This entry is a tad bit late in two ways. For starters, I want to try to post on Saturdays. Secondly, it probably would have been more appropriate for Mother’s Day.
If you know me in person then you know my gaming tastes tend to steer away from some of the obvious blockbusters. Some. Not all. On this corner of the web, you probably won’t hear a great deal about Grand Theft Auto or yearly roster updates to EA Sports titles. So just as a warning, don’t expect many hype train or hype derailing discussions here. I prefer to keep my eyes out for those little gems that look to convey themes and ideas through the strengths of the gaming medium, rather than emulate the movie experience via cut-scenes or cinematics.
Way of the Badger
One such title that I felt met that criteria from last year was Shelter published and developed by Might and Delight. To describe it simply, Shelter is an adventure game with light survival elements. The premise is that you take the role of a mother badger and escort your young to safety while keeping them well fed along the way. The gameplay consists of digging up food, knocking down food with your mighty badger noggin, sneaking up on prey, and hiding from airborne predators. This is all accomplished with the most basic assortment of key bindings. Indeed the gameplay can be described as quite simple.
It’s not always about realism.
Shelter does not boast anything particularly innovative in regards to gameplay, but that is not the game’s biggest strength. What Shelter does is harmonize pacing, staging, and aesthetics into what could be one of the most stressful gaming experiences one could ever come across. The art style consists of simple model designs with textures that appear as if they were hand drawn or painted on traditional paper. The overall look creates a story book feel that is reminiscent of the children books by Eric Carle. This style creates a subtle sense of innocence. Mother Badger and her young ones enter into a world that looks as if it were re-imagined by a child. Some aspects of the game’s world suggest a hyperbolic understanding of nature. We adults understand the sky at night is decorated with stars that are too far away to see in their fullness. However, the night sky for our badgers is cluttered with distinct celestial bodies in the forms of pointed stars and planets complete with rings around their equators. They look as if they they were but only a short distance away and could be touched if you found a tree that were tall enough.
Life is pain.
For all its charm and beauty, Shelter quickly becomes a survival experience that borders on the line of horror. Innocence soon becomes lost as the world reveals its true nature. Raptor birds hover above looking for prey. The elements themselves turn against you as well. Wildfires spread deterring you from your path. Rapid rivers threaten to sweep away your children. Although Mother Badger is physically capable of holding her own, the young ones do not stand a chance without her guidance. If you have meticulously ensured even distribution of food among your young, then they should have no trouble keeping up. Neglect their nutrition and they may pay the ultimate price. These elements result in a pace that becomes hectic in testing the mother’s ability to balance resting and hustling to safety.
The next section of the article contains spoilers. Close your eyes and scroll to the bottom to avoid them.
Shelter eventually became one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve ever had in a game. Even if you are completely on top of caring for your young during the arduous trek, one of the game’s themes ensures that Mother Badger will never get stay with her young forever. The circle, which has been recurring image in the artwork for the game, serves as a symbol of the life cycle and self sacrifice to a certain extent. As you near the end of the journey with your young, the raptor bird makes one last attempt for food. It will never stop until it has succeeded. This time around however, the young are too fast for it to catch, and you Mother Badger have grown slow in your old age. While the next generation of badgers have grown strong enough, so unfortunately ends the mother’s role with her mission fulfilled. Away poor mother is carried to the raptor bird’s nest, just as she had done with so many rodents for her own offspring.
Might and Delight later released an additional game mode for free called Nurture. The experience is much more relaxed but does require you to load up the game about once a day. It features the same early area as the main game, but opens up very gradually as you forage for food to bring back to your den. Over the course of the day food will replenish in the area. The only danger is if you forget to play for a few days only to find that your young have starved. Over the course of several days, your young grow larger and eventually will explore the area outside of the den. It becomes a more idyllic experience compared to the constant dangers of the main game, but eventually results in another form of heartbreak. Naturally, your children grow up and move out. Once fully nurtured, they leave you forever. As I watched them scurry off to have their own adventures, I grabbed a lonely turnip and plopped it in my den with no one to feed it to.
Spoilers end here.
Shelter left me with a long sigh after completing all its content. That to me is a sign that Might and Delight made something honest and sincere. It tells its story and conveys its themes through the art style and environment with virtually no aid from cut-scenes. The experience becomes a tribute to the selfless mother and the natural cycle of generations. If I dare say so, Mother Badger has become one of my all time favorite video game heroines.
Shelter is available on PC through Steam, Green Man Gaming, and GOG.