Baroque (1998, Sting Entertainment)
Baroque is a magnificent work of dark surrealism, horror and existential dread. It’s scarier than Resident Evil, more gothic than Quake. This game is like peering into a long nightmare from the depths of the unconscious, like peering into Purgatory or something worse. I dare you to play at night, sitting right in front of the couch, lights out, and no distractions. Play for an hour and then try to walk to bed without turning on all the lights. I dare you.
The game opens with an impressive CG sequence that raises mysteries and answers nothing. The setting appears to involve an apocalypse, a devastated wasteland, a hoard of disfigured mutants, friendly and hostile, dreamlike images of men in white lab coats, steampunk machinery. A face lies hidden inside a steel vat. Images of two lovers in embrace are twisted, distorted. On the horizon, an enormous towering mass of ball and steel, wire and rust beckons. You awaken in the ruins of a dead city, a desolation of metal, red lights and sand dunes. A large robed figure forbids entry into a building. Another creature with an enormously long neck cackles uncontrollably. A ghostly angel figure asks cryptic questions and hands you a weapon, invoking you to explore the depths of that great Neuro Tower in search of answers.
None of this makes sense, and that’s part of the design. Even if you understand Japanese, the dialog is darkly poetic, an endless series of suffering and lamentations. This place is probably where bad people go when they die. Everything is shrouded in dark shadow, illuminated only be occasional lighting, accompanied by the howling of winds and lost souls. Baroque is incomprehensible and very deliberately so. You are left feeling disoriented, confused, almost lost in a fog of amnesia. That sense of uncertainly will only accelerate once you enter the tower.
When you enter the tower, your goal is to descend over twenty levels in search of…what, exactly? Answers? Adventure? Cheap thrills? Have you ever felt tempted to explore an abandoned building that was supposedly haunted? That feeling in the pit of your stomach…that’s what this game is about, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.
At its heart, Baroque is a “Rogue-like” adventure game, patterned after the legendary computer game Rogue, which was defined purely by randomness. Every time you enter the Neuro Tower, the floors are different. One room may be eerily quiet, while the next is pulsating with throbbing, disgusting monsters and mutated freaks. Crucial items such as weapons, coats, and food may be in abundance or absent. You may find a sword that spits fire, or you find nothing and have to rely on your fists as your health steadily drains away.
And the most chilling cut of all: if you are killed, you will lose everything, absolutely everything. You will have to begin all over again. At the end of a stage, you are given the option to save your progress, but you can only use that save state once. After that, you’re on your own. This not only adds a tremendous amount of tension the further you progress (Minecraft’s “expert” mode pulls the very same mind trip on you), it also adds to that sense of disorientation and existential despair. You are born into a nightmare, you struggle to survive, you die, mysteries are revealed as you cross over, and then you awake again, cursed to live through the nightmare again. Baroque is like Groundhog Day for H.R. Giger freaks.
Baroque is a videogame that is loaded with style and atmosphere. When it’s not moody, it’s creepy. When it’s not creepy, it’s unsettling. When it’s not unsettling, it’s scaring the hell out of you. Expect a lot of cheap shocks. Remember that dog in Resident Evil? Yeah, Sting remembers. The last videogame that spooked me as much was Minecraft and it’s endless dark caverns crawling with Zombies and Skeletons and Creepers who always put the zap on you the moment you’ve let your guard down. Fascinating how both titles employ a first-person view and randomized level designs.
The graphics are absolutely sensational. Which is to say, they’re highly effective: rough and rusted, slow and brooding, heavy on the shadows, and illuminated by patches of red, white and green. It looks a lot like Lobotomy’s Quake, only less refined, but retaining all the grit and grime. Here is one example why the 32-bit graphics of the Saturn/Playstation era are so effective when done right. If you doubt me, then take a look at the Playstation 2/Nintendo Wii remake, which “improves” the graphics by removing everything that made them great in the first place. You don’t want smooth wall textures, bright lights, long draw distances, smooth frame rates or polygon anime dolls. You want ugly, roughshod buildings that look like they’re about to completely collapse. You want haunting mood lighting. You want grotesque creatures that are pre-rendered sprites (ala Donkey Kong Country). You want the uncanny, not the uncanny valley.
I can’t think of a single horror videogame that sticks in my gut the way Baroque does, that gnaws at me and leaves me checking the back of my couch for monsters. I’m probably going to have nightmares tonight. I may have to sleep with a cross and a copy of the Roman Ritual of 1614 under my pillow.