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Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best NPCs; Nominee, Best Individual NPC; Nominee, Best Individual PC; Winner, Best Use of Medium - 2006 XYZZY Awards
1st Place - Spring Thing 2006
Play This Thing!
The Baron is a provocation, both in form and in content: in form, because it requires the player to choose not only actions but also an ethical philosophy; in content, because it asks what moral options remain for a person who recognizes himself as monstrous.
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The Baron begins as an experiment in futility - a fascinating exploration of someoneís inability to change the inevitable repeating pattern of their life. As you set off on a quest to rescue your kidnapped young daughter from the evil Baron - made all the more sinister by a note left saying he has to be with her as he loves her - you have a righteous task in place. Which makes the implications of your inevitable failure so very interesting. And then it changes.
I was so deeply affected by this game that after finishing it the rest of my day was pretty much a write-off.
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What I expected from The Baron wasn't what I got. In his introductory text, Gijsbers does a good job of preparing the player. Actions should be taken because they're meaningful in the situation, not because they "solve a puzzle". My first reaction was "sure - I've heard this before." [...] So, even though the author warned me that it wasn't a game, I tried to play it like a game. I expected something dark and sinister. I expected torture, helplessness, suffering, and perhaps victory in the end. The story delivers these things, but in an unconventional way... in a disturbing, shocking, and tragic way.
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Number of Reviews: 13
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Most Helpful Member Reviews
De Baron is about the sexual abuse of a child. I almost completely failed to deal with that (central) aspect of the story, and my concluding paragraph is (as streever's comment pointed out) entirely incorrect.
What I wrote about the piece's structural aspects may still be of interest.
review from August 1st 2008:
(Spoiler - click to show)There's evil in De Baron, and the medieval trappings of the narrative do very little to pad its edges. It's real evil, and it resides primarily in the PC (though there is no character in this story whom a sane person would want to be). Trying to deal with this evil through the necessarily limited choices provided by dialogue menus can be frustrating. I can reject the importance of guilt and forgiveness by typing numbers, but there is of course no way for me to inject my own ideas about the psychological and interpersonal mechanisms of the consequences of wrongdoing.
One can say that these ideas are not things the PC would think of, but I'm not sure Gijsbers would wish to have the universality of his piece eroded in this way.
Pavel Soukenik described De Baron as a psychological test which does not give its results. I think the results can be given by the player throughout their second playthrough of the piece. Even if they choose not to do so, what further analysis could the program give beyond its final series of choices, which try to force the player to think through the motivations behind their (and/or the PC's) actions?
The prose did jar me out of the story at a couple of points. I didn't particularly mind the occasional grammatical errors, but certain phrases were so melodramatic as to undermine the piece's general seriousness. I would be interested in reading a review of the Dutch version.
The mechanics of the game are smooth, though I'm inclined to think that the occasional bits of physical interaction should be either complicated or further simplified. Having to retrieve the torch to read something, though it only took 4 turns, seemed a pointless chore.
As my rating would indicate, these minor technical flaws don't do the piece too much damage.
Why do I think this a very good work, despite its limitations? Possibly because its structure involves both the inexplicit revelation of what one is and the creation of sympathy with an unsympathetic protagonist, my favourite IF devices. Possibly because it's well-implemented enough that I spontaneously (Spoiler - click to show)howled at a wolf and received an appropriate response. Possibly because it treats its victims as humanely as is possible from inside the PC's head. Certainly because it succeeded in its ambitious aim of making me think about human will from a novel angle.
Finally, I'm inclined to think that the content warnings and minimum age requirements associated with De Baron are unnecessary. As with most written works, those who lack the maturity to deal with it will find it neither interesting nor entirely comprehensible.
Related reviews: victor gjisbers
Don't play it if: you were looking for a game, or have little to no tolerance for some grim realities in your IF.
Reviewing The Baron demands a kind of scrupulousness not common to the medium. This is fundamentally a work which is not about gameplay or puzzle-solving, nor even necessarily about character, but about theme and allegory. In this respect it's sort of the Der Himmel Łber Berlin of IF - though tonally the subject matter is in almost diametric opposition.
