Sheltered : Everyday Life (1400 words)
I’ve just written an article about Sheltered (the videogame) in which I tried to be somewhat rigorous and convincing. It ended up being 32 pages long. So instead, I’m going to just try and formulate my ideas and accept that it might sound completely unjustified.
Sheltered is a video game in which you control a family who fled in an underground shelter after what seems to be a global nuclear apocalypse war something.
I bought this game, liked it for a few hours and eventually thought it was very morbid and ideologically dubious. I’ll only give one significant example:
Sometimes, panicked people come knock at the door of your shelter and beg for you to open before they get killed by something. The problem is, you cannot open the door without recruiting them as full members of your group of survivors. You are not given the choice to save them, feed them, let them sleep and then ask them to leave. So you’re left with the possibility to abandon them to their fate, or to recruit them and take the risk not to be able to have enough food, water or air (you’re in an underground bunker) for everybody. When I tried to accept someone because I didn’t want to let them die, and then “dismissed” them, the character poisoned my water supplies and it resulted in a 3 hours game ending without any possibility to go back as there are no backsaves.
This example is deeply representative of the game as a whole in which being humane or logical is very rarely a viable option or even an actual option in the gameplay. Players will tell you that “it’s realistic.” I don’t have room to argue against that, I’ll just say that the idea of surviving a global ecological apocalypse is as realistic as thinking anyone could survive the death of the sun by turning lights and radiators on. “Realism” in literature (movies, books, video-games etc…) is a style amongst others, it doesn’t mean that you should consider the work less metaphorical.
Watch a little boy/girl, defecate in a bucket, panick, cry, witness their dog's corpse rot, kneel in their own vomit while puking again, get traumatized and eventually die because MANLY REALISM OF THE APOCALYPSE ! "Shut up ! It's not complacent, it's the real truth of the apocalypse that the developpers didn't even bother describe ! And yes, ten years old children know how to repair an oxygene filter and can built an entire underground room on their own !"
The focus of the game is obviously survival. And surviving mainly means: finding food, what you consume.
Now, my idea here is that this game is absolutely not a representation of how life would be for a family in a bunker after a nuclear apocalypse. It is a precise metaphor of how people experience their lives in consumer society.
The fact that consumer society should be a society of abundance is a misconception. (If you’re interested in this, see Jean Baudrillard). It is a society of dearth.
Always put children in the front line when it comes to fights. Because they need to learn the true reality of life and stop whining like pussies !
A society of abundance is a society in which people do not think of supplies anymore and are not worried about starving (In its true sense as well as in the metaphorical one of "not being able to consume"). The building of such a society does not depend on supplies but on the healthy relationship its members maintain.
In consumer society, supplies are virtually limitless but the things you have to do to have access to them are complex, degrading, undignified and compulsory, just like in times of dearth (And just like every single activity in Sheltered). Moreover, as part of the strength of this society is based on the idea that it can provide to everyone, people are allowed and encouraged to become extremely selfish. In this society, those who are in need are responsible for it, non-ostentatious generosity becomes subversive, incoherent, naïve, weak.
Also, abundance, possession of products and self-commodification are all associated with godliness. Abundance of products is not there to satisfy consumers, it is there for them to display as symbols. Consumers are gods, death becomes a transgression of life, not a prerequisite.
A psychology of dearth appears because people know that they’ll be perceived as sub-humans and left to die if they do not abide by the rules. The more the rules become inhuman, the more fear of starvation, of dearth, of lacking need to become huge so that it justifies submission. People need to constantly be in “survival mode.” Except that this survival mode is not oriented towards remaining alive and appreciating life, but towards maintaining a façade of godliness.
Sheltered is this psychology reaching its Gordian knot. Threat is at its maximum and submission too.
What we have as a result is a group of people who appreciate life through misery and won’t dare acknowledge the fact that there are other things than survival. There is absolutely no redeeming aspect to the state of abjection these characters live in. No “Happiness” or “relief” gauges; only “trauma” and “stress.”
This obsession with survival allows the consumer slave to be intensely ruthless and self-centered as well as to eradicate the idea that any value is worth defending or taking risks.
To put things into one sentence, in Sheltered you can observe your children defecate in a bucket then make them watch a stranger vomit everywhere and die of the intoxication of radiations that you made him get, before you ask them to “harvest” his body and eat his flesh, after having asked them to bury him outside so that they too can get intoxicated and die and provide some food.
The strong immorality of the game is not problematic because it is immoral but because it pretends to be moral or amoral, realistic. The game rationalizes all these actions behind the survival logic, the realism; it deprives the player of the opportunity to think “they could have not done that.”
The game states that the ultimate morality is survival.
Because trading a sack of cement for a sack of cement is a difficult transaction, you get as much XP for it as any other trade. Deep gameplay.
Let’s imagine you live in an unknown village in the mountains of Canada. It is decided that someone should run the water distribution in order not to waste too much and the task falls upon you. Very quickly, as it is an annoying task, you ask for compensations. People start paying you some money each time you allow them to take water. Through this, you realize that money gives you power, that everything is easier. One day, you invent a problem which makes the water less accessible and raise the prices. Another day, it’s the “bad rain” which makes it undrinkable and people have to wait and pay even more the next day to be first served. You become rich when one of the supply is mysteriously poisoned. A group of people start looking for other water sources because they honestly believe you and think another source would solve everything. This is problematic because you might lose your power. They die accidently during their search, how sad. You start a communication campaign in order to reassure people, there’s enough water, and it’s clean, they just need to be serious about the matter and be careful when they look for other sources because it’s very dangerous, they might as well let your team of special adventurers do it, out of security. Also, you start conveying the idea, through advertising and through your own personal life, that owning water makes you classy. For example, wearing a water-filled necklace for women, and a water-filled watch for manly men produced in your factories is highly fashionable.
Just like that, step by step you create a society in which people constantly have the feeling that they’re going to run out of water if they stop submitting to you which is actually truer every minute because they give you all the power to deprive them of any water if you feel like it. They don’t know where the sources are anymore, they’re not allowed to approach them, they don’t know what your supplies are because it’s “too complex a number to determine.”
There is an average of one can to be found in the houses your survivors search. Because people simply never keep more than one can. Ah yes, and also because your characters are not good at searching at the beginning of the game. I suppose they only learn how to open drawers later on. They can repair complex mechanic tools, but dammit, finding a can of food in a house when it's vital is so hard !
Sheltered is a game that makes you experience the psychological state of the consumer who slowly starts to think that nothing is more important than objects and supplies and who finally embraces the purposely built materialistic world of false abundance.
Everything is admissible when it comes to survival. And survival is recreating a life of consumption in your little shelter. So there is nothing that can come prior to consume. Love, tenderness, empathy, humanity, joy, pleasure, amusement are dispensable.
One of the thing that started to amuse me at some point, is that the characters of the game have no reason to stay alive. They just survive like they would maw the lawn. They're in a competition and they want to make it to the biggest number of days of survival and sacrifice absolutely every single activity that would make their life worth living. But as for enjoying life ? Love, laughs ? Naa. It's for losers.
No complacency in this screen. No fetishism of DEATH whatsoever. And no problem with the fact that it should be the sole ending screen of the game either. What's important is that "we've survived 135 days, can you do better ?"