Baba Is You is the unique puzzle game from Finnish developer Arvi Teikari where you solve puzzles by manipulating their established rules in order to get the eponymous Baba to their goal. The distinctive PC and Switch game is clever, difficult, and takes a very postmodern approach to designing both puzzles and games.
I should start by defining postmodernism. Postmodernism was popularised in the late 20th Century and marked a departure from – you guessed it – modernism. It broadly rejected modernist ideas of revision and re-examination in favor of skepticism, subversion, and relativity. I promise this will all make more sense in a minute.
Baba Is Relative
Baba is entirely objective: as long as its set of truth conditions are met, actions can be performed. For instance, why can Baba sometimes float and other times sink? Because sometimes Baba Is Float. Because the little boxes that say Baba and Is and Float are aligned to form a sentence.
The basics of postmodernism rely on not the objective truth, but the objective truths that are shaped by our own backgrounds, perspectives, and inherent biases. As such, the truth is relative to a number of other factors, and can vary from person to person or, in this case, puzzle to puzzle.
Sometimes the truth is that Baba can float across water. Other times it will sink. The truth is relative to the puzzle, and relative to the three words placed adjacent to one another somewhere on your screen. This relativism is what makes Baba Is You so unique and addictive. The solution to every puzzle depends on how you and Baba manipulate the rules. And, so long as Something Is You, there are countless truths that can solve each puzzle.
Baba Is Subversive
Where Baba is most postmodern, however, is when it subverts player expectations. This is most evident when you find yourself trapped within four walls, with nothing inside and no way of escape. However, it is only when you realize that nowhere does the puzzle say “Wall Is Stop” that you can walk straight through the walls to access the rest of the puzzle.
This relies on our preexisting associations and assumptions built from real-life experience and every other video game, in neither of which you can walk through walls.
The same goes for objects within the metanarrative of the game as well as the larger metanarrative of what we expect from “games”. After so many levels with the words Baba Is Sink tucked away in a corner of the screen, the player expects the water in the Island-2: Warm River puzzle to be impassable. In reality, Baba Is Float, meaning water isn’t an obstacle, and making the puzzle much more simple.
Baba rejects meta-narratives and subverts traditional game rules to form unique puzzles. Players must carry a postmodern skepticism of everything they thought they knew in order to manipulate the rules and solve level after ever-changing level.
Baba Is A Language-game
The philosophical theory of a language-game was created by postmodern Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” he wrote in Philosophical Investigation, forming the basis of the concept of the language-game. A word’s use in the language is dependent on the “rule” of the “game” it is a part of, i.e. its context within a sentence, dialect, or language.
Wittgenstein’s primary example is the word “Water!” In the English language, showing that the same word (complete with an exclamation point) could be used as an exclamation, an order, a request, or an answer to a question. Which of these it means depends entirely on the context, or as he calls it, the language-game. By the same logic, in the French language-game, the word is meaningless. In Spanish, wáter means toilet. In a prohibition-era bar, it could be code for vodka or gin or something entirely different. In Baba Is You, its meaning is derived entirely from the words succeeding it. It all depends on the language-game it is a part of.
Words in Baba Is You depend entirely on their context, on Baba Is You’s own language-game. Returning to the word “water”, in the game it has no context until it has been connected to a verb and an adjective. But depending on the adjective, water takes on a different meaning, and a different obstacle for Baba to face. Back to Island-2: Warm River, where Water Is Hot and Baba Is Melt make it impassable. The puzzle looks impossible until you realise that Baba Is Also Float, allowing you to pass over the water at will.
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These words take part of its own language-game, and the water is given meaning only by the third word in the sentence. When you switch the adjectives around, the puzzle changes form entirely, as have your win conditions, relative to the combinations of words that you have pushed together. And water suddenly means something new in the language-game of the game and the language-game of this puzzle.
It is this truth manipulation, relative to your actions, that makes Baba Is You so postmodern in style. And it’s also what makes it a unique, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding, puzzle game. It’s a postmodern language-game game, and leaves the player reevaluating everything they’ve ever known. Are walls really walls? How can the skull icon be the end goal, not the game over? Can I swim? What even is Baba?
Baba Is You offers a brand new perspective on how puzzle games are made and how our brains solve them based on assumed rules and interpreted clues. By putting the rules in the hands of the player, the tables are turned, the game is flipped on its head, and our brains are left in a right muddle.