When Henry David Thoreau left his material possessions behind and lived on a pond near Concord, Massachusetts, he didn’t know what he’d find there. Only after writing Walden did he understand what awaited him, living among a nature he never truly experienced when walking through it on the way to someplace else.
Not all of us have the same luxury of time. We desire a connection to the outdoors, but we’d prefer to keep our internet connection running at high-speed, thank you very much. Still, the best way to rub against knowledge is to try your best to create it yourself. Shelter, an upcoming game by Might and Delight, is one such attempt at self-creation. You control a mother badger whose main objectives are to protect and nurture her cubs as you travel together through unpredictable environments, both savage and beautiful.
The Swedish independent studio, whose offices are set in Stockholm, hope to provide both the player and themselves an opportunity to commune with the very nature that evades them in their strictly-urban livelihoods.
“We are all city guys,” says Andreas Wangler, level designer for Might and Delight, the studio responsible for last year’s Pid. He explains their art director, Jakob Tuchten, has done the necessary research, scoping out local animal parks and investigating archived material, gathering detailed images of the flora and fauna to be used as inspiration for the game. But ultimately they’re going by feel, inspired more by the terror of seeing a forest fire on the news than by sleeping underneath the stars. “This is our interpretation of the wild.”
The one time I traveled through Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, the wildness felt most abundant on my plate: I ate reindeer meat on the sidewalk; a fancy pizza came topped with curry sauce. Outside the bounds of the city, though, a more aggressive wilderness exists. As one of the least populated countries in the world, people haven’t had much of a chance to tame the land.
Moreover, Sweden’s laws allow its citizenry opportunity for discovery; the Right of Public Access gives any person free reign to explore the rockiest coastlines or lushest forest. We see that same access in Shelter, with full 3D environments giving the designers a broader palette than their first game.
Pid celebrated the challenging puzzles of yesteryear in two-dimensional space. Many members of the team, before starting Might and Delight, worked on Capcom’s downloadable Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a high-gloss remake of the classic NES original. “They had so much fun creating [Bionic Commando], they wanted to continue on the same path” with Pid, says Wangler. “But now we felt like, let’s challenge ourselves. And try something new.”
Shelter goes off the beaten trail like a hungry camper scrounging for berries. Besides protecting your badger children, you need to secure food for them, and for yourself, sometimes killing and eating other animals. The ‘survival of the fittest’ mechanics and visual style reminds me of Cubivore, a GameCube oddity by Saru Brunei that involved a similar, if more fantastical, journey through the unknown.
Wangler admits the team hadn’t played that. If they had they might see a sapling of their present game; Cubivore tasks the player with progressing a simple cubic animal up the evolutionary ladder through the eating of and mating with other creatures. Shelter’s focus appears much more rooted in the real-world, though each uses the threat of stronger beasts hidden in the grass as motivation. Wangler says they were not influenced as much by previous games and genres as they were with their first title.
“I don’t know if we want to call ourselves retro any longer,” he explains. The mechanics of Shelter are more contemporary, though the visual style still harkens back to the pre-HD era, where atmosphere and mood is created by carefully blended textures and color palette more than fancy bloom lighting. This was never about realism. This was about provoking emotion, even if that emotion itself remains intangible or mysterious.
Wangler knows about protecting animals; he’s had his pet cockatiel Kio for 20 years. Badgers, however, are less common. “Here in Sweden, at least in Stockholm, we don’t see badgers that much. And it’s got some kind of, at least to us, some kind of mystical aura.” He realizes they are more common in North America and, thus, a tad less exotic. But the team was undaunted; the badger would be their cover model. “It’s a beautiful animal. And I think it’s worthy of a game.”
When Shelter finally arrives later this year, we’ll all get to try on the world through those wide, glossy eyes of an unknowable creature. Still, some feelings will be familiar. We know what it’s like to fear. We know the courage necessary to protect our loved ones. But there are some things we’ll never fully understand. That ignorance is why we read, why we look. Sometimes, it’s why we play games.
Another American author with three names, Ralph Waldo Emerson, reveled in this constant seeking. In his essay on Experience, Emerson writes, “Ghost-like we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” Shelter looks to provide a suitable path for exploration. Even if that great arbiter of chaos, Mother Nature, keeps her plans hidden.