Baba is You, Baba is Life: First Impressions of an Indie Puzzle Game

I try not to get caught up in video game hype. I understand that my expectations and the expectations of society-at-large don’t always line up. These days it seems that games get hyped up significantly around launch and then almost immediately fall off the face of the planet in anticipation of the next big thing. It can be fun sometimes to ride that wave – you will most certainly see me doing so for Pokemon and Fire Emblem this year – but it can also be relaxing to ignore the wave entirely in favor of other games. Despite my attempts to be immune to hype, I sometimes do find myself caught up in it and I make impulsive purchasing decisions inspired by it.

My Twitter timeline is currently filled to the brim with discussion of two games, and only two. The first is Sekiro, the most recent outing by FROM Software, the masterminds behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I haven’t touched this game and yet all day long I see posts about the increased emphasis on parrying or how new players to the game are finding the difficulty to be a turnoff, somehow not knowing FROM’s reputation. The second game is something completely different, though perhaps equally challenging in its own way: an indie puzzle title by the name of Baba is You. Quite a few folks I follow have been tweeting nothing but good things about this puzzle game, describing how satisfying the solutions are and how this game has some of the most clever puzzles they’ve ever seen.

As much as I wanted to resist, I got caught up in the hype. The wave scooped me up and before I knew it, my Nintendo Switch had a copy of Baba is You loaded up and ready to go. Even though my backlog has two freshly-added games waiting for me to complete them in Starlink and Wargroove, my current state of mind has me in a funk where I haven’t wanted to pick up or play either one of them. Something about the idea of a puzzle game – tighter, quicker challenges that I could pick up and play in smaller chunks – appealed to the way I want to play games right now. As for whether Baba is You was the right game to get me excited about the hobby again…let’s dive into my first impressions and find out!

Baba is You First Puzzle
Baba is You jumps right into the action, dropping you immediately into the first puzzle.

Baba is You is a puzzle game where you are Baba (mostly) and your goal is to reach the win condition of each map. Look at the picture above, for example. On that map, Flag is Win, so touching the flag will solve the puzzle and end the level. You’ll also see that Wall is Stop, which means that you cannot walk through the walls or push objects through them. Rock is Push, so moving into a rock will push it over one square. In order to reach the flag, you have to push a rock to the side a couple of squares and then walk down and around it, or simply push the walk all the way to and through the flag. This is the simplest form of puzzle in Baba is You, and there’s one more core mechanic to talk about: changing the words.

You see, in the puzzle above the walls prevent you from reaching the tile where the various words are placed. In other levels, though, you can walk up to and move around the components of those words, and it changes the rules of the level. For example, breaking up the sequence Wall is Stop will allow you to walk through walls as if they are normal floor tiles. Replacing the word Flag with Rock would make the rocks the win condition of the puzzle instead of the flag. And you can even change your identity by setting up situations where you can change the sequence Baba is You so that you can become the walls, the rocks, the flag – of course, if you break that sequence in a way that doesn’t create a new rule, the puzzle will just stop and you’ll have to backtrack or reset.

Fortunately doing both of those things is very easy. A quick press of the X button on your joy-con will roll back one action, allowing you to quickly undo a silly mistake like walking into lava or moving a tile into a position where it can no longer be maneuvered. You can hold X to undo multiple actions, but in cases where the puzzle has become totally untenable it is likely much faster to press L or ZL and reset the puzzle entirely. There’s no limit on resets and no penalties for taking too much time, so feel free to experiment and try as many different approaches as you like – the game does not discourage you from doing so.

Baba is You Two Win Conditions
Right now, nothing is You, so the puzzle is broken and thus unsolvable. I’ll have to undo or reset to keep going.

The building blocks of the game rules are flexible enough that you can utilize them in a few different ways, sometimes leading to multiple solutions per puzzle. In the example above, you start out in a square room where Wall is Stop. When you break that sequence you can pass through walls and push the words Flag, is, and Win into a sequence so that touching the flag will solve the puzzle. However, you can also solve this puzzle with two other sequences. You can make Wall is Win in order to make all of the walls the win condition and then step over to the wall. You can even push over the words is and Win to Baba in order to have Baba in two different rules: Baba is You and Baba is Win. Since You and Win are now the same thing, you win the puzzle. Not every puzzle has multiple solutions like this, but the ones that do can make you feel pretty satisfied when you figure out a couple of different solutions. My one complaint there? The game doesn’t reward you for figuring out more than one. This is a minor issue, though, and attaching too many rewards to one particular puzzle could potentially play havoc with the game’s reward structure.

