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The Enjoyable Illusion of User Control and Freedom

Exploring Nielsen’s Heuristic with a game that allows you to rewrite the rules

In my last article about Jakob Nielsen’s Heuristic and games, I talked about the importance of a match between a system and the real world with a great example of a game that recreates a real-world system to immerse players in the game: Her Story.

This time I will focus on the third heuristic — user control and freedom — with the best example I could find in games: Baba is You. A game that allows players to rewrite its own rules.

Source: Arvi Teikari.

Baba Is You

Baba Is You (2019) is a puzzle video game created by Arvi Teikari. In this game, rules are written in blocks that the player can interact with, like any other element inside the game (objects and obstacles). This interaction allows the player to change the game rules as they interact with the blocks where they are written — the player can shape the interactions with other elements, their properties, and even change Baba itself.

The rules usually come in 3 blocks: one with the element (like objects, obstacles, goal flag, Baba itself, other creatures, etc.), linking operators (like is and and), plus the property of the object.

Example: 3 blocks with “Baba”+ “is”+ “you”=the player is controlling Baba. The player, while controlling Baba, swap the block “Baba” with a block “Wall”, making a new rule “Wall”+ “is”+ “you”. Now the player is the wall on that level.

A simple example of the Welcome stage with several rules written in blocks. Source: Arvi Teikari

Changing the rules and thus shaping the game’s world allows the player to reach its goal.

Changing the world's rules to serve your own needs sounds like an easy ride, but that’s far from true on Baba Is You. The effects of the different possible rules and combinations of rules are surprising, and each level is a challenge (an exciting one)!

User Control and Freedom

Systems should allow users to undo and redo an action or task. Users make mistakes or want to change something. Having a clear “emergency exit” gives a sense of control over the system. Systems should have an exit available to leave an unwanted action. Users don’t have to go through an extended process or suffer the consequences of an unwanted action with no return.

Why?
Allowing to correct mistakes or backtrack on choices increases the sense of exploration and potentiates learning. Users will feel in control to discover additional features and experiment with the system — avoids being stuck and feeling frustrated by mistake.

How?
1. Support Undo and Redo
2. Show a clear exit to a current interaction (e.g., Cancel button)
3. Label your exit and make it discoverable (like an exit sign)

Examples:
This heuristic is very clear about what to do, and you can see on the image below how all these actions are available through the below Gmail screenshot:
- Back to return users to a previous page or screen (pink square)
- Undo and Redo
(green square)
- Cancel Button
to quit a task or multi-step process (purple and yellow square)
- Close to close a new view (yellow square)

User control and freedom on Gmail. Source: Author.

When you click on an email to read it, the email occupies the entire screen, but you can always go back to the list of emails. While writing a new message, you can undo/redo, close the new message window to quit the task. If you perform an action with significant impact or sent an email, a snack bar will appear — for a couple of seconds, you can undo the action (on the example above, hide a label can be undone by clicking on Undo).

On Gmail it’s effortless to leave a task, go back a step, and undo/redo a change. Even in the most extreme case, that is to Cancel a “Send” of an e-mail. You have several exit points and Undo/Redo that allow users to feel like they control their Gmail. Users feel free. They are not punished for their mistakes. They can always quickly correct some mistake or go back on a choice.

Allowing users to exit or undo fosters their sense of freedom and confidence in the system. It avoids getting stuck and feeling frustrated. Instead, the opposite happens — users feel like being in control of the system.

Source: Nintendo.

Baba Is You & User Control and Freedom

Baba Is You appears as if it’s all about user control and freedom. The player is allowed to shape the game’s world to reach its goal.

The sense of user freedom is the contradictory appeal of this puzzle game. Although it looks like the possibilities are infinite and under the player’s control, there is a lot of challenge and complexity that restrains it.

How does the game create constraints, keep the challenge fresh, and show challenge growth level by level?

