For a little over ten years now, I’ve been having a series of recurring dreams. In them, I have to search a large building to find a woman, but I always wake up right as I’m about to make contact with her. These are the only consistent details, everything else changes. The building can be anything from a school, a shopping mall, a packed warehouse, or a large grocery store. The person I have to find always looks different, and is in a different room. I always get lost in different places or distracted in different ways. It’s the same dream, yet it is also never the same dream twice.
Dreams are something that have been replicated in games more or less as long as games have existed. Well, attempted to replicate in games, I should say. The problem is that adapting a dream into a game falls into the same trap that dreams in other forms of media fall into: they are too linear, too literal. The only thing that separates a dream sequence from a standard shot in any visual media is a hazy filter over the camera lens. It’s hokey and unrealistic, and I find myself utterly despising the use of dreams in 99% of any media. The game I’m writing about today is in that 1%.
Baroque is a 1998 a surrealist RPG developed by Sting (of Knights in the Nightmare fame) for the Sega Saturn, then later for the Sony Playstation, with a remake ten years later for the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. It is a game set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, where a global heat wave has completely warped and distorted the face of the planet, leaving humanity either dead or mutated into hideous creatures (Distorted Ones, as they are known). The nameless protagonist is an amnesiac, assigned the blame for the heat wave, handed a strange looking gun, and told to descend to the bottom floor of a looming structure called the Nerve Tower. On the bottom floor lives God, chained up and driven insane. Your objective is to fight through the monsters that live in the tower, and shoot God with the gun you have been given. However, every time you accomplish this (or if you choose to spare God), time begins to shift, and space and time of the world is reset to before you entered the Nerve Tower. By completing various story events, the Tower gets deeper and deeper, until you can stop the shifting of time and finish the game properly. Needless to say, Baroque is not exactly grounded in reality.
Now, what does this have to do with dreams? The thing about Baroque is that it is a Roguelike. In other words, each time you enter the Nerve Tower, level layouts, as well as the locations of enemies and items are different. No two runs of the tower are the same. Like a recurring dream, Baroque is the same story being told every time, but it is also different in small yet significant ways. You have the same objective: get to the basement and kill God, but the basement gets further and further away each time. You get distracted from this objective in different ways, like having to bring certain items to and from the surface. Completing your objective furthers the plot and provides you with new dialogue from NPCs, and dying does the same thing. NPCs change and sometimes even die as the game’s story progresses, but the goal remains the same. In lieu of potions, the roguelike item of choice in Baroque are bones, and eating one that is designed to damage enemies will cause you to break your teeth. Baroque is the one of the best adaptations of the concept of dreams I’ve ever seen. I have no idea if that was Sting’s intention, but they nailed it regardless.
I’ve been using the term “recurring dream” but, at risk of sounding a bit cliche, Baroque is more of a recurring nightmare. The industrial environments, with the inside of the tower looking like a factory, showing the player the the Great Heat Wave is something that may have been manufactured by man, and not some divine act. The low draw distance hiding something hideous that wants to kill you. Each new floor drops you in a random location, where you can easily be surrounded by multiple Distorted Ones. Enemies are aggressive, and respawn frequently, ensuring that are never completely safe in a level. You are constantly wary of what’s around the corner, or what’s behind you, or where that noise you just heard is coming from. All of which is set to an aggressive industrial soundtrack. Baroque is oppressive. Baroque is a game designed to give you anxiety, and it most likely will succeed in that. Mechanically, Baroque doesn’t do anything different than other roguelikes insofar as player and enemy placement, but the atmosphere of Baroque is what makes it so much different on a spiritual level. I don’t feel the same levels of stress playing other games the way I have with Baroque. This strange juxtaposition of playing similar to other rougelikes, or even other games (the real-time combat could be likened to From Software’s King’s Field), but being so unlike any game I have ever played; this anxious fever dream that feels so bizarre and yet so familiar all at once. Games like this don’t get made very often. Hell, Sting themselves remade the game and, while it plays well and is still among my favorite games on the Wii, still couldn’t capture the spirit of the original, like so:
Baroque is among the best games I have ever played in my life. One of those games that is going to stick with me forever. The kind of thing that you experience, then question your own creative skills afterwards, unsure if you will ever create something a fraction as good as this. Please play Baroque for yourself.