Our Tales of the Cradle
While Chris was reviewing The Persistence, he made a passing comment that it wasn’t as terror inducing as the Shalebridge Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows. It sparked a conversation in our Discord about our time with Thief, and more specifically The Cradle. As good games journalists, we decided that sharing Our Tales of the Crade with a wider audience would be worthwhile.
I missed the boat when it came to the first two games in the Thief franchise. In 1998 when The Dark Project came out, I was probably too engrossed in Battlezone on my first PC that could play anything with some 3D complexity, or even Caeser III to glance in Garrett’s direction. Come 2000 and the release of The Metal Age my time was devoted to Red Alert 2 and some form of Championship Manager. By 2004 though, I was deep into my PC Gamer subscription and a fan of the writings of Tom Francis, Kieron Gillen et al. They were big fans of the Thief games, and the various previews for Deadly Shadows had me massively intrigued.
As my first adventure into the minds of the teams from Looking Glass and Ion Storm, I had little understanding of the subtle horror elements that were laced through the first two games. But what I did soon pick up from Deadly Shadows was the unremitting tension that seeps into an immersive sim. Something like Dishonored dissipates the tension through the occasional light and airy level, whereas in Deadly Shadows you, as a thief, must live in the shadows to steer clear of The Watch and the numerous other foes that litter the game.
Sixteen years on, the memories of the bulk of the game fade as Garrett fades into the shadows on a whim. I have no doubt that I embarked in a fair amount of save scumming to make the most of each mission, but also to help dissipate the nerves that would undoubtedly arise when sneaking around, stealing priceless artwork and knocking guards out with a blackjack.
Nothing prepared me for The Cradle. In Kieron Gillen’s March 2005 opus to The Cradle in PC Gamer, he described it as such:
If The Cradle is about anything, it’s immersion. Your head pushed beneath murky waters until you choke and drown.
Kieron’s writing is superb through that piece, and reading it back now, even his words about The Cradle twist my stomach into anxious knots. It’s a piece of writing that manages to both lure me back into downloading Deadly Shadows, while also making me scream to myself not to do such a thing.
You see, The Cradle itself is playing a game on you. Teasing you during the Outer Cradle before unleashing true terrors in the Inner Cradle. I struggled throughout the Outer Cradle, the sounds of the building that was both an asulym and orphanage (at the same time) nearly broke me then, and I vividly remember turning the in-game sounds off and playing some (entirely not calming) metal music to try and distract me.
That was probably my fatal error, leaving me without a fully understanding of what was transpiring as I turned on the generator and moved to the Inner Cradle. With the inhabitants of the house of horrors awoken, my nerve was broken. A few times after putting to the side I tried to pick up and resume my save, but the fear was still there.
It still is.
When Henry stooped to lift the bundle, he did see her face. It was the hag! When the hag was done eating him, all that was left of Henry was a pile of bones and clothes.
– from Henry and the Hag
Chris asked for some thoughts on Thief: Deadly Shadows’ incredible ‘Robbing the Cradle’ level, but to his folly declined to impose a word-count. I love, love, love the Thief series, so I embraced the opportunity to really dig into its third and final game, which is honestly pretty special to me. The piece is, I’m only partially sorry to say, Quite Long. I’ve done my best to articulate what I think the Cradle is and where it sits within the context of the series. So beware: huge spoilers!
That, though, should be the least of your fears…
A BLOODY HOWL
“The time of secrets is almost over. A new age approaches.”
It was not always inevitable that the boy from the orphanage would end up an inspector among the Hammerites. True, his inauspicious start did not favour a bright future. Not in this city. Not in the City, where bright futures are as rare as nobles generous of spirit. But the zealous religious order of the Hammerites, whose punitive brand of ultra-conservatism preys on the weak and disenfranchised, is a particularly sad fate for one such as the boy from the orphanage.
The boy who saw his friend Lauryl brutally murdered, and was broken. Murdered by something that had long separated from that essential part of her that was human, save greed.
