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I’d been meaning to play Baba Is You, by Hempuli, for a while. The premise is excellent: a sokoban-style puzzle game, navigated one square at a time from a top-down viewpoint, but instead of just pushing boxes around you can push around the rules of the game. Rules like “Baba Is You” or “Flag Is Win” are spelled out with blocks within the level, and pushing those blocks around can break those rules or create new ones. Make “Flag Is You”, for example, and start moving the flag around instead of Baba. Things like that. I’d heard the game is really clever and really difficult, asking players to manipulate rules in devious ways that seem to break entire levels in order to proceed, but I thought I’d be able to handle it. I’ve played through Corrypt, after all. The metaphorical outside-the-box thinking I’d need to excel at Baba Is You should come easily.
How wrong I was.
Things started out simple enough. Most of the time I was controlling Baba, who appears to be some sort of indeterminate four-legged creature (a rabbit? a sheep?), as I guided them towards the flag. More specifically, I needed one thing to be You and another thing to be Win, and then get those things to occupy the same place on the grid in order to solve a given level. I learned to change what was You and what was Win (perhaps even getting the same thing to be both at once!), I learned to make things Push so I could move them around, I learned to open doors that are Shut with keys are are Open (or to change which objects have those properties), etc. Usually, walls are Stop, preventing things from moving through them. Sometimes, they can be made to no longer be Stop. I felt I was getting the hang of things. But the game ramps up quickly. New rules are introduced steadily, until there’s a boggling array of possibilities. Objects can be given all sorts of properties, their properties can change when in proximity to other objects, puzzle elements can be transformed or destroyed… and that’s just scratching the surface.
Baba Is You is, in many ways, very generous towards players. There are infinite “undo” moves to recover from mistakes, as well as quick restarts for cases where that’s easier. Its puzzles are spread across several distinct areas on a world map, and each area tends to teach a few new rules (of which there are a ton). Even within a given area, there are typically multiple puzzles to pick from, and only some of them must be solved in order to complete the area and unlock new places. So if a player is ever stuck, they can go off and try a different puzzle before returning later. This sounds great, but it didn’t last long for me. Embarrassingly quickly — in just the second or third area, I think — I found myself completely stumped. Not just stumped on one puzzle, but on four or five at once. The game offered me many different places to go, but I was stuck on all of them. I was convinced that one of them probably taught a trick I needed for other puzzles, but I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me, and eventually had to look up the solution online. It would not be the only time.
Going in, I thought the puzzles would be easy to parse. The rules are all right there on the screen, after all. Surely I’d be able to see what needed to be done? But the possibility space is so large that the opposite was true. Most levels are festooned with rules that cannot be altered, located in places the player can’t reach, or shoved against walls or crammed into corners so they can’t be broken. These should have been hints about what is and is not possible for a given puzzle, but they confounded me more often than not. Why is that rule even here? I think many such rules are there to block weird, unintended solutions that are probably harder to figure out than the real solution, but when seeing the puzzle for the first time they just add to the confusion.
I often started a puzzle and just sat there staring at it, not doing anything. Just thinking about what was possible. I could try moving that box, but the conveyor belt is blocking the way. And I can’t walk over those skulls, because they are Defeat and will kill poor Baba. So how the heck do I get into that other area? In a typical puzzle game, looking over a puzzle in this way would tell me what options are avialable, and help me narrow down what I could do to solve it. In Baba Is You, however, I was never quite sure whether something was really impossible. Sure, it looks impossible, but maybe the whole puzzle is about altering rules until I can do it after all? Sometimes, that was the solution! Other times it really was impossible, and I had to take a different approach.
