I have an opinion about Cradle and here it is: Cradle is the most disappointing game I’ve ever played in my life.
It starts out well. Better than well: great! Better than great, in fact! Cradle‘s intro is borderline perfect. If someone were to make a game that was specifically tailored to me – me personally, the guy sitting in the chair typing this – then that game would start out with the intro to Cradle. This is, of course, the whole problem. If Cradle‘s intro was as good as the rest of the game, it would just be your run-of-the-mill crap game, and I wouldn’t be that fussed. But when you start out at the very tippy-top, you’ve got an awfully long way to fall. Onto my head.
Let’s back up a bit. Cradle is an atmospheric first-person adventure game thing from the preposterously wankishly-named Flying Cafe For Semianimals, which should probably be taken as a warning as to what you’re in for. You wake up in a yurt, in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness. Outside, all there is to greet you is grass and hills, some sort of futuristic tramline and what appears to be the remains of an abandoned amusement park. Inside, the yurt is absolutely stuffed with stuff to read and look at. Lots of personal effects to pick up and chuck about, with no in-game purpose except to add flavour and clog up your inventory if you mistakenly think that you might need to keep them with you. Magazines, post-its, photos, letters and books, providing fascinating hints at both your character’s personal history and whatever disastrous events befell the sci-fi semi-postapocalyptia you’ve been dumped in. On the table there’s a conspicuous note, left there by possibly-yourself, telling you how to prepare breakfast for something called “Ongots”, whatever the fuck that is. Oh, and over in the corner there’s an inactive robot woman whose lower half appears to have been repurposed as a flower vase.
So… lonely, melancholy natural beauty? Lovely graphics, mostly realistic but with hints of stylisation adding that extra little frisson you need? The ruins of industrial modernity to wander around in? An enigmatic science-fiction plot involving mysterious disasters creating danger zones filled with supernatural phenomena and horrible death? Piecing together events from scraps of documents left around the place rather than just having it ladled down your throat by an NPC? Working out your objectives from environmental cues and your own deductive abilities? Pottering about doing peaceful domestic tasks? Robotic crumpet? Yes, yes, and yes, thank you. This is my perfect game. I would’ve made it myself if I’d had a game studio but it turns out I don’t need to because you’ve beaten me to it.
I spend a happy hour nosing about, reading postcards, musing on the mysteries of the plot, playing with the taps and finding out how extraordinarily difficult it is to replace things once you’ve taken them out of their proper place to have a look at them. This is the best part of the game; it’s a breakneck ride downhill from this point on. Making Ongots’s breakfast, once I get around to it, turns out to consist mostly of object hunts, wandering vaguely around the lovely environments keeping an eye out for the small and inconspicuous items you need to complete your tasks. As the game progresses it will become increasingly apparent that all the puzzles are like this, and with one even more unpleasant exception, this is all Cradle has to offer.
In short order I give up on trying to work out what I’m supposed to do from environmental cues, and submit to using the in-game “hints” system. (In my mind using “hints” means that you’re at the end of your rope and the game has defeated you. I suspect, in actual fact, that what I’m looking at is just a standard-issue objective journal, named as such due to dodgy translation.) In slightly longer order I will throw aside my pride entirely and start using a guide I found on the internet, because while I know that I could beat the game by pissing about poking at red herrings for hours on end, I most emphatically don’t want to.
Anyway, having fed Ongots, which turns out to be a magic golden eagle with a hole in it, I get to reactivate my robot lady, and the storytelling slopes off to hang out with gameplay in the Pavilion Of Shitness. Both characters have amnesia, which provides an excellent excuse for them to explain things about the setting to each other with a level of emotion ranging between “disinterested” and “dead”. In lieu of natural organic storytelling, robowoman will spend the rest of the game remembering chunks of lore and calling you up to tell you about them at more-or-less arbitrary intervals. Usually after you’ve brought her another robot body part. Oh yeah, you have to go collect robot body parts because her chassis is evidently made by Toshiba and a random bit of her will go on the fritz every twenty minutes. Fortuitously enough, the local abandoned amusement park is still functioning and will reward you for completing the “rides” with… robot body parts. And you guessed it, by scarequotes-rides I mean out-of-place shit minigames in classic crap adventure game style.
