Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
Gaze upon the wild majesty of my dwelling for I am the badger queen. Dwelling. Is that what you call it? Burrow? Den? Google reveals ‘sett’ and I decide I like the word. There are four badgerlings with me. Tiny things. When I bark, they bark back, our relationship akin to a cuddly drill sergeant commanding her rambunctious unit. My moves are economic, spurred by rough necessity. I can run! I can bark! I can pick up a, what is that? A radish? Some kind of root crop freely growing in the forest. I don’t fully understand vegetables.
THIS IS BADGER LIFE, SUCKA
This is Shelter, badger life sim and interactive allegory on parenthood. You play a mother badger surviving and navigating through a pastel, Wes Anderson forest. In tow are her five badger cubs and they are as small and vulnerable and adorable as you might imagine. As the nature-appointed guardian to the five, you enjoy the responsibilities of scrounging for crops, outsmarting skittery prey, and hiding them from implacable, omnipresent predators lurking in unknowable places.
In other words, parenthood! Shelter is the kind of slowburn fable that weaves a moral lesson that can’t be completely condensed into one pithy maxim, because parenthood is Beautiful and Complicated. It’s a utilitarian kind of motherhood, though. You have to take into consideration that you are animals roaming free in the wilderness. And one thing you have to know about the wilderness is that there is death everywhere! The lives of your cubs are in constant peril from starvation, being eaten, and disappearing in the dead of night.
It’s terribly easy to lose yourself in the world of Shelter with you and your badgerlings looking like brown and black smudges in a world of lighter-hued brown and green smudges. But they are beautiful smudges, you must understand. The vegetation is lush and unfettered, dipping from a complementary color palette subdued yet strong. Several shades of green intermingle with browns and yellows in a low-polygon love affair. Important flora and fauna are set off from the hypnotizing background by shocks of bright colors. Along with the very short tutorial, this color-based recognition system integrates itself into your intuition. This is how badgers do it in the hood, son! They see the electric orange of those slippery foxes and spring into action! The white-on-green of those crunchy vegetables are crusin’ for a chompin’! Think I can’t see you with my finely-honed badger senses, you sketchy mole? Think again OMNOMNOMNOM.
The music is aces. Shelter moves past the obvious candidates for nature romping music (either tribal drumbeats, contemplative piano plinking, or no music at all) and frames your badgerly adventures against an aural backdrop of strummy acoustic guitars and jazzy drum taps. It’s the indiest of all indie game soundtracks, befitting the tweeness of the whole experience.
With the reflective strumming and thumping of Shelter’s in-house band, you get to play this stylistic badger life simulator. Survival is functional and simple–but maybe a little too simple. Despite the grandiose presentation, gameplay is relegated to trundling from Point A to Point B while dealing with C. C being hunting and foraging and sneaking from shrub to shrub as birds of prey (signified by a silhouette of jagged lines) hover above. It’s not without flaws: the survival aspect is handled with mink-lined kid gloves. Vegetables are abundant and freely respawn, making food a non-issue. You won’t really feel the edge of scarcity pressing against your dumpy hide which defangs the experience quite a bit.
But what gameplay kicks it does offer, it does very well. There’s nothing quite like outsmarting foxes and escaping from swooping hawks. The rude awakening of midgame’s environmental hazards further fray your motherly nerves, as one misplaced step can spell the end of one of your cubs. Invisible wolves and rushing rivers and FIRE RAGING FIRE, are present hindrances, all conspiring to kill your kids.
Mother badgers are a hardy sort, cut from tree bark and loamy bedrock. This is why you are invincible. Hawks will not touch you, gouts of water will not move you, foxes flee at the sight of your bristly hide. Your kids, however, are not. They hunger and roll around to meet their grisly end in shadowy corners, much like any other unfortunate human child. Aside from nature’s casual cruelty, you have to contend with your cubs’ foremost basic need: food Hunger is represented by the slow dulling of your cubs’ fur. You have to be keep checking on each of them individually, comparing their browness to the others. From the beginning, the game hammers in the importance of keeping your badgerlings healthy. You start off in your sett with 4 cubs rolying and polying. But what’s this? A grey little cub, prone and stationary? Dead? Already? Man, this game doesn’t mess around.
Less of a video game and more of an interactive storybook, Shelter’s gameplay impositions can be a bit questionable at times. Going back to the first few minutes of the game, you must figure out how to solve your dead cub problem before you go on your way. Callow youth that I was, I repeatedly tried to leave the dying cub, thinking 4 out of 5 ain’t bad at all. The game in its infinite wisdom and adherence to the long tradition of invisible walls wouldn’t let me. I’m going to be honest–that kind of peeved me out. It seems that you have to enter Shelter with that motherly mindset already calibrated. Otherwise, the game will force you to adopt it.
It’s a fine story, though, told visually and viscerally. The artistic choices lend the game a pop-up book aesthetic, setting the stage for your epic badger adventures. Each level has a defined color scheme, with backdrops ranging from the musty comfort of a burrow to the untamed freedom of a forest glade, from a brilliant starlit sky to an immediately threatening brushfire. With flash and substance, Shelter aims to keep your eyes glued to the screen as it tears your virtual family apart.
I named my cubs Zamboni, Dipstick (who almost died in the beginning), Solaire, Thom Yorke, and Bingo. You don’t need to name them, but as a mother, it was my right to do so. I have to say this though, as a shout-out to all the babymamas out there: managing five cubs is hard work all over. They’re all waahh wahh root crops waahh why do we have to fjord this river waahhh oh look what does this foreboding shadow do wahhh. They were a handful, but man, I loved them. Their cute barks. The way they pottled around in their stubby paws. They grow on you, these cubs. As the game goes on, you become aware of their coloring, of where they are. You foster this virtual sense of attachment, of believing that you are responsible for their lives.
Solaire died first, his death rattle punctuated by a lupine snarl.
This is the wilderness economy to Shelter’s badger-based gameplay. A fable of nature and nurture. You invest so much into keeping each individual cub alive that your first death will be this salty whirling orb of feels and choked sobs. Why oh why were you taught by morning British cartoons that badgers are lovable, absent-minded creatures and are not in fact Ottoman-sized, rabid fangbeasts? Why couldn’t it have been Dipstick instead? He’s the WORST. WHY GOD WHYYYY
However, you soon notice that fewer cubs allow you a greater stretch of time between feedings, less distractions, a tighter herd. Your cubs can survive more easily, thus perpetuating your superior badger bloodline in various parts of the woods like some mating-based Anschluss. You begin to entertain the idea that Solaire dying was the best thing that could have happened.
Then you stop and just think about that.
Shelter is an attempt to poke at that very human inclination towards care and protection, to somehow glorify the dreaded escort mission and turn it into something not awful. Other games have tried this before–ICO, The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite. Shelter is not unique in concept. But games are more than the sum of its parts. Shelter’s visuals, music, and gameplay manage to click together in this pocket landscape of cut-out Darwinism, of badger moms mewling uselessly at her cubs to run away as fast as they can.