Based on its initial appearance, it would be easy to assume that Might and Delight’s Shelter is going to be a relaxing experience. An earthy, pastel palette and breezy soundtrack give it a tranquil tone, and there’s nothing but falling leaves, chirping crickets and soft sunlight to set the opening scene. But wander down into the woods with that impression and you’re sure of a big surprise. In play, Shelter is about the brutal reality of nature as much as its angular artwork conveys the heady beauty of it.
That brutality stems from your position in the food chain as a mother badger with five cubs to nurture. Fail to feed them and they curl up and die. Leave them out in the open and a bird of prey might swoop in for dinner. There’s little to sugar coat the facts of life here as you assume the role of both predator to feed your young and they the role of prey for larger carnivores.
Scavenging enough food to satisfy the insatiable little omnivores and searching out refuge are your driving objectives in Shelter’s linear landscapes. The root vegetables and apple trees that line each path provide basic sustenance, but taking the time to hunt down a fox or a frog through some rudimentary stealth mechanics will stave off their hunger for longer.
On the flip side of this survivalist coin, Shelter’s dangers come in the form of predators and environmental hazards. Feathered threats cast ominous shadows, with their arrival heralded by a jazzy, offbeat tune, and prowling wolves linger in the black of night, waiting to pounce should a startled youngster wander outside of your protective circle. Likewise, a forest fire and the rushing waters of a bulging stream all conspire to claim your cubs should you fail to shepherd them safely.
Despite the number of perils encountered along the journey, it’s not possible for you as mother badger to die. It is, however, entirely possible to lose all of your cubs in the first level and progress through the rest of the game alone. In this scenario, continuing Shelter becomes almost entirely pointless, as nearly every mechanic in the game is based on protecting and caring for your young. Reaching the end without them is something of a hollow victory.
In essence, your cubs replace the traditional concept of ‘lives’, with the number that you manage to keep alive being an indication of how well you are playing. It’s a clever twist that not only works as a metaphor for parenthood, but also removes skill as a progression limiting barrier, replacing it with emotional emptiness as an incentive to start over. But it’s undermined, to an extent, by Shelter’s save system, which allows you to exit and restart any level, reviving lost cubs without restriction or punishment. So whilst those losses are affecting in how disquietingly unceremonious they are, the potency of these moments is weakened by their lack of permanence.
Similar, less flawed touches of ingenuity are evident throughout Shelter’s self-assured presentation. There’s no HUD to speak of. Player feedback is instead communicated through smartly introduced audio-visual cues – the slow desaturation of coat colour indicating a hungry badger, or the screech of a bird telling of a threatening dive. And its visuals – geometrically simple and impressionistically textured – are an abstract, papercraft-style delight throughout.
Sadly, this confidence isn’t evident in Shelter’s restrictive, uninspired level design. Most areas are so rigidly funnelled as to feel artificial at times, and all treacherous encounters occur through structured set-pieces. Such conservatism works against the core concepts of nature that Shelter aspires to reflect. Danger is an ever-present worry in the unpredictable wild. Here it’s a temporary obstacle to be overcome.
Even if it is at times too orderly and directed, Shelter remains admirably blunt in its emulation of life throughout its short, two hour length. It might be as pretty as Proteus, but its muted looks belie a dark, naturalistic undercurrent. Few games manage to make you care about human characters, but the tribulations of animal motherhood that Shelter burdens you with are full of both joy and anguish.