  • Invisible constraints define what rules are possible to shape.
    The player can only move the blocks that exist on the level, and some blocks are not reachable. The player can’t just create or write rules on blocks. You need to work with what they provide to you (but don’t forget to consider what they have not provided). Not only that but some rules are blocked inside walls or in places impossible to reach.
  • The number of rules and constraints vary throughout the game and gradually be more complex.
    Baba Is You is organized into sets of puzzles that explore different concepts. This set of puzzles starts with levels that introduce a concept. The complexity will grow slowly on that set of puzzles, using the taught concepts in more surprising ways. This concept is not closed to a set of puzzles, it will reappear and be reused on future puzzles. As the player progress, knowledge will accumulate and possibilities too.
  • Surprise and fun — let’s twist what you just learned.
    Allowing the player to shape the world rules opens opportunities to twist how the game world is seen by playing with the player’s assumptions. We can look at a player learning a new concept thanks to the previous set of puzzles with a new light. For example, we just learned that we need a key (or something that “is open”) to open a door. But is it? Maybe the door is not even closed. The rule that the door is closed is not there on the screen… It’s these cool and fun twists that give players an enjoyable experience and encouragement to challenge assumptions.
Source: Steam

Exploring constraints an ever-growing challenge full of new and fun stuff is a great opportunity for exploration. To explore rules, objects, and challenging ways of experiencing some objects' properties — and challenge the player's assumptions and the logic created.

To allow fun experimentation, the error needs to be considered. Error is a great way to learn what does not work towards the solution and keep building the path to the goal. Hence, writing and rewriting the logic, the rules of the game.

So what does Baba Is You do to keep the sense of control and freedom to explore and discover despite the constraints?

Support Undo and Restart.
When the player reaches a dead-end, “Undo” and “Restart” will appear on the top centre of the screen, allowing users to either undo actions or restart the level in its entirety. Undo allows the user to completely backtrack the play to the start point, step by step. The user can stop at the exact moment it wants to.

Both options are also available at any time of the game if the player wants to undo or restart.

On the left you can see on the top center of the screen “Undo” and “Restart”. On the right you can see possibility to “Return to map” and “Restart”. Source: Author.

It shows the goal of the level from the beginning, and it’s always visible.
The level's goal is there on the screen — the rules the player can shape, the ones the player has no control over. So everything you need is there to build the solution.

Everything is on the screen for players to see. You can see the Win rule, the rules you can shape, the obstacles/objects, the space, and your character. Source: Author.

The player can exit the level at any time and retry previous levels.
Baba Is You has no tutorials. However, the slowly growing challenge helps players learn new concepts and mechanics. If a player feels they need to retry a previous level to understand better the concept of that set of levels, they can just leave the level they are on and jump to another one.

More than one unsolved puzzle available to explore.
At the same time, the path is not linear. It’s possible to have more than one unsolved puzzle available to explore. Experimenting with new puzzles to help you see something differently can help unlock creative ideas. If the player is stuck and can’t find a solution, it can explore a new puzzle, and maybe the solution will come up.

Freedom of movement on a set of puzzles allows players to practice and unlock knowledge as they re-do previous puzzles or explore different ones.

The greyed out blocks with numbers are all completed puzzles that the player can redo. 13 and 09 are puzzles not solved yet. Source: Author.

Final Thoughts

Giving users freedom and control is more than just giving users confidence and avoid frustration. We are allowing humans to correct mistakes. We are providing the possibility to try again, to exit. This possibility might sound too forgiving to users, but the mistake is still there; it still happened.

If we enhance exploration with discovery instead of anxiety and fear, more potential to learn is created.

Baba Is You creates a sense of user control and freedom that gives players more things to explore, more knowledge to learn. Undo, try a new rule, retry on a different one, laugh at the result, can’t do anything else, restart, try to start by changing a different rule…

I had a lot of fun playing. I first tried the game with my brother. We would play in turns, the rule: If you got stuck, you had to give the Switch to the other person. It will increase the challenge and competition we thought. But we end up trying to help each other and trying every combination possible. We worked together to find the solution and find the fun little tricks and surprises inside the game.

Source: Nintendo.

To err is human, how we learn and grow, and how we get to know the world — when we can err with more confidence, we can explore and discover amazing things. There is a kind of heartwarming sense of accomplishment when you can freely explore, feel frustrated, make mistakes, and then realize the solution and laugh at the fun twist that got Baba to its goal.

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Maria Meireles

Maria Meireles

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