I remember the pain, but nothing before it. My eyelids felt heavy as I fought to open them, struggling to consciousness as if I had been drowning. Though there was a small bed to my right, I pushed myself up off the floor where I had been lying. Boxes, chests, tables, tech, and papers filled the small tent I found myself in. My home? I couldn’t tell. I looked around for something familiar but I was greeted by nothing I knew. A low hum filled the silence, pierced occasionally by a loud screech. I exited the yurt and saw the source; a giant bird silhouetted black against the clear blue sky of the steppe, circling lazily as if he was waiting for me. Did I know this majestic creature? Did I belong in this lonely abode in the middle of the wilderness? Who am I?
Cradle is one part mystery, one part adventure, one part interactive story, but all gorgeous vistas and immersive gameplay. You are given a quick tutorial as a dream sequence and then you wake up on the floor of a yurt in the middle of the Mongolian countryside. Your only clues to what happened are the scraps of paper littered around the home and a note left for someone called Tabaha. Make some food and then Ongots will arrive, it says. And so, you begin your journey by stumbling around the tent searching for the ingredients. Soon, your culinary quest brings you to the lake and you get your first glimpse of the beauty of the steppe all around you.
Flying Cafe for Semianimals does an excellent job of setting the story and putting us right in the main character’s shoes. Just as you are confused, but you understand the basic concept of the game, our protagonist has no clue what is going on, but is able to perform simple tasks. Through this method of discovery, we meet Ida, Tabaha, Batjin, Ongots, Mark, Enebish, and a slew of other characters… though not necessarily in the manner we’d expect. The entirety of the storyline develops this way; piece together enough clues to take a step forward, unearth more mystery, and then begin searching for clues once again!
To briefly discuss the story does it a great disservice, but I will try to highlight the key points. There was a virus that caused sterility in humans and scientists created m-bodies (think androids) to protect humanity until a cure could be found. Unfortunately, this new technology was created too hastily and a significant error was made. While everyone produces energy with their emotions, some people produce harmful energy and can eventually explode. These explosions rocked the modern world, killing thousands and condemning certain parts of the world as uninhabitable. With a cure becoming a secondary problem, a new society was formed around m-bodies and how they worked. Those dangerous people who produced more harmful energy than helpful energy were outcasts, supported only through a heavy tax on the true citizens. But even those who produced copious amounts of helpful energy had complications. They need a continuous supply of ‘perfect’ DNA to keep them from being overwhelmed. Thus, our protagonist found employment… scour the steppe in search of beautiful flowers to ship back to the city for the perfect people. It’s a strange new world.
Learning about your place in this crazy world is one of the core experiences in Cradle. But it’s not only you who is lost; you soon meet Ida and discover that your memories are the only fuzzy ones. She sends you into the nearby Gerbera Gardens, a condemned amusement park or hospital or daycare… she’s not sure. While trekking back and forth, you learn more about the world, your past, and how Ida fits into it all. It’s a beautifully woven story with a lot of nuance for the player to discover, if they so choose. And the ending is either a masterpiece or a gross oversight; I’ll let you decide.
The gameplay is straightforward; you can move around, interact with your environment by reading or picking up objects, and talk to the people that you meet. The dialogue options are limited as is your ability to manipulate objects in the world, but it’s because Cradle is a story with a direction when you get down to it. Although you can place objects in your inventory, they disappear when you complete a chapter. The voice acting leaves a little to be desired and the translation to English is a little rough in some spots. All in all, the presentation of the game was excellent except for one key section:
There are four minigames present in Cradle that are key to progressing the storyline. You move awkwardly around a room filled with cubes, collecting certain colors and avoiding others while trying not to get blown up or fall in the water below. The difference between these sections and the main story is so jarring that I found myself dreading each trip back to Gerbera Garden. What’s more is that if you fail, the game gives you the option of skipping the minigame entirely! So clearly it wasn’t that important to the story. This makes me wonder why the developers decided to add this as it feels like a poor fit for the rest of the experience.
Beyond that black mark on an otherwise excellent game, I thoroughly enjoyed the storytelling that is Cradle. It gave me more freedom than a point-and-click game while not allowing me to go too crazy like a sandbox game might. There are layers upon layers of hidden gems and additional scraps of information that add to the rich world created for the player. I encourage you to explore and read; immerse yourself in the lore and make your own decisions about the ending. I, for one, think the entire game is a brilliant installment that truly made me think.