Wot I Think: Cradle

Cradle [official site] is a bold, imaginative and shocking piece of science fiction that comes to us in the body of a first-person adventure game. Transhumanism, block-based arcade puzzles, time-consuming object hunts and some of the smartest writing in the medium are waiting out on the steppe. Here’s wot I think.

There’s a lot to unpack here so I’m going to start with the basics.

1) The yurt isn’t the only location but you’re not going to be travelling far. Cradle is akin to the one city block game. Except in a yurt, on the steppe.

2) You can open almost every drawer, pick up and lob almost every object and read every piece of text, from diaries, posters and letters to the words on a packet of sugar. Myst this ain’t.

3) Puzzles mainly involve finding things within the environment. Those things are generally located where you’d expect them to be – cooking things in the cooking area, post-human vessel body parts in the [REDACTED]

Ah, yes. You’re going to spend a lot of time fetching body parts if you play Cradle. There are no squishy bits to handle so don’t worry too much if you’re squeamish but some of the concepts in this wildly imaginative science fiction story are as unnerving as anything you’d expect to find in a horror game. In fact, Cradle is exploring some of the ground that SOMA covers and even though there are no monsters lurking in the dark corners of its world, there are moments far more chilling than anything found in SOMA’s first hours.

The sinister and downright hideous aspects of Cradle’s world are revealed through conversation and documents. Considering the intricate detail and beauty of the locations, the amount of story and setting revealed through telling rather than showing is something of a disappointment. The environment, beautiful and well-crafted as it is, doesn’t tell the story, it contains the story. Up to a point, at least

When you leave your home, the surrounding area stretches before you like a promise of vastness to explore. Cleverly, developers Flying Cafe have ensured that the land slopes away and then upwards in just such a way that you’re discouraged from heading out on foot. Looking out across the emptiness, it’s hard to imagine it’ll lead to anything other than more of the same – barren beauty beneath painted skies.

There’s only one other place to go, an enormous ruined eggshell of a building, festooned with colourful decorations and with a central approach that once strived to be as impressive as the gardens of Versailles. Within that second location, there are games to play – games within a game that itself interrogates the idea of virtual spaces. It’d be easy to see these arcade-puzzles as padding, required to extend Cradle’s running time to the four or five hours it’s likely to last, but they have their place in the world and its story. And I enjoyed them. Depending on your points of reference, they’re either surrealist short-form Minecraft or intense, free-form first-person Bombuzal.

Whether you see them as a welcome change of pace or an irritating interruption, Cradle’s games are an essential part of the tale it tells. I don’t want to spoil any part of it because the greatest pleasure in the game is found in gradually piecing together your understanding of the world. It starts with the oldest of chestnuts – you don’t know who or why you are – and the blurred line between an old way of life and some very new forms of life. Almost immediately, everything becomes strange. And then a little stranger.

The highest praise I can lavish on any sci-fi story lies in a comparison to the hundreds of books I read in my teen years. They belonged to my dad and he’d collected them over two decades of postal book club membership. There had been little quality control and I had none whatsoever as I worked my way through them, startled by the ideas even when the writing and characterisation was as flimsy as a politician’s promise. Nothing mattered except the imaginative powers that took me from diseased colonies to malignant megacorps and bewildering virtual realities. Everything was possible and I was willing to be convinced that most things were probable.

Cradle is convincing. Even the most terrible and bizarre events and cultural behaviours are credible, drawn from recognisable social and pyschological functions. It’s a game capable of chilling the blood with a single line and expanding the horizons of your imagination with the next. For the bold, intelligent and inventive world-building alone, Cradle deserves an audience. The audience deserves Cradle, in fact. Anyone who felt that Ex Machina just about managed to uncover the tip of an interesting iceberg will be delighted to find that Cradle goes deeper. It’s a different kind of story, right at the very foundation of what its characters actually are, but it’s also quite clearly a kind of science fiction that is vanishingly rare: complex, hard, harrowing and intimidating.

For all of those reasons, I’d urge anyone with an interest in speculative fiction and bold writing in games to play Cradle immediately. Right now. Go on. Or do you want to hear about what I didn’t like before you step onto the steppe? No spoilers ahead but I am going to speak about aspects of the ending that you might want to avoid if you’re already intrigued and happy to go in cold. Skip the next three paragraphs and come back for the conclusion.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering Cradle’s story and reading about the thoughts of other people who have seen it through to the end. It’s abrupt, that ending, and it didn’t work for me at all. Sometimes a poor ending retroactively harms an entire piece of work but that wasn’t the case with Cradle. Instead, the closure (and lack of it) made me realise that I’d enjoyed the world rather than the story. Whatever I feel about the end of the story, I’m still hugely impressed by that world.

