One night this past weekend I journeyed through the Shalebridge Cradle once again. I’ve played through the map around five times, the first being back in 2004. I haven’t played through Robbing the Cradle dozens of times like some have. This is intentional – it’s a special experience and I want to keep it that way.
This time I was playing it with Thief 3 Gold and was able to experience it sans load zone. Like the other levels in Thief: DS, removing this break in the level allows for a more seamless experience. It was refreshing going from Outer to Inner Cradle and back again uninterrupted.
The Gold patch did introduce a sound bug that hadn’t been there before, which I’ll extrapolate on below, but otherwise the Gold experience was fine. A higher FOV and higher-res textures from the Sneaky Upgrade complemented the lack-of-a-load-zone for an improved Cradle experience.
The level was as horrifying as ever. The audio in it always gets to me, especially in the Outer Cradle. It’s a shame the maps in T:DS had to be small. I would love a longer experience with such ambiance and visuals about me. It’s short and sweet as is.
The outdoor area at the start sets the mood perfectly. The start noise, followed by wind ambiance, followed by a terrifying bird screech, and lastly followed by some kind of pathetic horn tune (like a kid playing a toy trumpet), all with the backdrop of a growling noise, combines for a deliciously horrifying soundscape. I wish there was more point to the area at the left of the Cradle. That aside, once you dive into the cellar door, the real fun begins.
The way the Outer Cradle messes with your mind is twisted. All the knocks and doors opening and voices mingled together completely horrifies me each time I play it. The visuals, from the decayed walls to the creepy angel-face decorations, terrify me as well. It’s brilliant design and remains one of the best horror experiences in gaming.
Of course, the Inner Cradle is no different. But here, you’re not alone – you have the friendly puppets with you! I’m joking, of course, as it’s the first sight of one of these undead creatures that’s one of the level’s most frightening moments. The audio ambiance seems to include more twisted laughs and voices here, as if the patients’ tortured spirits overwhelm the children’s cries and laughter. Makes sense as this is the ward where the patients were kept.
Their cells make for some more twisted backstory and audio. And screw Ion Storm – seriously, screw them – for having a puppet in one of the cells. This time I caught it before unlocking the door, but other times I’d rush into the cell to escape an approaching puppet…only to run in to another one.
And these puppets still freak me out. I’ve long become immune to Thief’s haunts, great as they are, but even 13 years later the puppets cause me to jam the Escape key and cry. The noises they make, their jittering, and the manner they run at you in – an immediate lurch towards you – freaks me!
One scene that always stands out is in the shock therapy treatment room. In here, you see a puppet bent over, pawing at something on the ground, and in the chair in the room sits a wax mask (this tied into the backstory of the patient kept in solitary). There are many horrific scenes in the Inner Cradle, but this one unnerves me the most.
And I had forgotten about the laughter that begins when you ride the elevator up to solitary. Seriously – screw Ion Storm!
There are many other moments that always scare me because I had forgotten about them. But I don’t want to write them down here. I want to forget about them again so they can scare me the next time I play! Along with this, I have no gameplay recording or screenshots from this most recent playthrough because I didn’t want to distract myself with it. You can still check out the recording I took for my Advanced Project: http://morethiefdesign.blogspot.com/search/label/G.%29%20The%20Cradle.
The Cradle can’t be communicated through screenshots or video, though. You really have to play it. You have to be the one exploring that place to feel its horror. Each time I play it, I feel like someone is behind me and any moment I could feel someone grabbing me. I love it!
I do have one critical note, though. First, an anecdote: when I first played the Cradle in June 2004, I wasn’t as frightened by it as most. I found it scary, true, but I wasn’t horrified by it. It didn’t instill in me a great sense of dread like Thief’s zombies in Cragscleft had done when I played that level as a kid. But each time I’ve revisited the Cradle, first in 2009, again in 2013, again in 2015, and now this year, I have been completely horrified by it and have felt palpable dread. Why is this?
I have a theory, which leads into my critical note. The first time I played this level, I had activated Lauryl’s ghost before exploring the Inner Cradle. Each subsequent time, I have left the attic with fuse in-hand, not frobbing Lauryl’s painting until after exploring the Inner Cradle. I think having Lauryl as a guide on my first playthrough softened the horror. On each other playthrough, braving the depths of the Cradle completely alone – as just Garrett in this haunted place, looking for some info on the scary hag – made it more horrifying.
Thus, I think allowing the meeting with Lauryl so early on is a design shortcoming. Imagine if you had met Brother Murus in one of the first rooms in Return to the Cathedral – it may have dampened the horror. True, it isn’t the same – Lauryl is a ghostly little girl, Murus some gregarious priestly fellow – but I’m sure you appreciate my point.
The attic needs to be locked. The fuse, then, would be placed elsewhere – maybe in the room at the bottom of the stairs leading to the attic, or in a closet somewhere. You’d use the fuse and be able to access the Inner Cradle. In the Inner Cradle – say the morgue, a treatment room, or someplace deep inside –you’d find the key to the attic. If you triggered the pounding noise already, there could be an objective for “Finding a key to the attic to see what is making the noise.” Then, from the Inner Cradle, you’d return to the Outer segment and enter the attic. To make it more creepy, Lauryl’s painting could be placed front-and-center – imagine how frightening that’d be upon opening the door! Then you could meet Lauryl and have her speaking to you after having sufficiently explored the Inner Cradle.
Why the designers made it easy to reach her so soon, even leading you there by placing the fuses in the attic, is beyond me. Wouldn’t they have wanted the player to explore all of the Cradle without Lauryl’s voice? On my first playthrough I found her sudden voice-overs partly annoying – something else that detracted from the horror (note that on subsequent playthroughs I have not found Lauryl annoying). The fact that straightaway you can enter the attic and activate Lauryl is just wrong. Someone doing that on a first playthrough will not experience the same amount of horror as someone going through it without Lauryl. This design oversight needs to be corrected. I’d do it…but I’ve never messed with Thief: DS editing. Is there a doctor in the house?
Well, there’s my critical note. Otherwise, the level’s a masterpiece: in terms of visuals, audio, backstory, and structure, absolutely brilliant. Kudos to the designer(s).
As noted earlier, in Gold I encountered an audio bug: the pounding on the attic door continued as if it was close to me after I left the attic area. It went all the way to the Inner Cradle – a quick load and crossing the threshold of the Outer Cradle a couple times stopped it. If you frob Lauryl’s painting on your first visit to the attic, you wouldn’t have to worry about this bug anyway. I don’t so I had to worry about it.
Cradle is the most effective Thief horror level at instilling dread. I find it brilliantly horrifying each time I play it and cherish the experience. This most recent Gold replay was a real treat. Perhaps on my next playthrough I’ll record it and take some screenshots. This time, I just wanted to suckle it to myself.