We arrive at the concrete shelter in a flurry of confusion. Our family of four, keen to ensure their safety from the unnamed disaster unfolding on the surface, explore these sparse few rooms and are quickly disappointed. We might have hoped to be safely cryogenically frozen through the end of days, or to spend the apocalypse with no more than a sweet-roll rationing problem, but it looks like our time here will be a bit more spartan. Our new home is limited to a rickety generator which guzzles fuel at an alarming rate and a couple of sleeping bags. We set to work, ensuring our supply of electricity and fresh water. All this activity comes at a cost and we’ve quickly burned through our meagre supply of canned food.
It’s the family dog who dies first. The food shortage pushes Dad into an ill-fated mission to the ruined buildings on the surface, with his faithful pet at his side. Although they don’t find food, they do find an angry bear and loyal Rex is injured protecting his master. The pair escape but the dog never recovers and his injuries, coupled with hunger, finally finish him off a couple of days later. Still, at least he doesn’t go to waste.
A daily routine is soon settled upon. Mum and Dad take turns scavenging for supplies, whilst Son and Daughter tend to the upkeep of the shelter. There’s always something to be fixed, or upgraded, or new equipment to build to assist with the missions to the surface. In turn, these missions become more daring and more dangerous as different types of scrap are needed in ever greater quantities.
It comes as a surprise when we loose Mum to food poisoning. It hits the whole family hard, but Daughter lapses into despair, spending days rocking silently in the corner. Dad is left to scavenge alone. Son has to work twice as hard to maintain what little we’ve built. This is an unforgiving world and when we make mistakes, people die. In desperate need of assistance, we open our shelter to the rag tag survivors who wander the wasteland. Come on in. There’s plenty to eat now.
Within every Sims player, there’s a dark heart that makes you want these little animated people to fail terribly. There’s no point pretending. We’ve all done it. We built them homes just a little too small, with a fireplace just a little too big. We removed doorways to entrap them forever in lonely rooms. It’s the reason SimCity games have a “disaster” button. It’s cathartic, a minor act of revenge against the characters who steal so much of our time and demand our attention.
Sheltered, by Unicube and Team 17 Digital, is the saddest game of Sims ever devised. It doesn’t revolve around building lives, or getting a better job, or developing relationships. Sheltered is simply about keeping little pixellated people alive amid an increasingly lonely world which keeps trying to kill them.
Our shelter becomes a revolving door of wasteland wanderers who join our little community and are quickly lost. So many come and go we loose track. When Dad contracts radiation sickness and falls dead, the children are left with these faceless strangers. A few become memorable, as often for bad reasons as for good. Michelle brings in a huge number of resources and dispatches a large group of raiders armed with only an axe. Matthew helps himself to the rations and takes regular showers even when water is running low. Larry, helpful and hard-working Larry, mends the generator and tirelessly mans the radio…until one day he snaps without warning, murdering one of his roommates before disappearing into the wastes without a single word.
This is the maybe the biggest flaw of Sheltered as a game. These people come and go, but we don’t learn anything about them. We don’t learn their stories. They’re just a short series of statistics giving their strength, intelligence and charisma, a line of text defining them as “hard-working”, or “lazy”, “wasteful” or “resourceful”. Even these small facts, though, don’t seem to much affect their behaviour. They eat, sleep, work, die, perhaps quietly go crazy and bash their co-survivor’s head in with a crowbar. I quickly came to see these characters not as people, but just another resource…and when food is scarce, their demise perhaps isn’t as unfortunate as it might first appear. Maybe a short trip above ground during a duststorm would be for the greater good. I feel like these sacrifices should be more difficult, that I should feel some connection to these people which compels me to keep them alive, but I don’t. They’re a means to an end.
And so the days trudge onwards. Missions to the surface bring back more supplies, which in turn are used to create more equipment, which allow more missions. We upgrade our generator, build beds rather than sleeping bags, have a shower and a toilet that flushes. We even experiment with growing our own food. Ultimately, though, I’m left wondering if this is all there is. There’s no redemption in Sheltered. There will never be a happy ending. These faceless people churn through their routine with no end in sight and because I don’t feel a connection to them, I wonder if it’s worth while putting in so much effort to keep them alive when the universe clearly wants them dead.
There’s real potential in Sheltered. By adding small details of character, maybe I would feel a connection to these people and feel compelled to continue the struggle to keep them alive. As it is though, this is all about resource management with no end and no payoff.
I hope that I’ll return to the shelter some day, but for now it’s too lonely a place to be.