The Baron – by Victor Gijsbers
“The Baron”, winner of the Spring Thing in 2006, started off strangely with an intro that seemed to hark back to the retro age of interactive fiction:
THE BRONZE DOORS FALL CLOSED BEHIND YOU, AND YOU HEAR BOLTS BEING DRAWN ACROSS THE DOOR. THERE IS NO WAY BACK; IT IS YOU, OR THE DRAGON. GRIPPING THE AXE IN A GAUNTLETTED HAND, YOU STEP FORWARD, INTO THE HEAT.
But after the retro beginning, this turned into quite a different game than the swords ‘n’ sorcery setting I had been expecting.
The MENU command indicates this isn’t a game at all, but ‘interactive fiction’, and that there is no way of putting the game into an unfinishable position (always nice to hear as I have an unfortunate tendency to put games into an unfinishable position). One thing a claim like that does, for me anyway, is give me extra incentive to try and put the game into an unfinishable position for no other reason than to disprove the author’s claim. With “The Baron”, I’m pleased to say I failed miserably. The MENU command also points out that this isn’t a game for children, though the introduction (with its hero off to fight a fearsome dragon) does an excellent job of making you think otherwise. More of that later.
It’s difficult to write a review of a game without including some spoilers, but I’m probably not giving too much by saying that “The Baron” isn’t really a game about a heroic adventurer going off to kill a fearsome dragon. No, the game itself, what “The Baron” is all about, starts the moment you die…
The actual plot of the game. You’re not “The Baron” of the title as I’d first assumed (the hulking retro fellow with the battle axe off to the kill the dragon could have done with a name like “The Baron”) but instead a lumberjack whose nine year old daughter, Maartje, has been kidnapped by the evil baron. Why? Because he’s in love with her. So, armed with your axe, you set off to rescue her.
Only, of course, there’s a lot more to the storyline than that, including a somewhat disturbing twist at the end.
As said before, “The Baron” purports to be not a game but interactive fiction instead. A story in interactive format is what I thought when reading that. To a degree, it succeeds. There are no real puzzles, but at certain points during the game I came across… not ‘puzzles’, let’s call them ‘obstacles’… which I could either bypass in a number of ways or, simply, avoid altogether. The way I dealt with them affected later parts of the game in quite an interesting manner, leading me to replay certain parts early on to see what later parts I could change as a result.
I’m happy to say I didn’t encounter any actual bugs in the game. Nothing that brought things to a crashing halt, corrupted my saved game position or otherwise came across as hideously wrong. There were a few typos here and there (including “gauntletted” in the intro itself, which normally would have had the alarm bells ringing out loud considering the intro is the first thing in the game you see (but in fact I never even noticed the misspelling until later)) but nothing particularly terrible. English isn’t the writer’s first language, after all, and the game was translated from his native tongue, so a few typos are acceptable.
I didn’t find a single bug when playing through for the first time, and even on subsequent plays when I was actively trying to break the game to see how thoroughly it had been implemented, I came across only a few (although I did manage to twice drop the battle axe I was carrying at the very start of the game without picking it up in between). An encounter in a forest left me victorious over a dead wolf with another wolf moping around its corpse, yet when I tried to take the young wolf (I think I had an idea about saving it after I’d brutally massacred its mother) the game seemed to think I was still referring to the dead wolf and wouldn’t let me do anything to the still living one. When I tried to KILL WOLF, with the mother wolf dead and the younger wolf alive, the game told me I’d be better off saving my strength for the main villain of the piece, yet KILL YOUNG WOLF allowed me to deal with it anyway.
The only other problem I noticed was with the end game text which advises me I can LOAD a previously saved game position if I wish and have another go. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t recognise LOAD (only RESTORE) and I spent a few annoyed moments trying different combinations of LOAD, LOAD GAME, LOAD SAVED GAME before I figured out what I was doing wrong.
