Baba is You

Baba is You, released just under a month ago, was one of my hotly-anticipated titles of 2019. The original version, created for a game jam two years ago, left a strong impression of unexplored potential, and I’m happy to say that the commercial version explores that potential fairly thoroughly, and even goes beyond what I imagined possible. It’s a lovely, lovely puzzle game where a large percentage of the puzzles expose new possibilities, and require you to think about things in new and different ways.

The basic idea of the game is that the rules of the game exist in the same space as the things they apply to, and can be manipulated in the same way: via Sokoban-style turn-based block pushing. Each level is a grid of simple icon-like sprites, each single-colored and running a three-frame wiggle animation like an indie cartoon from the 90s. Some of those sprites are words, and the words form sentences, reading across or down, defining how the other sprites interact, like WALL IS STOP (wall icons form an impassable barrier), ROCK IS PUSH (rocks move when another moving object moves into them), and FLAG IS WIN (standing in the same place as a flag passes the level). Words can be pushed around, and changing the rule sentences changes the rules. Break up WALL IS STOP by pushing one of its words out of line, and walls are no longer obstacles, and become instead mere background decorations, like any other sprite without rules. As the game progresses, more words are introduced, always without explanation: the only text is the text of the in-game rules, so only by experiment can you figure out exactly what BELT IS SHIFT or BOX HAS KEY means.

It may sound very free-for-all, but the puzzles soon start locking away particular crucial rules behind walls, or placing them against the edges of the level, to prevent you from changing them. Sometimes the crux of a puzzle is a realization about what can and can’t be changed. Also, even when a particular rule change is possible, it isn’t always easy. Text has physicality. It can be awkward to rearrange it into the configuration you want. By the same token, text having physicality means that it can be used physically without regard to its semantics: pushing a word into a pool of water to fill it up, for example, or using a sentence to support a falling object. The best puzzles require you to manipulate form and content at the same time.

The most important predicate for these rules is YOU. Every level has a YOU statement, usually (but not always) BABA IS YOU — Baba is a sort of white oval-shaped quadruped. Apparently there’s some controversy over whether Baba is a sheep or a rabbit, but as far as I’m concerned, Baba is simply a Baba. (In the original game jam version, Baba looked kind of like a robot.) At any rate, the YOU property defines what the player controls, so if you break it apart, you wind up in control of nothing, a dead state emphasized by replacing the background music with an ominous rumble. But you can often push another noun into the place of BABA, effectively swapping your identity, turning some other game element animate while rendering Baba inert. Baba can then have other properties assigned to make it useful, or can even be transformed into a different object, with sentences like BABA IS KEY.

I’ve said before that one of the most distressing notions to my mind is that of a person turning into an inanimate object, a mere tool that someone thinks has more utility than the person did. This is the height of horror to me. Somehow, Baba is You doesn’t provoke this reaction. I think it’s partly because of the high degree of abstraction, but also partly because of the ease with which inanimate objects can be made animate. The rumbling void of absence-of-YOU remains fairly disturbing, though. There are a few puzzles that actually require you to temporarily abandon your presence in the world, to destroy the YOU rule and wait for autonomous movers (that is, things with an IS MOVE rule) to put it back together somewhere else, and it’s always a little scary. What if you got the positioning wrong and never come back? The game lets you undo arbitrarily many moves, so it’s not like you can’t get things back the way they were, but it has an effect nonetheless.

I’ve seen the game recommended to mathematicians in particular, and there’s something to that. The whole thing is not just mathematically abstract but aggressively formalist. Making any headway requires subduing your intuitive understanding of these icons and embracing the idea that they only have whatever meanings assigned to them, which can be changed if convenient. A few puzzles even tweak your assumptions by not giving things the properties you expect — for example, giving you a locked door that you can’t figure out how to pass until you realize that you can just walk right through it because there’s no DOOR IS STOP rule — but that sort of trick is kind of cheap, so it isn’t used very often.