The entire game rather cleverly tricked me into thinking I cared about the characters I was spending time with (and as) but the attempt to wrap up their experiences neatly, with a bow on top, demonstrated just how little of the storytelling was about what was happening in and around the yurt. A conclusion to the interesting elements of the story couldn’t possibly work because Cradle’s strengths are in its world-building, which is disguised as a personal tale. The finale does feel rushed, which may be due to a lack of resources, but my lack of attachment to the events of the ending relates to the sudden focus on the specific rather than the global. I am fascinated by the world but I don’t particularly care about the way in which the player character fits into it.

That’s a failure of the writing as well as the voice acting, which seems like an attempt to be part blank slate and part detached non-entity. At times I liked what the voice seemed to imply but on the whole it fell flat. I reckon the whole thing might work better if the acting were in another language – English sounds wrong in the environment anyhow, even if I’m willing to believe it has become the lingua franca of EVERYWHERE in the game’s setting – but there’s no option to play in the original Russian without switching menus and documents to Russian as well. There’s a lack of technical options all round, including y-axis inversion and controller support.

And yet, the world of Cradle is one of the most startling inventions I’ve encountered in any medium. While the methods by which the details of that world are communicated are often simplistic, it’s impossible to overstate how exciting it is to confront a vision of the future that is so carefully constructed, and so full of terrors that have become accepted parts of the scenery. Just as the internet has brought images and conversations that would previously have been impossibly off-limits into the palms and pockets of children, Cradle presents a world in which people accept the most troubling of actions as part of ordinary life.

It’s a wholly believable capsule from a future that is eerily possible. Even more impressive is that there is no reliance on physical violence and enslavement to explain the weird horrors of Cradle’s transhumanism. It’s violence is psychological and cultural, and far more effective than the ugliness that the Robot Lady imagery might lead you to expect. Lord knows, I suffered through enough cyborg sex stories during my years of reading pulpy sci-fi. Cradle’s cruelties are not so obvious and, as social and technological progression shows, those cruelties are often caused by a desire for improvement.

Smart, subtle and sinister, Cradle is a wonderful work of science fiction that doesn’t quite fit inside the space Flying Cafe have designed for it.

Cradle is available now.

47 Comments

  1. Hobbes says:

    I agree mostly with the review save the element about not caring about the ending. The ending for me did detract from the game quite significantly, and left me feeling quite annoyed and frustrated. The whole jazzhands “Well you figure out all the gaps by hunting down bits of paper without a memo log and without real reference from Ida” was bad design on the part of the writers -and- the game creators. So on that front I’m entirely irritated with it.

    The world building I will entirely support as being excellent, but there clearly wasn’t enough of it, it needed a good two to three hours to bring the whole thing together to a satisfying conclusion. Had they done so this genuinely could have been a narrative piece that would have been “Something for everyone”. As it is, it’s hard to recommend to anyone outside of people who enjoy short-form interactive pieces like Gone Home and the like, because just as it feels like it’s gathering pace… wham, ending.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    This sounds pretty fascinating.

    Also didn’t expect to ever hear the name of Bombuzal uttered again, so kudos for that too.

  3. rustybroomhandle says:

    I really enjoyed this. I had a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden ending, but then the pieces fell into place and I was cured and now wholly on board with it. I was not too fond of the Minecraft minigames though, but you do get the option to skip them.

    Things I’d have liked are the aforementioned settings, FOV in particular, and perhaps more object manipulation options, like being able to rotate a held object or place it on a surface. Gone Home did this very well.

    The music is worth a mention too. There, I mentioned it.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The minigames can be skipped? That’s good news for me, as I’m not always that great at them, and I hate having to jump out of a game for an online solution. I’d rather just stay immersed in a story.

      • rustybroomhandle says:

        Sort-of – you have to fail first, then you can just click the skip option. To fail fast, you just spam the right mouse button to fling as many blocks as you can into the water below.

