I’m going to talk about Cradle’s opening, and I’m going to talk about its ending. But wait, you who hate and fear spoilers! Don’t leave just yet.
I’m only going to talk about the ending in very general terms. You see, Cradle’s ending doesn’t quite work, but its interesting failures actually emphasize what makes the rest of the experience so indelible. The ending is jarring, abrupt, and tonally discordant—but it’s also exactly what an ending should be, insofar as it illuminates and informs everything that came before it. In its own sideways way, this ending does function as the game’s thesis statement, a narrative skeleton key.
Yet discussing it doesn’t actually mean spoiling much of anything in the traditional sense.
So, why doesn’t the ending work? Well, I think that Adam Smith is right when he says that it’s partly because it zooms in on the main characters at the expense of the story’s real hook, namely the wider dystopian setting of which those characters are only a very small part. More than that, though, to parse Cradle’s closing events, you need to be aware of not one but two sorta-sci-fi, quasi-mystical premises explained exclusively in newspaper clippings tacked to walls, letters hidden in locked trunks, and one particular piece of paper half-buried under one particular tree. You also might need to follow some fairly specific references to Buddhism.
Playing the game to completion, in other words, is not enough. That’s not what Cradle wants from you, or it’s not all that it wants. To understand Cradle, you have to be intensely attentive to the quotidian details of its physical world. Which would be unfair, if not for the fact that being intensely attentive to quotidian physical details is kind of Cradle’s core gameplay loop.
Most of the game’s puzzles, such as they are, simply involve finding and manipulating stuff. You start out in a yurt, somewhere on the Mongolian steppe. You’re an amnesiac (because of course you are; this is a videogame) but you know that this is your home because, the game tells you, you recognize the note on the table in front of you as your own handwriting. The note explains how to make breakfast for Ongots, whoever that is.
So, you do that. You find a pot, you fill it with water, you toss wooden planks and crumpled-up newspapers into a stove, you light it, and then while the water boils you go down to the river and throw a stick at some fruit to knock it out of a tree. Then you slice the fruit and plop it into the water, along with some salt. The spices aren’t labeled in English, but your note to yourself explains that the salt is just to the right of the pepper, and if you’re paying (a frankly bizarre and possibly unwarranted degree of) attention then you’ll notice there’s a poster on one of your walls that features the word pepper in the local language.
This is kind of a fucking crazy way to start a game.
And it’s that much crazier because, before you go and do the stuff with the porridge, you’re likely to notice the inert, seminude robot lady kneeling on a table across the room, her legs functioning as a vase for flowers encased in laminate, or maybe in Google Glass. The game knows exactly what it’s doing with this rather literal and many-tiered form of objectification, by the way: a female body that is explicitly a decorative object, its form clashing with any sense of function, agency absurdly curtailed in the pursuit of somebody else’s idea of beauty. Cradle does follow through with that blunt, even brutal point about gender.
But yes, this homey, cluttered space contains all manner of bewildering futuretech, in among the worn wooden chests and whatnot.
Amnesiac protagonists are practically the default in videogames, partly because they offer a pre-packaged excuse to mete out exposition in a plot-convenient drip feed—Oh, that’s right, now I remember what happened at the power plant!—and partly because they automatically align the player-character’s goals with the player’s own: You want to know why there’s a cyborg in this yurt? Hey, me too!
Here, though, the well-traveled amnesia trope gets new life by being applied to daily life. If you lost your memory, then yes, you’d struggle to remember your purpose and your relationships to others, and you’d maybe be confused by iPads (and/or cyborgs, depending on the length and content of the time you’d lost)—but you’d also have a hell of a time remembering where you keep the goddamn salt. Instantly your house would feel like someone else’s house, and first things first: you’d have to figure out how to make breakfast.
Before Cradle even fully acknowledges itself as sci-fi, then, it teaches you to doggedly sleuth out the details of your surroundings. And you can’t skip straight to the disquieting sci-fi stuff, either. You have to start with porridge and work your way up to (trans)human bodies.
What I love about this approach is that it imbues the game’s more out-there elements with an earthiness, a stubborn reality. Your yurt is a remarkably credible physical space, and the weird replicator machine on your table is rendered with the same Gone Home level of loving physical detail as the teapot sitting next to it. Both have weight, texture. They’re equally convincing.
And then there are the aforementioned robot bodies. M-bodies, they’re called, and they sport stylized mannequin heads with unmoving features, save for visors that project purple FMV eyes. Most obviously, this is a damn clever way to fashion expressive and distinctive characters on a budget, without having to animate fully articulated faces and without having to mess around with lip-synching. But also, the effect is appropriately uncanny, and again, credible: artificial human bodies with standalone vocal synthesizers wouldn’t actually need mouths that move naturalistically. At the very least, the cheaper models might cut that particular corner.
That’s the other thing that Cradle captures really well: the profound but indirect effects of revolutionary technologies on impoverished or far-flung corners of the world. Of course cyborg bodies would find their way to some little yurt on the steppe sooner or later, but of course their effects would little resemble the proverbial walled garden of glassy-eyed Silicon Valley futurism. Technologies never replace other technologies, exactly, any more than cultures replace other cultures. They just get buried under layer on layer of other technologies, other cultures. No technological advance ever truly erases the boundaries of geography or class. Nor does any technological advance ever have a uniform impact across those boundaries.
If you’ve played Cradle, then you’re probably wondering when I’m going to mention the game-within-a-game—a hyperminimalist Starseed Pilgrim crossed with a clutch Minecraft where you’re always deep, deep underground and creepers are always close at hand (and also they can fly). Again, I don’t want to spoil the details or surprises. For our current discussion, what matters is that this game serves a resonant in-world purpose, namely curing sickness by putting things in order.
Cradle is obsessed with sickness—physical, mental, moral—and it frames sickness as one particularly tragic result of missing or misinterpreting vital, dangerous details. Sickness is a manifestation of things being out of order, and therefore you, the hero, exert your heroism largely by noticing the right things and putting them in good order. You avert disaster by sheer force of tidying up. It’s this theme that unites the porridge to the robot bodies to the minimalist game-within-a-game to the act of scrounging in the dirt for scraps of plot.
The ending of Cradle makes some sense when viewed in this light, as the conclusion to the thematic arc that starts with you making breakfast in a room full of futuremachines that refuse to help you make breakfast. It’s a story about the urgency of noticing the right things and knowing what to do with those details. It’s a story about our fathomless hunger for an orderly universe.
And to express those ideas through intensely specific physical details and consumately arcane side stories—to demand so much attention, so much rumination, and maybe so much repetition of the player—is a bold-as-hell use of the language of first-person adventure games.