Smart sci-fi is hard to come by, at least in videogame spaces. Even when we do get a well written piece of interactive science-fiction, it’s usually all about blowing up space aliens – a fine concept, but one we’ve collectively become quite used to. Cradle is a decidedly non-violent piece of speculative fiction, a game set in a well developed, detailed future, but one with nary a laser beam in sight. While it ultimately succeeds as an interesting exploration of humanity, robotics, transhumanism, and cultural aestheticism, it falls down whenever it tries to be a game.
Feeling somewhat similar to games like Mind: Path to Thalamus and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Cradle is a story driven first person game concerned with piecing together a mystery. After waking up in his 2070s Mongolian yurt with no memory, protagonist Enebish attempts to rebuild his past by simultaneously rebuilding Ida, the deactivated robotic human lying on his worktop. In order to do this, he must collect parts vital to her survival from the surrounding area, whilst interrogating her on matters of their past, and how they came to wake up together.
It’s an intriguing premise – amnesia exposition aside – and one that offers up some well written dialogue, and a slew of interesting questions about the world in which the game is set. This is sci-fi world building of the best kind – it’s at both times familiar and outlandish, a thoroughly human vision of the future, even if it is filled with cyborgs.
Though Enebish’s voice actor sounds more like an uninterested place-holder practising his lines, Ida’s delivers some fairly nuanced robot acting, and manages to find a perfect balance of synthetic monotony and genuine human emotion. As a result, Ida is the game’s greatest feature – she delivers most of the game’s story, and does so in a way that makes it hard to look away. It might not be the best delivery method for a story – I’d usually be against having one character simply tell the story to the player – but when it’s done this well, it’s hard to dislike it.
The same goes for Cradle’s aesthetic quality. Though it might not be the most graphically stunning game you’ll play this year – there are plenty of annoying pop-ins, muddy textures and 2-D looking grass assets – it’s a masterclass in production design. We’re so used to exploring Western ideals of the future, that wandering around a futuristic Mongolian amusement park is surprisingly refreshing. The ways in which Mongolian art and architecture have been woven into rusty mechanical structures is quite astounding.
The world of Cradle is a beautiful one to occupy, but it’s not very well suited for doing things. Picking up and combining objects feels cumbersome, and far too much time is dedicated towards fumbling around with generic looking items. Most instructions the game gives you for “finding” or “combining” items happen to be very non-specific, in that it can be quite difficult to determine exactly what object you’re looking for. I know what a battery looks like in 21st Century Britain, but I don’t know what one looks like in 2070s Mongolia.
You’re also expected to do an awful lot of running around in Cradle’s open world, when most of the game actually takes place along a fairly linear path. It seems that the surrounding lakes and fields are only there to add an artificial sense of scope to proceedings, and to facilitate hum-drum light-chasing puzzles that require a large amount of space.
Then come the cubes. I hate the cubes.
When exploring a nearby dilapidated amusement park for Ida’s missing parts, Enebish must throw coloured blocks into a giant fan whilst a block monster tries to stop him. This literally makes no sense in the context of the rest of the game, particularly when you consider that the “prizes” for completing these sections are the random robot parts Enebish just so happens to need.
I do do not exaggerate when I say these cube sequences are some of the worst gameplay vignettes I’ve played all year. Make no mistake, they are not fun, merely frustrating, poorly designed Minecraft-hybrid abominations, which feel like they’ve been surgically removed from a completely different game, then grafted on to Cradle.
This is a game that, for the most part, succeeds as a slow-burning, thought provoking sci-fi story. It’s at its best when it isn’t relying on game-y elements, but rather letting you absorb its story and explore its fascinating world. Those are things I want to do. What I don’t want to do is throw cubes around a sterile chamber for half an hour at a time.
There’s an unfortunate amount of busy-work at play in Cradle, seemingly as a means to extend its overall playtime. You’ll find yourself making breakfast, picking flowers, and OH GOD THE CUBES, but none of it feels like a worthy excursion from sitting and chatting to Ida. In fact, Cradle could easily be an hour or so shorter, and it’d be better for it. There’s a lot of needless padding here, and it acts as a barrier to Cradle’s genuinely brilliant moments.
Cradle is a game of two halves, but it’s still one worthy of praise. It might not be a great game, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s certainly a well told story – a refreshing and thoughtful meditation on what it is to be human.