Few weeks ago I wrote about a billion and seven words about Papers Please, which was a indie game that touched me in a rather personal way. Not only did it posses a wickedly dark humor and an absolutely soul-crushing plot: it also used the core game mechanics as one of its storytelling devices. The clunky, unfriendly controls were very effectively used to convey the broken state of the bureaucratic system of Aztrozka. But it was one of multiple channels through which the story, the mood and the setting were exposed to the player. The plot was unveiled via narration screens, pamphlets, instructional booklets and dialogue. I bring this up, because Shelter is a game designed to convey it’s plot and message solely through gameplay. It is a game without words, no instructions and no player prompts.
Shelter is a game about being a fucking badger, doing badger things. You are an adult specimen of the species, and you have a rut or a litter or pups who you must feed and protect. The object of the game is… Well, it is not entirely clear what you are supposed to do. Most people actually get stuck at the tutorial stage and have to consult internet forums in order to progress.
Picture a following scenario: you are a badger mom stuck in a tiny burrow with a litter of your pups and a turnip. One of the pups is sprawled on the floor, and either sick or dead because it is not moving like the rest of the litter. The exit from the cave is guarded by invisible force field, because FUCK YOU, this is a tutorial. What do you do?
First you will probably try to interact with the sick pup because that’s probably what a mother would do. Unfortunately the pup has no scripted interactions, so the key to solving this logical puzzle is probably the turnip. You grab it in your mouth and you drop it in front of the sick little dude…
Nothing happens. You re-position the turnip a few times to no avail. You bark at all the pups in turn. You carry the turning around the cave. Drop it on each pup’s head in turn. Eventually you even try to place it on that protruding stone in the corner hoping it is a pressure plate that will disable the force field… Eventually you hit up the forums and realize that you need to:
- Pick up the turnip
- Align your badger with the sick pup in a straight line
- Drop it 3.5 pixels from the pup’s mouth
If you do it right, the pup will snap out of it’s comma, devour the turnip and somehow deactivate the force field so you can get outside and start the game proper.
Shelter is a low budget indie game, so I don’t really want to shit all over it for minor mechanical flaws. But the fact that there exist about a dozen forum threads out there, started by people who can’t get through the first 5 minutes of the game is probably a good indication that something went wrong here. It is a combination of a mechanical flaw (too small trigger area for the turnip placement) combined with the design flaw (no instruction provided to the player).
The worst part is that on paper, the design is entirely sound: you are a fucking badger. Badgers don’t have instruction manuals that tell them how to take care of sick pups. They kinda just figure things out on their own. So it stands to reason that a game about living a badger life would involve little to no hand-holding and instruction. You just show the player a sick puppy and a turnip, and see if they can figure out the game mechanic. And it it would have worked perfectly, it you did not have to drop the damn food with pixel-perfect accuracy.
To add insult to injury, once you get out of the cave you can just drop food anywhere on the ground and your pups will find it with no problems. Apparently each pup has it’s own food intake counter, and when they get hungry their fur fades and becomes lighter. I only know this because I read it online. None of my pups ever faded. The food was simply so plentiful, and the path-finding skills of the pups were so bad that simply dropping the food on the floor where I found it kept all my pups satiated throughout the game. Every few steps I would find a turnip, a carrot some berries, a rat, a frog or an apple.
Mercifully the game did show me how to harvest apples via a picture-prompt because I would have never figured it out. You get apples by ramming apple trees with your skull. You know, just like real badgers do, apparently.
The first thing I wanted to do after leaving the cave, was to look around the gorgeously designed badger forest with soft rubber apple trees. To the left of me was a small elevation that seemed like a nice vantage point from which I could scope out the area. Unfortunately I was unable to climb it because my path was blocked by three very stiff blades of grass, and some very firm air. I turned my badger around and decided to explore the environment to the left, but it was in turn blocked by some sparse brush, mound of earth and a fallen log. My movement was restricted to a very narrow, linear corridor. I figured that maybe this was still part of the tutorial, but no. This was the entire game.