      • grrrz says:

        so far very much like the world and kinda like the mix of physics object and inventary, even if it’s a bit akward sometimes.
        it’s a little dull when you spend too much time looking for something in the vastness of the steppe, and found the minigame awful, thankgod you can skip it.
        also no way to remap controls for now which is a big handicap (I use an azerty keyboard, besides, even switching to qwerty, never liked the zqsd config, so I’m constantly pressing the wrong keys. would be almost not playable if it was an action game).

  4. heretic says:

    The world looks great and the premise interesting I have to try it, thanks Adam.

    I also like the idea of games that don’t take that much time these days, it’s good to know you’ll be presented something which doesn’t drag on (even if it’s because of budgetary concerns!).

  5. Dances to Podcasts says:

    Staring eyes.

  6. Jalan says:

    I would’ve put money toward a fund for better voice actors for this. No promise of the game itself, just insurance that it’d get quality voice actors.

  7. Eight Rooks says:

    Damn it, I wanted to be put off by this – I mean, I still think the minigames look ridiculously awful, and the idea you’re expected to play them any more than, like, once has me rolling my eyes hard. But the news that they can be skipped and the praise for the writing has me interested again – I’m very wary of any reviewer praising any videogame’s writing (after how many terrible, terrible pieces of storytelling I see routinely lauded to the skies), but eh, you’ve got me curious. After I went and picked up Way of the Samurai 4 (COMPLETE TONAL SHIFT ALERT). Oh well, maybe in a week or two.

  8. Premium User Badge

    G-Lord says:

    Glad to see a WIT on this game, I feel like it needs some more exposure. Played it over the weekend and enjoyed it immensely.

  9. Geebs says:

    Argh no ‘y’ axis inversion whyyyyyyyyyy. And I was super stoked to try this when I found out it was a Russian game.

  10. Barberetti says:

    “There’s a lack of technical options all round, including y-axis inversion”

    Thanks for the warning.

    • galaxion says:

      I too am one of these ‘y-axis invert’ people.

      I had this game on my radar.

      • Premium User Badge

        Adam Smith says:

        I’m a y-axis invert person as well but can adapt as long as I’m not playing a demanding action game. Hoping it gets patched in, mind.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      I don’t get why Y-axis inversion is a thing. It’s the way you’ve been taught by flight sims, and you can force yourself to unlearn it. Unless you mainly play flight sims, it’s just a self-imposed handicap.

      • ironhorse says:

        Follow these instructions:
        The mouse controls the view in an FPS, and the view alone, correct?
        1. Keeping this in mind stand and keep your body and feet in place (because we’re only speaking of your view /head)
        2. Place your hand ontop of your head with your hand facing forward (you’ve turned your head into a mouse)
        3. Look up, then look down……. which direction did your hand travel?

        Brain explodes, right?
        2d interfaces are what have ruined you to think non inverted… there is a reason why joysticks operate with an inverted Y. As such, an FPS is not a 2d web page, it is a 3d world in which you control a view.

        • Faxmachinen says:

          Your theory is nonsense. With your hand on top of your head, left and right movements would tilt your view. With the hand at the back of your head, left and right would indeed move your view right and left – but inverted. Neither of these control schemes exist in any game I know of, and I doubt very much you desire them.

      • ironhorse says:

        p.s. I cannot unlearn it, believe me I’ve tried – I’ve been doing it for over 20 years – have you attempted to “unlearn” non inverted? Goodluck if you’ve done it that long.. in a reactive or instinctive moment I will always revert back to the natural method.

        • Faxmachinen says:

          I successfully “unlearned” non-inverted Y-axis way back when all I had to play were a bunch of flight sims. But I can appreciate that it takes time; While the Y-axis inversion wasn’t very hard for me, it took at least half a year for me to use my trackball as accurately as a regular mouse.

          I admit that “unlearn” may not be the right word though, since I can still play with a regular mouse and a non-inverted Y-axis just fine.

      • JiminyJickers says:

        Yeah, I think it comes from flight sim days, they used to be pretty popular.

        I used to do the Y inversion for everything but after so many games forget to include it forced myself to learn without inversion, took about 2 weeks to get the hang of it. I now only use inversion for flying.

      • Barberetti says:

        It’s got nothing to do with flight sims. See ironhorse’s post for the correct explanation. Devs like id Software have been putting an inverted Y axis mouse option in their games for 20 years for this exact reason. If the Cradle devs (or any others for that matter) aren’t going to bother, then they don’t get my money. It’s that fucking simple.

