over to the motionless body to try and entice it into motion. Sure enough the young badger digs in, has its coat restored to normal color, and starts following me like the others. At first I was a bit put off that there were no directions or control layouts given, but it set the tone for the rest of my time with the game. The goal is always the same: survive. It’s simple, and you have to do it with little more than the ability to walk, run, sneak, and bite.
The cubs are the heart and soul of Shelter. It’s impossible not to develop a parental attachment which manifests itself in a number of situations. Like before, if the cubs go more than a few minutes without eating they’ll turn grey and become easy victims for predatory birds, swift water, fatigue, and more. Finding food isn’t generally very difficult, at least at the beginning, but it does lead to some interesting situations. For example, it’s possible to hunt other animals for nourishment. Catching one means a good deal of food for your family, but scaring it off means either chasing it and leaving your cubs to try and keep up, or letting it go having wasted valuable time that could have been spent foraging. Even when food is acquired through, how will you deal it out? If you have more than one hungry cub, who gets to eat? The first time I was forced to pick one to eat and one to starve, which was quickly followed by the weaker one being swept away in a creek, I felt way more responsible than I probably should have. They were my responsibility, and I let them die. The game doesn’t mourn their loss, they’re just gone, and I had to keep moving or the rest would be in danger too. From what I played, gameplay doesn't evolve too far beyond this basic premise of move, eat, and survive, and I was perfectly okay with it.
Living the Simple Life
The visuals of Shelter were something that at first didn’t click with me, but I came to love after a short time. Nothing looks particularly detailed, coming off as a sort of mixture between cell shading and paper-craft. Flower and grass beds look like textured pillows, rock walls are clearly a simple tiling of textures, and fire (escaping from which made for one of my favorite parts of the game so far) looks like little more than big colored spikes coming up from the ground. After spending some time immersed in it though, it grew its own charm. On one hand it perfectly mirrors the simplicity and straightforwardness of the game itself, not trying to be any more than what it needs to be to set a mood. On the other hand, and this is purely speculation on my part, it seems this is exactly how a badger would see the world. A furry woodland creature wouldn’t catch a glimpse of a bird of prey and focus on how detailed its feathers are or how nicely ribbed its talons seem. It would only see a blur of black or brown or grey and then high-tail its cubs out of there. A badger doesn’t know that a forest fire is plasma and heat released by product of chemical reaction resulting in a heat-dependent color. It would see red and orange and yellow and feel heat and try to get away. Score and sound effects work similarly. There isn’t a lot of it, but when it’s there it is effective in its simplicity to set a mood of danger or panic or serenity.
My version of Shelter wasn’t a finalized version, but I still found it strangely cathartic. I never realized how stressful a few days in the life of a badger could be, but amidst the constant hurrying and looking over my shoulders I was relaxed every time I stopped playing. Sometimes it’s just nice to try something different, and that’s what Shelter is above all else. The project has been Greenlit on Steam, and the version I played seemed to be very close to a final product, so look for it soon.