Game Critique Blog #1:
Baba is You
Feb. 16th, 2021
CMU 05-418 Design Educational Game
Polygon considered it "one of the best puzzle video games in years", with the reviewer observing that it "asks me to toss my assumptions about how rules in video games work, to analyze how and why they exist in the first place.
Game Name: Baba is You
Developer: Arvi Teikari(Hempul)
Platform: Microsoft Windows(Steam), Linux, MacOS(Steam), Nintendo(Switch)
Instructional Goals: learn how to flexibly manipulate fixed rules which allow more logical operations.
Figure 1. Brief Introduction of the rule of Baba is You.
Baba is You is a very challenging and novel game to play. There aren't many complicated rules inside the game -- to be accurate, there is only one rule for this game, and that is to change the rules.
The players will be provided with different text blocks, some of them are nouns, such as "WALL", "FLAG", "LAVA", etc., while others are some verbs or adjectives filled in rectangles, such as "STOP", "WIN", "MELT", "HOT". The players will also be offered several "IS" blocks, so that rules will be created. The only operation players will be done is to move the object that is marked as YOU. The only winning condition to move it to the object that is marked as WIN.
As the game proceeds to higher difficulty, the players will need to think more carefully about the sequence and the objects they manipulate. The rules they created, modified, and followed are essential to every game move.
Even though the rule of the game seems really simple at a glance, it still requires some very fundamental skills, such as language proficiency and grammar understanding.
The basic operations of the game simply involve moving left, right, upward, and downward, which require the knowledge of "moving". If you are already proficient in moving around with joystick on a Nintendo Switch™, or you already know that the left arrow key on the keyboard allows you to move towards left direction, or alternatively maybe the "A" key also has this effect, then you have been prepared for the operations in this game.
Some additional knowledge will be required, especially if you are not a proficient English speaker. You should learn some basic English words and grammars, though they might not be correctly used in this game. For example, you should know what do "lava", "bolt", "fort", "husk", etc. mean, so that you know what these texts are talking about. You also need to know what does "A is B" mean in the English sense -- noticing that I am not saying in English grammar. "A is B" generally means that A has an attribution B, so that when you see "flag is win" you know that if you touch flag you win, and when you see "rock is push" you know that you can push the rocks, even though you may think that "rock is push" sounds weird.
I would argue that these prerequisite knowledge is already sufficient for a new player in this game.
Among all of the abilities, this game anticipates the players to get their logical processing ability trained.
Typical tips for this game are to ask the players to flexibly modify the rules. Given that the number and locations of text blocks may be constrained, the players need to figure out how to effectively use the resources in their hands. Some of the texts are located at corners, which means the players can't move these texts. On the other hand, when players move around the texts, some of the rules may be disabled, so that means the players are experiencing a totally different game rule every time they disable a rule. Also, if the players move the text to the corner, they will no longer be able to move it. All of the above clearly implies that the players need to build a thoughtful, topological order in how they create, modify and break rules with their resources. This generally requires a powerful logical reasoning ability.
If you want to master this game, some of the reasoning strategies will be quite useful. For example, the elimination method, which is usually a powerful tool when you are taking exams with multiple choices, will be trained during the game process. When you find that some nouns will be impossible to become the winning object, you intuitively eliminate them from your list of choices. The designers clearly anticipate the players to train such strategies during the game play.
Needless to say, the logical strategies trained in this game can be very universal and transfer to other fields.
First, this game requires the player's ability to simplify information -- that is to say, given a lot of resources, the player should be able to find the most relevant and the most valuable information. When playing Baba is you, it is always a good habit to check the text blocks that locate at the corners of some immovable objects on the game scene. Most of these are the rules that you cannot modify during the gameplay, so it clears out a bunch of possibilities of rules you may create. This generally helps to give you a hint in deducing the solution. This game helps the player building up this habit -- a seasoned Baba is You player will always know they should eliminate irrelevant information. The ability to strategically filter out information is quite essential in almost all the fields that require logical reasoning.
Furthermore, this game helps the player train their logical reasoning ability. Even though you can eliminate some irrelevant information from the first strategy, the game is still hard, especially when the movable blocks increase. This then requires a lot of logical reasoning strategies, including natural deduction, boolean computation, elimination, combinatories, algorithm... The game later introduces some words like "float", "sink", which even requires the player to think through multi-dimentional scenarios.
To a nutshell, the game helps the players train their logic, and master some useful skills in making proof, algorithm design and deduction.
Mechanics refer to the rules and the concepts that formally specify the game-as-system.
The game Baba is You has mainly 3 mechanics.
Nouns are the text blocks that correspond to any possible in-game sprites. For example,
Each of them may refer to only one sprite(for example WALL refers to only WALL), or sometimes a type of sprites(for example TEXT refers to all text blocks).
A noun can be used as a noun rule property statement. For example, BABA IS YOU means the sprites corresponding to BABA has the attribution YOU, while YOU corresponds to the attribution that you can actually move it with your keyboard or joystick.
A noun can also be transformed to another noun by using the operation NOUN IS NOUN. For example, LAVA IS WALL will turn all the LAVA sprites into WALL sprites, and they will be dealt as WALLs as well.
Operators are the text blocks that goes between a property and a noun. Generally they are similar to logical operators in math or computer programming languages. For example,
Each one of them does something different. For example:
IS: Adds properties to objects and turns objects into other objects.
AND: Allows for multiple rules to be enforced using a single sentence, or for multiple conditions to apply to a rule.
Properties are the text blocks that adds attribution to the nouns by operators. They are always surrounded by color boxes. For example,
Each one of them means something different. For example:
YOU: The noun with this attribution is movable by the player controls.
