Wireframe

Baba Is You review: a boundary-pushing puzzler

By Jon Bailes. Posted

Genre: Puzzle
Format: Switch (tested) / PC / Mac / Linux
Developer: Hempuli Oy
Publisher: Hempuli Oy
Price: £11.29
Release: Out now

As gamers, we die a lot. From the inexorable countdown of lives in classic arcade games, to seeing the words ‘You Are Dead’ plastered across the screen as we’re savaged by zombies, we’re used to the concept of our own demise. Yet there’s something different and unsettling about the end in Baba Is You. Here, a false move doesn’t so much kill you as delete your existence, leaving you faced with the fragility of your being and the cold indifference of the world.

Fortunately, you can press the rewind button and instantly revert to your former state. But the whole game is a reminder that your presence, as something rather than nothing, is transient. The absence of any narrative or situational context only accentuates the sense of meaninglessness. Where are you? What is Baba? What is the point of all this? None of these questions have answers.

All you can do is keep solving puzzles. Each one is formed on a single, grid-based screen, dotted with scenery, objects and words squashed into squares and lined up to create crude sentences: ‘Baba is you’, ‘wall is stop’, ‘rock is push’, ‘flag is win’. You control whatever ‘is you’ – often the titular four-legged white blob – and complete a puzzle by touching the entity that ‘is win’. You then return to a world map to select another puzzle, again and again, apparently heading towards some undefined goal.

In most levels, certain statements are walled off and inaccessible, forcing you to work within their rules.

The key to solving these puzzles is in the grammar that links the word-blocks, along with your ability to push them around. Rearrange them to say ‘wall is push’ and you can now shove walls around the screen. Make the sentence ‘wall is rock’ and watch the walls turn into rocks. In this ultra logocentric world, everything from skulls, bugs, and rockets to lava and water lack physical attributes unless they’re literally spelled out, like a game of Simon Says where the entire substance of the universe is at stake. It’s a brilliant reversal of puzzle game conventions that expect objects to behave consistently. Here, nothing is stable except the syntactic rules that connect variables and predicates into short logic statements, to shift and stack with endlessly flexible results.

Some elements still ground the game in familiar modes of spatial awareness and grid-based thinking. In particular, as the words themselves generally function as solid objects, the ancient laws of block pushing apply. But beyond that basic operation, there’s an incredible variety in what you’re asked to do. It’s impossible to explain how far Baba Is You develops its central concept, and would be unfair to spoil it. Suffice it to say that it’s less a mere game mechanic and more a system for creating puzzles, and has an entire language at its disposal.

Baba is sometimes joined by other characters; most often a bipedal red blob named Keke.

This doesn’t mean, however, that these puzzles are sandboxes that free you to imagine your own solutions. After a gentle and playful start, the focus in Baba Is You turns to precisely designed layouts with specific requirements that can be hard to decipher. While everything follows a strict logic, the abstract ideas and departure from natural physics make complex lateral thinking essential. And because the system offers so many possibilities and the game provides no hints, it’s not always immediately clear what kind of puzzle you’re facing. Even fundamental aspects you usually rely on – your identity and goal – are subject to change, so in every screen, the challenge has to be figured out anew.

As daunting as this sounds, the branching structure means you’ll generally have multiple routes available, and you don’t have to complete all the puzzles in an area to progress. Whenever you’re stumped, you go elsewhere for a while, then return later with a fresh perspective, until eventually, something clicks. There’s also an extreme clarity about Baba Is You’s design. Because puzzles fit on a single screen, every rule and object is visible at all times. There’s never a hidden trick to uncover, or secret path you can’t see. All the pieces are right there in front of you, and often, when you do find a solution, it’s much simpler than it first appeared.

The world map. Solve a specified number of puzzles in each area to unlock new paths.

But make no mistake, you will get stuck. While sometimes you can knock off a string of puzzles in quick succession, other times you’ll make little progress in an hour, especially as you push into later areas. And because it’s all so clearly laid out, you can only blame your own inadequacy. Puzzle games of this kind walk a fine line between making you feel clever and making you feel stupid, and when you can’t understand the answer that’s staring right at you, or you think you’ve finally figured out a solution only to find it still doesn’t quite work, it can seem that Baba Is You is showing off at your expense.

Combined with the sparse, monotone graphics, the difficulty and relentlessness of Baba Is You’s demands may begin to feel oppressive. At times it’s like a kind of purgatory, where each puzzle solved is simply replaced by an even more devious one. But it’s a purgatory you gladly return to, because the system is so elegant and the puzzles so beautifully designed. As for what Baba Is You says about existence – perhaps it is that, yes, it’s short, precarious, and pointless, but if you rise to the challenge it can all seem worthwhile.

While some solutions are deceptively simple, others really are as torturously complex as they look.

Highlight

There can only be one highlight in this sort of puzzle game: your own moments of inspiration that come after struggling with a problem for some time. Expect to slap yourself for missing the obvious, and liberally indulge in fist pumps when you fashion a particularly intricate solution.

Verdict

Original, ingenious, and ample. Baba Is You requires patience but is never less than superb.

88%

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