        • Premium User Badge

          Harlander says:

          You could just as easily say that you’re moving the point you’re looking at in a 2D plane, not steering the back of your head like an Action Man, in which case non-inverted makes sense.

          As far as I’ve been able to tell the preference comes down to whatever you were exposed to first. Can’t argue that leaving out the option isn’t pretty egregious laziness, though.

        • Frank says:

          Either you’re joking or I’m missing something. The explanation seems to fall apart once your hand-on-head wants to turn left or right. Do you want to twist your hand to do this, too, to match the hand-on-head model? My wrist would be out of commission in no time flat.

  11. montorsi says:

    Hmm, might have to give this a look. Not too worried about the end if the journey is worthwhile.

  12. Melody says:

    Very very happy that Cradle turned out to be this good. I’ve been somewhat hyped about it for so long, but these games rarely turn out to be actually interesting. I was so afraid it’d just be eye candy.

    Very very disappointed about the lack of a drm-free version. Can’t even buy a Steam key from elsewhere e.g. Humble.

  13. Robert Post's Child says:

    Had not heard of this at all before, seems (and looks) pretty darn cool.

  14. Archangel says:

    Cradle presents a world in which people accept the most troubling of actions as part of ordinary life. […] there is no reliance on physical violence and enslavement to explain the weird horrors of Cradle’s transhumanism. Its violence is psychological and cultural

    In other words, it is completely, utterly, pathologically Russian. Duly noted.

  15. udat says:

    So there are no baddies to shoot? At all?

    Then what *do* you shoot?

  16. futabot says:

    I actually like the minigame and I wish it went deeper. It broke the monotony of walking and puzzling with something that demanded a speed-runny attitude.

  17. grrrz says:

    I want to play this but Is there anyway to buy this anywhere else than on steam?
    this trend is getting really annoying.

  18. MadPen says:

    I have a very fast computer and the load time on this game was ridiculous, as was the performance and mouse lag. Nearly intolerable for even a non-action game. I played around a bit with the config, to no avail. No one else seems to be complaining, so maybe this is just me?

    Then I spent some time learning that the easiest way to do kitchen prep (such as slicing fruit) is to do it on the ground.

    And then I spent 5 minutes looking for salt, which I can do at home. I didn’t find it. It’s apparently next to the pepper, which I also didn’t find.

    If there’s a great story in there, I guess I’d rather read it in a book.

    • LTK says:

      That’s a really mean task it gives you. All the seasonings and spices are lined up in boxes on the shelf, and unless you can read Mongolian it’s a pure guess which is which, so you have to try them all and see which one turns the stew orange. It can’t be the leftmost one, so I tried them all starting with the rightmost one. It was the one second from the left. *sigh*

      • MadPen says:

        Part of my problem was that I was already an hour and a half in at that point, thanks to the mouselook lagging behind my mouse for the better part of a second. Clearly this is not an issue for other people, but for me it’s an issue with zero other games, so I’m not sure what to think.

      • Awesomeclaw says:

        There’s a note nearby which tells you which spice is which.

    • Qazi says:

      The word for Pepper is on a rock band poster next to the spice shelf.

  19. BTA says:

    This game looked neat, but the awkwardly worded store page on Steam scared me away (as much as I loved the phrase “search the yurt”) as it seemed like the game might’ve been awkwardly translated. Then I skimmed through this to avoid spoilers and if you think that fondly of it, I guess I’m playing it sooner rather than later despite that.

  20. Veraticus says:

    I bought this game solely on the recommendation of this WIT, and I couldn’t disagree more with it. Cradle is a tremendous waste of time and money, and if you want anything remotely scifi-y or transhuman-y then go read Stross. Why? Glad you asked!

    Firstly, the game is about 3 hours long. For a $13 game that’s pretty low value, but I’d be prepared to forgive it if it were incredibly compelling.

    Second, most of the game’s backstory — including the most crucial part that the entire ending seems based on — is detailed only by newspaper clippings in the yurt. No characters ever comment on it or explain it. The ending music video (yes, really) highlights the most important bits but there was no way of knowing that those three newspaper clippings would turn out to be of vital importance. Like most of the other clippings in the yurt, of which there are dozens, I read them and thought they were interesting background material. Nope! If you don’t read them and meditate on them, good luck understanding the plot. And then once it’s revealed they’re super important, their content feels almost cheap, like they couldn’t be bothered to put the actual plot in the game.

