The Hardest Video Game? Playing a Mom

In 'Shelter,' you play a mother lynx on the Russian tundra.

Feb 26 2015, 6:53pm

Shelter 2 lets you play as a mommy lynx, and it will break your heart in the process.

It starts on a cold night, with you, a pregnant Russian lynx on a remote tundra, searching for a safe spot to give birth. The next morning, you're in charge of four meowing little kittens who are so adorable you just want to squeeze all the cute out of them. They're also hungry, the little buggers, and if you don't venture out into the wilderness, murder a rabbit with your face, and bring it back, they'll die.

I've never been a mom or a parent, but I'm pretty sure this is the mission critical stuff: feed your kids and keep them alive. I wouldn't have guessed it, but it turns out this basic objective makes for an interesting and emotionally resonant game.

The kittens grow up as you feed them, and assuming they don't get eaten by one of the packs of wolves that are roaming the plains with you, they'll start to walk around, run, and follow you on hunts. This made me proud at first, to see that the little kittens grow up, tussle with each, and keep up. But then they really grew up, became almost as big as me, and I came to bittersweet realization I imagine all parents come to at some point: soon, they won't need me anymore.

I don't want to spoil it, but it only takes a couple of hours to see Shelter 2's complete arc, and it's well worth your time and money.

The developer, Might and Delight, came up with Shelter out of sheer necessity. The company's CEO Anders Westin told me that it was just coming off a very demanding but not very successful project, Pid, and that they needed to make something with limited resources that would hit if they didn't want to roll over and die.

That's why Shelter paints its world with quilt-like textures instead of realistic ones, which are often more expensive to create than 3D models. It's also why the first Shelter, a first attempt released in 2013, in which you play a badger, was so limited, basically funneling the player along a narrow path with scripted events. Still, it hit a chord, enough to warrant a sequel with a big open wilderness and more complex systems.

The fact that three members of the company's seven employees were new fathers at the time was obviously a huge influence as well.

"After a lot of meetings we decided let's just do what we can do," Westin told me. "One of our coders just made a little cylinder that walked around and he added five more little cylinder that followed behind it and we all thought it was adorable. We then found out that taking care of those little cylinders was much more interesting than all the platforming aspects of the game so we cut them out and it sort of evolved from there."

There really aren't enough games about animals. You'll see some tongue-in-cheek gag game like Goat Simulator take off, and as you might have noticed by our comprehensive Sonic coverage, there's no shortage of anthropomorphised animal heroes. But rarely does a developer try to simulate the animal experience with the same level of care that is given to a shooter or a racing game.

Shelter 2 shows that the subject is just waiting to be mined. More importantly, there are even less games about being a mom, a subject that Shelter 2 proves is even more interesting.

Shelter 2 is available to pre-purchase from Steam for $15, and will release on March 9.