The satisfying mundanity of Cradle’s science fiction

Ha! I’ve dropped the glass and now I can’t find it. Picture me, crawling around on an embroidered rug, elbows and knees scuffing the hardwood, head dropped and ass up in a desperate effort to maintain an eye level low enough to match the height of this transparent drinking apparatus. It’s a position that, to anyone looking in at me, says: “My ass is here. Come get it.” I’m sure this suggestive posture can be found in the Kama Sutra (in fact, it’s called “The Leap Frog”) but, right now, I’m hoping that it somehow assists my search among the dust and the clutter. I look a fool. (A sexy fool? No. No, probably not.)

All of this isn’t very sci-fi, is it? 

Let’s back up a sec. A lot of that ridiculous imagery described above is extrapolation. It’s how I imagine my character looks as I instruct them to scan the floor after I foolishly discarded the glass I found in a kitchen cupboard—a glass, it turned out, that I would need in about 10 minutes time. I threw the glass on the floor as I deemed it useless to me. I have been trained this way by playing countless videogames in which the furnishings of a room are there only to make an impression of a place. None of it is actually useful to you, most of the time, they’re all props that tell you what kind of space it is you’re in. It’s the same trick pulled off in sci-fi movies, you know? With all the flashing lights and computer bits telling us that we are definitely inside the busy cockpit of a spaceship. That kinda thing.

What I’m playing is Cradle. It’s a videogame that’s set in 22nd-century Mongolia, nominally making it a work of futuristic science fiction. But there are hardly any flashing lights or frustrated computer terminals busily buzzing away. In fact, there’s little in its scenery to suggest it’s set in the future at all. Sure, there’s a broken robot to one side of the yurt that you wake up inside, but mostly it’s moth-eaten wooden cupboards, magazine clippings, chipped crockery, and various green bottles filled with oils and salts. 

All of this material is recognizable and believable, which is why I can imagine how my virtual body exists in this cramped space. But, more importantly, a lot of the utensils inside this Mongolian yurt are actually useful to me. I need them, and as in my real life, I foolishly lose the most important ones among the furniture and have to comb the area for them, high and low. And with the physics system in place, there’s even the fear of having my body clumsily knock into these lost objects as I move around, causing them to roll further away, out of sight and into an obscure corner. It’s all very tense. You know the scene in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids when Rick Moranis is fingering through the grass blades of his back yard looking for his children, carefully suspended in the air on a stretcher by some haphazard instrument so that he doesn’t crush them? That’s what I’m experiencing while searching for this glass.

Eventually, I see a strange bend in the light, which turns out to be the glass. Finding it, I fill it with tap water, and pour it all into the red pot that I previously reached out of a kitchen cupboard and sat on the stove in the middle of the yurt. All of this isn’t very sci-fi, is it? In fact, it’s quite a mundane activity, especially for the spectacular, fantasy-action filled medium of the videogame. I’m preparing breakfast for someone called “Ongots”, following the instructions that have been pen-written onto a piece of lined paper in my handwriting. The character I embody has no memory of this place or themselves. Following these step-by-step instructions and hoping that the resulting breakfast will summon Ongots is all we have at this moment.

There’s something magic in all this mundanity 

This is why I’m rummaging. Trying to locate all of the ingredients required for this breakfast without any guidance at all proves challenging. It requires me to become familiar with someone else’s mind map. We all have these. Inside our own homes, everything has its own place, a place that we have decided for it. All of these assigned positions aren’t written down anywhere as they exist only within the logic cloud contained in our own heads. This is why, when you go round someone else’s house, and they ask you to get the scissors out of the kitchen for them, it’s an ordeal. Where are the scissors? If they’re not immediately visible, you have to search every drawer, cupboard, cups filled with pens, hooks where spatulas and graters hang.

I can see where the argument for replicating this experience in a videogame would come across as frustrating and nothing else. You don’t even have your friend to shout inane guidance at you from the other room.

“They should be next to the cookbook.” 

“What cookbook?” you reply.

“Um, the one on the metal rack. Underneath the plate cupboard.”

In Cradle, you don’t have anything but a simple instruction to follow. You have to explore each nook and cranny, making mental notes of the layout, learning how all the paraphernalia is arranged. There’s no guidance marker that arrives with a “bleep-bloop” to tell you where to look. But rather than being frustrating, this absence further bakes in the believability of the virtual home, and everything in and around it. It’s strangely satisfying to backwards engineer someone else’s living space. At one point you need to add dried root to contents of the breakfast pot. Dried root: where could that be? After exhausting all the cupboards, as you no doubt will, you look outside to find a tiny washing line with a couple of sun-baked clothes hung on it. And, next to those, also hanging by wooden pegs, are the dried roots. Of course! Where else do you dry a root?