That’s when it became inevitable he’d one day seek out the faction that provided the closest approximation to justice, but presumably weren’t the officials who’d put him in that…place.
He’d do well among the Hammerites, eventually rising to the rank of inspector. And in his office nestled within a corner of St. Edgar’s Church, Inspector Drept would hang a plaque on the wall that simply read:
LAURYL – THERE SHALT BE A RECKONING
Thief: Deadly Shadows is all about that reckoning. From the bud of Drept’s craving for justice comes a sweeping critique of the City’s centres of power and their role in the misery of the less fortunate.
A bloody howl is tearing through the City, and it’s coming from the Shalebridge Cradle.
THE LIE THAT KEPT
“Who shall watch the watchers? Who shall keep the Keepers? Alas, there is no one. No one to watch us.”
After confining them to the shadows for two games, Thief finally circles around to the clandestine Keepers who trained anti-hero Garrett in the art of subterfuge, only to have him desert and set out on his own path.
The Keepers are a secret society that watch over the City, intervening only when their notion of ‘balance’ is knocked out of whack. They had foreseen the Trickster’s re-emergence and the rise of Karras – the first two games’ respective villains – in a set of magical symbols, and knew that when the time came, Garrett would be on hand to prevent both from fulfilling their dark ambitions.
A quick assessment of the City in Deadly Shadows suggests it has indeed settled into something you might perversely call ‘balance’.
The Trickster has retreated into the written word, evoked only in fairy tale and myth. The Pagans live on the edges of society, their aspirations, if not dead, at least dormant. The Mechanists exist now as a stain on the historical records of their predecessors, the Hammerites, whose authority and presence has largely been restored to what it was. Karras’ once mighty Soulforge Cathedral is now his tomb, serving as a stark warning against the deification of the machine.
The two factions have not been able to reconcile their differences or even learn from their mistakes; they’ve just reverted to type. Balance apparently necessitates their institutional failings in order for the City to survive.
It’s a lie.
Balance is typically the rhetoric of the side that wishes to maintain a status quo in which they hold the most power. Enter the Keepers. At their helm and in the name of balance, poverty and inequality still run rampant in the City. A mythical serial killer is said to stalk the streets, but no one other than our lone Inspector Drept seems to credit her existence, having connected the trauma of his childhood to this web of ghastly murders. He calls her the “Gray Lady”.
If young Lauryl is anything to go by, the killer’s victims belong to the dispossessed – and who in this city gives a damn about the fate of the beggars, the pariahs, the orphans?
Not the Keepers at any rate. It is their nature to do nothing until a threat either becomes too great to ignore or their position is threatened. It is from this position of privilege that they have deemed the City’s inequalities to be of no threat to them. It’s one of the few signs they cannot accurately read. That’s not too surprising. It demands empathy.
They can hear that thundering howl, but they refuse to follow it to the source.
To the Cradle, which both mocks and undermines their power even as it reinforces it.
This place that is the sins of the City made manifest, and so the sins of the Keepers by virtue of their hold on power.
BRETHREN AND BETRAYER
“I know what you seek, and you seek what I know.”
What they can read – the glyphs – prophesises a new dark age. “The times unwritten, the end of words. Brethren and Betrayer.” These glyphs are read by Interpreter Caduca, who, alongside her translator, a young girl called Gamall, was working to discover the identity of the brethren and betrayer. Her final reading deduced that “when the progress of time ceases,” then “the evil ones will be pointed out for all to see.”
She’s found murdered soon after. Suspicion falls on Garrett, who had taken a novel approach to stopping time: bringing the clock tower in Stonemarket to a halt. His efforts topple the entire thing, which when laid out on the ground became an arrow…
…pointing directly at the Keeper compound. The Keepers’ leader, Orland, condemns Garrett to death, but Garrett escapes and makes his way to Caduca’s chamber to investigate her murder. He finds she has been turned to stone. Worse: the murderer knew he would come, naming him in a brief, cryptic letter.
