In Western culture, it is common to view science and religion as a binary, two philosophies that supposedly are opposites. Science concerns itself with the material world, religion concerns itself with the supernatural, and never the twain shall or should meet. They shouldn’t occupy the same space in our minds, one concerns the world of facts, the other the world of beliefs, two geographic locations that are worlds apart in the West. They should never, ever appear to exist comfortably in the same room with one another, after all.
Cradle is a science fiction story that begins in a Yurt in Mongolia, not an especially common setting for a story about the future.
Entering the story is jarring, like waking from a dream and not immediately recognizing reality. Presented from the first person perspective, you (the game’s protagonist, a young man named Enebish) explore this small hut that is crammed full of objects both futuristic and ancient. There are unfamiliar technologies here, machines you won’t recognize the use of, alongside a robotic female form fused with a vase of flowers, but there is also a Buddhist shrine with a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead slipped inside a drawer beneath that shrine.
I spent my first foray in the game examining the objects around me, reading scraps of paper, notes, newspaper reports, technical schematics, making neither heads nor tails of what this disparate matter was intended to represent. I understood that a world was being described to me, but, like the yurt, it all seemed foreign, fed to me in non-linear bits and pieces that I couldn’t unify at all in my mind. It was an experience of information overload with no framework to settle all of these scattered details into.
I gave up on the game almost immediately, turning it off to fire up a game of League of Legends.
I was frustrated. I am accustomed to the concept of environmental storytelling in games and how a player is asked in games like Bioshock or Gone Home to understand the backstory of a world through examination of the artifacts that one encounters there, but this was simply too much information to consider in a single location, not something that I could process quickly and logically.
On returning to the game a few weeks later, I decided to ignore the strange scraps of paper that seemed concerned with cloning, the creation of artificial bodies, a caste system based on beauty and ugliness, and whatever else I had read about before, and I simply began attempting to accomplish the game’s initial instructions, brewing some kind of tea for someone or something called Ongots.
Putting aside my initial desire to orient myself in the world by reading the disjointed texts littered around the yurt, I simply began doing things, solving adventure game style puzzles, bringing that robotic lady to life, and seeking out parts to repair her. A strange story began to emerge about a world in which the creation of artificial bodies is a necessary component of survival, staving off the effects of a virus destroying the human race. The game’s puzzles and conversations with Ida, the consciousness of a woman transferred into a mechanical body nearly two decades before the story begins, led me to an intriguing and mysterious plot that I found myself interested in trying to understand.
However, I largely forgot about all of that info scattered around the Yurt that I first found myself in, which is ironic, since the player of Cradle spends a large chunk of the game in that very spot. There are really only two major locations in the little game world of Cradle, the Yurt and a dome called Gerbera Gardens in which Enebish will retrieve parts for a malfunctioning Ida by solving puzzles.
Ida, like Enebish, can’t recall who she is. However, the very act of replacing parts in her simulated body actually draws her closer to her own identity. The first thing that Ida requests Enebish bring her is a device that simulates breathing. This device serves no real purpose for a creature that doesn’t need to breathe, since she is now essentially just a consciousness contained within an artificial, mechanized human form. However, Ida insists on installing the device because it is one designed for human beings who have transferred themselves into such a replacement body because it makes people feel more comfortable to “feel” like they are breathing. Aping life makes Ida remember her original existence more clearly, as if the body is essential to understanding self identity despite the transhumanist philosophy that underwrites this kind of technology. Restoring her vision literally, likewise allows Ida to “see” her original identity and her own past more clearly.
At this point, I was convinced that this was a game that is interested in interrogating simulated life, transhumanism, and all that sci fi mumbo jumbo until I reached the conclusion of the game, which left me with more questions than answers.
I do not seem alone in my response to the conclusion of Cradle. After viewing the game’s ending, I immediately went in search of some explanation for what I had just seen. I read extended discussions on Steam forums that cleared up some plot points, but I left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
The ending does something unusual for a video game, though. There are these moments in the final cut scenes that show shots of the interior of the Yurt and that highlight several of the nearly countless scraps of paper that clutter up the yurt. So, I returned to the game and read those texts. Then I looked again at the strange composition of the yurt, steeped as it is in both the future and the past. On the one hand, science, cyborgs, and consciousness transference, and on the other, religion, Buddhist philosophy, and a book about reincarnation.
Which returns me to my initial observation at the beginning of this essay, that in Western culture, we have the idea that the distinction between science and religion is a strict dichotomy. Two conceptions of the world that should have little in common. You know, like transhumanism and idea of the preservation of consciousness in a new body and reincarnation, as examined in religious texts like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Those two things have nothing in common, right? Oh yeah, except that they both concern the essential nature of human consciousness. They both concern themselves with the soul.
I looked up the name Enebish. It is a Mongolian name in origin. It is a taboo or avoidance name, a name given to a child in order to ward off evil spirits, it literally means “not this,” telling such a spirit that this is not the soul that they are looking for.
Oh, and the name Ongots, which is a character that I discovered to be an eagle that points Enebish in the right direction to encounter Ida in the first place, it is a word used to describe a guardian spirit in shamanic traditions that typically guides someone during the moment of their death (you know, the central concern of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the state of human consciousness at the moment of death and how consciousness might be liberated at that moment or how it might need to be reincarnated in another form before reaching enlightenment).
In other words, what I realized by returning to the game’s central environment, which seemed so alien and confusing to me, was that I very rightly felt alienated and confused about what I was seeing and how to interpret it. I grew up in Western culture, where science and religion exist on two ends of a spectrum. The space represented by the yurt represents a wholly different world view than the one that I am accustomed to, one in which the conceptions of mental consciousness and the soul are not treated as dichotomous, one in which the material world and the supernatural world are treated as having nothing to do with one another.
I don’t fully have an answer for what Cradle is all about, yet. This article is not intended as a skeleton key to this piece of fiction that reveals that final “aha!” answer. But I do know now myself that it is about transhumanism, scientifically and theologically. It is about the relationship between the mind, the body, and the soul. And that a game called Cradle concerns birth, death, and more essentially, the rebirth of human consciousness and what that might mean, again, scientifically and theologically.
What the game wants to say about these things is still scattered around the floor of that virtual yurt where my Western educated mind felt initially only frustration and confusion. Perhaps, I’ll write again once I wrap my head around a world where science and religion aren’t seen as antagonistic to one another, but in the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me because I need to go hang out in a simulated yurt in a simulated Mongolia for awhile.