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Baba is You Review — Abstraction is Key

Surface level subversion has reached a dead-end across indie game development. It’s almost a prerequisite in certain subgenres that your game acknowledges its own existence, prodding at it and shrugging off suspension of disbelief, flaunting its distance from the self-serious AAA output that’s ultimately concerned with nothing at all. A once noble convention has fully morphed into a trope, the majority of it barely surpassing Bubsy 3D’s existentialism. Thankfully, Baba is You unearths Pandora’s box of meta considerations through the player, rather than relegating its insight to a cheap script. It does so not through a smug, self-referential attitude exhibited in the bulk of indie game postmodernist experiments, but by forcing players to deconstruct its mechanics offering an experience only available through its medium.

 

The core design of Baba is You can be boiled down to the scope of a Nitrome game. Each level occupies a single screen, sparse to the extent that open space registers as its own texture. Graphics are staunchly childlike, but muted enough to evade irritating quaintness. The game bleeds Indie dev ethos, budget and resources appear as non-factors as Baba affirms itself as a product of skill, creativity, and little else. The fleeting synth passages strewn across the soundtrack may be a bit too polite to truly catch the ear, but as a result manage to loop endlessly without becoming incessant. The pensive atmosphere of NES underwater levels is preserved across the score, lending itself to the unwavering focus that will be asked of you. From top to bottom Baba’s presentation is understated, merely an endearing enough vessel for interwined logic complex enough to feel entirely unprecedented.

 

Rules are succinct, physically floating amongst players as declarative statements. For their part, players push and detach the blocks comprising these simple sentences to produce new rules, often altering them beyond repair. The foundational “Baba is you” gives you the freedom to exist as subordinate clauses alter the level around you. Early examples include the ever confining “Wall is stop”, which in the best scenarios can be pulled apart (or even changed to “Wall is you” if you’re feeling so entitled) allowing you to pass directly through. As with the best logic puzzlers, Baba thrills by providing players with tangible elements and making them assemble intangible outcomes.

Everything is Baba

The encouragement to alter game mechanics on a whim for the sake of progression is a shockingly tantalizing offer, as if Debug mode in Sonic the Hedgehog became the primary feature. Baba is You pushes right to the edge of being entirely open-ended, reeled in by the constant goal of reaching the Win flag by any modifier possible. On occasion, even the tested principle of “Flag is win” must be altered and despite its deceptive simplicity, Baba is You refuses to settle into predictability.

 

There’s no room for redundancy, as the measured object distribution ensures that every element affects the level around it. Its limit in resources is spun into its own kind of genius. Levels gradually introduce components and weave them into the methodical puzzle design. The start and endpoint of each level may be the same, but the mere introduction of static lava blocks or “And” functions produce small-scale revelations. Each puzzle unfolds as a run-on sentence more elaborate than its precursor, expanding its syntax (with an admittedly steep difficulty curve) but never losing sight of its own logic; and no matter how it escalates, the most difficult levels encourage experimentation above all, challenge does not beget punishment here. In the recent vein of Celeste and Return of the Obra Dinn, there’s no explicit failure, just the ability to try again.

 

Nonetheless, it is a given that you will face many hurdles in your playthrough of Baba. The game is as uncompromising in its individual puzzle design as it is forgiving in its general structure. Its mechanics operate at such a distance from any contemporary that merely learning how to play the game sustains interest. Sans overarching narrative or constant conflict, Baba feels like some sort of abstract hacking exercise, imposing in its depth but intuitive in its constraints. The only input functions in game are movement and an undo function, yet stage design is endlessly varied, resisting the player’s urge to fall into habit. Rules develop on their own terms, and soon enough you will be producing 22 Babas on screen at once through conditioned wordplay. Often the ways to not win the level are as amusing and mind-bending as the finisher. Baba is a game of trial and error, but even the few times you fall into the right answer by chance function as intriguing tools of a micro sandbox.

Even as levels grow nearly impenetrable deeper into the game, Baba is able to reduce its rapidly expanding puzzles to trusted rules assembled before your very eyes. The game reorients the frustration of searching for what’s been in front of you the entire time with enough imagination to keep drawing you in. Rules cancel out and occasionally even invert themselves, but they always result in something. No matter how extraneous a change you make, the freedom to change the landscape around you transcends the confines of general puzzle game structure. Played at your own pace, Baba is challenging and illuminating in equal measures, with both scaled exponentially.

 

Having a decent portion of Baba’s 200 levels left to dismantle, I am still stunned by the persistent evolution of its mechanics. Gameplay that can be explained in a single breath early on is now a monolith of distorted logic that still follows a defined structure. Baba intends for you to play with its logic instead of just using it as a device to reach an end goal. Editing my own environment impulsively before approaching it through sound experimentation has made for some of the most compelling gameplay I have encountered in the past decade of puzzle games. To approach it with the existentialism its title concisely provokes, Baba is You precedes any patented puzzle game category. It authentically functions as a game of its own creation, eager to break down any feature at the player’s hand.

This review of Baba is You was based on the PC version of the game.

Surface level subversion has reached a dead-end across indie game development. It’s almost a prerequisite in certain subgenres that your game acknowledges its own existence, prodding at it and shrugging off suspension of disbelief, flaunting its distance from the self-serious AAA output that’s ultimately concerned with nothing at all. A once noble convention has fully morphed into a trope, the majority of it barely surpassing Bubsy 3D’s existentialism. Thankfully, Baba is You unearths Pandora’s box of meta considerations through the player, rather than relegating its insight to a cheap script. It does so not through a smug, self-referential attitude exhibited…

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Summary

Baba is You contorts logic over itself relentlessly to a degree that makes it the most imposingly innovative puzzle game you are likely to play this year.

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