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The difficulty is it's a game that can barely be discussed at any length without spoilers. I think this one is as spoiler-free as you'll find, but anything said about The Baron might be too much. In other words, reader beware.
The author's introductory text describes the story's theme as disturbing, shocking, and tragic. On the surface, it's about a missing girl and the father determined to save her from her captor, the evil Baron. I use the word "evil" because the game does ("x photo" in your bedroom, near the beginning). After that, it's left up to the reader. What kind of monster is the Baron? Can he be redeemed, or should he die? Is he a monster at all?
The story (if ever a work of Interactive Fiction wasn't a game, this is it) begins in a cave. You must slay the dragon, because nobody else will. I found no way to achieve this, but later events make it clear that you don't have to. After this, the main quest begins. Along the way - and it's a journey that feels much longer than it actually is - you encounter three obstacles. These are decision points, not puzzles. Each obstacle can be overcome in numerous ways. Not every way is obvious in a first play-through, and some of the multiple-choice decisions won't even make sense the first time. It should really be played at least twice. The second time, your decisions are likely to be wildly different - not because you're poking around for changes to the story, but because you will understand the story in an entirely different way.
Before setting out toward the Baron's castle, look around the house first. At the Baron's castle, it also pays to poke around. Even though the story lacks puzzles, it features bonus material for the observant reader. A torture chamber, found through a hatch under a rock at the castle, hints that things aren't exactly as they seem. Well, not so much that, but it's a good indication that the author is relying on symbolism to enhance the story.
In relating what has happened at the end of the story, the PC mentions nothing of a dragon. It stands to reason that the story's first scene was someone else's experience. If this is the case, it might have made more sense for the dragon to approach from a southern lair, while the PC stands firm. When it ends, the story offers no congratulations. You haven't won. You haven't lost. The final choices allow the player to affirm his or her convictions. The story doesn't tell you what's right and what isn't. You tell the story.
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." I can't help but treat IF as a game - even when the author tells me not to - because every decision affects the outcome. In The Baron, that's not the case. Some decisions affect the PC's dialogue at the end, but none of it affects the experience of the reader except to the extent that the decisions themselves are part of the experience. 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.
If all of this leaves you wondering just what you might be getting into if you try The Baron, by all means read a spoilery review. Even though this could soften the punch of experiencing it for yourself, you might be doing yourself a favor. You may say to yourself "bah - I can handle blood and gore and text- rendered pain." If that's what The Baron actually had in store for you, a disclaimer would be unnecessary.
It's difficult to say if The Baron hits the mark, without knowing what the mark was. The final choices in the walkthrough included with the Spring Thing version (available from the HELP menu) might be how the author imagines it. Most of us won't be able to feel compassion or empathy for the Baron, though - let alone identify (thank goodness) with the story itself. So, are these final decisions meaningful to us, as readers?
With precious little else to be said without delving into spoilers, some discussion of the design and craft is fitting. The story file is in .Z8 format, written in Inform. The English translation of the Dutch original (also included) is surprisingly good. Aside from a few typos, not much in the translation detracts from the experience. Even with a second play-through (or read-through) of some of the story, I found it easy to complete in an hour and a half. Certain bits - especially the dialogue - are presented in multiple choice lists. The rest of it, however, manages to maintain the traditional IF- style command system. You move around a map. You get, drop, and examine things. You open doors. You take an active part, just as IF is meant to be.
It's hard to describe The Baron as a good story, in the way a game can be a good game. It's an effective story. Appreciating it doesn't mean liking it. Even so, I can imagine the opinions of various readers will vary wildly. Some may say it was emotional. Some may say it wasn't. Some may say it was purposely manipulative. Some may say it was an honest and heart-rending story. Some may resent becoming an unwitting participant as the story unfolds. Some may describe it as grim. Some may feel entirely detached from it. Some may say it will receive accolades it doesn't deserve, while others may believe it to be unfairly criticized. Some may even say it's a story that didn't need telling.
I say... nothing, except that it was an interesting experiment. In the context of the Spring Thing competition, it's far too short (even adding a replay or two). I was moved (I'm a parent - how could I not be moved?), but this alone doesn't make it a clear winner when this year's competition features three other very good games. Scoring it is even harder than reviewing it. After some thought, I have settled on a middle-of-the-road score. It succeeds as Interactive Fiction, and it doesn't pretend to be a game. It fails as entertainment (for me), even though it's more like art for the sake of emotion. In another context, it might be a "9" or a "10". It should prove to be one of the most memorable works of 2006, regardless.
My Spring Thing Score: 6