The Baron's main strength lies, I think, in its ability to draw you into responding emotionally to the character, whether it be sympathy or revulsion. The means by which it does this is interesting and worthy of a degree of analysis. In essence, the story is driving at a question about human nature, a question we might summarize as "Do we bear responsibility for our animal desires?" The question experiences four major iterations in the story: the wolf, the gargoyle, the baron, and finally the PC himself.
In another review, Pavel Soukenik comments that the conversation with the gargoyle is slightly undermined because there was another dialogue that made it feel repetitive. I would respond to this with two points. Firstly, repetition is an intentional element of this story - I mean, the gargoyle outright says the phrase "eternal recurrence". The repetition of old habits, old battles, is not just tacked onto the story, but also an important motif in discussion of these taboos.
Secondly, there is a progression in these four iterations, though it may take a bit of thought to see it. The four iterations do re-state the question, yes, but they begin from a point of distance from the player character and become more personalized. It's easy not to blame, even to sympathize with a wolf for fearing and attacking humans; this is after all what a wolf does. The gargoyle frames the question in sharper and accessible terms: both by introducing spoken language and by explicitly referencing specific emotions like joy and lust. The baron gives these emotions human immediacy because he is the first time we are coming face-to-face with the human consequences of acting out one's animal desires. The specific nature of the act, if not obvious beforehand, is made explicit here. And the final iteration, that of the player character's own response to Maartje, brings the point home by asking the player to do more than judge and respond to others, but apply the morality to himself.
The secondary point being made by the story is thus that it's a lot easier to agree to or sympathize with an idea when it is presented in general terms, but often becomes a lot more difficult or complicated as it gains focus, specificity, and a human dimension.
When still ignorant of this structure, I found myself playing out the PC's inner conflicts at different stages of the game. My first response to the wolf was to talk to it and howl at the moon to share its grief. I told the gargoyle that he could only receive forgiveness from his victims, but that there was always hope he could break the cycle. But when I got to the baron and heard his excuses for his actions, I got irritated with him and responded with hostility. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with responding one way to an idea in principle and another to the idea in practice, but it was in my conversation with the baron that I realized the game had made me play out that discontinuity: that I had given different visceral reactions to what is basically the same philosophical question, merely because the environment framed that question in different terms (generalisms about emotion and freedom versus the "real" consequences of an actual crime).
And of course in the end I found myself driving the player character towards the most positive outcome I could imagine, essentially in total opposition to my instinctive sympathy for the devil at the story's outset.
Just as we have a high regard for puzzles that engage the player's intuition, for elements that seem to anticipate what the naive player would do, I have a high opinion of The Baron for its rather shrewd understanding of how I would react and modify my reactions to the scenarios it poses. I do have a couple of notes, though.
(Spoiler - click to show)If there is a weak point to this allegory, it would have to be the final sequence between the player character and Maartje. Firstly because, as Maartje doesn't respond to anything the character says, the scene is just a way of literalizing the work's ideas, which I thought had more weight when they remained implicit. "I learned X was wrong today" doesn't feel like an ending worthy of allegory with this sort of depth. An attentive reader - even a fairly inattentive one - will have formed their opinions on their own. With no way of affecting the game world, there's no real reason to make them say them outright.
Second is the degree of choice the player is given, and here I mean two specific choices: the choice of repeating your crime (or not), and the choice of breaking the cycle (or not). In both cases I don't think this should have been left up to the player. The instinctive choice of most all players would be simply to have the player character not rape Maartje and break his cycle of lust. The problem is that this is too easy to be true to the realities of child abuse. The kinds of deep-seated psychological factors that lead to this sort of behavior do not resolve themselves due to dreams, and aren't overcome by anything so simplistic as "choosing not to". That final scene gives the player a get-out-of-jail-free card which has not been earned - and I would argue, cannot be earned.
My alternative to that scene would simply be ending the game with the player character entering Maartje's bedroom, and leaving it up to the player to decide how the character as played would act. That to me feels like the most "honest" ending.
Another issue is with the mapping. I feel The Baron would have benefited from more conviction in how it chose to shape the player's navigation. There is a degree of free movement in that the player can seek out details not necessary to advancing the story, but at the same time the goals to be hit are ostensibly linear in progression. The two coexist a little awkwardly here for my taste. Making the geography more linear while having the player cross the path of those details might have served the flow of the story better (though I must admit that it isn't immediately obvious to me how I'd go about doing it).
