Memories have a fuzzy feel to them. We don't remember things in photo snapshots, or film flashbacks. We remember things by their factual details, along with the emotional image they give us. A memory is basically - the place you were, who said what, the events that happened, and how you felt about the whole thing.
This is true for games. I remember well the first real game I loved, Sonic 2 on the Sega Mega Drive. I remember the feeling of speed, adventure, and challenge, the characters, the layout, and order of the levels. But most deeply I remember the feeling the world gave me, and the sense of wonder at reaching a new level; the excitement thinking about the new things I would see, and challenges I would face.
Our generation has had the privilege of growing up with games that have characters, worlds, and stories. These games made our memories rich and deep. It is easy to forget this wasn't always the case, once games were just dots and lines, and had as much emotional impact as tic tac toe. We have become a generation of game developers that have set out to make people feel. With our potent memories of the games we loved from our youth, and our artistic and mathematical skills, we want to craft the same experiences, for the next generation.
Shelter is a game born out of this. It's single powerful goal is to give you the feeling of being a mother.
To do this you play as a badger nursing several young cubs. It is your job to guide them through the forest, feeding them, and protecting them from predators. The gameplay and linear progression make it pretty simple and easy to pick up. Cubs essentially act as a lives system, and while it is important to keep them fed by foraging for food, the difficulty of the game comes from context specific puzzles and challenges, such as the crossing of a flooding river, or the stealthy chase from an owl.
I really did feel the pain of guilt when I lost my first cub. I rushed forward to dig up a turnip I'd spotted, and he was left behind in the darkness, snapped up by some unknown predator. I also felt the panic of a mother when a twig breaking scattered my cubs into the darkness. I genuinely wanted to calm and collect them. I cared for them.
Shelter is beautiful, with great sound design, and a compelling world. The craft that has gone into it is clever, creative and considered. Shelter is a brilliant piece of artwork created by some seriously skilled individuals.
But something feels odd about Shelter, and other games with similar goals. Somehow, even though it appears to do all it promises, it feels shallow, thin, and weirdly, even a bit dishonest.
Shelter is like someone wanting you to feel what it is like to be a mother, by showing you a picture of their children. It doesn't matter how detailed the picture is, or how beautiful the children are. It wouldn't even work if actors were hired to play the children, and you were sent to Disneyland. The feeling of being a mother would always seem fake, because it was just a reflection of an experience you could have had. Films, books, and music can get away with this. But there is something unique about games that subvert this approach - in games, we really were there. We explored the world ourselves, and it was us who overcame the challenges. We know how that feels.
When we went to Disneyland before, they really were our children.
To reproduce this wholesomeness, I believe that game design cannot be approached starting with a feeling. You cannot organize true joy, or specify something spontaneous. Deep and powerful experiences in life and gaming must arise naturally, and must be ours. Games must be designed from the bottom. They must give the player the chance to naturally experience things. And most importantly, they must risk the player feeling nothing, for the chance of them feeling something real, yet out of the designers' control. All great games start with a step into the unknown.
I love Shelter, but I'm not sure I will remember it when I grow up. I'm not certain it will become warm and fuzzy with age. Had it just been a game about being a badger, perhaps it would.