As he attempts to leave the Keeper compound Garrett spies a cloaked figure with a voice cracked by malice and bearing monstrous, contorted hands. She utters a hateful incantation which brings several stone statues to life. Garrett narrowly escapes.
His encounter with the cloaked figure points him towards our Inspector Drept, who he recalls being obsessed with the “fable of a murderous old hag.” Perhaps, he thinks, it’s not just a fable after all.
Drept is forthcoming, recounting events from the day Lauryl was murdered to his recruitment by the Hammerites. He says the Shalebridge Cradle is where the murders began. That Lauryl was the first victim.
To Shalebridge, then – by way of blood. To seek what only the Cradle knows.
INTO THE CRADLE
“I’m used to the dark, but this feels like a house with bad dreams.”
The Shalebridge Cradle dwells in the east of Old Quarter. Our thief finds it beneath a purple miasma, where the withered trees have succumbed to its awful gravity and the air throbs with decades-old pain. Garrett is starkly feeble in its presence, but we huddle closer to him all the same, thankful we can switch to a third-person perspective so as not to feel alone.
But we are alone here, aren’t we? Here before the Cradle. It squats there in the thin starlight, black and grey, and we wonder what lurks behind its walls.
There’s a scream, distant yet near, that doesn’t seem to come from within the Cradle so much as from the Cradle. No sooner than the scream subsides does it start up again. Clawing its way out of the past and into the present, desperate to escape itself, the scream seems forever caught within the eddies of the Cradle’s memory. Or so we imagine. However dark its history, it’s still just a building. Isn’t it?
As we skulk through the grounds in search of a way in, we’re conscious of our vulnerability. It might just be the pressure of the swelling dread, but is the Cradle watching us? We wonder what it sees – if it sees at all – and think it best not to know.
If we did, we might never, ever have stepped inside.
IT’S NOT JUST A BUILDING
“Miss Arthur says orphans shouldn’t complain.”
But we do. It’s the only place left to us.
It was understood that the Cradle had functioned as both orphanage and mental asylum, but obviously at separate points in time. In the dank underbelly of the building proper, an old note from a child puts paid to this notion: it was both orphanage and mental asylum at the same time. We realise with cold clarity the depth of Drept and Lauryl’s despair, and we wonder: what kind of city would allow such a heinous edifice to stand?
The child notes the doctors are just as scary as the patients, and from materials languishing in the empty halls like some kind of permanent oral condemnation we begin to see why.
“As you suggested, sometimes more can be learned from a surgery performed incorrectly, so we’ll keep the training to a minimum,” notes one doctor. Abuse rebounds between hallways, as though jealously guarded by some wicked intelligence that needs them to sustain its own cursed life. But that’s just the fancy of a distressed imagination, isn’t it? The thief has seen many supernatural phenomena in this city, but even he cannot credit that anything resembling the living could be found within this forgotten place.
Suddenly there’s banging in the attic. Convenient, he thinks. But he came here for answers, and he knows from experience they won’t come to him. So, with reluctance, we trail the thief up and around a spiral staircase to the source of the banging.
Upon investigating the space, we find it mostly empty save for a patch of dry blood and a portrait of a child. Garrett recognises her. We do, too: it’s the Keeper’s translator, Gamall. But that can’t be right…the portrait would be decades old and Gamall is just a child.
A quiet voice fills the space. That can’t be right either, unless we’re going mad. A distinct possibility. We are in the realm of the mad, are we not? But no, it’s quite real. It’s coming from an oval of blue light above the patch of blood.
“I can hear you breathing. No one here in the Cradle does that any more.”
The voice of a child. She identifies herself as the girl in the portrait. Her name, of course, is Lauryl. She says she wishes to leave, but the Cradle “won’t let any of them go.”
