Puzzle games tend to walk a lot of tricky lines. They need to have enough aesthetic or narrative thrust to keep your attention, but without pulling players away from their core mechanics. They need to be increasingly challenging, but without failing to teach players how to succeed. And they need to evolve their core conceit in new directions, but without losing focus on what it is in the first place.
Sometimes, even great puzzle games tip over the line this way or that. Baba is You is a great puzzle game that keeps on losing me. I’ve started it three times but never even come close to finishing it. That’s okay! I think it still deserves this spot.
Baba is You is a grid-based puzzle game that places simple phrases like “rock is push” or “flag is win” onto the playing field. These phrases are made up of movable blocks, and each phrase turns into a rule that affects the way items and characters behave in the level. Pushing words around can nullify rules or create new ones. By changing which modifiers are applied to which nouns, the player must manipulate each level until it’s winnable. It’s a simple concept, at first, but it unravels into numerous surprising and silly meta-mechanics.
Like many successful puzzle games, Baba is You gets in your head. It rearranges the way you think about the world, about how things function, and it infects you with its goofy anti-grammar (if you’re like me, you might play a level, take a sip of coffee, and think to yourself “mug is drink”). Its art style is simple and cute and its music and sound design are minimal, but effective. The levels quickly ramp up from “oh, that makes sense” to “OHHH you can do that!?” Between the understated art and clever level design, it all comes together pretty nicely.
And for how often it stumps you, it also gives you room to move on. You only need to solve a portion of a given set of puzzles to unlock the next set, and optional bonus levels will keep you around if you’re tenacious enough. The game’s difficulty can take some sharp turns, and it often requires strange lateral thinking to solve certain puzzles or discover new wrinkles to the mechanics. But the main reason I struggled to get farther in this game is that I’m too stubborn to skip puzzles or look up solutions. That’s, obviously, not the game’s fault. And regardless, the game’s ideas are so clever and its aesthetic is so cute that I’m inclined to forgive my own friction with it.
Surprisingly enough, it’s also a lot of fun to play with friends! A great way to maintain momentum is to just sit in a room with pals, guessing at solutions and passing the controller around. I played some of the early levels on the TV during a ski trip with some friends. At one point, we found ourselves engrossed, five or six of us sitting on couches, scratching our chins and calling out suggestions. There’s something special about a game that’s straightforward enough to allow that sort of social dynamic, but still obtuse enough to stump half a dozen people.
Even if my completionist tendencies slow me down, its quirky charm and ever-unfolding meta-mechanics keep winning me over. I’m pretty sure I’ll finish Baba is You at some point. And if not, I’ll at least keep wanting to come back to it and try again.