Imagine if you will, in an alternate dimension behind a scary door, a world where your ability to conjugate and manipulate the English Language can mean life or death. Where words dictate all that is, maybe all that ever was, and the very fabric of reality can come apart with the shifting of a preposition or the mismanagement of a noun and an adjective. Some of you may be familiar with this warped dystopia: it’s called “studying an essay subject at university.”
But it’s also eerily similar to the premise of new indie-darling, oddly-but-aptly named puzzler Baba is You, recently released on PC and Switch. I chose the Switch as my platform of choice; not only did I save myself a tidy ten British pennies because Nintendo and Steam are evidently using different exchange rates, but now I can take my torturous puzzles with me and vex myself in any part of the house I desire. Anyway, in Baba is You, you is Baba (shocker), a little white rabbitoid thing that somehow has a very strong reading comprehension and stole the eyes out of a Space Invader. Except for, of course, when you don’t play as Baba. Sometimes you play as Keke, Q*Bert’s weird low-poly son, or a box, or the raw manifested deconceptualisation of love – there’s a lot going on. The goal of the game is to collect the flag on every board to “win,” except when the flag is a ghost or a body of water or a hedgerow. Therein, more or less, lies the appeal of Baba is You. It’s not a game for your hands, like a fast-paced top-down shooter, or a game for your eyes, like a gorgeous open-world adventure; it’s a game for your brain, and it’s appropriate then that it’s really flippin’ smart.
At the most basic level, Baba is You is a game about pushing blocks with words on them around. Those words fall into three categories (and you’d best remember your literacy lessons for this); nouns, adjectives, and conjunctions. So consider what’s probably the most basic puzzle possible in this engine: Baba and the flag are separated by a unbroken wall, and you have access to the tiles “Baba is You,” “Wall is Stop” and “Flag is Win.” You could simply disconnect the “Stop” block from the adjacent “Wall is” tiles and saunter up to the flag, easy as pie. Or, you could rearrange them to read “Wall is You,” and march that border up to the flag like the Iron Curtain marching up to Western Europe. OR, if you’re a proper boffin, you could twist the tiles to read both “Baba is You” and “Baba is Win” and take the obstacles out of the equation entirely. I could go on, but my point (other than this game’s concept being really hard to explain without an example) is that even the most simple puzzle presented using Baba is You’s tools has multiple solutions, and that only multiples when extra commands are added in – like being able to push and pull objects, have things sink in objects or melt or float or move of their own accord. What the creator of Baba is You has done (and yes, “creator” singular is correct, this is a one-person project helmed by Arvi “Hempuli” Teikar) is created an incredibly flexible puzzle environment, and very-smartly designed puzzles that squeeze every ounce of flexibility from it, and it’s some of the most fun I’ve had with a puzzle game in years.
While graphics and sound can understandably be allowed some slack in a puzzling-focused game, Baba is You is not slouch in this regard either. The pixel art is basic but clean and characterful, and communicates all the information (which there’s a lot of sometimes) in an efficient manner. I’m also personally a fan of the “wobbling” effect on the sprites – which you can turn off if you disagree, among a host of really good low-vision and colour-blindness options – but I think makes the game feel a lot more kinetic and combined with the soundtrack (chill instrumentation, atmospheric ambiance and the occasional NES-era “bloop” noise for good measure) gives proceedings a slightly eerie, other-worldly feel that I just adore.
There’s not really much more I can say about Baba is You; it’s a very very simple concept, executed very very well. I’m not without a couple of gripes; the map screen is a bit dodgy to navigate at times, a quick-select menu would be much appreciated. The option to rebind controls would go down very well with me too – the only thing stopping me playing this game one-handed is the “undo” button being stubbornly bound to the right Joycon instead of any of the face buttons on the left one, like the Falklands Island of the Joycon world. If you’re a little unsure on whether you’ll enjoy what Baba is You has to offer, or a little hesitant because of its uncompromising presentation, consider potentially playing the Game Jam Build as an unofficial demo of sorts (quick rundown on that version; worse graphics, worse interface, identical gameplay). Otherwise, get out there. Possibilities is Endless. World is Oyster.