I'll let Cradle developer Flying Cafe set the scene, because no other intro could do it justice.
“Thirty years ago in the mid-2040s the sweeping development of neuroscience stirred up the common anticipation of victory over aging and death. In 2047 the scientists of the Neurocopying Institute in Cologne run the first experiments on transferring human consciousness onto an artificial carrier. In the course of experiments a weird previously unregistered phenomenon was discovered – the copies of neurotic system of the test subjects awoken in the computational device began to self-destroy by immersing in a state of deep irrational fear.
“The discovery of the mysterious phenomenon induced a string of events to have completely changed the society. Dozens of years later the question of the ‘Panic Attack’ nature still remains open. We do not know how far the researchers’ thought has led them in search of the answer, but we believe it hardly ever visited this Mongolian steppe.”
Cradle, helmed and honed by former GSC Game World developers of STALKER fame, is an enigmatic creature. The stark, intoxicating and desperate ambience of Zone-esque locales meet mechanical adventure game motifs from studios like the defunct White Birds; action puzzle minigames that could, with a little more variation, been their own release, topped with a layered tale of transhumanism and self-inflicted catastrophe. Cradle will not float everyone's boat, especially with that ending, but the intrigued parties sign up under the auspices of curiosity over critical pathing, then they will be the ones walking away with the same sense of rapture I continue to harbour.
The player assumes the role of Enebish, a bewildered young fellow who awakes in the cluttered confines of a yurt, perched on a plateau beside a derelict research facility. It's a very captivating cold start of sorts, but the game immediately allows access to a plethora of narrative tidbits. Most of it won't make sense until later, yet reading everything is a must. The first-person perspective lends itself far better to environmental investigation than were Cradle a third-person or traditional point-and-click adventure game. Peering atop shelves to find leaflets, opening drawers to read snippets from books or looking under, I found myself taking more time to examine every nook and cranny of each location not merely to mainline mechanical puzzles, but to devour the world in its entirety.
This is not a complex, abstracted adventure, either. There are no great leaps of logic required, or inventory crunching to perform. A pinch of thinking, a touch of searching. And even when met with action-oriented minigames, they are presented as elements of the greater story. The strength of the writing makes it fit. No crow-barred stretches, no dissonant hacking distraction. Emphasis is placed on gentle scrutiny and information-gathering, rather than convoluted puzzle-solving. For that, it works marvelously. Most of the actions performed are expressively mundane. If required items are hidden, they are misplaced within the context of the world, not diabolic exercises in trickery or obfuscation. If something are merely somewhere else, gentle direction will accompany.
As the story progresses and you further interact with Cradle's only two talking characters in the anti-grav bus driver Tabaha and the tragic figure of fellow amnesiac Ida, the veil is lifted somewhat on past events - the state of necessary and Pyrrhic transhumanism, the pitfalls, the tragedies and triumphs of a society fighting an extinction event with unstable science. The writing is clever and subtle. The minute slivers of flavour eked from a forgotten leaflet in a tiny drawer holds as much world-building capacity as the functionalities of the bigger, more urgent narrative elements. Everything feels earnest. There appears to be as much care put into the creation of detritus found beneath a cupboard as there is discussions with Ida. It beguiles no end.
Cradle purveys a unique melancholia, one wielded perhaps most artfully by Eastern Bloc developers. But it goes beyond the wry, sly opportunistic fatalism of STALKER and the frigid retrospect of Cryostasis. More hopeful than anything from Ice Pick Lodge, no Pathologic despite the shared conceit of viral-triggered end-times. The subdued hues of the wild steppe are countered by the vibrancy of the yurt, the Gerbera Garden facility and its cubic divergences within. This decay is prismatic.
While the player steps beyond a few locations no more than a few hundred metres apart, the world feels vast and depopulated. At one point, I stood beneath the dazzling night sky, its peppered strata shimmering with conventional celestia and curious zodiac demarcations. The glint of *something* caught my eye and I began to track a light, moving across the night. Tiny, but bright. Was it a satellite? Was it a some sort of airship I think I read a reference to? These moments make Cradle for me. The strange remnant entities lurking around the facility over the air rail tracks. Those calm, broad Mongolian faces in the monochrome photos. Moments in time, static or otherwise. Loneliness is Cradle's biggest attribute, very much its strongest suit.
But the ending. It is jarring. Jarring, primarily for the fact the developers abruptly push a lot of cues and hooks into a video sequence for the finale, rather than weave something interactive. We see the real Ida, and a few other 'character' inferences that only matter when you take a step back to piece it all together. As cold an ending as the game's opening. I had to return to the yurt in a follow-up partial play-through to refresh my memory and sift through the notes once more. And things do fit. At the very least, I don't mind that Cradle isn't capped with a clean, clear ending. I was there for the setting. The ambiance. The flavour beyond the two ceramic and steel characters that formed my only spoken interactions throughout the game. As emphasised by the studio's heritage, I never strode the Zone in STALKER for the conversation. The compulsion was stronger merely to exist therein. Cradle is the same, and the dense, enigmatic tail makes me appreciate it as a vignette. A story, like many stories, that would exist throughout this imagined era
Cradle is a very special game. It does not have the widespread appeal of other adventure games, and thus never compromising a specific vision. I tend to steer clear of adventure games bar the odd few these days, but Cradle has joined the likes of Wadjet Eye's output in crafting a memorable experience. Moreover, a stunning world that I doubt will be topped in 2015.