The Baron

Parsing Motivation

Interactive Fiction
Victor Gijsbers

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.

The design uses -- and takes full advantage of -- the text adventure format. Many parsed commands are followed by a multiple-choice question, asking us why we've made the choice we made. The motivation then colors the description that follows. Killing a small animal out of sadism is shown as a very different from killing it as an act of mercy.

Perhaps as a result of that form, the Baron often feels much more like a thought experiment than like a game. There are a few things that we might consider puzzles, but most of the interaction is about talking to characters and confronting moral dilemmas, where every choice has some bearing on the thematic issues at work. Besides, some of the dilemmas seem rather evidently contrived in order to get at the same theme again and again from a variety of perspectives, both in the protagonist's real life and in the metaphors of dream and fantasy.

Nonetheless, this in service of difficult and daring content. The Baron makes an interesting comparison with Molleindustria's Operation: Pedopriest. Operation: Pedopriest is all about institutional corruption, about the Church's will to cover up its unsavory secrets; my chief reaction on trying it was horrified disgust, which I am sure was intended. Operation: Pedopriest more or less ignores the humanity of the priests themselves. The Baron ignores the institutional problems and looks at the individual ones instead. It asks: have pedophiles crossed a line so that they are no longer people at all? At what point do humans become monsters? If someone discovers these inclinations in himself, what should he do? What is it possible to forgive? To redeem? What does it say about the rest of society if there are certain kinds of people we do not bother trying to reform? And at the same time, how can we help abusers while denying them any further opportunity to abuse?

The Baron is neither funny nor reassuring, and it refuses to provide a clear, game-like answer to its very difficult question. It does, however, present a novel approach to presenting ethical issues in a game format. It's not exactly fun, but it's worth playing anyway.

N.B.: The Baron was built using the Z-machine, an interactive fiction engine originally created by Infocom. To play the game, you need to install a Z-machine interpreter on your machine, and download the game file. We link to Z-machine interpreters for PC, Mac, and Linux above--you can probably find them for other devices, too.


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I always recommend this game

I always recommend this game to friends as an example of IF's storytelling potential. I've always been impressed by how the Baron did interesting things with the medium of interactive fiction, particularly in emphasizing letting you choose how you feel about a certain action and how you rationalize/atone for it. So the game is amazing on a sort of... gameplay (?) level, but I never really considered it on a thematic level. The content, for me, was subordinate to his experimentation with the form.

So anyways, I just wanted to thank you for the review and I'll try playing it again to really look at the content this time instead of the gameplay.

wtg PTT!1!!

Hey, it's great to see a write-up of The Baron. Gijsbers definitely is one of the most interesting up-and-coming interactive fiction writers I've seen.

PTT is plain rocking lately. I'm not what you would call a 'video gamer' but the content and presentation here might turn me into one. Nice work guys.

Exploring The Baron

I only recently played this and I found myself enjoying it. There were several things I wanted to comment on.

First, I'm glad it came up with "Type MENU if this is your first time playing The Baron, even if you're an experienced IF player". The things that came up explained a bit about how you "should" play the game; specifically that it's impossible to "lose" and you really can't make a "wrong" decision. That's rather reassuring and I think it puts you into the right frame of mine to enjoy the game. I think more games should have little notes like that. (If I go into a game expecting one thing and I get something else...but that's an issue for another time.)

Secondly...The main "revelation" in the game is interesting. Whenever I see something like that, I always worry that the player won't actually "get" it and become frustrated. This time I got it, but I don't feel as though I can judge whether everyone will get it. I really don't know.

Third, I liked that everything was basically "about" the same thing. If you go back and play the game again...or just think about playing it...Really, everything that happens is just another view of the same situation, once you figure out the core concept. Even some simple descriptions have hidden depths to them. ("talk to hilde" is a good command to try.)

Fourth, in terms of exploring an ethical dilemma...I found myself thinking "Oh, well, this is the right way to resolve this situation so I'll just pick the correct response each time". In other words, the game just showed me how confident I am in my beliefs. I guess that says more about me than the game. But I was also pleased to see that the game was willing to go along with everything I did, which shows that it was well crafted.

Great immersion.

It's true that the MENU scren was helpful, but I just read, quite by chance, because I didn't want to read something in order to read more (I don't like forewords), the part about how what you do doesn't really matter, like you dont have to ransack every single room, use items on others, etc, and that's everyhting that needs to be said, really.
knowing that, I was able to enjoy a smooth, natural-feeling gaming experience, and did everything as I wanted to.
The game is indeed very well crafted, taking into account all the actions you undertook, and, again, feeling very natural.
Plus it's short, and very interesting.
Play this thing.