My first cub perished in the noonday sky, which is no place for a badger to die. We ran through the long grass, hiding from a predator in the clouds, its winged shadow black and circling. It knew we were somewhere down here, scuttling about. But long grass is good at keeping secrets; it only talks in whispers. Then the long grass ended and there was no way to reach the safety of the hollow log without first making a terrified dash from cover. My first cub, slow with infancy and hunger, was last in line. He squealed and squealed as the talons broke his fur. Staring out from the end of the log, we watched him die in the air. And then there were five.
In Shelter, the third release from Swedish indie game developer Might and Delight, you play as a badger, but that is a great deal less important than the fact that you play as a parent. This is a game about custody, about being the carer of things smaller and weaker than you. It is a game that draws upon those maternal or paternal anxieties that stretch down, past the conscious mind deep inside us, to something more primal. Your aim is straightforward and ancient: lead your offspring to shelter, keep them safe, keep them fed. And when you fail in that aim - when you fail as a parent in your most important duty - the grief is close to unbearable.
My third cub perished on the midnight ground, which is a more reasonable place for a badger to die, but no less painful for it. I didn't see what took her. I didn't even hear her go. I was too busy foraging, searching for another answer to the cubs' unrelenting question: "When do we eat next?" An apple butted down from a branch, a turnip dug from the topsoil, a murdered frog: it's never enough. The cubs fade with hunger, in the physical sense that they tire, but also in pigment, growing paler as time passes without food. Finding shelter from the cold is all well and good, but hunger is the real killer. That, the eagle and whatever monster took my third-born away. And then there were three.
It's an awful thought, but one that you cannot help but think because it's undeniably true. The fewer cubs that accompany you, the easier life becomes. There is more food to go around (you no longer need to stop to dig up every vegetable, or stalk every fox you spot and split it five ways); there are fewer things to split your attention. As your cubs die, it becomes increasingly straightforward to manage your family's movements. In this way, Shelter enjoys an ingenious adaptive difficulty: the more of your five cubs that perish, the more forgiving it becomes. On the flipside, more of your cubs that perish, the less forgiving of yourself you become.
My fifth cub died downstream. The river we had to cross - there's always a river you have to cross - seemed safe enough. The water's surface was just close enough to the sleepy rocks below for our stump legs to wade through. I had three paws on the far side when I heard the incoming wave's furious rumble. It came chasing down the gulley, white and frothed with anger. It took my fifth cub. There was no squeal and, when the wave had passed, there was no sound at all; just the shock silence that follows instant and irreversible tragedy. And then I was one.
Rarely has a game articulated loss in such clear and urgent terms
Loss of life in video games carries different weight in different contexts. In Super Mario, for example, with its endlessly reviving plumber, it's light and fickle. There, losing a life is little more than a momentary setback. But in Shelter, your lives aren't abstract numbers scrawled at the top of the screen or nestled in some menu. They are lives incarnate, five cubs, trailing obediently at your backside. Lose one and you are diminished in more than one sense. Bit by bit, there is less of you in the world. Rarely has a game articulated loss in such clear and urgent terms. Your mistakes live with you, not through scars but through absence.
After the first encounter, Shelter's obstacles are straightforwardly overcome. Moreover, the team at Might and Delight exhaust their ideas a little too soon (this is fertile, unexplored territory; it should have yielded more scenarios and scaling dangers). By the latter stage of this short, linear journey, the perils begin to recur, and your sense of wonder fades with each repetition. And then, just as the designers appear to have lost inspiration, the jolt of an ending arrives - an extraordinarily affecting moment, an ode to motherhood that leaves you reeling with grief and bewilderment.
Even aside from this elegant kicker, Shelter remains a striking proposition, not least for its memorable sense of aesthetic wonder. Its pale hills and valleys are spectacular, bristling with Scandinavian, illustrative charm. From the Hokusai swirls that detail the raging river to the stencil planets that punctuate the night sky, to the sparse, post-rock soundtrack, all lazy percussion and guitars marinated in reverb, this is a beautiful game on the surface. And by successfully tapping into parental instincts rarely solicited by video games, and offering a parable about nurture and sacrifice, it's a beautiful game within, too.