You know you should prepare your mental faculties for a potentially challenging experience when the development studio is a Ukranian four-man team called Flying Cafe for Semianimals.
The first game, Cradle, is a first-person exploratory sci-fi adventure released in 2015, and a game I find rather difficult to review. One reason is the game’s short length making it hard to avoid spoilers (which I also experienced when reviewing Abzû). But more importantly, I get the distinct feeling that the game had some deeper layers that were lost on me. Regardless, quite a bit can safely be said, and there are a few bones I’d like to pick.
I do not consider this review to contain any significant spoilers apart from the very start of the game. Still, if you want to play Cradle with the freshest possible mindset, please do so now and come back later.
Welcome to Mongolia
You wake up in a yurt somewhere on the desolate Mongolian steppe with a bad case of amnesia, because of course you do. This is a game after all, and amnesia provides a ready-to-serve excuse to 1) drip out exposition as convenient to the plot and 2) align the player character’s goals with those of the player. While it can get old, it’s not a bad tool per se; it all depends on the execution, and Cradle gets a passing mark here.
Coming to your senses, your attention is quickly drawn to a broken female android / flower vase hybrid in what I assume is a deliberate comment on objectification and the female body as a decorative object. Otherwise the yurt is a mix of futuristic technology, current/outdated technology and no technology at all, eloquently showing how new technology doesn’t outright replace old technology or ways of living, but rather just piles on another layer of culture.
It is then up to you to figure out what the heck is going on. Your first avenue is the absolute absurd amount of notes, newspaper clippings, posters, cards, and other tiny low-resolution textures vaguely reminiscent of some kind of paper scattered around the yurt. Later, you explore the surrounding area and unravel its mysteries as you attempt to make sense of your situation.
I think I might have spent the first good half hour of the game just walking around in the yurt, finding and reading notes to try to piece together some kind of vaguely coherent backstory. Being forced to puzzle together a narrative of past events from bits and pieces of writing can be tedious if not done right, but I found that each note provided – and more importantly, withheld – just enough information to balance out the monotony of clicking on notes and reading text. After having scoured the yurt, I was left with an interest-piquing ratio of questions and answers, so job well done, I guess.
The apocalypse and you
Cradle superficially revolves around trying to repair the mechanical girl so she can help you figure out essential things like current events, your identity, and what’s up with that mysterious, long-abandoned amusement park next door. Through the previously mentioned notes as well as conversations with the girl and discoveries at the amusement park, the game gradually unfurls a vaguely apocalyptic spin on transhumanism, consciousness, identity, human worth, and culture.
The story is somewhat interesting on the surface. Like Deus Ex: Human Revolution expands the horizons of your imagination with some concrete ways in which transhumanism can negatively impact society, Cradle’s backstory also paints a fascinating canvas with outlines of societal impact of futuristic-but-entirely-conceivable technology.
It is also possible that Cradle might contain some brilliant deeper comments on its themes. But if it did, I have to admit it was a bit too smart for me. On the one hand, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there were deeper layers quietly calling at me from somewhere out of reach. I am inclined to give the game the benefit of the doubt and assume that other people might get more out of it than I did. My missing some deeper narrative layers might also explain why I found the game a bit less riveting after the initial “exposition puzzle”.
Yet on the other hand, Cradle’s world and narrative seemed to me to outgrow the game’s format and length. The game hungers for more than the budget allows, and the ending in particular felt a bit rushed. It may very well be the case that I just completely missed central points providing closure at deeper levels. But the game apparently thinks its ending is oh so clever, so much so that the outro actually highlights a couple of notes in the yurt that you can go back and re-read to understand more of what just happened. While I respect games that reward players with good memory and attention to detail, the blatant “look here, I want you to understand just how clever I am” doesn’t sit right with me, and can make me doubt whether there actually was another layer to the ending.
The presentational aspects are, all in all, par for the course. Cradle’s mood is well supported by a good soundtrack, and I particularly enjoyed the music during the ending credits. The graphics and voice acting get the job done, though both are perhaps a bit on the flat side.
For me personally, Cradle exists in a superposition of being brilliant vs. simply not achieving its goals. I find myself unable to “collapse the wavefunction” as it were, to figure out which is true. I am therefore left with some uncertainty in dealing with the game’s handling of its themes. But despite that, there are quite a few things I do know got in the way of making the experience enjoyable. One is that the plot beats often give the impression of being conjured out of thin air at the demand of the narrative – a narrative that, while thematically interesting, at least on the surface simply has you chase the next macguffin in order to unlock more exposition.1
Another problem is the general lack of polish in the technical department. The audio and video often stutter, and important radio messages may stop abruptly when you arrive at your destination. Conversations end before you can fully explore various options, forcing you to re-enter the conversation several times to get all of your questions answered.
When it comes to play, some tasks are just tedious rather than challenging. One example is finding a special flower in a large flowerbed without much to visually distinguish them from each other. Other tasks relate to different variants of a poorly described mini-game that, while explained reasonably well in terms of the story, still feels a bit out of place. And the pepper you need to find in the spice rack that’s only labeled in Mongolian? You’ll have to pay an an absurd amount of attention to notice the completely unrelated poster with a translation elsewhere in the room; better to just experiment and see what works.2
Other puzzles aren’t badly designed per se, they’re just inconvenient in the physics-based context they’re placed in. At the start you’re tasked with finding a glass, filling it with water, and emptying it in a pan on the stove. That’s easier said than done when the glass (along with some other loose physical objects) had completely vanished during my earlier rummaging around in the yurt getting to know the game and looking for exposition to interact with. It may have fallen through the floor, for all I know – you know how physics engines are these days. And with teacups and buckets apparently not being a valid way to transfer water in future Mongolia, I actually had to restart the game to get the glass back to its proper place (thankfully this was at the very start of the game).
Cradle is certainly not a perfect game, nor is it necessarily a very good one. The best thing I can personally say is that it is an interesting game. I don’t want to undercut its narrative strengths, and there might be deeper layers that were lost on me which other players might uncover and appreciate. Still, the game’s numerous problems mean that Cradle doesn’t have much else to offer, so your experience will depend strongly on your critical reading of its narrative and how engrossing you find its carefully constructed vision of a future.
If you have a handful of hours to kill and are interested in attempting to peel off layers of a dystopian backstory and themes of transhumanism, consciousness, identity, and human worth, then do consider playing Cradle. Otherwise, I personally can’t recommend it.
Cradle is an interesting experience, but you need to have the right mindset to appreciate its strengths and look past its problems.