STOP: The noun with this attribution does not allow other objects to pass through it.
WIN: The noun with this attribution is the winning condition of the game.
Dynamics refer to the run-time behavior of the game-as-system acting on player inputs.
The following lists the potential experience the players may have when playing the game Baba is You.
Understanding the restrictions. The object you operates (i.e. the noun with the property YOU) can only move in 4 directions, left, right, up, and down. If you want to push the thing to its right grid, you have to first move to its left side. Therefore, when you push any text block to the leftmost side, you have no way to push it to right, since you can't go to its left side. Some texts are originally generated at the corner of stick to top/bottom/leftmost/rightmost side, so there will be rules that you can never change. The dynamic moving of blocks also turns some blocks immovable. Therefore, understanding the restrictions by the positions of the blocks is always a very important experience and skill.
Understanding the varying winning and losing conditions. Different from other puzzle solving games, the winning and losing conditions of Baba is You is decided by the players. At most levels, the players will be able to decide which text to put next to the "IS WIN" blocks, so they will be able to decide the easiest way to fulfill the winning condition. Similarly, they are often given the chance to decide which text to put next to the "IS YOU" blocks, so they will also be able to decide the sprites they move. However, once the game loses a valid "IS YOU" rule, you fail, because you can't move any blocks under this condition. Therefore, the winning and losing conditions are all dynamic.
Do not have any stereotype thoughts. This is a fantastic game experience introduced by this game. Since the rules here are always and only decided by the valid rules on the game scene, the sprites don't necessarily have the attributions they inherently have. For example, even WALLs usually have an unchangeable rule "WALL IS STOP" to restrict the players from passing through them, at certain levels there isn't such a rule -- even though there might still be lots of WALL sprites, you can pass through them freely. Thus, stereotype thoughts won't help you win the game.
Figure 2. The pause menu tells you the current valid rules.
Aesthetics describe the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player when interacting with the game-as-system.
It is definitely okay to say that "Challenge" is the aesthetic of Baba is You.
Challenge is everywhere in this game. As stated before, the manipulation of the limited resources should be calculated thoroughly. This requires a considerable amount of calculation, which anticipates the future rules and positions of every movable resources by then. Meanwhile, the dynamic rules also needs the players to evaluate the game value at almost every step. This is very different from other games which do not show this kind of butterfly effect.
When you check the solutions on the wiki page of Baba is You, you may find that there are usually bunches of solutions for a single level, and many of them post totally different way of thinking. For higher level advanced difficulty, this is still the same -- solutions may not be unique, but every individual is challenging and requires a solid logic reasoning. This is very similar to mathematical theorem proofs. Seeking for a solution will already be a challenging task for most players, but if you find it too easy at some stages, you can always seek for a more elegant approach.
Figure 3. Some test levels on the developer's blog. These already shows how complicated this game could be.
Learning Principles are the key way in which educational researchers communicate the results of their research to their practitioners.
In educational games, these principles are coded in the MDA framework. We will see how they are presented in this game.
This game provide feedback to the player on their performance as they are learning.
Even though Baba is You does not provide immediate feedback, the players are instantly effected by the rules they created. The properties will be instantly feedback to the players. For example, if there are no more "NOUN IS YOU" rules in the game scene, the game brightness turns down immediately, and the music stops in a sudden, so that the players know immediately that they lost the game.
This game includes undo operations, so strictly speaking you won't lose the game. But still, the designers wish you to try as much as possible, and the feedbacks they give will sometimes be good hints.
This game challenges the player to apply their newly acquired knowledge to use solving problems.
By moving the blocks, the players constantly create, modify, or remove the restrictions in the gameplay. Thus, every step may create a totally new set of rules, and the players need to constantly take then new rule sets into consideration. This is asking the players to instantly apply their newly acquired knowledge, event though the knowledge, unlike other educational games, may be very concrete.
Also notice that there will usually be more than one solution for each level, so it is very possible that there are more than one way to apply the newly acquired knowledge. In fact, different solutions produce different sets of rule interchangings, which means most of time players will be given different knowledge. However, the essential part -- training the players to apply new things -- are universal for this game.
This game uses multiple and varied examples to teach and practice the use of abstract concepts. No two situations are ever exactly the same, so the players need to apply their knowledge in all the varied situations of game play.
Still, by moving the blocks, the rules are constantly changing over the game. This means a lot to this game, specifically the objects that the players may move, the players may pass through, or the players may not pass through, are constantly changing.
Therefore, the players need to get themselves ready for the varied situations.
In conclusion, Baba is You is a game that requires the players to sharpen their logical reasoning ability under the situation that they should also feel responsible for the restrictions set by themselves. In terms of educational purposes, this game is very successful in giving the players easy rules, abstract hints and concrete feedbacks, while also offering the players a genuine and peaceful environment to think thoroughly of how to make every game move optimal. I appreciate the game being extremely easy to operate, but still gives the players the maximum flexibility in retrieving a solid and elegant solution for each game level.
However, from the perspective of players, this game also has disadvantages. In terms of feedback, the feedbacks players can get are quite limited. When the levels get harder, the players will be very confused and have no idea where to start. The game literally provides the players no hints, so players tend to feel very frustrated when the levels get harder.
In a nutshell, on one hand, this game shows the joy of logical thinking; on the other hand, the game shows the despair when you feel you are not smart enough. The only hint is that this is a game about how to change the rules. This is a game that requires minimum operation mastery, but requires maximum time to succeed. This is one of the best puzzle games that have ever been created, I could confidently say.