Warning: Heavy Baba is You Spoilers
There aren’t that many games that make me as excited as I used to be as a kid. When I was a kid, games were a new and magical phenomenon. The fact that someone could hold a game in their hand with the Gameboy blew my mind. Every game felt so surprising and new and real. Now, twenty years later, I’m well-acquainted with the tropes of games. Rarely does a game surprise me on a gameplay level. But then I discovered Baba is You.
Baba is You is a unique game in many aspects. The concept is relatively simple: text rules dictate the rules of a level’s world. Typically, “Baba is You” and “Flag is Win,” that is, playing as Baba, you need to access the flag. Each level is a puzzle with a variety of objects, but also words. What makes Baba an incredible game is that you as the player can make and manipulate the rules of your world. For example, a level may have the words Baba and Rock. Switch out the “Baba” in “Baba is you” with “Rock” and suddenly you begin to control the rock. Some levels get more meta with combinations including “Text is you” (where you can move all the text on screen with your controls), “Wall is you” or even “Level is you.” Baba is You demands for players to think innovatively to complete levels, and that innovative thinking leads to what I describe to my poetry students as “aha moments.” For gaming, a more appropriate term might be “Whoa moments”—that is, those moments in games that blow your mind, and the only response you can have is “Whoa.”
My husband and I have had quite a few “whoa” moments while playing Baba, but most particularly the one pictured here, when we unlocked an entirely new world through playing around. We came to this discovery when we began manipulating the “Level” variable. We asked: “What happens when Level is Key? What does that even mean?” Next thing we knew, we were sent back to the map, finding that the number for the level was changed to a key icon. This fascinated us, but we didn’t know what to do with it. After playing for a bit, I remembered that the map had the rules: “Baba is You” and “Flag is Win” in the bottom corner. Initially I thought this was just cute visual theming, but with the level transformed into a key, I realized this wasn’t just an artificial detail but a true rule, and that the map was an actual playable level. Returning to other levels, we made: “Level is Baba” and “Level is Flag.” Then returning to the map, we moved Baba onto the flag and unlocked a brand-new world.
I should clarify that we had no idea what the outcome would be. When we saw that new world map, we were blown away. We had no particular reward or expectation in mind; our intrinsic curiosity drove our actions. Like two kids discovering video games for the first time, or my cousin and I in the woods outside his house, we were exploring, learning about the rules of the world through play. Words can’t fully describe how invested my husband became in the game as he put the pieces of this puzzle together. His eyes became wide, fascinated, invested.
I tell this story to express the components that make Baba such a great game. First off, its power in collaboration and group experience. My husband and I are certain neither of us would’ve discovered this secret world on our own. Each of us were only able to solve certain pieces of the puzzle. Only together were we able to make this discovery, and our individual excitement and investment helped spur the other on. When people come over and all work together to try to solve a Baba puzzle, there’s an incredible energy in the air as everyone contributes their unique perspectives. Everyone’s excitement and motivation to solve the puzzle is contagious, filling the room with a stubborn urgency to find a solution. While I play Baba alone quite a bit, some of my favorite memories playing the game involve working together with others to find a solution.
Another component is the logic of the game, and how its implemented in unconventional ways. The game is fair, its logic permeating every component of the gaming experience. While the puzzles are challenging, the expectations the game establishes are consistent. This makes its easter eggs attainable and rational, yet still mind-blowing. Unlike a Poirot mystery, which is solved with information we as readers/viewers were never made privy to, Baba gives us all the pieces and rules to understand the game. While it can get difficult at times, every time I look up a solution on YouTube I go, Oh. That’s so clean and efficient. It makes sense. Why didn’t I see that? This level within the map makes perfect sense with the logic of the game. But its implementation is so unfamiliar to us as gamers—how many maps, after all, are also playable levels?
This demand of the game to make players think unconventionally tears us away from cliched gaming tropes. It makes the gameplay experience fresh, new and magical—the way gameplay was a kid just being introduced to games. To solve these puzzles, we have to think about objects in the world unconventionally. Rarely is a solution as simple as “push the rock over here.” Instead, we have to become a rock, or a wall, or pull text like a magnet through an uncrossable chasm. We have to ask what possibilities reside in words like “Is” and “Make,” or “Empty” and “Sleeping.” We have to think like kids, who haven’t learned to limit the world into familiar, containable boxes. Anything is possible in Baba if played right. The world becomes whatever you choose to make it into.
Meg Eden runs the MAGES Library blog, and teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, the novel Post-High School Reality Quest (2017), and the forthcoming poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (2020). Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.