One of the worst sins of modern story-telling is “assumed empathy.” If a movie, book, or video game wants me to care about something, they have to earn my feelings. But all too often creators will rely on common emotional associations as a short-cut for creating actual connections between the audience and a particular character or event. Thus we get stories where it’s assumed that I, as the audience, care about the plight of a particular child, family member, loved one, or even the entire world, simply because all people are supposed to care about children, family members, loved ones, and the entire world. Maybe I’m just callous, but I find that this technique particularly doesn’t work on me, and even tends to produce the opposite effect wherein I start to despise the very thing I was supposed to empathize with.
Apparently cats are an exception to this rule for me. Especially kittens.
I honestly didn’t care that the mentally challenged infant in That Dragon, Cancer was painfully wasting away, because the story did nothing to endear me to the child. But I did care about my four little lynx-kittens in Shelter 2, especially because it was my sole duty in the game to take care of them.
Shelter 2 is a bad game built around an insidiously alluring premise. The player controls a Lynx mother who gives birth to four kittens and then must provide for the kittens until they grow up into adult lynxes to repeat the process. The only fail states in the game consist of your little tiny baby kittens dying on your watch.
In case you didn’t know, lynxes are adorable. They are like regular cats, but bigger, furrier, and they have absurdly cute, tufted ears. I want one.
Basing the player-character’s motivations around protecting the most adorable of adorable animals was possibly the only good design decision made by developer Might and Delight. Nothing else in Shelter 2 works. The mechanics are shallow enough to get boring after two minutes. There is no challenge. There is no variety. The player-incentives are hopelessly broken. And as wonderful as the art style is to look at in screen shots, it made this no-budget indie title one of the precious view games to ever cause my computer to lag (the last time I can remember it happening was with the notoriously technically-intensive Ryse: Son of Rome).
Don’t be fooled by Shelter 2’s Steam page which promises an open world game with cutting edge environmental designs such as changing seasonal patterns and variable hunting potential in multiple regions. There are supposedly “elaborate gameplay features” “such as stamina, different types of movements, jumps and a variety of prey to kill. Besides hunting there are several maternal and hunting features, [I guess “hunting features” don’t count as “hunting”] such as calling the cubs closer, smell for prey, making sure they drink water from rivers and lifting and carrying your cubs from harm’s way.” Just imagine trying to survive as an animal caring for her children while braving the elements, hunting for sparse prey, desperately seeking shelter, and if times get tough, possibly making the tear-jerking decisions of which adorable kitten survives and which… goes to kitten heaven.
But Shelter 2 is not The Long Dark with cute animals. It’s actually closer to mid-2000s shovel-ware designed by an art student who has never played a video game.
Here’s how it works: you try to locate a tiny, blurry mass in the distance which is probably a rabbit, you chase after the rabbit until you run into it, then you stop, drop the rabbit and let the kittens (who adorably follow you around) eat. Repeat ad nauseum. There is no strategy, pretty much no planning, and no challenge whatsoever.
Pro-tip: to make sure all of your lynx kittens survive to adulthood, never stray more than 50 yards away from the starting den. Boom! You’ve mastered another video game.
You see, despite the developers bragging about their “elaborate gameplay features,” 99% of Shelter 2 consists of hunting to get food to keep your kittens alive. And 99% of hunting consists of hunting rabbits, of which there are vastly more in the game-world than any other prey. And there is a massive, regenerating supply of rabbits all around the starting den, so if you don’t want to watch a baby kitten starve to death, there is no reason to ever stray from the tiny starting area for the entire 2 hour playthrough.
You can go to a lake and drink water, but you literally do not have to. Your mother lynx and her kittens will survive sans water for the game’s entire 1.5 year time frame. (To be fair, this is apparently not unrealistic.)
You can sort of make decisions about who should get food, but players should figure out the right strategy pretty quickly. That’s because on top of not needing water, the mother lynx also doesn’t need to eat food! She can eat food, but all it does is deliver a temporary stamina boost. So the player will never be faced with any heart breaking decision to starve a kitten for the sake of the mother’s survival. Instead, with the rare exception of when one particular kitten is starving, all the player needs to do is catch food and the kittens will efficiently sort out distribution questions among themselves.
You can travel across the relatively large game world to see more regions and go hunting for deer, moles, frogs, some weird egg things, or pheasants (at least I think that’s what they were, the graphics are really blurry), but what’s the point? The only incentive to do so is to see the rest of the game world, which admittedly can look pretty when everything isn’t lagging and looking like someone poured water on a papier-mâché project.
