I guess that, underneath it all, Baba is You is a Sokoban game, one of those precise spatial challengers which are all about pushing blocks around and trying to get them into the right places. Corners and the edges of a room are the great enemies in Sokoban games, because you can only push the pieces at your disposal – cover up all the useful pushing sides and you’re toast.
But the twist here is that the things you’re often pushing around in Baba is You are words, and the words are also the rules of the level that you’re on. Take that title: Baba is You. You’ll find it on a majority of the game’s teasing, torturous challenge levels. But if you push any of those words out of neat alignment, Baba will cease to be you, and you, whoever you now are, will be screwed.
This is an idea that’s ripe with possibilities, because the words that make the level work are often the tools at your disposal – unless, of course, the words are written in the corners, which means you can’t push them around, which means, in turn, that you’ve just been given a nice clue to the parameters of the particular challenge. A simple level might hinge on simply putting the rules together to your advantage. Composing the sentence “Baba is win” by pushing the right pieces around is a nice way of achieving victory. A more complex level might feature a locked room with a crab and a victory flag in it. You could try to get through the locked door, or you could opt for “crab is you” and voila, you’re in the room with the flag and the puzzle is solved.
The most complex levels encourage you to think of words as rules and also physical objects. In one particularly memorable level, I created “text is float” to allow the words in question to hover off the ground, and then I used that sentence to reach cross a river – because “text is float” – and physically prod some useful doodad into a position where I could grab it.
The best solutions are incredibly simple and also make you feel like you’ve gotten away with something. On one level, separated from the goal by a wall, I became the wall and walked the wall to the goal. In another, I found a way to push lava out of the way in a manner that felt a lot like cheating. The question of escalation, meanwhile, is simply a matter of adding new sentence potential and chucking new pieces of vocabulary into the game: open, shut, skull, robot, teleport. Whisper it: Pull.
Somewhere in amongst all this you get to see the illicit magic of games, where lava is only hot if you say it is, and where hot things only make you melt if you say they do anyway. There’s a chuckling thrill to ignoring a door and simply changing the text to allow you to walk through the surrounding walls instead.
Beyond all this, Baba is You is extremely comfortable with itself. The doodly art thrums with cheerful energy, the sprawling overworld map always gives you a few options when you’re stuck, and the game makes it very easy to undo your mistakes one by one or restart a level from scratch.
And crucially, because you’re moving stuff around as well as thinking, when the thinking doesn’t go to plan you can still just move stuff around and see if that doesn’t spark an idea or two. Baba is You is a game about how sentences work that is also, inevitably, a game about how thinking works too. How could it not be, really?