Review: Baba is You

You’re trapped in a prison cell. The walls are concrete, the floor is concrete, and the light comes in through a single small window, which is both barred and completely out of reach. This prison cell, for the sake of the hypothetical, does not have a door. The only furniture in the room is an unremarkable wooden table of standard dimensions.

You do not have any special tools, knowledge or magical abilities. How do you get out?

Anything vaguely sensible is right out, and so is anything physically possible, even given superhuman abilities. The window is too high, you can’t call the guard, you don’t have so much as a spoon to dig with and can’t use your hands – besides, there are no Rita Hayworth posters on any of the walls. All you can do is bash your head against the table.

Until your head is sore. Then you use the saw to cut the table in half. Two halves make a whole, so you climb through the hole. Then, finding yourself free of the prison, you scream yourself hoarse and ride away on the horse.

It’s a puzzle that works better spoken than in writing, and may sound more clever or more contrived depending on the speaker’s accent, but you get the idea. I was reminded of it by a level in Arvi Teikari’s 2019 meta-sokoban game Baba is You named “Prison”, the initial state of which looks like this:

The player character is the white dog (?) – the titular Baba.

The player character is the white dog (?) – the titular Baba.

This Baba is You level employ a different kind of word play (and the solution is derivable without outside help) but it gave me a similar feeling to one I had when someone told me the first part of that puzzle. Here are a couple of characters trapped in an empty room, totally walled in, with no apparent tools to help them get out, but there must be a way.

Past about the first world, most Baba is You levels feel this way. You have a clear starting position, some idea of what the win condition looks like (this varies), but no idea how to get from one to the other.

I called Baba is You a meta-sokoban game above, because at base it’s a top-down 2D game about pushing boxes around to reach a win condition. You can play a more traditional variant of the genre here. The classic Chip’s Challenge is a more varied take on the idea, adding enemies, keys and doors and other gameplay elements to the box-pushing.

Baba is You takes this concept meta by making gameplay rules objects you can move around. In the first level, pictured below, there are four rules, expressed in quasi-English:

BABA IS YOU
FLAG IS WIN
WALL IS STOP
ROCK IS PUSH

As this is the first level, you don’t actually have to change any rules to complete it.

As this is the first level, you don’t actually have to change any rules to complete it.

In any other game, these are rules you would assume from genre conventions. But here, each word in each of these rules can be pushed around and used to create new rules. For example, you could push IS out of WALL IS STOP and walk through the level’s walls. You could swap WIN and PUSH to allow Baba to push the flag around and win the level by walking on top of one of the rocks. You could even push IS WIN under BABA to instantly win the level.

But as powerful as this mechanic makes you in the initial introductory levels, it can also be a source of weakness. If you break up BABA IS YOU at any point, without carefully arranging something else that IS YOU, the jaunty background music ceases and the game prompts you to undo your last action or restart the level. Many levels taunt you by forcing Baba into situations where she must push words out of her way to proceed through narrow passages, unavoidably forming IS DEFEAT rules that turn formerly harmless objects into instant death.

A key part of Sokoban challenges is that your character can push but cannot pull, and Baba is You uses this extensively to restrict easy solutions. A word being out in the open or pushed up against a wall or a corner can totally change the afforances in a given level. Incidentally, a PULL verb is introduced later in the game, but very seldomly will you use it on an already pushable object. And pull without push is just an inverted version of the same constraint.

The first ten or so levels act as a simple introduction to the game’s core rules and different ways you’ll be expected to manipulate them. Much of the standard Chip’s Challenge stuff is here – there are doors that can be SHUT and keys that can OPEN, red skulls that lead to DEFEAT if you tread on them, and non-player characters that can MOVE and may also lead to DEFEAT. But this is a game about words, not objects, so you won’t find keys and doors of matching colours or anything like that. And while the game’s initial puzzles give you a feeling of great power as you reshape the world in your image, before long this gives way to highly constrained starting positions you must experiment your way out of.

Baba is You is all about rules and their interactions and rewards experimentation and careful observation. What exactly does it mean for something to be OPEN or SHUT? How does that differ from the superficially similar pair of HOT and MELT? Conceits that could carry entire solid puzzle games of their own, such as having multiple Babas you must move in concert, are mere tools in individual levels.

The most difficult levels involve the sorts of subtle rule interactions that make you feel as through you’re exploiting bugs in the game. In this way, a difficult Baba is You level has a similar appeal to a technical CTF challenge without requiring the domain knowledge. The kinds of enumeration and experimentation required to complete levels reminds me of a complex exploit chain.

More generally, Baba is You rewards a programmer mindset. Like in most (sensible) programming languages, verbs are more important than nouns. YOU, WIN, STOP and PUSH have intrinsic meanings and behaviours, whereas BABA, FLAG, WALL and ROCK are largely interchangeable symbols. In the easier levels, there’s often nothing stopping you from making FLAG IS YOU and BABA IS WIN, and then completing the level by navigating the mobile flag onto the stationary Baba. The game emphasises this lack of meaning by having levels where Baba does not appear, and you play as a key or flag or something else.

Aesthetically, the game is very simple, with a rough hand-drawn style and quirky background music that manages not to be annoying even after multiple hours. Everything is drawn clearly enough to be distinct, and there are enough variations on common nouns in different settings (walls, hedges, cliffs, clouds; rocks, boxes, stars, rockets, etc) to keep things visually fresh through many, many levels. The squiggle-vision effect started to irritate me after a while, but thankfully it could be turned off in the graphics settings.

The overworld and its many areas.

The overworld and its many areas.

A phenomenal design choice, although it’s not something that forms part of the core gameplay, is the ability to undo/rewind your past actions all the way back to the start of the level. It’s very easy to render individual levels unwinnable by pushing the wrong thing into a corner, and being able to undo those kinds of mistakes without restarting the whole level ensures that any frustration Baba is You inspires is entirely about the intrinsic difficulty of its puzzles rather than arbitrary restrictions of its interface.

The one thing missing from Baba is You is a built-in hint system. But in the internet age, this is a minor weakness, as enthusiastic player Michael Matlock has kindly put together Baba is Hint, a website which provides an average of three increasingly specific hints for each level in the game, without outright providing the solution (which you can get from the wiki if you’re really stuck).

Personally, I find the smaller levels, where you have a very limited number of things to do and interact with, and have to make one or two specific mental leaps, to be preferable to the larger, more sprawling levels. The latter type becomes more numerous towards the end of the game, and can feel overwhelming in a way that even the most frustrating smaller levels do not.

Puzzle games like this one will invariably turn off people who don’t find the payoff of figuring out an obscure and difficult problem to be, in itself, worth hours of frustration, dead-ends and almost-perfect solutions. But if, like me, you do enjoy that payoff enough, Baba is You will provide many hours of exquisite mental anguish.

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