As video games get more and more complex — with intricate combat systems, realistic 3D graphics that strain the RAM on your device of choice, and sprawling lore — sometimes getting back to the basics is a breath of fresh air. Baba is You, a straightforward puzzle game available on PC and Switch, returns to the basics of gaming: finding innovative solutions to a problem hosted on a simple, pixel-art screen.
Objectively Creative Gameplay
Arvi Teikari, better known as “Hempuli,” developed Baba is You in 2017 at the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen. He states that the jam’s theme was “Not There,” which gave him a mental image of ice blocks safe in lava because they’d been assigned the logical statement “Ice Is Not Melt.” The entire game is based off logical operators, the type of statements you’d find in an introduction to computer programming class, and yet this is not an “edu-tainment” game or a philosophy lesson about logic. It’s about using what you’ve been given to find a creative resolution in a brightly colored problem. While that could be said about most video games, Baba is You takes out the noise and hype that many games have and leaves you with the bare bones of what you need to have an enjoyable time.
The core mechanics of Baba Is You are deceptively simple. You play as Baba, some sort of sheep-rabbit hybrid with adorably misshapen eyes. With no instructions or explanation, you arrive on a black screen with a few objects around: Baba, three rocks, a flag and two brick walls. Surrounding the screen are four statements: “Baba Is You,” “Flag Is Win,” “Wall Is Stop” and “Rock Is Push.” The rules of Baba Is You are spelled out in front of you; you’re Baba, touching the flag is your objective, you can push the rocks and the wall cannot be moved through. Easy enough, but it doesn’t have to be. Push “Stop” away from “Wall Is” and you can walk through that pesky stack of bricks. Switch out “Baba” and “Flag” and now you’re a sentient banner, trying to touch a bunny. Or, if you’re already done with this child’s play and you want to get to the meat of the game, just walk around the rocks and wall and win, before moving to the map where you can select puzzles to play, each grouped around an aesthetic theme.
What’s wonderful about Baba Is You is that the player truly is in the driver’s seat. Most puzzle games have a very specific mechanic or control that you have to learn thoroughly to make progress. Think in terms of the physics in Angry Birds or very specific portal placement in Portal. Baba is You only requires arrow keys or a single control stick to move about and adjust the pieces in any way you like. I often found myself moving the word blocks around just to see what happened, which resulted in discovering the puzzle’s solution more often that I thought it would. There’s an “undo” mechanic as well, where you can press a button to undo your last step. Holding that button down puts Baba in rewind until you release, or return to the very beginning of the puzzle. This option makes Baba Is You so much more accessible; in some of the more complicated puzzles, I found myself pushing a block just one square too high. Instead of getting frustrated and having to start the level over entirely, with just a few quick seconds, I rewound several steps and found the solution. If you pause for the menu, you also get a list of every single statement that’s currently in play, which, once I started having to remember more than two or three, was extremely helpful.
While there’s no story, the puzzles become significantly harder after the first area of the map. The more puzzles you complete, the more you can access on the map. Each area has its own theme and introduces a few new concepts. Walls become more maze-like, and some logical statements become impossible to reach behind pools of lava or skulls that instantly dissolve poor Baba. This might feel more restrictive than earlier levels for some players, but it requires even more creativity as you start to navigate levels that have a dozen or more logical statements and assets to adjust and manipulate. “Push” and “Stop” become words of the past as you start to get blocks like “Float,” “Melt,” “Tele” and “Shift.”
Some of the puzzles’ titles offer you a clue to the solution: “Catch the Thief” is about finding the quickest way to move the statement “Baba is You” before a robot pushes one of the blocks away, soft-locking the player as there is no longer a qualifier to “You.” Other titles like “A Way Out?” are vague, with a sprawl of words and items on the screen. Clearing one puzzle often opens up two or three more, which leaves you to ponder over the unsolvable one as you cruise through another that seems absurdly undemanding. The variety of difficulty kept me coming back to the game because I could just go to a different puzzle and work around whichever one was stumping me for the day. The immersion of a puzzle game can break for me when I get stuck in an area because I can’t seem to wrap my mind around the one essential piece that’s missing, but once the first few areas are complete, you have a variety of levels to try, leave and return to, which kept that immersion alive.
Roses are Red, Violets are Blue
The style of Baba is You is basic, in the best way possible. The background music is a quiet synth and a steady bass lilting out a soft tune in the background as you pop about the screen. It didn’t grate on me, even though I listened to it for hours. The music isn’t essential to the game, either, which makes it a great game to play while watching TV or listening to podcasts. Each block or object is rarely more than a single color, rendered in a cute pixel graphic that’s easy on the eyes and hammers home the supposed simplicity of the game. There’s not usually much on the screen, yet I found myself excited whenever a new asset was introduced. When I reached the area of the map that was water-themed, I met crabs and jellyfish. In the Solitary Island area, which had a somewhat industrial theme to it, robots and cogs make an appearance. While many of the logical operators remain the same, the design changes that occur in each map area give enough variety to Baba Is You to keep it interesting.
Baba is You offers satisfaction for anyone who has ever enjoyed solving a puzzle. Whether you think creatively or critically, Baba Is You caters to both sides of the brain when teasing out the answer to the level you’re playing. There’s no overwhelming list of button mashing to learn or graphics glitches to worry over. Whether you’re looking for a challenge or a way to relax, this delightful little puzzle game is worth a try.
Sam reviewed Baba is You on PC and bought a copy of the game herself.