I can talk a lot about Shelter, despite it being such a short game. From its different art style to the annoying frog sounds, there are many topics that can be covered in an article. Today, I want to talk about its Artificial Intelligence or AI. The game’s AI is essentially the animals like the mother badger, the badger cubs, the foxes, and the flying hawks. The animals are pretty much the extent of the gameplay, so most of the game’s focus is put on them.
What I really love about the AI in Shelter is that it feels so natural. It doesn’t feel like the animals are just models that are programmed to go place to place. It feels like they have minds of their own, and are reactive to their environment. Here’s how Shelter takes animal intelligence and makes it feel real in a game.
Baby animals, even humans, have a certain helplessness to them. They do not have the intuition to make their own decisions yet. It’s like when you start your first game of Civilization. You have no clue what’s going on, and you need someone to guide you. In Shelter, you the Mother Badger, are that guidance. If you look in nature, and even with younger siblings, they have a tendency to follow and copy every move of the grown-up figure. They are not sure what to do, so they follow the alpha so they do not fault. Shelter nails this with the badger cubs AI. First of all, your cubs follow you everywhere, even if you go in circles. They also bark when you do, because if mother’s barking, then you should to right? Finally, the cubs fight over food, the prize waiting to be given out by the mother badger. It all just feels so natural, like how real animals would act in nature. This creates a bond with your cubs, even in just a few hours of play. It would be so much simpler and less time consuming to just have the cubs follow the player, but the developers Might and Delight took the time to implement these advanced features to keep the theme of the main objective.
You are trying to keep your cubs alive and survive. At any moment, one of your 5 cubs could be killed by a predator. This is the ultimate failure as a mother. Now, since this is only a game, why should you care about your cubs dying? After all, you can complete the game with no cubs left. However, the accurate AI tricks you into forming an emotional connection with your cubs, like a parent would to a newborn child. They are so “cute” doing things like barking when you do and following you around, that you want them to be with you and stay alive. I for one got pretty upset when I lost one of my cubs because that connection had been severed. If the AI had been minimal and didn’t resemble actual interactions between mothers and their children, then the lose of a cub wouldn’t have meant a thing.
Even though the player is meant to be the one in control, your character has AI too. For example, while your environment is a huge forest, there is a linear progression of the game. Alternate paths in the environment are present, but the game tries to guide you through its AI. When you try to go down a path you shouldn’t, the game turns you around and you run the other way like your scared. Rather than just have an invisible wall that you would just run into and stop, the game gives more of a reason to those barriers. Your character also gives off telltale signs of the game’s primary objective, survival. What do you need to survive? Food. When you get close to an apple tree or a planted carrot, your badger starts to sniff the air, like we do when we smell mom baking cookies. In my case, I typically saw the food before my badger started sniffing, but I like the mechanic anyway. It is helpful a little bit, but I think it’s more important that it is realistic, and resembles what an actual badger would do. Both of these mechanics help perfect the gameplay, decreasing the need for long tutorials. Though you are mostly guiding yourself, the game also gives you a little direction when needed.
Shelter is one of the shortest games I have played, but I am very impressed with the AI design. It gives the game a natural feel, adding to the immersion. There feels like there’s a reason for things happening, not like other games where it just feels restrictive. Game designers work to make realistic games as life-like as possible, and AI is a major key to achieving that realism.
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