Every once in a while the corridor would fork into two paths which would shortly re-connect, or maybe become wide enough to give you an illusion of an open field. But most of the time the area you were allowed to explore was narrow, and almost claustrophobic and bound by loading screens on each side. You basically run a few feet, pick up a turnip, drop it, run a few more feet and etc. Sometimes there is a bird overhead that tries to eat your pups so you have to make sure you pick up the turnips when he is not looking. Sometimes it is snowing or the forest is on fire, or the river is flooding or something. Other than a different color palette and environment animations it doesn’t really make a much of difference.
There was also the night level, in which the pups would just randomly disappear. Granted, seeing half of your pups missing is not unusual, because they get stuck on lades of grass, get embedded in rocks or clip through trees. But if you wander off far enough, they typically Elizabeth their way back into the rest of the group. Except in the night level, in which pups that leave your visual radius get eaten by invisible wolves. I only know this because I read it on the internet. I was convinced my pups fell pray not to ghost-wolves but to path finding bugs.
After playing this game, I feel like being a badger is all about carelessly prancing forward through a shitty forest, while headbutting apple trees. I learned nothing.
The worst part is that I really wanted to like this game. It is aesthetically gorgeous, has a very evocative music score and an excellent theme. It is trying to style itself as a game about motherhood, exploration and survival. A game that puts you into the mind of a small pray animal who has to navigate a dangerous world full of predators, and natural dangers while at the same time taking care of her offspring.
Unfortunately, the game mechanics do not help to convey the story. The narrowness and linearity of the levels break your immersion almost ass effectively as headbutting every single tree in your path to shake down some apples. Instead of being an omnipresent and random danger, the predators (such as the hawks and wolves) only appear in gimmicky special levels. Food is so plentiful, you never actually have to ration it, or choose which pup to feed. Every minute you spend playing Shelter you become more and more painfully aware you are in a game – and not even in a very good one.
It’s a shame the mechanics are so bad, because the are the sole storytelling tool the game has at its disposal. There is no narration, no cut-scenes, no prompts, instructions or even scripted events. The only way to make you experience the feelings the authors intended, is through the mechanics. For example, the loss of a pup is supposed to evoke feelings of loss and sadness. Unfortunately that doesn’t work. I lost three pups in the night level, without even realizing it. Later, when the game made me cross a big swath of open ground with birds of pray circling overhead, I instituted Operation Eagle Meat Shield – a tactic which allowed me to use surviving pups as extra lives I could spend to reach the final loading screen.
I know I was supposed to get attached to these little bastards, but the game gave me no reasons to do so. What was I supposed to do? Go “aww, look at that little guy getting adorably stuck between a blade of grass and a turnip due to a pathing bug”. To get attached to video game characters, you need to be able to empathize with them. This typically requires them to exhibit some sort of personality. Or barring that, it requires you to empathize with the protagonist and understand why she cares about said characters. Shelter provides none of that. In fact just about every mechanic seems to be custom designed to break the immersion, take you out of the experience, and force you to meta-game and think of your actions in terms of game-moves instead of experiences.
I don’t think the sandbox model is perfect for every game, but I feel like in this case it would be justified. A procedurally generated forest would add an exploration layer and replayability to what is a very short game. Uncertainty as to where predators might show up, and what food sources might be available in different parts of the forest would make your choices seem so much more meaningful. If you had a choice where to go, then you might actually end up feeling bad about taking your pups into an eagle’s hunting ground. When your only option is to walk forward, then the eagle becomes just an unavoidable obstacle you have to bypass using gimmicky mechanics.
At the end of the day, everything boils down to player agency. You either have to give player actual agency, and thus make him responsible for his own actions, or you have to design an experience that makes the player feel like he or she is making meaningful choices. The reason linear shooters like Bioshock get away with keeping the player on the rails throughout the entire length of the experience is that they have a story to tell. The twists and turns of the plot, and the plight of the characters distract the player from the fact he is not actually making any meaningful choices. The experience is linear but it still feels like you are a participant. Shelter provides the player with neither the agency nor a compelling story or characters to latch onto. As such it has very little to offer. Which is really sad, because it is such a good idea, and both the artistic direction and musical score both are top notch for an indie production. Absolutely everything about this game is perfect, except the core mechanics which are not broken, but simply wrong for this story.
There are a thousand ways to make player re-live a day in life of a badger mom. The third person, apple-tree head-butting simulator was simply the worst of all possible ways to make that happen.