I might have fared better if I tried things out more, instead of just working them out in my head, but I guess that’s just the way I think about problems. It’s the wrong mindset for this game, though. Text blocks for objects, like Baba, Flag, or Box, have a different appearance than those for properties like You, Win, or Push, so early on I assumed that rule blcoks could only assign properties to objects. If I’d been more inclined to poke around puzzles and try stuff, I would have realized sooner that this is not true, that rules can change objects into other objects as well (and more besides). There were many cases where I simply did not realize that certain actions or rules combinations were allowed. For some of the rules introduced later in the game, I never felt I fully understood how they worked, even after using them in a bunch of puzzles. Baba is You is a game where everything is learned through demonstration, but some concepts are hard to grasp even when they’re being shown in action.
I was able to solve a fair number of puzzles without assistance, but was stuck on many more, and my stubbornness made me reluctant to just skip them and move on. I wanted to see all the puzzles, and who knew when I’d need to know an earlier solution in order to figure out a later puzzle? For many puzzles I’d figure out about 80-90% of the solution and then get stuck on some little detail. For others, I’d head down the completely wrong track and get stuck trying to figure out a step that was actually impossible. And some puzzles I just had no idea where to even begin. I eventually stumbled across a site called Baba Is Hint, which aims to provide hints for the puzzles without outright explaining the solutions. This was a great help, a lot of the time. Other times, the hints just confused me even more, making me wonder if my brain is just not compatible with this game. I looked up more full solutions than I would have liked.
It didn’t help that I was playing Baba Is You alongside a lot of other games. I thought that taking breaks would help me solve puzzles, but Baba Is You is best played as something that fully occupies a player’s mind. The author of Baba Is Hint would sometimes talk about puzzles that gave them trouble for a long time before they figured them out, but I never spent that long trying to solve one; I had other games I wanted to play too. And then when one of the hints would ask me to remember a solution to an earlier puzzle, and how it might apply to the current one, well… I didn’t remember it. Because I wasn’t immersing myself in Baba Is You. It’s a game that deserves that level of focus, and the right player will absolutely love it.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t! Baba Is You is an extremely clever game, and I like it a lot, despite getting stuck often. I like the very calm music, made from little synth bloops and squeaks, and I like how everything is portrayed in a sort of squigglevision (although this can be toggled off if players prefer). I love the triumphant fanfare upon completing an area. And even though it stumped me a lot, I love how many possibilities there are across the many puzzles in the game. Figuring out one of these crazy solutions feels great. I also enjoyed thinking about this strange world I was navigating. Baba Is You is hardly a story-heavy game, but I found myself wondering about its characters (there are a few besides Baba) and what they were trying to achieve as they manipulated the rules that govern their very existence. As I said above, Baba is not always You, and it’s not necessarily clear if Baba is even the real protagonist of the game. Why do Baba and friends solve puzzles? A puzzle called “A Way Out?” appeared on the map surprisingly early, prompting thoughts about creatures trying to escape some kind of existential prison. But a really calm and upbeat one, I guess?
These musings were fitting, because I was not playing the game as it was on release, but what it became after a massive update in late 2021 called Baba Make Level. This not only adds a level editor so players can create their own puzzles, it also adds more than 150 puzzles to the game, and 100 more bonus puzzles that show unused ideas or alternate versions of puzzles that were originally cut from the game. And let me tell you, this new stuff really leans into the weird. The base game had already blown my mind with its puzzling possibilities by the time I reached its standard ending, but the extra stuff is like peeling back layer after layer of a metaphysical onion. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but things get far crazier than I ever imagined. It was almost entirely beyond me to solve, of course, which was a shame. I spent most of the late game consulting Baba Is Hint or just watching walkthrough videos, but I did it with a constant sense of awe. What a thing, whether Baba is You or not.
I do recommend Baba Is You, then, with the caveat that it gets very difficult, especially if you want to solve every puzzle. I suggest actively trying things, even (especially!) when you aren’t sure what to do, and if you’ve got another person to help you out that could help a lot. Trying to work through everything myself meant there were times when I wasn’t enjoying the game, but there was never a point where I didn’t respect it. It’s frighteningly smart, and huge, and weird, and cool. Worth checking out, for sure. It’s available for Windows, Linux, macOS, Switch, iOS, and Android.