Puzzle games, at their best, inspire a certain instant joy when the player is able to see the intentions of the game’s designer in the puzzles. It comes from that nearly audible click that happens when you stop thinking about the game in terms of what you need to do and start understanding how you need to think in order to play effectively.
Baba Is You multiplies that rush because before there can be a breakthrough, the player needs to design the rules of the puzzle. It’s not about thinking like someone who is trying to solve a mystery; it’s about thinking like a game designer who has total control over the in-game objects, including how they work and what they do.
GOTY #4: Baba Is You
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Baba Is You is a two-part puzzle game, and the second part is straightforward. The player needs to touch an on-screen goal to finish the puzzle. Often, that goal is blocked by an obstacle that must be overcome in some way, such as a river to cross. It’s nothing new. But before that can happen, players must create a condition where they can make the puzzle winnable. Each level gives you the parts you need to succeed, but you have to arrange them yourself first.
How elegant is this design? The game’s title itself, Baba Is You, works as a tutorial that explains its main mechanic. Players have to manipulate the syntax of each’s puzzles rules in order to solve it. Nothing has inherent behavior. Any object’s role can be reassigned to meet an objective so long as the rules are manipulated to make it so.
Here’s an example to make sense of the concept. In the first puzzle, I see a white rabbit on one side of a hallway and a flag on the other side, separated by a barrier of rocks. Visible are also four sets of rules: Baba Is You, Flag Is Win, Wall Is Stop, and Rock Is Push. In this case, since I am Baba — because Baba Is You — I control my little rabbit to push the rocks out of the way and touch the flag to win.
The rock isn’t the only thing that can be pushed around, though. In every puzzle, the ingredients that make up the rules can also be freely pushed around to change what’s possible. There’s nothing stopping me from rearranging the first part of these rules to make my own win conditions. Rock could be Win. So could Wall. I can even turn myself into the Flag and make Baba the win condition. It’s this immediate flexibility that makes the most rudimentary puzzle a joy to play around with — and the game’s later puzzles mind-bending.
While the first puzzle doesn’t make it obvious that rules are meant to be broken, the second puzzle hammers the idea home immediately. In it, I’m trapped within four walls, since Wall Is Stop. To win, I literally have to break the rules. If I push Wall out of the way so it no longer completes a rule, then there are no rules governing what the walls do; they just become pixels on the screen. And if they are nothing, I can waltz right through them to complete the puzzle. Changing and breaking rules is everything in Baba Is You.
But flag isn’t always win, and I’m not always Baba. That’s because Baba Is You’s later puzzles build off these basic ideas to create something much more nuanced and interesting. As I dig deeper into the game’s well of ideas, sometimes I have to use its pliable rules to further subvert my expectations to do things such as pushing aside rivers like I’m Moses, controlling two characters at once, or changing objects altogether.
It’s up to me to rearrange, manipulate, and remix what I previously thought about how the game’s systems work. While other puzzle games might throw in elements from multiple puzzles to spice things up, Baba Is You has me rewriting the rules of each puzzle to overcome the game’s biggest head-scratchers.
Thankfully, each puzzle is its own self-contained challenge that I could come back to whenever I was ready. I often found myself thinking about how to restructure puzzles when I wasn’t playing, usually while doing mundane tasks. There were were times a solution would come to me when I wasn’t actively thinking about the game, and I’d run to my Switch to test it out. Baba Is You is one of those games that gets stuck in your head, and I routinely felt like my subconscious was chewing on the game’s logic even when it wasn’t top of mind.
I can’t recall the last time I gleefully tried to dismantle and manipulate a game to this extent, and I can’t think of any examples of games that required me to do so in order to make progress. Knowing that each puzzle has several solutions beyond what I figured out turns this into one of the few puzzle games I can’t wait to go back to and play all over again.
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