Cradle: a dreamlike exploration game set in the strange plains of sci-fi Mongolia
There's a very good chance that watching the latest trailer for Cradle will leave you absolutely none the wiser as to what that game's about. Flying buses, a dude in a Groucho Marx disguise, amnesia, a half-built mechanical girl and so many cubes that part of the game world could probably be twinned with Minecraft. This seemed like exactly the time to get in touch with Ilya Tolmachev, Creative Director of Cradle developer Flying Cafe for Semianimals and ask "Wait, what?"
You play as 18-year-old Enebish who has grown up in a yurt amongst the desert hills of Mongolia, explains Tolmachev. Ordinarily he spends his time digitising and selling flowers and ignoring the neglected entertainment park nearby, but when he loses his memory during an inexpertly performed medical procedure he gains new curiosity about his surroundings. That curiosity is only enhanced when Tolmachev discovers a neuroprocessor containing the digitised consciousness of a girl called Ida. He connects Ida's consciousness to a flower vase built in the form of a mechanical girl, and proceeds to try to unravel her story by exploring the park - the only thing she appears to recognise.
The game trailers and teasers released so far ooze a poetic strangeness which pegs the title firmly into "art game" territory, and seems to delight in obscurantism. Asking Tolmachev about the game's influences yields the following literary recipe:
"The story in Cradle has combined the mood and ideas from books of several writers: from Albert Camus the story of Cradle received the taste of bitterness and [the] absurd; from Vladimir Sorokin, an eerie feeling of permanent hostility coming out of the reality; from Andrey Platonov, the feeling of empathy and pity directed towards don't know who, having no specific addressee; from the Strugatsky brothers, the humanistic confidence in the inevitable triumph of human essence over the animal one."
The game itself is intended to feel like a dream but translating liminality into a coherent ruleset for the player is no easy feat. According to Tolmachev, the team hopes that the consistent internal logic of the game world will ground players. "The entire world of the game is built so that under the first impression it looks surreal," he says. "However, as the story develops the player unfolds strict logical links between the objects and phenomena of this universe. That makes the game transform from a metaphoric parable to a logically convincing realistic story."
By holding the player at the pivot point between two aesthetically different environments Flying Cafe aims to achieve dreaminess. It's about here that we touch on the cubes. "The glowing cubes pavilion is an integral part of our idea to immerse the player into the complex, specific state of sleep where you are peeping at someone else's life." The idea is that navigation of the apparently-voyeuristic cube world can be used to find answers to some of the players' questions.
In terms of when we might actually get to explore these Mongolian landscapes and entwined cube worlds, Cradle was previously reported for release in spring of 2012 but the departure of game designer Pavel Mikhailov over 'ideological controversies' saw that date pushed to summer 2013. Now Flying Cafe are offering a tentative spring 2014 release date. I ask about the effect of Mikhailov's departure on the project.
"The development process has been the same hell difficult as it used to be," says Tolmachev. Over the course of development several other people departed the project and the nature of Cradle itself causes problems. "The idea behind it is ephemeral and tough to document - it is hardly possible to physically keep its sensation with you constantly." Tolmachev also admits to moments of self-doubt - a creeping coldness which accompanies exhaustion. "Then I produce a pack of old notepads where I used to work out the concept of Cradle, and everything quickly gets back in order."
The game's success on Greenlight provided a confidence boost to the team and offered proof that Cradle would be in demand but one of the side effects was that the developers now have an added sense of pressure to release - "This is an unpleasant feeling," says Tolmachev.
Speaking frankly, bringing the project to completion for 2014 - or indeed at all - might still be a challenge. With the Greenlight success in mind, one of my last questions is whether the team has considered a Kickstarter campaign. "We are indeed tempted about it as we are a bit short of funds to complete the project. In case we can't find an alternative way to procure the funding, perhaps we make a call for the community to help us with the finances."
All being well, Cradle will launch in spring 2014 on PC and Linux with a Mac port to follow.