Every video game has its own rules, but in the case of Baba Is You, the rules are the game. In the new puzzle game from Arvi “Hempuli” Teikari, the rules exist literally within its world, ready to be remixed.
Each stage is a small 2D space containing a variety of objects and characters, along with corresponding words that describe the rules of the puzzle. To solve each puzzle, I must change the preset rules of the stage by rearranging the words to create new rules altogether.
I know, it’s a doozy. We can work through this one together slowly.
In the first stage, we see a white rabbit — the baba — and a yellow flag. They are separated by three rocks and sandwiched between two stone walls. Also on the stage are its rules: Baba Is You, Flag Is Win, Wall Is Stop, Rock Is Push.
Since “Baba Is You,” I can control the bunny. Since Rock Is Push, the bunny can push aside the rocks. And since the Flag Is Win, I can touch the flag to complete the stage. Or I can modify the rules written on the stage to complete the puzzle another way entirely.
Every word on the screen is a movable tile. So, as the Baba, I can push the “Win” tile around the stage, changing “Rock Is Push” to “Rock Is Win.” Now I can complete the puzzle by touching the rock.
Or, I can change “Wall Is Stop” to simply “Wall Is” by pushing “Stop” out of the sentence. Now the two stone walls can’t stop me, so my baba is free to walk through them.
Or, I can swap the “Baba” and “Flag” tiles to become the flag, since the statement would then read “Flag is You.” And, as the flag, I can move around the puzzle, shifting the tiles to say “Baba Is Win.” I can then touch the immobile baba to complete the stage.
Baba Is You finds the fun in the very idea of rules, which I understand may sound sacrilegious to some folks. Rules don’t have a great reputation. They can be boring and restrictive and patronizing, weaponized by parents and bosses and governments and the total narcs of everyday life.
But clear, concrete, and predictable rules are the backbones of excellent games. When I start a game, I expect certain objects to obey certain rules. Keys unlock doors. Lava kills. The level ends once I reach the finish line. To excel at a game — or really, all games — I can learn these general rules, understand their limits, and gradually master their application.
Truly great rules help rather than hinder. They put creative thinking and acquired skill on the same level as strength and reflexes. Rules are empowering, in their own paradoxical way.
Baba Is You turns this game design subtext into actual text by putting the rules on the screen and allowing me to repurpose them. In making the rules both visible and malleable, it’s encouraged me to begin questioning all the assumptions I bring to the table when playing games.
Here’s a made-up example using the game’s language:
Say that a deadly river separates me from the victory flag. On my side of the river are the words “Water Is Sink” and “Rock Is Push And Float.” I can’t push the rock because it’s literally floating in the air. That’s OK; I don’t need the rock. I need the rules that apply to the rock.
If I rearrange the stage’s rules to read “Water Is Sink And Float,” the deadly river will float above my head, allowing me to scamper beneath it to the flag on the other side.
Puzzle games give me that burst of mental achievement, as if I’m the smartest person on the planet if only for a second. But solving a puzzle in Baba Is You elicits a different kind of pleasure. The closest comparison is this video of NFL players and coaches exploiting an exhaustive and opaque rulebook in real time. Watching that video, playing this game, rules suddenly do seem fun.
I’m best at Baba Is You when I’m not actually playing it. Or even really thinking about it. I take a break to wash some dishes, or read a book, or go to bed every time a puzzle stumps me. And when I come back, voilà: An impossible puzzle suddenly seems simple because I’m not thinking about beating a video game. I’m not trying to master the rules; I’m trying to manipulate them.
Baba Is You asks me to toss my assumptions about how rules in video games work, to analyze how and why they exist in the first place. And that sort of reprogramming of my brain, oddly enough, happens best when the game is turned off. It’s easier to scrap all my tired video game instincts when I’m away from it.
The game has over 200 puzzles, and I’m roughly 50 deep. I plan to make my way to the finish line, not just because it’s a great game — and it is! — but because its obsession with rules has me rethinking the rules in every other game I love. It’s selfless in a way, a game that lets you bend its rules to appreciate the rules in everything else.
In a moment where so many games demand all of my time, a game that excels in the time it’s not being played feels audacious.
Baba Is You is available March 13 on Linux, Mac, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Switch download code provided by the developer. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.