Each of the rides is some kind of holodeck thing where you jump around on cubes collecting other cubes while occasionally evil cubes fly at you and either make more cubes or remove a bunch of cubes. In summary, cubes. These games would be pretty resolutely unentertaining even if it weren’t for the controls, which are barely adequate for their original task of adventure game pootling-and-inventory-management and are not improved by the sudden genre shift. Admittedly I might have had a worse time with them than most people, given that I’m left-handed and thus had to play the entire game with my hands the wrong way round because the game won’t let you reassign keys, but you know what, I don’t think that’s a very good defense. Also admittedly, the game will let you skip each game when you fail, but that still means playing through them each once, rather than the ideal number of zero. And there are four of these fucking things. And frankly who even gives a fuck if these minigames are good or not? I purchased this game on the understanding that it was a slightly-up-itself atmospheric narrative experience deal. If I’d wanted to play MineQ*bert, I would have bought that instead.
Of course, every game has to end sometime, and mercifully Cradle doesn’t take too long to release you from its grip. Unfortunately it can’t resist delivering one last kick to the nads in the form of an absolutely bewildering ending and subsequent realisation that the game’s plot might well be absolute nonsense. To demonstrate, I shall now attempt to summarise the story of Cradle, as I understand it. You are a copy of a clone of a guy who met your robogirlfriend back when she was a human, who was delivered to the yurt by the aforementioned magic eagle after the clone of the guy who was a kid and also a robot met the original guy and then exploded because that’s what happens when you meet yourself when you’re a robot apparently, and there’s a time portal in the amusement park that you use to save the world by getting your robot waifu struck by lightning so she can send a signal back to the past to the time when the guy you’re a copy of a clone of met her when she was a human and they got this weird feeling that might have been Twu Wuv or possibly just telepathy and so past-original-you sent a magic number to some scientist guy which in some way would avert the semiapocalypse and OH GOD DOES THIS SOUND LIKE COMPLETE BOLLOCKS TO YOU? YES? GOOD.
Here’s the thing: I like a bit of mystery in my fiction. I actively seek out stories with enigmatic plots and inconclusive endings. I don’t have a problem with Cradle‘s ending not being entirely clear. What irks me is not that the plot isn’t clearly explained, but the nagging feel that there’s nothing there to explain. Cradle doesn’t feel like a story that someone really wanted to tell, but rather a weak excuse to string together a collection of unrelated tropes – creepy amusement parks, sexy robot women, yurts – that they thought were cool. Take the amusement park, which it turns out is not actually an amusement park but a sort of odd therapy centre for kids with a bizarre psychological condition that makes them unable to look at people without vomiting. All the “rides” are part of their therapy. Kind of an interesting idea? Sure, OK. But is it here because it served the story or because you needed an excuse to earn robot body parts by fucking with cubes? My money’s on the latter. Cradle‘s cardinal sin, if it has one, is that it’s completely hollow. There’s no point in attempting to dig into the mysteries of the plot, because under the desultory shell of worldbuilding there’s simply nothing there.
The weird thing is, even after all this, I can’t bring myself to hate Cradle. After all, it’s only so disappointing because it started out so well, and there’s still a lot of value hidden in amongst the cruft. I don’t regret buying it, and I might even go back to it once in a while, to experience that atmosphere and gently bumble about making bird-breakfast in the yurt. A tenner and a bit of disappointment seems like a decent price for an hour of the best game ever made.
Thomas Lindsay is a writer, artist and proofreader whose favourite subject is complaining ferociously about things. He is currently trapped in the mighty ocean fortress of Great Britain, but hopes to escape as soon as The Device is completed. In his spare time he enjoys not going outside. Read more of his work at lacrimonious.wordpress.com.