Can you remember that last video game in which you played as a mother? Shelter 2 is perhaps the first notable game about maternity since Might and Delight’s original Shelter and it’s worthy of your attention for that reason alone. So scarcely has the medium approached the subject that Shelter was something of a revelation upon its release, a quiet tribute to parental self-sacrifice that’s commitment to expressing vulnerability marked a distinct departure from the power fantasies that dominate mainstream games. Two years later and Shelter 2 is just as much of an anomaly as its predecessor but it also offers a slightly different perspective on motherhood, presenting it less as the defining, all-consuming act of a mother’s existence and more as a singular event in a grander life story.
Like the first game, Shelter 2 puts the player in charge of raising a family in the hostile wilds of the animal kingdom, though this time as a mother lynx instead of a badger. The lynx is more agile and has the additional advantages of being able to jump and carry her cubs in her mouth but her primary responsibility remains the same: to keep her offspring alive at all costs. Despite their mechanical similarities however, the two games play quite differently, the key difference being their structure. While the first game opts for a traditional linear format in which the player guides their cubs through a sequence of self-contained areas, Shelter 2 adopts a more free-form approach, offering players a handful of expansive plains to roam but without disclosing much in the way of an explicit goal.
This is all well and good at first, with the promise of unfettered, organic exploration seemingly an intuitive fit for a game about negotiating the chaotic whims of nature. Soon though, it becomes apparent that the lure of the open-world is actually at odds with player’s responsibilities as a parent; venturing further afield will often land the player in vast dry patches with nothing to feed the cubs whereas sticking around in a familiar area with a plentiful supply of prey remains an inarguably safer option.
The game progresses either way, and thus Shelter 2 ends up actively discouraging curiosity, providing no concrete context for why the player should want to go traipsing into the unknown in the first place. Yes, the prospect of a change of scenery is intriguing and charting the game’s beautiful geographies is sort of its own reward, but it’s hard to justify unnecessary exploration when each area on the map plays exactly like the last and when doing so is to willingly risk your cubs’ survival. There’s no hiding from this fundamental flaw, but it’s also capable of being tactfully overlooked should the player be adequately interested by what the rest of the experience has to offer.
Fortunately there's a lot to like about Shelter 2 in spite of its shakey design credentials, the most obvious being its presentation. The game has a unique visual style to match its divergent thematic content, a charming patchwork quilt wilderness that’s both tastefully simple and alive with detail. Numerous changes in season are triggered over the course of a playthrough and each is pleasure to behold, the world cycling through a trendy colour wheel of fastidiously complementary tones to rival even the swankiest of Tumblr templates. It’s music and sound design are also to be commended, with the audio doing much of the emotional heavy lifting, be it the subtle melancholy of warm acoustic guitar plucking that rings in the harsh winter snows or the gut wrenching wail of one of your cubs on its last legs.
Perhaps most likeable though is the game’s more nuanced portrayal of motherhood relative to the first game, expressing the importance of a mother’s own needs and desires both mechanically and narratively. Unlike in the original Shelter, it’s essential this time around that the mother also gets enough to eat, as without sufficient sustenance she won’t have the stamina to chase down prey for the little ones. Furthermore, Shelter 2 offers a glimpse of the mother’s life independent of her kids, kicking off before the babies are born and (without going into too much detail) delivering a touching ending that swings wildly from the pessimistic capitulation to the circle of life that closed out the first game.
Ultimately though, Shelter 2 represents no great improvement over its predecessor and in some respects is actually a less successful game, it’s open-world ambition coming at the expense of a coherent experience that lacks the same variety afforded by the plotted set-pieces of the first game. It’s a flawed experiment, but one that nevertheless tackles a vital, neglected subject area with a whole lot of heart and thus still warrants admiration.