Without rules there would be anarchy, but that doesn’t stop the new puzzler Baba is You from finding ways to game the system. Though it’s not quite complete freedom from video game tyranny, the novelty of its premise — changing and setting the conditions that govern various stages and their elements in order to solve puzzles — feels damn good. For a while, at least.
Eventually, the game’s rebellious, free-wheelin’ facade turns out to be less liberating than initially thought; perhaps out of ideas, the challenge starts to come more from tangled briars of gameplay constrictions than creativity. Still, that early imagination carries a lot of goodwill, and those with patience even after it runs out will still find much to like.
Baba is You
Though it may not always feel like it, many puzzle games are about using the rules to change the rules. Whether it’s it’s swapping control of space clones, making a bridge out of boxes, or altering the season of an entire landscape, players often need to manipulate the character or gaming space in order to fulfill the conditions for a particular solution. Baba is You simply takes that concept and makes it literal by displaying the rules via text.
“Rock is Push,” “Water is Sink,” “Flag is Win,” and of course, “Baba is You” are just a few of the many pre-ordained setups. The gimmick here is that the player can change those rules by physically pushing blocks of that text around, mixing and matching subjects with descriptors. A little re-organizing, and suddenly you’re controlling an entire river, pushing a flag out of the way so that you can touch a glowing rock for victory.
It’s certainly fun to experiment with all the different ways that changing these rules can affect the environment, and Baba is You is most fun when these interactions are at their most focused. There’s a flag on the other side of a wall. “Baba is You,” “Flag is Win,” and “Wall is Stop” — how do you reach your goal using just that text? The less parameters a scenario has, the more the game’s simple originality can be exploited, as players explore how various elements can work.
Certain solutions can take some time to wrap your brain around, but when you finally discover an interaction that at first never crossed your mind, the result is supremely satisfying. This is especially true on levels that can have multiple paths to victory, as feeling like you created your own solution is always more engaging than finding the ‘right’ one.
Maybe you make it so that Baba can float over fiery lava, or maybe you take control of a whole forest of trees that multiplies each time you move until you’ve pushed your way across a lake; when imagination is all that’s required, Baba is You is a joy. Puzzles are accessed via an overworld that has several stages scattered about, each of which contains multiple scenarios for players to solve. Completing these scenarios earns flowers, which can then be used to unlock more stages. All in all, Baba is You is absolutely loaded with content — but because much of it is locked behind completion requirements, players will eventually have to get good if they want to see it all.
Puzzle by the Numbers
But will they want to? That depends on what kind of puzzle gamer they are. While those early levels are more contained in their ambition, thus allowing for exploration of how the creative mechanics work, later levels expand their scope, implementing a plethora of moving parts while detailing lists of unalterable conditions. While the former are mostly just annoying for the constant restarts they necessitate, the latter actually betray the earlier spirit of freedom, forming laundry lists of iron-clad commands that turn what was once fun into more of a chore.
Suddenly, Water is always Water, and nothing but Baba can be You. Walls can’t be Pushed, Skulls can only Defeat, and Lava will forever Melt. Text like this gets sectioned off or positioned so that it cannot be altered; what happened to changing the rules? Without the freedom of choice, the developers are forced to turn to those aforementioned moving parts, making players jump through growing series of hoops instead of letting them find shortcuts.
Because of these kinds of tight restrictions, it’s not uncommon later to feel less like you’ve solved a puzzle than simply obeyed a set of rules laying down a specific path to victory — run through a maze with a blindfold, bumping into walls until you reach the end. Casual puzzlers may find themselves less willing to parse out these more traditional challenges, hesitant to dive into complex machinations that don’t so much engage as dictate.
Those who don’t mind unraveling tangled snarls, however, will find some deviousness that — while not nearly as fun or inspired as the simpler stuff — will give them their money’s worth in difficulty. It’s an unfortunate trade-off for the rest, however — those who up until roughly the mid-game were enjoying the refreshingly straightforward nature of an idea that asks players to re-examine the rules instead of conforming to them.
In the end, Baba is You does show a lot of promise with its quirky premise. Next time out, hopefully the developers will remember that Freedom is Fun, and Rules are Sink.