For all the saviors of the galaxies, legendary heroes, and lone hopes for humanity that populate most video games, developers have been ignoring one of the world’s fiercest protectors: mothers, and their love for their childen. Shelter casts you as a badger, sole guardian of her five cubs, who must set forth against the harsh world to try and lead her children to safety. Through storms and wildfires, your determination will be tested and the lives of your underlings repeatedly put in danger, as you travel on an intense journey that not everyone will be able to survive.
Shelter isn’t a game you sit down to relax to; it’s a harrowing adventure that at times is truly terrifying do to how emotionally taxing it becomes. Without any dialogue, no hints at a story or exposition of any sort, I became extremely attached to the little badgers I was trying to protect. Prancing around and hopping excitedly when stumbling upon a bit of food, they are almost entirely oblivious to the dangers around them and their joyful manner makes it even more saddening when you inevitably lose one. Death is all around you in Shelter and once a cub is gone, it’s gone for good. There are no checkpoints, no extra lives, and no second chances; this helplessness is what makes it such an intense experience, and is something I don’t believe I have ever felt in a game.
Controlling your badger is simple by design. You can sprint and sneak to catch prey (and avoid being it), pull food from the grounds to feed your children and keep them strong enough to continue on, and often have to rely on stealth to get past hostile animals by sticking to the tall grass. There honestly isn’t a whole lot to the gameplay, but that’s because it intentionally is not the game’s focus. Developer Might and Delight didn’t try to make a great “game”, it made an experience, one that is intended to make you feel something meaningful, and is an exemplary example for games as an art form.
Regardless of how you view the argument, Shelter is an astoundingly unique pilgrimage through a gorgeous papercraft world, with a masterful score that affects every moment of the game. It’s over in just over an hour and will likely leave you with an empty feeling after the credits role, but I think this was what the developers wanted. Nothing is ever perfect in life, and Shelter boldly reflects this fact without taking away your every hope. While certainly not without dispute and it’s own share of problems, Shelter made me feel a sense of connection and responsibility that few if any other games have managed to accomplished, and I believe is something that you should be taking note of.