Shelter casts players as a single-parent badger with five kids. It throws you into the wild and says, “keep your kids alive.” Be prepared to discover how bad of a parent you are.
What do you do when you have an ashen and motionless badger pup? If you’re me, you cut your losses, round-up your surviving pups and try to continue on with life. Looking back, this may have been a clue that self-preservation was my play style up to this point.
Parenting Lesson #1: A Good Parent Feeds Their Children
Much of Shelter is about keeping your babies well-fed. The pups gather around, chirp and jump excitedly when you bring them food, hoping to be the one who gets the latest turnip, apple, or dead mouse. But be careful that you don’t let one child eat to the exclusion of another. Fatstripe earned his name not only because of the stripe on his back, but because he would always be the first to nab the apple when I knocked one from a tree; even if his siblings were losing color due to hunger.
Parenting Lesson #2: Your Carelessness Can Mean Disaster for Your Children
The moment you see a fox, it’s time to get low. Stick to the tall grass. Wait until it draws close. Lunge, snap its neck, and you’ve got dinner for three. This stealth lesson comes in especially handy when an eagle flies overhead. Yet it couldn’t prepare me for what happened to next: I stayed exposed for a second too long and heard the most horrifying squeals behind us. I couldn’t watch as Fatstripe was snatched away by that predator.
I resolved to never have another of my young taken from me again.
Then night fell.
Parenting Lesson #3: Be Prepared for Nightfall
In any other stealth game, darkness is your friend, but when you’re protecting your pups from unseen predators, it’s plain terrifying. The moment the pups hear a sound, they run. And you better stay with them because if you don’t, they’re gone forever.
Suddenly, I heard wicked snarls and the cries of my baby quickly being drawn away from me. I couldn’t take it. I desperately wanted to quit. But I kept moving with my remaining three pups, feeling like the worst parent in the world. We had already made it so far.
Parenting Lesson #4: Be Willing to Forgive Yourself
Shelter’s save points only exist between levels. As those levels got longer, the loss of a pup after hard-earned progress stung deep. But I had to deal with my mistakes, forgive myself, and keep moving.
I don’t recommend naming your baby badgers as, I did, based on the patterns on their backs. As annoyed as I was with Fatstripe, I hated when he was gone. And I wish I could forget the sound of Trinity being taken by the wolves at night.
Parenting Lesson #5: Embrace the Pain
Shelter takes you on a linear adventure not terribly unlike Journey. But in Journey, there are no real sacrifices. As a badger mama, I felt like I had lost everything each time one of my badger babies died. When making it to a new area with just three pups, it cemented the gravity of my loss in a way that no other game could. “Our family is smaller now…”
I hate Shelter for exposing my parental shortcomings, but that’s also its greatest strength. If a game can make us more concerned with how our actions affect others, then I’d say it’s a game worth playing, and that pain is an emotion worth feeling.