De Baron

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
A brave, engaging work, June 7, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: victor gjisbers

Play it if: you're interested in spending half an hour with a courageous, if flawed, moral allegory with overtones of Nietzsche.

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 über 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.

Comments on this review

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Andromache, June 7, 2013 - Reply
Yes. When I played this game, I found myself sympathetic to the gargoyle and the wolf and totally annoyed with the Baron. The gargoyle was murky because he says his victims lose everything emotionally because of him, and I was horrified by that but at the same time, the wording was such that a part of me thought some of them would recover in time, even if others ultimately committed suicide due to depression/apathy. Being that I know people who have kicked tobacco habits and survived depression, I do honestly feel that rehab and change is possible. I'm not so sure about the issue of sex offense, but I didn't know that was the issue at the time.

I didn't know we could opt not to interact with Maartje. I just resigned myself to the inevitable and tried to be as kind as possible, whatever that means. I think a good ending would have been the PC going into the bedroom, kissing Maartje, and that's it. This way, the implications are there but could go either way. I don't think the questioning of my evaluation of the PC (or his evaluation of himself) is strictly necessary and detracts from the story by bringing me into it.

Edit: I liked the exploration aspect. It made the contrast between the house and the castle much more vivid by experiencing it interactively, and as a player, I don't just want to turn pages. I want to play a game, you know?
Jim Kaplan, June 8, 2013 - Reply
Sure, I agree. I think my issue comes from the player being able to literally decide the PC's internal state rather than revealing it through words and choices. A conversation tree which asks "Are you angry?" is less effective than one which lets you choose between an angry response and a less angry one.

Regarding the exploration, I also enjoyed those little details, but felt a little disoriented without anything other than intuition to tell me where to go, which was my gamer sense acting up. Were this a game, I would recommend puzzles as a means of shaping those side explorations and making them rewarding. But as the Nietzschean allegorical tone poem it's meant to be, I think greater geographical linearity is justified. There are still ways of including exploration into a linear map.
Victor Gijsbers, June 7, 2013 - Reply
Thanks for your very thoughtful review!

I agree with your comment that just breaking the cycle "is too easy to be true". But I would add that if the piece makes you experience taking the "just choosing not to" ending as cheap and unrealistic, it has achieved one of its aims. If you feel that that ending cannot be true, then its existence does not function as a get-out-of-jail-free card ... perhaps it does for the PC, but it certainly does not for the player, and it is the player who matters.
Jim Kaplan, June 7, 2013 - Reply
I think you may have a point. On my part, when I think about those last two choices I'm thinking about the purpose they serve in a structured narrative rather than an exercise in player choice. In terms of creating a satisfying narrative and allegorical structure, I think ending it when the PC is about to enter the bedroom is better. In terms of letting the player more fully shape their experience, though, I'll agree with you that those final choices are good.

To put it another way: insofar as ambiguity is an important element of the experience, an ambiguous ending is good. Insofar as player choice is an important element of the experience, a player-decided (therefore less ambiguous) ending is good.
Victor Gijsbers, June 7, 2013 - Reply
Yes. And I can also see why one might judge that those two approaches are somewhat working at cross purposes in the piece.
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