In 2013, indie developers Might And Delight released Shelter, a game that put you in the role of a mother badger as she protected her quintet of babies (badgerlings?) from predators, fed them, and guided them through a forest filled with dangers. It stuck out in my mind due to its unique art style, emotional investment in its characters, and atmosphere that seemed to mourn nature’s cruelty while simultaneously celebrating its beauty. Shelter also has the distinction of being the first game I’ve ever played where motherhood is central to its storyline.
It was all of this that caused me to truly enjoy my time with Shelter, despite its linear gameplay and short playtime.
So you can imagine my excitement when Might And Delight announced that they would be releasing a sequel that would expand upon the original game in a meaningful way. So, the $25,000 question becomes, did they succeed in that?
Well, yes and no.
Right off the bat, you’re given something of a narrative for Shelter 2–it feels more story-driven. You’re given a vague, wise-Cherokee-proverbs sort of introduction to the world of a mother lynx, but after a tense wolf chase and the birth of your kittens, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
After this, you’re brought, front and center, to everything that Might And Delight gets right with Shelter 2. The mosaic, patchwork art style of the first Shelter returns in the sequel, and the world around you is absolutely gorgeous, particularly as the seasons drift from quietly threatening winter to a verdant taiga spring. You feel like you’re in a child’s picturebook. This, coupled with the beautiful soundtrack, makes for a lovely atmosphere to hunt rabbits in.
And hunt rabbits you shall.
Shelter 2 is far less linear than its predecessor, and that fact brings its own ups and downs. On one hand, there’s a varied, sun-dappled world out there for you to explore with your kittens, and that can be a lot of fun. You’ll cross rivers during the winter freeze to investigate hunting grounds that were previously unavailable. You’ll take down deer and feel the strings of your heart snap when you realize that one of your cubs is missing. Might And Delight does a remarkable job of keeping you invested in your protagonist–of making you care about what happens to her and her progeny. The desire to keep our young safe is an instinct buried within each of us through millennia of evolution, and that can make a game like Shelter 2 emotionally taxing and difficult to play for all the right reasons.
Then there are the unwelcome reasons that Shelter 2 is difficult to play. First off, there is very little explanation as to what you’re expected to do, and where you’re expected to go. You’re led on by the general instruction of feeding and hunting for your babies, coupled with pictograms that show up in the flashes of Hitman/Assassin’s Creed/general stealth game “hunter vision” that your lynx uses by clicking the right mouse button. And while this lack of general goals can occasionally lead to pangs of “I’m a brand new mother and I don’t know what to do” fright, it mostly feels frustrating and obtuse.
As you get the hang of the open world and the loose controls, that frustration goes away, replaced with an intense hatred of rabbits. They’re all over the place, and they feel neigh on impossible to catch. You will have many, many moments accompanied by thoughts of “Christ I just need one rabbit and how is he faster than me and come on you little bastard my freaking kitten is dying by the riverbed please be so kind as to insert your stupid fluffy body into my snarling lynx jaws GODDAMMIT IT GOT AWAY AGAIN”. All while keeping a lookout for your babies, who, while reasonably well-suited to keep up with you, still mew so helplessly that you’ll be counting them over and over again until you’re certain they’re grown and ready to move onto their own lives. All of happens while you’re collecting finding arbitrary collectibles (I have no idea what a lynx wants with random feathers she finds–insulation for her cave?).
And after your cubs have been weaned and raised, they move on to their own lives, and you possibly play again–continuing the family tree of lynxes that you’ve begun. And that’s pretty much it. Chase things, kill them, feed your babies, and occasionally run away from wolves. After the first Shelter‘s obstacle course of rushing river rapids and swooping hawks, it can feel like a bit of a let down.
Like the original, Shelter 2 is a short, emotionally-driven experience that tells the two-faced story of Mother Nature’s elegance and brutality. And for all of its flaws, I don’t regret the time I spent with it one bit. I’m genuinely glad that we live in a time when games like Shelter 2 can be developed and find an audience. It might sometimes feel as frustrating as chasing the virtual rabbits that fill its world, but this story of motherhood and survival has something to offer the patient gamer who values a unique experience. For others, however, it might come off as a trifle dull.