With horror we seize on the reality that although nothing lives in this nightmare of stone and metal and glass, there remains the memory of the living – kept trapped by the Cradle. The decades of misery and pain have bled into the foundations and been absorbed by the building itself, giving the Cradle a malevolent consciousness of its own.
So it does see us. It sees us, hears us, feels us. The murdered Lauryl has become part of its bloody history and the Cradle will not let go. Another thought occurs to us – if Lauryl is dead, if she’s kept here, then just who is the child Gamall, who wears her skin? A problem for later.
We need to liberate Lauryl from the Cradle’s grasp. Maybe then she can shed some light on the mystery at the heart of the Keepers. If we survive.
Deeper. Deeper into the Cradle, where the darkness seems only to grow darker still.
A STITCH IN TIME
“A large amount of blood marks the scene of the incident, but no body has been found.”
Lauryl is bound by the presence of certain items specific to her time in the Cradle. They must be destroyed or removed in order to erase Lauryl from the Cradle’s memory. But here within the Inner-Cradle, the dead walk.
The atrophied ‘Puppets’, as they’re called, stalk the empty cell blocks, twitching silently. Are they truly living, or merely animated corpses – directed by the Cradle’s cruel will to perform a faux display of a reality long since buried? Whatever the case, they’re lethal. And terrifying. As you scour the inner-Cradle for the items it uses to sustain Lauryl’s imprisonment, the Puppets create an aura of perpetual terror. Among them is the individual who painted Lauryl’s picture – Patient No.5 – and again we wonder: what fit of madness possessed the Cradle’s doctors and administrators to allow children and the mentally unwell to breathe the same air?
Madness? No. Rather an irrevocable absence of empathy for those less fortunate than themselves. Now that absence has been filled with malignant terror. It’s not clear if the Puppets carry any scrap of who or what they were, or if those memories survive only as playthings for the Cradle’s fancies. It doesn’t much matter to Garrett. Whatever end these Puppets serve exists only to do him harm.
After disposing of these items – and acquiring a vial of Lauryl’s blood (still warm, ew) – we’re compelled to enter the Cradle’s own memories, where time plays by an altogether different set of rules. As with every other aspect of the Cradle, time has been weaponised to maim the living and the dead.
It makes sense the Cradle would cling to the past. That swamp of tyranny and abuse is where it was conceived. It’s there that Lauryl must ultimately be forgotten, and it’s there we must now liberate ourselves from those same memories… We’ve been submerged in its filth for too long, and now the Cradle remembers us as well. We’re part of its hellish tapestry.
And it won’t let us leave.
The only way to fully free ourselves from the Cradle is to convince it we’re dead. Journeying into the past, Garrett succeeds in throwing himself from an upper storey window, erasing him from the Cradle’s future and restoring us to the present.
But we’re not done yet. Lauryl’s ghost compels us to follow – to where “she” buried her.
“Bring my blood with you.”
“I shall see the unseen. I shall speak the truth.”
Back at the Keeper compound, Orland is overseeing Gamall’s ascension to the role of interpreter. He does not yet know the child before him is not a child; that someone else, some thing else, hides beneath the child’s skin. The child that was Lauryl, whose life and form were taken from her and used to infiltrate the Keepers for the very reason that they would not see.
But they’ll see soon. They will see and they will cower.
Lauryl has led Garrett to a hidden crypt beneath Fort Ironwood, where she shows him a grave seared with glyphs – her own. Garrett tips the vial of blood on the stone and the glyphs binding Lauryl’s form to Gamall start to crumble.
Across the city Gamall immediately falls to her knees before the assembled Keepers and vomits blood, realising with horror that the child must have somehow escaped the Cradle. Lauryl’s form, now free, violently rejects the impostor. In the crypt, Lauryl’s ghost begins to take on her original form. Although dead, the child looks upon her translucent hand with something like joy after being brutally separated from it for so long. Something so simple and so pure.