    Third, the minigames are really dull. Throwing 30 blocks into a beam while harassed by enemies was fun the first time. By the fourth it was terrible. Luckily you can skip the minigames if you fail them once.

    And speaking of the minigames, the “find this one object in the jumble of crap in your yurt” puzzles were just awful. I kept on asking myself, “is it gameplay to try to find a knife in this room? If it is, why doesn’t it feel fun?” Repeat for essentially every “scour the room for these belongings” puzzle. Of which there are many.

    Fifth the voice acting is terrible. Especially the main character, who sounds as if he’s reading his lines while pumped full of downers. He literally sounds like Eeyore. The other two voice-acted characters are better, but are not exactly good.

    Sixth, the concepts explored were glossed over incredibly quickly without really following any of them. Sure, they were interesting when first introduced. At the two hour mark I was really looking forward to seeing where all these ideas would go — it just seemed so promising! There’s a ton of talking about transhumanism and DNA and mind swapping and telepathy and oops the game’s over.

    Which is the game’s worst problem. The abrupt ending doesn’t even use the established themes particularly well. It might make sense if you think hard enough about it, but you’re still left with tons and tons of unanswered questions about the characters, their motivations, and honestly, what just happened. Because while the ending itself might make sense (being generous here), everything else is still very much a mystery.

    So yeah. I appreciate indie games and interesting scifi stories, but this was just bad writing wrapped up too quickly. I think people want to give games with complicated ideas and intriguing storylines a lower bar, but honestly, I think the writers were just confused or the game ran out of budget. It’s just not any good and I don’t think RPS should recommend it to anyone.

    • Awesomeclaw says:

      It seems strange that the plot has you be an amnesiac (which gives the game a good opportunity to explain all this stuff to the player), then puts all of this back story into newspaper clippings. I do appreciate the amount of effort put into all of the text content though.

  21. Muzman says:

    Still getting it, short or not. Sounds like they should have announced it was Part 1 or something though.
    But they might be sick of working on it by now.

    • Jalan says:

      Tucking away belief that they’ll eventually announce that they’ve re-done most of the game and will be re-releasing it a few years from now.

      Not that I’m particularly disappointed with it (beyond the voice cast) though.

  22. lordfrikk says:

    I loved it until the ending, really. I don’t particularly care for the kind of ending that is 90% “now YOU go figure out what the hell just happened”.

    • xiaoth says:

      Seriously, you’re not exaggerating. The prerendered cutscene highlights newspaper clippings and other clues lying around the yurt as if to slap your hand and say, “DUHHHH!! This would have all made sense if you had just LOOKED AT THESE CLUES! Now go back and replay the game and READ them!”

      Yeah I didn’t like that, either. I did read them, and the ending sort of made sense to me. And when I saw that pointer to clues I was patting myself on the back, but in retrospect I’m feeling really quite irritated considering I didn’t read one of them and some players skipped more.

  23. Awesomeclaw says:

    This game sounds actually quite a lot like Myst. Both games have the player come into the game world basically ‘cold’, expect the player to pay attention to the world around them, have lots of text content for background, and include many non-gameplay related objects to interact with. Both games also hint at worlds much more complex and detailed than the games actually contain (although other Myst games flesh out that universe quite considerably).

    All of the elements are there, but Myst just had the misfortune to have been made at a time when a world this rich would have been impossible to produce.

  24. craigstealssheep says:

    Wow… this game seems interesting. Like, really interesting. But my god, man. The writing here is terrible. Where did you learn to write? Is there no one who understands basic sentence structure or punctuation?
    “It’s a different kind of story, right at the very foundation of what its characters actually are, but it’s also quite clearly a kind of science fiction that is vanishingly rare: complex, hard, harrowing and intimidating.”
    Should read:
    “It’s a different kind of story. Cradle gets right at the very foundation of what its characters actually are; but, it’s also quite clearly a kind of science fiction that is vanishingly rare: something complex, hard, harrowing and intimidating.”

    Up to a point, at least

    Now, take out the middle (which shows my point) and you get: It starts with the oldest of chestnuts and the blurred line between an old way of life and some very new forms of life.
    This sentence doesn’t have a connection. It’s not active and doesn’t work.

    I know, I know. I’m being a pain, but seriously. This writing is atrocious. There are so many more examples of this and a quick once over by an editor or someone would have fixed this. For an Englishman, there seems to be a poor understanding of basic English grammar.