But the major disincentive to traveling around is that your little kittens constantly need food, and if you happen to hit a stretch of land with little prey, the kittens start to starve to death. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind seeing baby lynxes pitifully lie down and refuse to continue walking due to malnourishment for the sake of seeing a pretty lake, then I guess you should explore everything Shelter 2 has to offer. And you should also burn in hell for all eternity.
(There are also allegedly wolves which can pop up and try to eat your kittens, but I never saw a single one throughout my entire playthrough outside of the intro sequence. From what I’ve read in the reviews, there is no way to combat the wolves except to run away, so they’re just an unfair game element designed to kill kittens to arbitrarily force an emotional response out of the player.)
The only other incentive offered to explore the game world is possibly the most pathetic collectible system I have ever seen. If the player is so inclined, he can spend a hell of a long time running around the game world finding various flowers, rocks, skulls, and other natural debris to fill up an arbitrary game meter which has literally no effect on the game itself (with the possible exception of causing your kittens to starve while digging for rocks).
This system is at Assassin’s Creed’s flags level of useless collectibles. Aside from being an utterly inconsequential attempt to artificially lengthen the game, it manages to break whatever immersion existed by making your player-animal act distinctly not like an animal. By pushing an external incentive system on the player, the developers undermine the game’s core motivation, the maternal connection between the player and the kittens, for the sake of making a handful of abstract graphics on a menu page light up.
Seriously though, the player incentives are horribly designed. It’s like the developers were so distracted by cats that they didn’t realize human beings would be playing the game. I would even go as far as to say the gameplay is fundamentally broken in the sense that there is an obvious, singular optimal strategy which will be immediately evident to every player. Once the player discovers this strategy five minutes into the game, playing Shelter 2 is a tiresome two hour slog.
I have to admit that I’m slinging a lot of bile at a simple little Steam indie game with pretty visuals and adorable kittens. Part of me wants to go easy on Shelter 2. After all, it’s not a terrible game in and of itself, just a boring and empty one.
The visual style looks absolutely stunning in screen shots, and every once in a rare while, when the frame rate was functional and I had the camera angled in just the right position, the game looked just as good in action. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of my playtime the visuals looked muddled and confusing, especially as the various faded shades of brown, white, and grey all blurred together until (despite controlling an animal with famously good eye sight) I had trouble distinguishing between my kittens and a patch of grass. But still, I give the developers credit for bringing a unique visual style to gaming, even if the execution is heavily flawed.
I also really liked the twist in Shelter 2’s new game plus system. Any kittens that survive to adulthood eventually leave the player to go off to live on their own. New game plus lets the player control one of the newly grown kittens as she starts a family of her own (which would suggest that every kitten in the game is always female, which doesn’t make any sense, but whatever). You can even see your Crusader Kings 2-style lynx family tree if for some reason you are inclined to replay the game over and over again. The system weirdly reminds me of Sunless Sea’s roguelike continuity system, wherein the player can sire a child who inherits the player’s current character’s belongings after his death to continue his journey. The system isn’t a particularly big part of Shelter 2, but it’s a neat idea.
The combination of Shelter 2’s small budget, pretty visuals, and adorable lynx kittens might have led me to view the game in a sympathetic light save for one fatal factor: Shelter 2 sells for $15 on Steam.
As George Weidman points out in his review of Pony Island, $5 is the price people pay for a “CrunchWrap Slider Big Box” at Taco Bell. If someone will pay $5 for a cheap, junky meal at a fast food joint, they probably won’t mind paying $5 for a small, experimental game like Pony Island, which they may not necessarily enjoy in the traditional sense, as long as the game is interesting.
To me, Weidman’s argument points to an implicit barrier in buyers’ minds between paying $1-10 and $11-20 for a game. The two price ranges may technically be quite close together and represent not all that much money in the grand scheme of things, yet I feel a considerable difference in investment between a $7 game and a $15 game. For me, the $1-10 range is cheap enough that I’m willing to accept experimental, incomplete, unpolished, and/or exceedingly simple games. For $11-20, I don’t necessity expect a masterpiece, but I expect a coherent and worthwhile game within relatively low but reasonable standards.
Shelter 2 clearly belongs in the $1-10 price range, and at the lower end of it at that. It barely qualifies as a completed game, and the system it does have is as shallow as any walking simulator but insultingly badly designed and without anything close to a worthy narrative to tie to the mechanics.
Admittedly, I only paid $4 for the game while it was on sale, but I would feel bad for anyone tricked into buying it at full price for the opportunity to take care of adorable baby lynx. If you are in danger of becoming one of these individuals, do yourself a favor and just watch this video instead of buying Shelter 2.