Inform’s parser annoyed me on occasion, though this is hardly a complaint against the game itself. When trying a time saving command like GET ALL, I’d often be faced with
PINE NIGHT TABLE: IN THIS STORY, THE PINE NIGHT TABLE HAS NO ROLE TO PLAY.
DOOR TO THE LANDING: THAT’S HARDLY PORTABLE.
HILLS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
WOODS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
MOON: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
STARS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
CHURCH: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
SNOW: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
VILLAGE: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
BARENTOPF: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
BED: THE BED IS TOO HEAVY.
CHAIR: IN THIS STORY, THE CHAIR HAS NO ROLE TO PLAY.
WARDROBE: THE WARDROBE IS TOO HEAVY.
CARVINGS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
CARVED HEARTS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
CARVED BIRDS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
CARVED FLOWERS: THAT IS NOT IMPORTANT IN THIS STORY.
WINDOW: THAT’S HARDLY PORTABLE.
which is kind of extreme, especially when you consider that there wasn’t a single item in the location that I could pick up (the command had actually been typed in case there were any items there that I’d missed at first glance). Surely THERE’S NOTHING HERE THAT YOU CAN CARRY would have been better?
Upon replaying “The Baron” for the purpose of writing this review, I found it to be a far deeper and more meaningful game than I had felt at the time I played it during the Spring Thing 2006 voting period. The different paths through the game, mainly changing the end dialogue between the player and Maartje in small but significant ways, added greatly to the replay value. Several times, in fact, I actually returned to previous saved game positions and replayed it through to the end to see how differently the ending would be if I did X instead of Y. While the final scene in the game remains the final scene no matter what you do, it can be affected in various ways depending on how you played earlier parts. There’s also a certain degree of satisfaction from replaying a game you’ve finished several times already and seeing new things about it that you never noticed on previous occasions.
The only real weakness with “The Baron” seems to be in the opening sequence, where the generic fantasy hero goes off to combat the generic fantasy monster. It seemed, even as a dream, to be out of context with the rest of the game. Is there a deeper meaning here? Is the dragon actually the monster the player has become and the hero his conscience come to rid him of his evil nature? Or am I simply reading too much into a scene that, after all, is over with after just a few short minutes?
“The Baron” won’t appeal to everyone. The end sequence especially won’t. While it’s possible, as I discovered after numerous runs through the game, to reach an ending that doesn’t involve the player having to carry out some pretty distasteful actions, it’s still a little disturbing that such actions are possible in the game. Maybe I’m just perverse, but the first action I tried when discovering Maartje in her room was one I felt would either not be recognised, or I’d be told off for even attempting such a thing, but the game did neither. It went ahead with what I’d typed, and then did all the other unpleasant and distasteful things as well. I suppose it’s my own fault for typing the commands in the first place, and I can hardly get indignant over it considering it was my option to type those things, but at the same time part of me wonders how necessary this unpleasant aspect of the game was. I’d reasoned out there was more to the game than simply a case of the lumberjack going to rescue his daughter from the evil baron sometime before I actually encountered the baron himself, and had an inkling or two in the cottage where the game starts proper that something wasn’t quite right with my character’s motivations, so in a way the explicit action that can take place at the end was a little superfluous. Sometimes unpleasant scenes are just as chilling when told “off camera”. Still, as I said before, I didn’t have to type the commands, so I can’t really complain over what happened as a result.
From start to finish, it probably took me around 40 minutes to finish “The Baron”, yet with the added replay value due to the different paths through the game, and attempting to see if I could change the ending, the actual time I spent on the game was a couple of hours. So it isn’t a large game by any means, but the relative shortness of it means it’s an easy one to replay time and again.
Overall I wouldn’t rate “The Baron” as a classic, and I wouldn’t recommend it to a newcomer to the IF scene, but it tells a first rate tale (a first rate adult tale, that is) and there’s enough positive about it for me to recommend to anyone wanting something a little edgier than the norm.
6 out of 10