Replaying The BaronPosted by Martin on 10th June, 2012
The following post will contain spoilers for Victor Gijsbers’ The Baron. It is highly recommended that you play through it first, although be aware that the game carries a large trigger warning for sexual violence. To read more, click through below.
Included in the recommended section at the back of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, I went into Victor Gijsbers’ The Baron knowing little more than that it was about a man whose daughter had been kidnapped by the titular Baron. Setting out, I kissed my wife goodbye as she pretended to be asleep, pausing only to grab an axe from the front garden. The Baron’s note filled me with righteous anger, and it wasn’t until I reached the gargoyle that I began to realise that the protagonist was perhaps not the rugged hero that he perceived himself to be.
The theme of repetition in games is often a critique of the form, in which thousands of players explore the same landscape in subtly different ways. It’s something which The Stanley Parable unpacked perfectly; the linear video game is a medium structured around minor choices leading towards one of (at most) a handful of end points. Player choice is always an illusion, as the single player game is ultimately a curated experience, funneling you towards a certain conclusion.
In The Baron, however, this aspect of the medium is leveraged to represent the cycle of abusive behaviour, and the myriad self-justifications and societal failings which allow it to continue. Regardless of your actions and your motivations, the player is forced to the same conclusion, with no suggestion that there is a lasting way to escape. Even if you end by committing suicide, the cycle repeats as soon as the next player begins the game. The medium is the message; the endless cycle of self-justification, despair, and regret that characterises abusive behaviour is expressed by the inevitability of your own actions. By allowing the player to take a thousand different paths and having them all lead to the same bedroom door, Gijsbers represents the way abuse continues, even if the player chooses to defy it and try to change on this particular night.
Failure is built into the system. The gargoyle makes it clear that the protagonist has made this journey many times, both a comment on the father’s delusionary behaviour and the player’s capitulation to his perspective on repeated playthroughs. At one point, the father condemns the townsfolk: “Where are they when you need them? Why is there not a single one among them with the guts to free Maartje?” Upon replay, the player is morally placed alongside the townsfolk in this situation, aware of the situation and yet unwilling to act. We watch and yet we do nothing, our actions only propelling the narrative unavoidably forward.
Although the internal voice of the father struggles with the idea of redemption, the video game form counteracts the idea of breaking the cycle without radical change. In this way, there is perhaps a kernal of a positive message here. In one of the endings, the player character leaves, swearing to never again submit to his abusive desires. While well-intentioned, it rings hollow in light of the meta-narrative of repetition and failure. By creating a game in which the end of abuse relies on more than the resolve of the abuser, the message of the text seems to be that change takes radical societal action rather than individual promises. The only way to change the outcome, it implies, is to change the script.
The player, in line with the town’s passivity, is culpable as long as they remain passive, and despite being unable to change the story of the game – at least without taking apart the file yourself – players are confronted with their responsibility to respond to the abuse which “everybody must have seen”. This abuse does not exist in a vacuum, and we are all ultimately culpable for it, by watching and failing to act.
I’m reminded of this powerful advert by POWA. Events like this are replayed over and over around the world, and the message I took from the game – the small light at the end of an incredibly dark and upsetting tunnel – is that, while one person’s moral turpitude may guide them one way or another, it takes a community to prevent abuse.
Please consider donating to your local women’s shelter or child abuse support charity. If you’re in the UK, you can text ACT to 70300 to donate £3 to Women’s Aid, or you can use this service or any of a number of others online to find your local shelter. Thanks.