Baba is You (2019)

It is a rare occasion in which I get to play a truly innovative game. Games that push the boundaries of a unique concept can be difficult to come by. That is why I was excited to try the acclaimed puzzle game Baba is You. This indie game presents an elegant idea: rules are meant to be broken. This is a game about rules, and how you can manipulate them to reach your goal.

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Like many puzzle games, the premise of Baba is You is to get to the goal. The genius of the game is that the rules are ever changing. Each level is a square grid, and each rule is simply laid out for the player. It starts innocuous enough; the first level begins with rules such as “flag is win”, “Baba is you”, and “wall is stop”. You are a little white creature called Baba, you must make your win to the flag to win, and any wall in your way will stop you. What makes this game special is that the player can manipulate the rules as each word is movable. For example, you can push the word “wall” to break up the sentence “wall is stop”. Now that rule no longer exists, and you can freely walk through walls. Moreover, you can use whatever words are given to you to form new rules. In the previous example, you could use the given words to make “wall is win” to change the win condition of the level.

The idea behind Baba is You is absolutely phenomenal. In every game that I have played, rules are concrete. Through tutorials, text, or simple trial and error the player must deduce the mechanics of the game and how everything interacts. In Baba is You, every level has its own ruleset laid out in plain sight. It’s up to the player to manipulate those rules to their advantage. Breaking up sentences to invalidate troublesome barriers, or forming new rules that could prove useful. As the game progresses, new words begin appearing that could drastically change how levels need to be approached. Part of the beauty of the game is that despite the ever-changing rules, the win condition always remains the same: whatever object is “you” needs to be touching whatever is “win”. This inevitable end-state of any puzzle is a helpful starting point to begin thinking about how you can achieve victory.

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The most critical aspect to any puzzle game is its level design. Challenges must be creative and fully utilize the games mechanics, while at the same time having relatively simple solutions that are not obtuse. If you’ve played many puzzle games, I’m sure that you’ve run into a roadblock and after finally stumbling into the solution you say “how the hell was I supposed to figure that out”. Designers must avoid this feeling while simultaneously crafting puzzles that force you to think. Baba is You has fantastic level design. Most solutions are simple to execute and don’t require some obscure mechanic. The designs are ingenious in that most levels require some trick or tactic that any other level hadn’t utilized yet, but remain simple and seem obvious once you discover the solution.

Moreover, Baba is You utilizes its unique premise to challenge preconceived notions. Most gamers are going to have internal habits that are going to be broken. You are going to make false assumptions about how to beat a level, and the developer was fully aware of that. Many of the levels have this uncanny quality to exploit the player’s desire to immediately attempt an obvious solution. It baits you into using an object the same way that you’ve used it so many times before, but that assumption will only lead you away from the goal. Many times, you feel so close to solving a puzzle, but in reality, you are so far off from the correct solution.

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Additionally, for a game that is all about breaking rules Baba is You is remarkably good at stopping unintentional or “cheese” solutions from working. Again, it felt like the developer thought of every way a person could attempt to solve a level and prevented everything but the intended solution from working. The final note on level design that I want to touch on is the ability for each level to foster an “aha!” moment. It’s a great feeling when you figure out some trick that you hadn’t thought of before that makes the puzzle a breeze. Baba is You excels at creating those sensations when a level finally clicks.

One of the most important aspects to Baba is You is how relatively easy it is to get into. Some of my favorite puzzle games are notoriously unapproachable. Stephen’s Sausage Roll and SHENZHEN I/O are both confusing and cumbersome for new players, and as a result many people don’t give the games a fair chance. Baba is You is comparably simple to pick up and play. The game starts with extremely easy levels for the player to grasp the basics. Moreover, while there are over 200 individual levels, you only need to complete a few dozen to beat the game. You can pick and choose which levels you want to do, so if you get stuck on one particularly troublesome puzzle, you can skip it entirely and try something else.

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Despite Baba is You being easy to pick up, it can be an extremely challenging game. While the beginning sections of the game are there to ease new players in, there is plenty of optional content that will test even the most veteran puzzler. The final few sections of the game in particular are insane. These parts are entirely optional, but they utilize a rapidly expanding ruleset and rely on meta solutions. How you complete one puzzle may affect another puzzle, and how to get to the next puzzle is dependent on how you completed a previous puzzle. I don’t want explain too much, as it may ruin the surprise for people who do want to experience these sections. It suffices to say that Baba is You truly maximizes the potential of its concept and it boasts plenty of difficult content.

My single point of contention with Baba is You comes from the moments where a level truly stumps the player. Baba is You relies on players to experiment with the rules on their own, nothing is explained outright. It is up to the player to figure out how each rule and object interacts. For the most part, this is a good thing. It respects the player’s intelligence and rewards creative use of rule manipulation. It also fosters those “aha” moments I spoke of before. The problem arises in that it can be a common occurrence where a puzzle completely stumps the player.

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The issue is that nearly every single level in the game relies on some trick to complete it. Once you figure out the trick, the level seems elegant and simple. But if you haven’t figured it out then the puzzle is quite literally impossible. In other puzzle games, there is usually a series of moves or steps to get to the goal; you can make intermittent progress towards the finish as you figure out each individual step. Baba is You on the other hand relies on grand revelations and “aha” moments, so it may so happen that you stare at a puzzle for an hour and have made no progress. While these moments are frustrating, I do have to commend the game for providing a way to avoid this. As previously mentioned, you don’t have to complete every puzzle to beat the game. If one is stumping you, you can avoid it entirely. While I did end up 100% completing every puzzle in the game, any moment of frustration was self-inflicted because the game provides the option to circumvent any particularly tricky levels.

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Something about Baba is You clicked for me in a way no other puzzle game has. It has a truly remarkable premise and incredibly designed logic-based puzzles. In a way, it reminds me of the enjoyable side of programming. Logically stringing together rules and statements to solve some problem is inherently satisfying to me. It is for these reasons that I give Baba is You a 10/10. I highly recommend this game for anybody who enjoys puzzles as it may be the best puzzle game ever made.

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