The English translation of the work is good, with only a couple distinctive typos betraying its previous life as a Dutch-language work. The narrative voice does a good job of complementing the dreamlike nature of the setting without making it too obvious.
In conclusion, The Baron is very much worth your time, though more as an exercise in allegory and theme-centric narrative than as an intellectual exercise. I can see it not being for everyone in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey is not for everyone (I personally find 2001 bloated and meandering as hell), but it deserves at least a playthrough - by those willing to engage with a couple of admittedly difficult concepts.
Dialog is an important element of the story of the game and as such, it eschews the default ďask aboutĒ and ďtell XĒ and instead uses multiple choice to determine what the player will say. There are often four choices to choose from and the responses are not terribly different from each other in tone, but greatly despondent in meaning. The reason for this is that the game uses these discussions as the principal means of determining WHY the player is saying what he is doing. In a way, the game is doing a low-level psychological study on the player through his actions. Instead of giving a report at the end, however, the game uses the playerís responses to subtle guide the remainder of the game to match the rationale behind the playerís actions.
This is an incredible concept, one executed few times before or since because it introduces a very obvious drawback: it causes the scope of the game to increase exponentially. The story branches quickly become innumerable and a single developer will have a hard time keeping up unless they place some pretty strong limitations, which is what Victor did in The Baron.
The game tells a single story where all events have been fixed and there is really only one ending. While that may seem stifling for a game trying to explore the varied motivations behind player actions, it both is and it isnít. It is rather confining in that no matter if your intentions are noble or cynical, there will never be an opportunity to turn away from your fate.
On the other hand, it is liberating because avoiding your fate isnít the point of the game.
The protagonist is a father, which, in and of itself, is full of the complexities of raising children but this game narrows down on a single facet of this character: his daughter has been destroyed by the misguided actions of a single man. The game refers to the man as the Baron, and the progression of this game is the fatherís attempt to confront the Baron and plead for him to stop and free his daughter.
Each step of the fatherís journey, he encounters beasts driven by instincts they find hard or impossible to resist. (Spoiler - click to show)At first he meets a mother wolf who is searching for any food in the cold winter to feed her cubs. Then he encounters a stone gargoyle brought to life but only as a result of feeding on the happiness of others, leaving them bitter and depressed. Finally, you meet the Baron himself, who begs for understanding and sympathy. He admits to being a beast and denies the ability to be anything else.
In the end you reach your daughter and get to talk to her. Through the dialog you have with her, you decide if you have the same determination now as you did when you set forth to confront the Baron or if your vigor has waned. Whether you will let the Baron take her again, or if you will remain vigilant and end the cycle.
Itís a fascinating setup for a dialog over ethics and morality. Itís designed not to challenge your puzzle solving skills but your philosophical stance on conflicted situation. The actions of the Baron are reprehensible, but does his struggle over his nature make a difference in how we perceive him?
As a game, unfortunately, there is less here to be impressed by. It lends itself to two playthroughs on average, one to realize what is going on and see the twist, and a second to make the choices that matter to you. The branching dialog trees arenít revolutionary, even if theyíre not typically used in this manner. The on-rails nature of the game means that if you arenít intrigued by the initial setup, you will probably be fairly bored by the time you reach the Baron. There is also one point at the ruins near the Baronís castle where I got fairly turned around because it wasnít clear to me how certain areas of the ruins connected to each other. So, the one place where the game isnít strictly linear suffers from slightly muddled navigation.
And then after you complete the game, there is the matter of closure. The game doesnít offer you answers or even much in the way of a definite future for any of the characters. The point of the game, as I was alluding to before, is to make you, the player, think and feel conflicted, and not necessarily to give resolution to the conflict between the protagonist and the Baron. Thatís hard to except, at least initially.
The end of the game is not the end of the story, because the story has no end. Every victory for good or triumph of evil is still just one more day done. Even someone who has done undeniably evil things in the past and holds no hope for redemption, still must face the next day. And even if you decide that the protagonist does succeed in suppressing the Baron that day, heíll still have to do it again the next day, and the day after, until one of them gives up forever.
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