Badger? I barely know her!
Generally, the less about shooting dudes a game is, the more interested in it I become. So my curiosity was piqued when I heard about Shelter, a lovely-looking indie title where players step into the paws of a mother badger, foraging for food and protecting her cubs from predators.
It's an intriguing idea, and it's presented beautifully in a pastel, patchwork quilt world, with an effective, minimal soundscape. It wasn't until I finished it for the first time that I began to notice the roughness around the seams.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. During your first playthrough, the experience is unique and joyful. Its mechanics are simple, and communicated elegantly. In the beginning, one of your cubs is curled up on the ground, a sickly grey colour in contrast with the healthy brown fur of the other four that follow you. Something's obviously wrong, and with only a slight prompt, the game points out how to pick up a nearby vegetable. It's obvious what needs to be done. With its belly full, the cub springs to its feet and regains the brown coat of its siblings.
It's basically one long escort mission as you guide the litter through the woodlands, and being a good parent means you'll have to periodically feed them, and preventing them from being fed on. You'll also need to pay special attention to which cubs you give food to, as the greedy little varmints will push each other out of the way if it means more for themselves. Keep an eye on their colouring, and try to feed the palest ones first. If you let a cub get too hungry, it will collapse.
And then there are the more immediate threats. If you don't heed the warning of the ominous shadow circling overhead, your cubs could be snatched by a huge bird of prey, while you watch helplessly. Raging rivers and forest fires can also claim lives in an instant.
The handful of levels are distinct in their visual style and central environmental "antagonist". In the wake of the fires, for instance, food is scarcer, and the tall grass, once a safe hiding place from eagles, can become a fire hazard within seconds.
But while the narrative of the ending is poignant, it's ultimately unsatisfying. It's very short, which in itself, shouldn't matter. I appreciate short, experimental games from indie developers, and I've played some fantastic examples over the past few months. Papo & Yo, Slender: The Arrival, Surgeon Simulator 2013 and Gone Home have all clocked in under four hours, but they felt denser.
On completion, I realised Shelter felt empty, and I tested it with a second playthrough. During my first, I was very careful, but this time I aimed to be as neglectful a parent as I could. I ran ahead and left my cubs to find me. I didn't feed them until they collapsed. I even made them run through fire (yes, I am a monster).
I had to try really hard to not protect them, and even then, they overcame most obstacles by themselves. The threat of the wilderness is mostly an illusion, and it somewhat robs the game of its heart. Put in the slightest bit of effort, and your cubs will be fine.
When it comes to experimental titles like this, trying to jam them into the conventional definition of a "game" often feels unfair. Things like Dear Esther or Gone Home are hard to call "games", but they are cohesive experiences that achieve what they set out to do.
Shelter, on the other hand, seems to want to play with conventional game mechanics in an unconventional manner. If so, that's great, but it doesn't quite get there.
The eagle sections, as a good example, are a fun piece of stealth play. You creep through the safety of the long grass, watching for the bird's silhouette, before sprinting across the open ground to the next patch of grass to hide in. It's exciting and gamey and different, until you realise that you almost have to stand out in the open for it to be the threat it pretends to be.
I really want to be able to recommend Shelter. Protecting badger cubs is fun and heartwarming, and the visuals are an absolute treat.
But when you pull back the curtain, the experience is sadly hollow.