Baba is You and the sweet agony of the adorable puzzler

For weeks (OK: months), I’ve had “write Gentle Gamers post” on my to-do list. I have the skeleton of an essay about The Sims and Sarah Winchester in my drafts folder, but haven’t strung all the parts together. I have a queue of new and classic games that I’ve been meaning to play for ages: Windwaker on my recently resurrected GameCube; SOMA’s “safe mode;” Outer Wilds; and a whole slew of itch.io games, including The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game which looks SWEET AS HECK.

But, on the evenings when I have time, I return to my go-to comfort games. The racked up astronomical hours throwing myself at the 3 boss cells difficulty of Dead Cells, mushroom-hunting in Breath of the Wild, and (god help me) re-playing Stardew Valley.

In other words, it’s been a season of apathy, with a pathological desire for the familiar due to exhaustion. However, at the recommendation of some friends, I took a chance on something different. I downloaded the adorable-looking, linguistics-based puzzle game, Baba is You, and discovered that there is one emotion can carry me out of the malaise and back into exploration: PURE. ANGER.

Baba is You is a aesthetically bubbly puzzle game that establishes a number of rules for each level, and then asks you to break those rules to get to a win state.

All of these rules are structured like the title. “BABA is YOU” is a rule that means that the player controls a little bunny creature named Baba. Each of these pieces is movable: the player can push BABA or is or YOU while attempting to build new rules. So, if BABA is YOU is the rule, but there’s also the word ROCK in the level, pushing ROCK into the place of BABA makes the new rule ROCK is YOU, and suddenly the player is a rock, moving around the screen.

There is always a [BLANK] is WIN rule on the screen, and the deceptively simple aim is to get to that win through the tweaking and moving of the available rules.

Baba is You  by Hempuli

Baba is You by Hempuli

Now, I love puzzles. I play online room escape games to de-stress. I regularly invite my coworkers to help me beat the NYTimes’ daily Spelling Bee puzzle during downtimes at my day job. I even called up my boyfriend, crying in a furious rage because I couldn’t beat a puzzle in The Witness and refused to look up the answer, lest it break the implicit pact I had with the game to listen to its language.

Baba is You is, by all accounts, an excellent puzzle game, with the sort of ingenious design that makes puzzles look impossible at first glance, and then which feel absurdly clear the moment you “get it.”

But within the first 30 minutes of playing, I looked up puzzle solutions, then shamed myself for looking them up, then literally peeked at the guides through my fingers for “just a hint” of what to do next.

I keep picking up Baba is You, but never for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time. It’s partially because I find the game challenging and partially because I’m confused about my reaction to the puzzles.

Baba is You  by Hempuli

Baba is You by Hempuli

I think it has something to do with a certain reverence I have for rules. I am a rule follower, through and through. I wish it weren’t the case; I’ve often fantasized about being a person able to be flippant with authority, flipping the bird to the so-and-sos, free-wheeling my way through life.

But that’s absolutely not the case. I have an ongoing joke that I’m a Kid Detective, which mostly comes from the fact that I read everything (including most all contracts, regardless of their page count) from start to finish, and have a keen sense for exactly what the rules of each situation are. I like knowing the “don’t”s so that I can figure out the “can”s.

Baba is You asks the player to consider the literal flexibility of language and, therefore, the malleability of rules. Early on, for example, the game creates a pattern that FLAG is WIN. It says it so much, that it becomes hard to think of FLAG as anything other than WIN.

So, when it started to become clear to me that a level could only be beaten if I broke the FLAG is WIN rule to, say, make BABA is WIN, it took me a not-insignificant amount of time to reconfigure the neural pathways in my brain that had so tightly glommed on to the notion that FLAG must always be WIN.

This cognitive confusion elicited in me feelings of rage, not at the game, but at my own internal clinginess to “right” or “wrong.”

Baba is You  by Hempuli

Baba is You by Hempuli

Even if I might not play through Baba is You to the end, there is something I treasure in this little, frustrating jewel of a game. More than any other in recent memory, it has challenged me to be critical with my routines, and how I can invite in some joy, exploration, and discovery into tearing apart (bit by bit) what I assume are rules in any situation.

The rules that Baba is You invites the player to question aren’t so much the “Keep off the grass” sorts of rules, but the rules we assume as rules because we’ve heard them so many times.

I think back on a time I worked at an outdoor adventure camp for special needs and at risk youth. It was a camp that was heavy on rules and expectations, and often for good reason. But because we got so used to providing a structure for the kids, it was easy to fall into a pattern of creating structure for structure’s sake.

There was a fellow counselor — a real gem of a human — who was careful with every rule he gave the kids. He made sure that, if a kid asked why they had to do something, that he could clearly give a “why” behind it. He otherwise threw out everything that didn’t have a clear “why.” (“Why not let them eat dessert first? SO long as they also eat dinner, that’s fine by me.”) Surprising absolutely no one, his kids flourished, often more-so than kids who were given twice as much “structure.”

I find this lesson a hard one, but it’s one I’m determined to learn. Even if I can only do it 10 or 15 minutes at a time, I’m thankful Baba is You exists to slowly, but surely, rewires the most stubborn parts of my brain.