Puzzles are not exactly a niche genre, but its representatives rarely become really popular, overgrown with devoted fan bases. And we are not talking about puzzle platformers like Braid or other games at the intersection of genres, but about “full-fledged puzzles”, where the main task of the player is to solve problems.
In the past decade, only Portal 2, The Witness, The Talos Principle, and Antichamber managed to acquire a truly cult status. In 2019, Baba Is You, one of the most unusual and inventive puzzles of recent years, joined this series.
The game of the Finnish developer Arvi Teikari is built around the manipulation of the rules – and this already distinguishes it from most of its fellows in the genre. While other puzzles severely limit the user, forcing him to think within the framework outlined by the authors, Baba is You seems to give freedom.
At each level, the player simply needs to guide the main character to the exit point, and this is the only constant in the game design of Baba Is You. Both the protagonist and the point itself can change: just now you controlled a funny creature named Baba, trying to get to the yellow flag, and a few minutes later, as some kind of door, you go to the leaflet.
Baba Is You is a rare (if not the only) puzzle that makes you think not about the method of solving the problem, but about its conditions. The player must manipulate the rules of each individual level by rearranging the words in simple sentences just like the boxes in Sokoban. For example, the inscription “Wall Is Stop” indicates that the walls will become an impenetrable obstacle for the user. But if you replace “Stop” with “Push”, then the obstacles can be pushed, thereby clearing the passages. What’s more, the player can become a wall himself by composing the meaningful “Wall Is You”.
At the very beginning, everything is simple and clear, and rarely does a level take more than three minutes. However, very soon the puzzles become really difficult: there are rules that cannot be accessed and changed in any way, unions like “and” are added, with which you can make complex conditions and much more.
Together with non-trivial puzzles, Baba Is You gains room for experimentation. More than once you will catch yourself doing not solving a problem, but simply fooling around with the rules, for example, forcing a stone to fly over a location. Thanks to this, even the most difficult levels do not cause irritation – you will always find something to do and entertain yourself with, and sooner or later the solution will come by itself.
Baba Is You gives an amazing feeling – you really feel that you are in control of this small world, changing its foundations. Each task here is perceived not as a test of logic, but as a test of creative thinking. The very basic mechanics of the game makes you think that most of the puzzles here have several solutions. Sometimes it seems that you cheated the game, passed the level differently than the author intended, and this makes you feel damn smart.
However, this is fiction. In addition to the outstanding mechanics, Baba Is You also features brilliant level design. Each block on the level, each condition here is not random, but is designed to limit the player so that he himself does not notice it. In fact, most of the tasks in the game have only one optimal solution, but the realization of this does not come immediately and does not upset at all.
It turns out approximately the same effect as from Super Mario Odyssey. You go where you don’t seem to be, or do things that the game designers didn’t seem to expect, only to find that the authors have thought of everything. In the end, you compete in fiction with the developer, but you always remain in the cold and, for some reason, you experience delight.
Baba Is You is an amazing and truly unique game. Its innovations are unlikely to be applicable to other puzzles, but therein lies its value, because nothing like Baba Is You simply exists.
As soon as you move one of the variables, making the formula inactive, you immediately lose control over the character. Why? So the game doesn’t know who you are! Well, well, well, what if you turn yourself into a stone, substituting Rock for Baba? Oh, it worked. Okay, okay, but at this level, I can’t get to the flag, because it’s surrounded by a wall… Hmmm, put this block here, this block there. Wow, now I don’t need to move anywhere, I immediately became all the walls on the level and I can walk with them! The spectacle is as chic as the description sounds insane.
The brain in the first hour desperately resists such frills and tries to approach the game, clinging to the rules from the real world. However, this should be discarded in the first place – Baba Is You makes you think much broader, more interesting, and come from a completely unexpected side. After some time, you begin to evaluate the levels not as a set of unsightly pictures, but as a list of equations and figure out on the go how to rewrite them in such a way as to get to the winning subject. Or become one yourself. Or drag it to you, controlling both the animal and a couple of stones on the other side of the screen at the same time.
It’s funny that most often the solution turns out to be elegantly simple and logical, but far from trivial. Some blocks at the level will deliberately direct in the wrong direction, intentionally confuse, offer redundant opportunities. If you tend to complicate simple things, then getting hooked and going the wrong way in the game will be a breeze. The more interesting it is to try to understand what is really important and what serves as a distraction.