Electron Dance reader Ketchua brought Cradle (Flying Cafe for Semianimals, 2015) to my attention many years ago and something about its look stood out. Its release last year seem to go largely unnoticed although Adam Smith gave it a glowing review on Rock Paper Shotgun.
Cradle is gripping, featuring a complex sci-fi story that is serious and unexpectedly bleak: but holy Jesus it has some problems.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil the game – I’ll only get into spoilers in a well-marked section right at the end.
Cradle is a mystery. “Mystery” normally means figuring out what happened as opposed to what is going to happen. In a videogame context, this can sometimes mean your actions are meaningless in a story sense unless the game continues past the point of resolution. You’re solving someone else’s mystery, not making your own tale. Many “walking simulators” are these kind of observation deck mysteries, such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) and Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013), whereas Verde Station (Dualboot, 2014) drags you through events and makes you complicit in their eventual resolution. An adventure like Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger, 2011) is the mystery as thriller, where the path to the truth is dangerous – and the truth itself can be lethal.
Cradle is much closer to an observation deck. You go through a lot of sometimes laborious motions to figure out who you are, who your companion is and what’s up with the world. Yup, not only are you suffering from amnesia but also your companion – and for entirely different reasons! Amnesia often feels like a heavy-handed way of gating story and driving progress but it doesn’t have to suck. I’m sure a good portion of the readership here has been through Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999) whose revelations provide plenty of shock value.
Too often, Cradle shines a spotlight on the cracks in its design. Interacting with someone who is also suffering from amnesia means there are limits to how much you can learn from that individual – but Cradle throws another character into the mix, This Guy who knows you and is fully cognizant. In dialogue, the protagonist doesn’t put his case strongly like “my God, you’ve got to help me, I’ve lost my memory, I really don’t know who I am” but ends up in a silly game where This Guy indulges your apparently stupid questions. Those conversations occasionally make for some aggravating reading, where you ask the equivalent of “is the world round” and This Guy rolls his eyes and replies, “gosh you should know this, okay, yes, the world is round” and goes on to explain why the world is round for a good ten minutes. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but it bugged me.
It also demonstrates the worst of story-driven games, where developers are still at a loss how to make story “interactive” so send you on barely-justified mini-games to pad the time between narrative revelations. These mini-games have divided the Cradle player base. I enjoyed them but they feel so tenuously linked with the plot which seems to have bent over backwards to accommodate them. Cradle feels like a misstep in a scene where indie narrative-led games are dispensing with traditional gameyness, embracing their role as a secret box, which is why you’re seeing more works like Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2008) and Gone Home in recent years.
Anyway, here’s the kicker: I loved Cradle.
Like Verde Station, Cradle embraces density over expanse. The yurt you start in is stuffed full of little objects and notes. Uhhh… I don’t think you really understand what I am trying to get across here. I means absolutely totally stuffed. In drawers, on shelves, on the floor, the wall – there are notes everywhere. Every scrap of paper rendered onto the floor surface is something to read. The game suggests no direction, no order to approaching these notes; this mountain of paper is just there to be climbed. Most of this lore is required reading if you want to understand anything at all, yet most of them are indecipherable until you’ve figured out their context.
And holy heck, Cradle throws you into the deep end without a paddle. It only grudgingly gives up small revelations after various tasks are completed. You’ll need to piece together a confusing, futuristic world filled with its own nomenclature like “passium” and “phytocopies”. I’m sure this sounds unappealing and I’ll admit I didn’t initially warm to the idea of clicking through twenty billion pieces of lore. But as I started to piece together elements of the story, I found sorting through these fragments compelling, especially when I realised the game’s brightly coloured beauty was a façade for a dark and quite probably terminal future.
Now there’s more to the world than just the yurt: the steppe that stretches into the distance and something that looks like a run-down, abandoned amusement park. Unfortunately, Cradle’s density-first design is thrown out of the window once you move away from the yurt and this makes the world feel unbalanced, as if two different games had been joined together with sellotape. There’s practically nothing to read outside the yurt.
While Cradle expects you to take on the difficult task of assembling its complicated story jigsaw, it is somewhat more nervy and anxious about the player performing tasks: objectives are explicit, even if you’re not sure why you’re doing something. First task: make soup for animal. Of course, as an amnesiac, that’s bound to be my top priority.
My guess is the ambitions of the team had to be scaled back when it became clear that players couldn’t work out what to do without prompts. I mean, even with all the prompts, I had a hell of a time making the soup. Like the density issue, this feels incongruous, that Cradle doesn’t have a common design ethos all the way through. Most of the game is fetch questy. Even the purpose of the mini-games is to obtain an object, which is really just a key to the next small story revelation. Cradle, the story, is a bewildering yet beautiful nonlinear experience. Cradle, the game, is a straight line.
Still, it’s a gorgeous and compelling game that does not outstay its welcome. The ending has serious problems which I can’t get into without spoilers but it certainly felt as if time was called on the project before it was quite ready. If you’re interested proceed to the short spoiler section at the end.
It’s sad there are no great game design lessons to take away from Cradle as it stumbles into some of the pitfalls indie developers have been trying to avoid in recent years. It’s most notable for its challenging approach to imparting story and I’d argue its dark vision of the future is way more interesting and curious than that of Deus Ex.
If you think Cradle is for you, please go for it. This is a strange curiosity that needed more love.
- So as intimated above, the “cube game” for children to obtain their m-bodies was backed up by story but it was quite clear that this was a prop for some “gameplay” to pass the time.
- I kept reserving judgement about who the protagonist was, thinking the game was going to pull the rug out from underneath my fragile assumptions. But then the protagonist decided he was Enebish and that was the end of that.
- The thing with the hole in the T-shirt. Hanging there the whole time. That bit of environmental narrative was amazing.
- Unfortunately the protagonist is a literal deus ex machina. There is no explanation how you or Ongots came to be and I was left with thinking it was divine intervention. Feel free to mail me answers if I missed something.
- The very worst thing is that you save the entire world through time travel which comes from absolutely nowhere. There’s a tiny hint in one piece of lore that time travel may be possible – and this is Chekhov’s Gun as far as Cradle is concerned. You don’t actually solve any problems, you simply go back in time with a number and this fixes the future. The team built this rich and fascinating dystopic world but couldn’t be bothered articulating exactly how it could be averted. Magic number, job done. All that hard narrative graft undone by a terrible carelessness.
- At the end, Enebish starts acting more independently as he knows what he’s doing now. Great. Because even though we were on the same journey, I didn’t have a damn clue what he was up to in the end.
- There’s probably a good reading of this game to be had, people with “bitter emotions” exploding yet “beautiful people” cannot live without them. But the ending revelations of time-travelling soured it completely; what’s the point coming up with a detailed read if the ending, which negates the whole game, drops the ball?
- There is actually lore in the “amusement park” but it’s more like a set of collectibles that are difficult to find. I never found any of it. Perhaps there is more truth in there that would shed light on some of my problems…?