This is the World We Created: Baroque and Poetic Form

This is the World We Created: Baroque and Poetic Form

This month saw the release of a fan translation patch for the Playstation version of the 1998 Sega Saturn roguelike action RPG Baroque: Yuganda Mousou [Distorted Delusions], developed by Sting (best known for the Dept. Heaven series) and previously only available in English in the form of a 2007 remake for Playstation 2 and Wii localized by Atlus. Despite lukewarm critical appraisal and general public disinterest outside of a small, dedicated niche following, it retains its vitality, allure and beauty. It is a relief and a gift that Baroque is now available to English speakers in a more authentic form, and this piece is in part an enthusiastic recommendation of this version of the game, and also an argument for Baroque as an exemplar of the relationship between video games and poetry.

Garden of Destinies

During its initial development, writer-director Kazunari Yonemitsu (creator of Puyo Puyo) described Baroque as a “miniature garden of destinies,” possibly riffing on Shigeru Miyamoto’s design aesthetic for The Legend of Zelda. The miniature garden framework is a game design principle, but it’s also a model for poetic form, as a compressed compositional space in which to shape and arrange a defined set of symbolic and functional elements. While poetry and games in general share a deep affinity according to this definition, Baroque specifically uses the roguelike genre as a device for organizing and fragmenting text through repetition and development across space and time and through action in a way which brings this relationship to light in a rich and compelling way.

Baroque

In its initial premise, Baroque follows a nameless, amnesiac clone protagonist haunted by guilt after an apocalyptic event, given an Angelic Rifle by a holographic Archangel in order to “purify” the “insane” God of Creation and Preservation, who is held at the bottom floor of the Nerve Tower. From a narrative perspective, the Archangel’s goals resonate with a traditional approach to video games’ structural fragmentation — reach the last level and shoot a big gun that will somehow collapse this open system into a resolved singularity from which a new, stable and integral world will be born — The End.

However, this is transparently impossible; successfully following the Archangel’s commands only leads to another arising cycle and a further step towards Baroque’s real endgame, which embraces unrepaired collective brokenness, pain and dispersal as the preconditions of love. Once the player achieves this ending, the game continues — nothing has changed besides the characters’ resolved disposition towards the “gaminess” of their world.

Naturally, this is true of all games; like a poem, a game only exists as a sustained, diffuse web to be “read,” never resolving into an external outcome entirely separable from the aesthetic configuration which expresses its coherency and meaning. Significantly, the sequence of tasks the player must perform in order to progress all involve retrieving and reconciling to memory and past events. The cyclical tower runs don’t so much propel the narrative towards a future resolution as retroactively entrench the game in the effaced history which formed it in the fictional world, and in doing so allow the characters to accept it as it is.

Loop World

Baroque’s doomed miniature garden portrays the exhausted aftermath of a dying universe on a toy ensemble scale. Reducing characters to wraithlike vessels, the impression is of a family of symbolic figures that belong together as a set, rather than individuals to pick out from a cast. Horned Woman and Sack Thing are hollow and reflective, gradually echoing the thoughts of the protagonist and others, respectively. Even those endowed with personal emotions (such as Neck Thing and Guardian Angel) generally express them as obsessive, iterative repetitions of pre-apocalyptic guilt or trauma rather than living affects. We are encouraged to view them less as lifelike characters and more as evolving textual nodes in a defined network undergoing what Yonemitsu described as “multilayered development and structural change,” spatially fixed figures responsible for delivering individual voices in Baroque’s overall poetic and functional texture.

The figures outside of the tower maintain their static configuration throughout the game despite their changes in state, and the NPCs inside the tower always appear on specific levels, despite the procedurally generated layout of the floors themselves. Of course, the game also playfully bends several of these conventions, imbuing Coffin Man with a coarsely self-aware personality matching his role as a tutorial operator, and even enabling one of the Worker Angels to move through the tower across successive runs; the latter’s unique and ill-fated traversal marks the beginning of the game’s final stretch.

Baroque

Like many games, Baroque balances a cyclical loop structure with incremental change. As a roguelike, it amplifies this tension between repetition and development. The protagonist spawns outside of the Nerve Tower, attempts a run to the bottom, and resets when he dies or survives to the lowest floor currently accessible and either shoots or attempts to merge with God. Survival during runs depends on the strategic use and combination of items collected on the randomly generated floors, alongside minimalistic, traditional action-based combat (a very early example of this genre hybrid). After each reset, the protagonist returns to his starting level without the items he was carrying upon death, although it’s possible to transfer items in the tower or mark them with a brand in order to store them for future runs. The world state advances under several conditions, including completing runs and giving specific NPCs particular items, but much of the game’s text only manifests through continual resets and varied interactions.

Poetry in Motion

The run-based form of the roguelike genre imposes a regular evolving structure onto the game, but the nature of its progression flags and dialogue conditionals, along with the volatility inherent to its gameplay, means that this structure is complex and dependent on player action. The threat of permadeath permeates the moment to moment feel of the game, and repetition opens up textual variation, affects strategy, and establishes the rhythm of play. While conveying a heavy atmosphere of dread and mystery, Baroque also embraces morbid, chaotic slapstick in its gameplay. Though it isn’t extremely difficult, it encourages the player to relish the experience of being stunlocked to death while wading through demon-clogged corridors with reversed controls and multiple status ailments, or realizing too late that a harmless-looking box item you picked up a few minutes ago has gradually turned everything in your inventory into replicas of itself.

Baroque

While strongly influenced in gameplay by the popular early Mystery Dungeon console roguelikes, Yonemitsu is open about the sources Baroque drew on beyond its own medium. Among the most intriguing of these include the cult, playfully avant-garde 90s fashion label 20471120 (a personal favorite), and Shusuke Kaneko’s ethereal boys’ love melodrama Summer Vacation 1999, a film whose loop-like structure, subtle sci-fi mechanical design, and themes of guilt, longing, intimacy and doppelgänger-like cyclical rebirth clearly informed the the tone of the game. Yonemitsu was also interested in poetry, evidenced not only by overt in-game references to poet Sakutarō Hagiwara but also by his own Baroque-related dynamic modular poem experiments following the release of the game. This is no surprise; Baroque is, like the medium itself, in its own way one of many heirs to the strategies of nonlinear textual spatialization and open reading developed in the past 125 years of modern poetry since Mallarmé.

I have shied away from describing Baroque’s writing itself as “poetic.” Though its prose is often fractured, stylized or ambiguous, that is less significant in the context of my argument than how it distributes and presents that text. In fact, the aesthetic strategies and the relationship to poetry I have described could apply as much to a nearly wordless shmup as to a narrative RPG, and vice versa; read Mallarmé’s “A Throw of Dice Never Will Abolish Chance,” and let your eyes move back and forth across the pages as though they’re tracking a wave of bullet patterns. Nonetheless, Baroque is a special game, one that displays a rare courage and single-minded artistic ambition beyond the vivid atmosphere for which it’s best known. I hope it will now begin to take its place in the hearts of many new players.