Shelter is part parable about the cruelty of nature, and part parenting sim. You play a mother badger guiding her cubs across a vast wilderness fraught with danger. You cannot control the cubs, but they waddle alongside you, and it is up to you protect them from dangers such as wildfires, starvation, raging rivers and other predators.
While nature can be beautiful, it can also be merciless. You grow attached to the cubs (all of which are distinct), and the gut-wrenching loss that a parent feels at the death of a child is captured without fanfare. However, since you must keep the remaining cubs safe, there’s little time to mourn.
Much like Shelter’s message, the gameplay is simple and intuitive. There’s little instruction for controls, but you catch on quickly. The music is poignant and evocative. Shelter’s art style is unique, with a palette of pastels and earth tones. However, some items, such as grass patches, look like a patchwork quilt, and can make nature seem, well, rather unnatural. However, overall, the patterns and textures are breathtaking, and the predatory bird shadow is particularly (and terrifyingly) well done.
Sadly, Shelter is quite short, clocking in at under two hours. It is also extremely linear, in that you must get your cubs from A to B with limited room for exploration. Frustratingly, invisible walls make it clear that you’re being directed to a certain location. Consequently, Shelter plays more like an interactive story than a game. However, there’s also a “Nurture” mode, which is not narrative-driven, but, instead, you have to care for your virtual litter daily, like a Tamagotchi. There’s also a spin-off children’s book based on the game, and with Shelter 2 forthcoming later this year, we can hope to see more in-depth content.
Although “enjoyable” is not the most appropriate word to describe Shelter, it is a beautiful, compelling game with a lot of underutilized potential. It is compelling and simple, and offers the player a wonderful (albeit brief) emotional experience.