I came in expecting a relaxing game about elephants. I looked at the achievements. They spoke of pretty flowers and pink flamingos. They implied a game that would be breezy and cheerful, cute and carefree. Shelter 3 is an entirely different animal. It’s about leadership and loss and carrying on amid terrible adversity, reckoning with seemingly small decisions which prove to have deadly consequences. It also happens to be messy and frustrating and repetitive, but we’ll get into that. For now, it’s enough to say that Shelter 3 made me think, and it made me feel stuff — and that’s always worth exploring.
- What is Shelter 3? It’s a survival/elephant simulator/adventure game. You play as Reva, mother to a young calf and now leader of the herd, which has been scattered and faces danger on all sides. With the matriarch’s guidance, Reva must lead the other elephants to food and water, protect them from the likes of tigers, and chart a course back to the rest of the herd.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: $14.99
- Developer: Might and Delight
- Publisher: Might and Delight
- Release Date: March 30, 2021
- Website: View on Steam
Since this is indeed the 5th helping of the Shelter series, I believe some housekeeping things should be our first stop. People seem prone to comparing this to its predecessors. Conversely, I came into the game blind to its antecedents, and I won’t waste any time trying to speculate. The presskit for Shelter 3 online also claims that the game has “increased replayability.”
Honestly, I’d argue that taking that as advice to replay the game for more enjoyment will actually sabotage its thematic weight and overall impact. For reasons I’ll get into later, an immediate replay would take away from the ending’s emotional impact. More practically, it’s an unnecessary exposure of seams in the game’s design that become readily apparent through play.
Let’s get into it.
One of Shelter 3’s greatest strengths is its ability to immerse you in the narrative with its mechanics. When the herd begins crossing a stretch of desert in desperate search of food and water, even a slight detour could mean the death of an elephant. Agency and choice are most significant when they can seamlessly fit into the game’s larger emotional experience.
So long as tutorials are succinct and clear, and so long as the bar at the bottom of the screen is understandable and conveys the danger of your situation well enough, your brain can fold these mechanics into the story without concentrating on them as easily as it does for WASD. The life of a game like this depends on the ability of the mechanics to contribute to the emotional experience without announcing their presence and ripping players out of the story world. And so problems arise when you’re reminded that you’re sitting in a chair tapping away at mouse and keyboard, not leading a herd in a perilous exodus across the savannah.
These reminders accumulate, caking onto the game as it progresses. The limitations of graphical assets become clear — elephants constantly clip through each other and the environment, missing an opportunity to heighten verisimilitude and imply the great bulk and weight of these creatures. Commands to nurse your calf seem temperamental and finicky, interfering with the themes of motherhood that help comprise the heart of this story. And very quickly, the game has exhausted most of its ability to surprise you with mechanics and exciting decision-making. Consequently, repetition sets in, and emotions start to become dulled until the excellent, haunting conclusion.
Soul of Motherhood
As mentioned earlier, I don’t recommend replaying Shelter 3 immediately after finishing it. I’ve explained the mechanical reasons for this, but let’s delve into the storytelling at play here. The story asks you to marshal the strength to give hope to the hopeless, to inherit and shoulder great responsibility, to nurture and protect and lead, all while knowing that you cannot be perfect and you cannot control death or fate or time, but you can choose to carry on. And you can choose how to carry on and how to carry the next generation with you.
As I played, I lost several elephants to the perils of our journey. Two adults and a juvenile (an elephant never forgets) fell to tigers’ depredations and scorching desert sands. I was initially quite frustrated with the game, inclined to rail against the mechanics as they punished me for seemingly inconsequential decisions.
However, as the game progressed, I realized that this was a significant part of what Shelter 3 was exploring thematically. Part of the game is processing that anger and heartbreak and then accepting that you won’t ever be able to make up for those mistakes nor replace those losses. Without giving away too much, the finale of the game’s story ties these themes together in a perfectly satisfying way. Hope and heartbreak are in constant struggle with one another throughout the game, up to its finish.
Replaying the game so soon after its conclusion feels like a betrayal of all of these themes. It’s a dramatic statement, to be sure, but one befitting such a finale. Trying to go back and “do better” — save more elephants, operate more efficiently, etc. — is to imply that the harsh lessons learned by the herd and by Reva, prompted by death and suffering brought about by “misplays”, are somehow a detriment to the story.
Additionally — and somewhat less flatteringly — the ability of the game’s audiovisuals to keep evoking emotion degrades over time. After you’ve figured out all of the mechanics, you’ve probably also seen most of the team’s artistic chops, and the assets at play don’t exactly match these. Repetition sets in, just as it does on the technical side of things — one of the hidden virtues of the finale is that it wraps things up before the emotional weight of the story has a chance to evaporate.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Shelter 3 has buried in its inner workings a very simple, evocative, emotionally resonant story, and it’s one worth exploring. But don’t expect a technical wonderment here, and certainly don’t expect to derive additional value from playing it ad nauseum. Eventually you have to move on.
- Interesting interplay between narrative and mechanics
- Thought-provoking themes about motherhood, leadership, legacy
- Beautiful, haunting ending
- Repetition sets in, both mechanically and emotionally
- Technical limitations
- Awkward, finicky moments and missed opportunities