Just another day in the life of Wisconsin's state animal.
Why aren't more realist simulations of animal life made into games? Wolf (1994) and Lion (1995) were the leading examples until Shelter – a sim-like game in which the player guides a mother badger and her pups through a harsh and unforgiving landscape – came out last week, and sales pushed the title up the ranks on the Steam store.
Shelter is a lovely game, and charming, and it tickles the nesting instinct that seems to be in every game developer's heart these days with the onslaught of the survival-and-build-a-ramshackle-home-to-guard-against-the-zombie-horde genre. The game's earliest trailer sorely teased sandbox fans by showing the badger crew emerging from an underground burrow and into a watercolor landscape wild with possibility.
The final product is a thoroughly non-sandbox game, however, and why it isn't may explain why we don't have greater diversity in the organisms we get to play on our PC or console – outside of the cartoon animals and stylized entities that stand in for human characters. Life as an animal is kind of dull. Unless there's a secret language of grunt and paw-motions we haven't yet decoded (and I'm honestly still not convinced that there isn't), then dialogue is out of the question, and along with it, most forms of plot. You eat, you run away from danger, you occasionally instigate danger yourself, and you have a fretful sleep. That's about it, which is kind of a shame.
Shelter attempts to overcome the limitations of these mechanics by exercising as much control over them as possible. Instead of a sandbox game, Shelter is almost completely linear, unpacking each new wrinkle in the game as it proceeds along a winding course that reinvents with each new stage. Many of the challenges – such as hunting foxes that dart away from the mother badger at the first sign of trouble – are scarcely repeated, in favor of ones that don't always feel like upgrades, such as guiding the pups across a flooded stream. (This was the first of two places where I lost a little badger, outside of a forced downsizing that occurs between the first and second stages.) The game sags slightly in the middle, in between an exciting opening act and a harrowing conclusion.
You spend much of your time digging up various tubers and knocking apples out of trees, and crouching under ground cover, hoping the bird of prey swinging overhead won't pinpoint the location of your brood. Ground predators are nil, unless the foxes can turn around and bite you, which never happened to me. Floods and forest fires pose a greater danger, and there are few things in the game that compel one to action more quickly than the sounds of one's pups yelping as the tinder underneath them begins to catch flame. Time to run, babies!
The art is part of what keeps the game interesting, even after you've grown a little tired of digging up food and running from the ominous ground-shadow of a raptor. The watercolor-styled landscapes make for a more memorable tableau than most games that try a similar, painterly style. I can't remember another game doing it more attractively, or as seamlessly, at least not on a small budget, which extends to the final game's price – under $10. It's $9.99 at the moment on Gog.com and Steam.