Where it really starts getting mathematicianly, though, is in the later portions of the game, where it starts going recursive, and applying rules to layers of the game that you thought were outside them. (And we’ll be getting substantially more spoilery from this point on.) Like when it introduces the word TEXT. Text has always behaved like there was an implicit TEXT IS PUSH rule, but once you actually have the word TEXT to play with, you can alter its behavior in other ways. You can even turn all the text in the level to another object with a sentence like TEXT IS ROCK, although this is the very worst thing you can do, because it immediately erases all the rules, including the YOU rule. What about ROCK IS TEXT? What text does the rock become? The text ROCK, it turns out. Anything can be turned into its name. This is the sort of surprising-yet-inevitable result that really seems like a joke until you start finding puzzles that rely on it.

And that’s not the end of it. We get a word WORD, which is distinct from TEXT in that it’s a predicate, not an object type: any object of a type that IS WORD can be used in a rule as if it were text. And so the lines between the physical and the abstract blur a little more — although, frankly, the icons used aren’t all that much less abstract than the words. Both the text ROCK and the little monochrome picture of a rock are just representations of rock-ness, which is, again, an empty concept, its meaning totally contingent on the rules in the level.

Then there’s LEVEL, which is where the game really starts exceeding expectations. What happens when you can assign an attribute to the entire level you’re on? The answers largely make sense. If you make LEVEL IS WIN, you win the level. If you make LEVEL IS PUSH, then you can move the viewport around by pushing at the edges of the screen. And if you manage to make something like LEVEL IS FLAG, you wind up changing the level’s icon on the overworld map, which seems like a neat little easter egg, until you realize that it has consequences. The overworld map has always had the two basic rules, BABA IS YOU and FLAG IS WIN, off in the corner, and they seemed like mere decoration, because there is no baba or map at that level, just a cursor. But once you can make a Baba and a flag? You can actually win the map.

And, as always happens when you win a level, you wind up in the map containing it. This is the start of the game’s secret second half. That is, it’s substantially less than half the game going by number of levels, but it’s easily more than half by play time. There is an “ending” you can reach without discovering this, that displays the credits and everything, but it’s kind of like the false ending in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: you’re nowhere near actually done with the game. I’m really impressed with this, because it’s uncovered by exactly the sort of “Let’s try this and see what happens” experimentation that’s been necessary throughout the game, just applied in an unexpected place, in what had previously seemed like a glorified menu. But hey, breaking this kind of hierarchy is what the game is all about.

This leads into a sequence of three maps and a smallish epilogue map. (I’ve completed the epilogue and gotten the “real” ending, but there are still some puzzles I haven’t solved, so I don’t consider myself really done with the game. There may be more secrets I haven’t seen.) The interesting thing about these later maps is the way they increasingly blur the distinction between level and map, putting more puzzle-objects into the maps, and integrating the levels, previously self-contained, into a map-level over-puzzle. First there are levels that the cursor can’t reach without being carried by a YOU. Then there are levels that are easy to “win”, but where the main puzzle is clearly to turn the level into some other object. Then there’s the glorious moment when you figure out how to turn objects on the map into levels. I think the pinnacle of this is a certain level in the map called “Meta” where the conditions on the map affect the solvability of a level — previously, causality had only reached outward, not inward, a constraint that I hadn’t even noticed until it become necessary to violate it.

The true final level is a victory lap, easily beaten once you’ve reached it, rewarding the player with cake. (You can stick the WIN clause on a number of different objects, but the cake really seems like the right one.) It does, however, afford the player an opportunity to destroy the universe, which is really something that more final levels should have. After that, it’s possible to unlock a concept art room, which is something I generally find uninteresting, unless, as in DROD, it has interesting interactivity. That’s certainly the case here: you’re given the usual interface, the words IMAGE, IS, and a bunch of individual letters. To view art, you have to spell out numbers: IMAGE IS O N E, IMAGE IS T W O, etc. You can get all the way through TEN this way, but there’s no L, so you can’t make ELEVEN. It is, however, able to recognize larger numbers that can be made with the letters available, such as FOURTEEN. There’s an M among the letters, which puzzled me at first, because there’s no number with an M in it (other than ones containing MILLION, but, again, no L). Then I tried MINUSONE and it worked. Typical of this game, to keep on rewarding speculative experimentation like this even in the extras.

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