I’m staring at an image of a small, white animal enclosed in a box of skulls. Near the animal are the words “text,” “and,” and “pull” and the phrase “flag is win.” Outside the box, the phrases “Baba is you,” “skull is defeat,” and “text is not win” set the rules, and a sparkly golden flag and the verb “swap” sit just out of reach.
I need to either get that animal, Baba, outside of the skull box, or I need to get the flag into the skull box. The only problem is that, because “skull is defeat,” Baba cannot leave the box. This is a fairly typical puzzle in Hempuli’s Baba is You.
Baba is You is unlike any puzzle game I’ve ever played. Every puzzle consists of one board, several objects, and text that describes each object. As Baba (or whichever object is designated as “is you”), players must move the text around the board in order to give each object specific properties required to complete each puzzle. There are only two constants in Baba is You: something must always (well, almost always) be designated as “is you” and something needs to be designated as “is win” in order to complete the puzzle.
In this particular puzzle board, I can make the phrase “text is flag,” turning all the text on the board into flags, but then there’d be no text to define the rules. I could make the phrase “flag is pull,” but there’s no way for me to reach the flag and pull it in. “Swap” is out there, promising a puzzle-solving action, and I can get it into the box by creating a chain of text, using the phrase “text is pull,” and fishing it out of space. But it’s unclear what I can accomplish with swap even after I get it into the box.
Back in 1929, French surrealist René Magritte painted The Treachery of Images, which depicted an image of a pipe with the phrase “ceci n’est pas une pipe” painted beneath it. In Magritte’s mind, a representation of a thing is not the thing itself.
“How people reproached me for it!” Magritte said. “And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”
It might seem funny in 2019 that Magritte’s painting made such a revolutionary statement that it instilled disgust among its viewers, but that’s because we’ve got an entire century of structuralist, post-structuralist, and deconstructionist thinking under our belts. The idea that the relationship between an image of a thing and the thing itself (whatever that means) is only given meaning from the language used to describe either is pretty much a given nowadays, even if it’s not something we tend to think about when we’re going about our day-to-day lives.
Between 1906 and 1911, Ferdinand de Saussure gave a series of lectures that, collected, formed Course in General Linguistics and jump-started the field of structural linguistics and semiotics. Language, according to Sassure, only creates meaning because society has agreed on its signs, which are comprised of signifiers (the words) and the signified (objects).
Saussure’s most famous example is that of the tree. While everyone knows what “tree” means, it only has meaning because we give it that meaning. The word “tree” is arbitrary. Taking this even further, “tree” can mean something different to someone who grew up in Los Angeles and to someone who grew up in Alaska. What an object is not is as important as what an object is, at least when it comes to communicating that in language.
Baba is You’s puzzles both rely on and subvert structuralist thinking. “Rock” signifies a circular brown lump that most players will recognize as being a “rock,” but “rock” can also be “Baba” if you make the phrase “rock is Baba.” Doing so will transform the visual, non-language version of “rock” into the visual, non-language version of “Baba.” You can turn it back by making “Baba is rock,” but then both Babas will turn into rocks. “Baba” still exists on the board, at least as a signifier, but the signified has disappeared completely.
It’s a system that’s inherently restrictive while also giving players an illusion of freedom. Sure, you can turn a rock into a key by stringing the right words together, but you can’t really change the definition of either “rock” or “key,” at least when it comes to Baba is You. Players will have an idea of what a rock or a key looks like before they even start the game, and Baba is You relies on this kind of structural knowledge while teaching players new ways to consider each word’s meaning.
Most games are either third- or first-person, putting you in control of a character, even if that’s an avatar of yourself. I don’t think Baba is You could be considered a second-person game, but it isn’t really a third-person game either. What “you” is constantly shifts, meaning that even the adorable, genderless “Baba” isn’t really your character. Sometimes it is, but sometimes Keke is your character. Other times, you’re controlling a key, a box, a rock, even space itself. Sometimes, you’re directly controlling the text itself, with one wrong move constantly threatening your subjective self.
What you as the player are in the game is action itself. Different types of words are designated with different stylings to tell players how they can or can’t be used. Objects like “Baba” and “rock” appear as plain text, while verbs like “push,” “pull,” and “swap” appear inside boxes. You can put pretty much any verb after any object, but you can’t put objects after nouns. “You” is, like the verbs, in a box.
I don’t know if Baba is You is intentionally a commentary on subjective reality and the power of language, but the poststructuralist Roland Barthes would say that the author is dead anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what Hempuli’s intention was. Just as likely, Baba is You is a game about programming—about game-making itself.
By pushing “is push” against “rock,” the player is metaphorically writing the code, the rules, of the game. Most games have set if/then statements for how the objects in their games interact with the actions that players can perform. Baba is You lets players determine what actions players can perform against specific objects. A rock, wall, or star without an action is just a visual representation of a rock, wall, or star. But in creating a complete phrase, those visuals become interactable objects.
There are, of course, inherent rules to the game. Whatever object the player is controlling can only move up, down, left, or right. There’s no jumping, and the only object the player can push without any action tied to it is the text itself. Besides the wordplay, Baba is You’s puzzles also rely on space and, to an extent, math for their solutions. Its least satisfying puzzles rely too much on either space or wordplay. Its most satisfying find a balance between the two.
I won’t say that Baba is You is the most clever puzzle game you’ll ever play. Those are just words signifying inherently abstract concepts. What’s clever to one player could be completely obscure to another player. You could even argue that Baba is You lacks a lot of what signifies “game” in 2019. There’s no main character, no story, and barely any gameplay. There’s no skill gap and no battle royale. There are no microtransactions, DLC, or season passes. Ceci n’est pas un jeu, n’est pas?