Sometimes, what draws me into a story isn’t the premise of the plot or its characters, but its setting. Case in point: Cradle is an indie game released on Steam last year, set in the countryside of Mongolia in the near-future, where uploading into robot bodies is the norm.
I mean, how could someone like me resist such a pitch?
You play as Enebish, a young man living in Mongolia who wakes up in his yurt with no memory. He discovers a few fantastic things about his world, such as the golden eagle that flies around with a metal plate fused to its belly and the dismantled gynoid body sitting on his workbench. After reactivating the machine, Enebish makes contact with Ida, a woman who explains how the world changed after an infertility epidemic and the race to harvest a vital substance called passium, produced by raw human emotion. With her help, Enebish begins a journey to explore the ruins of a nearby amusement park, collecting more clues about their respective pasts and how they came to be in this place.
What will probably grab most players about this game (as it did for me) is how beautiful this game looks. It’s tempting to roam around the map and take in all the detail, from Enebish’s hut to the cathedral-like amusement park. That same detail goes into the sound design, as every object you pick up or change has a definite solid noise to accompany it. I will admit, though, that sometimes the graphics were a little too fluid and sensitive for me. If you’re someone who gets motion sickness easily, you might want to play at a lower resolution, though that could affect your gameplay experience.
I also love the fact that this game is set in the Mongolian steppes, with plenty of native culture and flora to be explored. It’d be easy to make this a game somewhere in the US or Western Europe, so visiting this part of the world was a rare treat. I also like how we get a blend of the Mongolian landscape with futuristic technology, from the M-body that Ida lives in (with her realistic eyes in a visor) to the devices that Enebish uses to scan and digitize flowers that he’ll later sell.
Speaking of technology, the game has an interesting plot device in the form of “passium.” According to Ida, the substance is drawn from the human nervous system and produced by powerful emotions. She goes on to explain how an incident involving an overflow of passium led to a terrible accident in the amusement park near Enebish’s current home, with all the gravity of surviving a terrorist attack. I’d like to think that there’s a symbolic reading of passium in the game. Not only are people trying to turn emotional balance into a commodity, but the overflow incident that an M-body user triggered could be read as typical of the unstable personality behind most “lone wolf” acts of terror.
That being said, after a while, I started to lose interest in the game the longer I played. Once Ida is activated and the main plot kicks off, Enebish spends most of the game either getting long, expository dialogue with her or going to the amusement park to play a weird minigame in order to retrieve another component that her robot body needs. I wasn’t a fan of the cube collecing minigames and I don’t see how they related to the story at all. Wouldn’t it make more sense if I had to find and scavenge parts from abandoned M-bodies at the park?
At the end of the game, you learn more about the world where Cradle takes place and what makes Enebish so special. However, I don’t get the same satisfaction from the ending—or the playthrough leading up to it—as I did from Primordia or Journey, which also let you explore and uncover the past through collecting fragments in an ancient wasteland. I wanted to like Cradle, and I do recommend it for its beauty and its cultural prowess, but if you’re prone to motion sickness or not too keen on a vague and sudden ending, then it’s a cautious recommendation at best.
Bibliography: Cradle (video game). Developed by Flying Cafe for Semianimals. Published by Flying Cafe for Semianimals. Original release date: July 24, 2015.