Each time you complete a puzzle, you win a collectible that appears to be a small dandelion and you open the path to more puzzles. This splits the game effectively into two parts: the overworld map and the puzzles themselves. On the map, you can choose which puzzle you want to complete and earn rewards for completed puzzles. Finishing a puzzle allows you to progress further along the map, and there are multiple layers to the map where you can teleport to themed areas that contain multiple puzzle tiles. These themed areas have a certain number of puzzles that must be solved in order to obtain a flower collectible. Flowers are rarer than dandelions and they serve as keys to unlock new areas. You don’t have to solve every puzzle in a themed area in order to get its flower, but solving all the puzzles does earn you an “area clear” screen and the satisfaction of having solved every puzzle for that section.

I’ve played the game for roughly two hours at the time of writing, and in doing so I’ve completed one area in its entirety and unlocked its flower. I need three flowers to access my first unlockable area, so I still have two more themed areas to complete before I can progress on a grander scale. Since there were fifteen puzzles in my first themed area and a handful of overworld puzzles before that, I’ve already done twenty-something puzzles and they’ve varied widely in difficulty and scale. Some of them I solved almost instantly, while others took ten or twenty minutes for me to finally reach a solution. The moment of realization for these more difficult puzzles is truly satisfying, and the game does a great job of introducing more complicated rules to you slowly. Often, you’ll have a simple level introducing a concept that is then followed by multiple levels which riff off of that concept in interesting ways.

Baba is You Lock Puzzle
Lake puzzle 6, Lock, introduces the concept of doors and keys for the first time; you’ll see them again multiple times throughout the Lake area.

Take for example the above puzzle, which introduces you to keys for the first time. Keys are complex because they require three rules to function properly: you have to be able to push them, they have to be able to open, and there has to be something that is shut for the key to work. There are still ways to play around with this – replacing the word Key or the word Door can unlock some interesting possibilities, for example – but you are introduced to all of that one step at a time. In this level, it’s not clear that Door is Shut is a necessary ingredient to the function of keys – only later when you try to unlock a door that is not Shut will you realize that it’s important to the puzzle. Of course, once you realize that any object which is Shut can effectively be destroyed by a key, that can help you with some tricky situations.

It is this mechanism of changing and manipulating rules which leads to some of the most satisfying solutions. And the game does a great job of teaching you exactly how to manipulate the rules to your advantage. Something which serves as a barrier to your success in one puzzle may then be the key to understanding the solution of the next. For example, you’ll learn in one puzzle that you cannot create a rule which violates an existing one – Rock cannot be Flag if Rock is Rock already. While this serves as a challenge to overcome in some puzzles, you can set up these situations in other puzzles so that accidental combinations of rules while moving around won’t break the game. It all sounds complicated in writing but the presentation of Baba is You is quite simple and the game does an excellent job of introducing newer and more complicated rules at a comprehensible pace.

If you’re the sort of player who likes your puzzles to be contextual – presented as part of a dungeon, or incorporated into a storyline – Baba is You will not scratch that itch. There is no apparent overarching story to the game in the early hours, there are no cut scenes or dialogue; this game is a series of puzzles which, when solved, unlock more puzzles for you to solve. For me, that’s just fine. I’m a person who enjoys the challenge of video games and can be content with simply experiencing compelling gameplay without other trappings. If immersion in a game world is of greater significance to you, Baba is You may not have the ability to pull you in. However, if you are looking for a game which challenges you with clever puzzles, where breaking and rearranging the rules is a key mechanism of the game, then Baba is You will likely be right up your alley. While I can never fully recommend a game based only on the first couple of hours, I can say with confidence that I am deeply enjoying this quirky puzzler.

One thought on “Baba is You, Baba is Life: First Impressions of an Indie Puzzle Game

Add yours

  1. _

    I rarely come across an innovative puzzle game.

    I’m glad that there are interesting games coming from indie developers.

    I wouldn’t have known Baba is You if not for this post.

    And this made me hark back to Adventures of Lolo.

    Thanks a lot for sharing this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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