The Keepers, meanwhile, witness first-hand the monster that has long walked in secret among their ranks: the Hag herself. A hulking abomination whose body is lined with twisted mouths and eyes and fingers, she slaughters the few who attempt to subdue her, whilst Orland, revealing his own true self, retreats behind a door. His face flecked with blood and lips trembling, we see from his eyes that he knows he was wrong. So horribly wrong.
He closes the door on the evil he unwittingly nurtured as it lays waste to the compound.
The Hag’s exposure throws the Keepers into greater turmoil, setting the stage for a final confrontation between her and Garrett in the quest for the Final Glyph.
For us, though, it ends here – with Lauryl’s freedom, from the Hag who killed her and the Shalebridge Cradle who imprisoned her, both in life and in death.
THERE SHALT BE A RECKONING
“Always the thief! His name, always in the prophecies! And where is mine? Am I not just as terrible? Am I not even more fearsome?”
When the clock tower fell and pointed to the Keeper compound, Garrett assumed Orland was the betrayer, incorrectly reading his antagonism for outright malevolence.
Orland, on the other hand, believed it was Garrett, refusing to imagine anyone within the ranks of the Keepers could pose such a monumental threat. Orland’s hypocrisy and arrogance is a crystallisation of all that was wrong with the sect, problems Garrett had long known as he watched them take their toll on an already beleaguered city.
The betrayer within, of course, was Gamall.
Despite her gruesome disguise, Gamall was no impostor: she was one of the original Keepers. Over time she became obsessed with the power of the glyphs, binding them to her body and prolonging her life indefinitely. Grown monstrous in appearance from all the forms she had worn, she needed to hide her true self whilst maintaining her access to the glyphs and the events they foretold. She wanted nothing less than to seize destiny for herself and bend it to her will. The solipsism of this goal mutilated her, both in mind and body. No one else mattered – a trait she shared with her brethren.
It is no accident Gamall set off for the Shalebridge Cradle in pursuit of a victim. Being a former Keeper herself she knew their weaknesses, knew where they would not look. The murder of a child at an orphanage doubling as an insane asylum was far from the concerns of the Keepers, so diligently reading the signs and learning nothing from them save a conceited estimation of their own self-worth. No questions would be asked and suspicion would inevitably fall upon one of the inmates. Gamall didn’t need to read the signs to foretell that particular event. She stole Lauryl’s life and the Cradle stole Lauryl’s death; a heinous marriage of murder and abuse that conspired to torture a child’s soul.
Gamall was a Keeper, and the Keepers allowed Shalebridge Cradle to stand, in spite of its staggering abuses. Sure, the clock tower was exposing Gamall – but it exposed her as a Keeper. Gamall was rotten to the core, but it was their rot; she was, in every sense, an evil begot by the Keepers themselves. They feared the calamity of the Unwritten Times, little realising they were to be its architects. A child might have told them that, had they ever cared to listen.
As Gamall walked the Keepers’ halls in Lauryl’s skin, she presented them with the outward face of their own follies. The eventual reckoning foretold by Drept destroys the glyphs, rendering the Keepers and Gamall alike powerless once more. Pariahs kicking dirt with all the rest. The status quo obliterated. For Gamall to fall, the Keepers would have to go with her.
It took Garrett, the thief, to see that reckoning to fruition. He who lay at the centre of their prophecies, but who they nevertheless treated with suspicion and animosity.
If Thief was nature exulted and Thief II nature crushed, then Thief III is nature transgressed. What is destiny when divined by corrupt intent? It might be that destiny was always meaningless – a mask worn by those fastidious keepers of balance to shield themselves from their own deficiencies, and the charade of prophecy their only means of tolerating the thief’s fiercely independent arc through a city they so thoroughly failed. As a result of his actions, in which he once again set aside a career’s worth of self-interest to preserve the City, the howl emanating from that hated place in Old Quarter was, if not silenced, at least curtailed.
The thief, then—the one true Keeper?
More often than not, Deadly Shadows is sublime.