There’s something magic in all this mundanity that I can’t quite locate, but I can feel it. Slicing a couple of fruits (which you earlier knock out of a tree) with a large kitchen knife, seeing them split in half to reveal their juicy seeds, is really satisfying. Not because it feels good to slice things (as other games have refined to a point) but because of the attention to detail in the simulation of preparing this breakfast. It’s rare to find a chore like this given so much thought. And the satisfaction it leads to is not exclusive to Cradle, either. Simulating every detail of a mundane activity inside a videogame can lead to an unexpected pleasure. An example: my sister and I used to love playing Grand Theft Auto by driving cars around the streets, stopping at every traffic light, trying to stick to the speed limit. We loved it. Another driving game called Midtown Madness 3 let us use the indicators when approaching corners, and that extra detail added a lot to our enjoyment. These are games about stealing and/or racing fast cars, generally causing chaos in vehicles, yet we most wanted to experience driving at its most mundane. My theory is that it 1) made our own lives feel more like videogames, which is a fun idea, and 2) helped to elevate the believability of these virtual worlds so that we could extract more genuine emotions in our response to them.

you are not a hero who must do things perfectly 

Some older arcade games also focused on mundane activities but it was different. Think of the 1985 Atari game Paperboy, which was about delivering papers to suburban houses on a bicycle; a normal job that many of us have probably had. However, arcade games that dealt with mundanity did so by adding in a very obvious videogame language as mundanity is associated with boredom, and that’s the opposite of what an arcade game is supposed to be. In Paperboy, this language appears as points to collect and how fast and dangerous the job is made to be. It is, without a doubt, an arcade game and not an accurate simulation of being a paperboy. More recently, blockbuster games have acknowledged mundanity during moments of down time, but do so only in a shallow manner, skipping over the subject as quick as possible in order to get back to the action scenes. We saw this in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare with its pathetic “Press F to Pay Respects” bit. A whole process that most of us go through and feel heavily in our lives (i.e. mourning) is reduced to a single button press and character animation. It’s so fleeting that it might as well not be there at all.

You’d think with all the speak of “realism” around videogames, that they’d be a lot better at depicting emotions by now. But, of course, when realism is brought up it’s always to describe a new level of graphical prowess. Right now, people are deeming Uncharted 4 one of the most realistic videogames ever made. Do you know why? Because of its mud. Sure, the mud looks great. I’d roll around in it. But this is a series in which its protagonist leaps cat-like across buildings, takes on helicopters armed to the teeth with bullets and explosives by himself and beats them, and is capable of surviving multiple bullet wounds and huge falls over and over. Using the term “realistic” to describe games like Uncharted 4 puts a lot of unrealistic expectations on our own lives, doesn’t it? Surely, the most realistic videogame is one in which we chop up vegetables, intermittently worry about finances, and walk to work in the rain almost daring to kick a puddle in a momentary throwback to childhood playfulness.

Not even apparent simulations of real-life living get it right. By this I refer to The Sims and how it allows for any activity and inactivity to be sped up. The creators couldn’t possibly let you endure the tedium of life. Hell no. And you’re so distant all the time, as well, just clicking on household objects to fill up bars, waiting for your Sim to do their business, probably sighing as they do it. It has you consider people as useless without your guiding hand, something more like puppets, who barely  have thoughts and feelings beyond their own biological needs.

My point is that Cradle had me believe in its virtual spaces and the people that inhabit them, even if they weren’t there, and that felt more realistic than most other games described with that word. It’s a game that starts by having you enact each process of a chore, and just leaves you to do it: to find the ingredients, to find somewhere to chop the fruit, to keep every instrument you need in a place where you can find it again when needed. It also lets you be disorderly so that you learn to organize and sort things out for yourself. This reinforces that you are not a hero who must do things perfectly, but a human who can mess things up, and that’s familiar to us. This is important to set-up right at the start of the game, too, as later on you’ll be reassembling a robot, bit-by-bit, and using advanced technology that turns digital photos of flowers into a commodity. You don’t need an elaborate tutorial section to tell you how to live this life as you already know it by living your own.

Leaving you to your own devices is also why most of the game’s story can be told in the background. It’s found in the scraps of notes and ripped pages on the floor, pinned to the ceiling, and sprawled across most surfaces. You explore, piece together, and take as long as it needs in order to understand and move on. It’s a game that would be categorized as “organic” in the fruit and veg aisle in the supermarket, along with Gone Home and its ilk. Other games are injected with chemicals to achieve this hyped-up depiction of virtual bodies and virtual spaces, as if only hyperbole could be entertaining. While Cradle is comfortable being painstaking, slow, and accurate. As a result, I’m able to pretend that I’m living another life inside of it. It lets you enjoy bric-a-brac and the slower processes of this alternate life so that when the more unfamiliar aspects of its science fiction come out of hiding it blends in with the mundane.

Isn’t that how a convincing sci-fi world should be? Isn’t that how we experience the transition from science fiction to reality? Go back just 20 years and your smartphone was but a technological dream. Now it’s another unexciting part of your life. How amazing the idea of flying in a plane was to the civilization of a century ago. Now look at us, groaning at the idea of having to check-in, go through security, and then deal with jet lag; all the excitement of this once futuristic mode of transportation zapped. Cradle‘s sci-fi world is one that takes the fantastic with the humdrum of daily life so that we might find it feasible and believe in it.

You can find out more about Cradle on its website. It’ll be out for PC on July 25th.