What You Learn By Breaking the Rules

Creative thinking and logic in the video game “Baba Is You”

Matthew MacDonald
Jun 12 · 5 min read

How do you design a simple two-dimensional maze game? The idea seems straightforward enough. The all-powerful game designer lays down some rules. You can walk here but not there. Walls block you. Monsters eat you. Pools of water and pits of lava are obviously not good news.

Good rules make for a good game. But what if there was something you could do besides running around a maze, meekly obeying the game creator’s laws. What if you could change the rules and change the game? What if you had to hack the rules in order to win?

This, in a nutshell, is the premise behind the fun, frustrating, and utterly unique indie game Baba Is You. In Baba Is You, you play through a number of charmingly low-resolution levels, with graphics that wouldn’t be out of place on an Atari console circa 1980. To complete a level, you need to touch a flag, which is always in plain sight but usually blocked by some sort of barrier. And to get to that flag, you need to bend the rules that control the game.

The puzzles in Baba Is You range from breezy challenges to fiendishly difficult levels that play like a rebus puzzle from hell. And though Baba Is You isn’t marketed as an educational game, it’s hard to find any activity — on paper or online — that’s a better exercise in creative lateral thinking.

Level 0: Welcome

The best way to understand the mad logic of Baba Is You is to take a look at simple level. Here’s the very first one you’ll meet:

In this game, you are Baba — the rabbit-like creature on the left side of the boulders. As you’d expect, you move Baba around by pressing the arrow keys. In this level, you’ll also see a flag, a couple of walls, and four rules arranged around the play surface. Here’s what the rules set out:

  • BABA IS YOU. You’re the white rabbit.
  • FLAG IS WIN. Touch the flag to win.
  • WALL IS STOP. You can’t cross a wall.
  • ROCK IS PUSH. You can push the rocks across the board.

The first level of Baba Is You is the only level you can play like a traditional game. All you need to do is push one of the rocks out of the way and grab the flag. Here’s a playthough video if it’s not completely obvious:

And that is officially the last time you’ll be bored by Baba Is You.

Level 1: Where Do I Go?

Things take a turn in the second level. You begin trapped in a small room. Even worse, there’s no obvious way to win, because the standard rule —FLAG IS WIN— is broken into pieces and scattered around a second room.

To complete this level, you need to understand something unique about Baba Is You. All the rules of the game are embedded in the game. Each rule is a kind of logic command built out of blocks. The blocks include colored words like FLAG, BABA, STOP, and the all important IS. These rules set the limits of the game and determine the conditions for winning.

If you obey the rules, you won’t get far. But Baba (that’s you) also has the ability to push around the blocks that make each rule. Split the blocks up, and the rule loses its effect. Move the blocks around, and you can create new rules.

With that in mind, here’s one way to complete the second level. First, you move the blocks in the WALL IS STOP rule, breaking the rule and giving you the power to walk through barriers and out of the room. Next, you reassemble the FLAG IS WIN rule, by pushing those blocks together. Finally, you get that flag. Here’s how it unfolds:

Nice, right? But that’s actually only one way to complete the level. You could escape through the walls and then create a completely different rule. For example, build a WALL IS WIN rule and then touch the wall instead of the flag — and you win! Or, attach a second rule to the Baba block so that it says BABA IS YOU and BABA IS WIN. Instant victory!

Level 1 is one of the very simplest levels in Baba Is You. But almost every board brings new possibilities for unexpected rule combinations that can transform the game in ways you rarely anticipate. In many levels you’ll spend serious time pushing blocks, experimenting with new rules, and trying to discover what magical combination of demented logic can tilt the game in your favor. Change what things you can push. Change what things can kill you. Change what you are. A few levels in, you’ll be transforming Baba into all the walls on the board — and marching, as those walls, through a river of lava. And it gets weirder from there.

As you go, you’ll get more rule-making blocks for opening doors, changing colors, grouping objects together, teleporting across the board, putting one object inside another, and a lot more. You’ll use AND to chain rules together — for example, BABA IS YOU AND FLOAT means you can swim across water spaces. More deviously, you’ll use NOT to reverse rules. For example WALL IS NOT STOP allows you to cross a wall, unobstructed, but NOT WALL IS STOP means walls don’t block you but everything else does. Two NOTs are a double negative, so WALL IS NOT NOT STOP is the same is WALL IS STOP, which might be useful if you want to change a rule but don’t have room to push some of the blocks where you want. Confused yet? Keen eyes will recognize that Baba Is You contains the seeds of formal logic, making it a stealthy way to smuggle a little learning into an enjoyable game.

Have I convinced you yet? If you like puzzles and want to get creative with outside-the-box thinking — or you just want the chance to put yourself in charge of how a game works — Baba is You is worth a try. (You can currently buy it on Steam or on Nintendo Switch. If you’re running Windows, you can also try a free early version that wowed the world when it won first place at the Nordic Game Jam.)

Happy head scratching!

Young Coder

Code, science, and tech for kids and complete beginners. Silly hype not included.

Matthew MacDonald

Written by

Tech writer, teacher, coder. Author of dozens of heavy books. Now out to inspire kids in coding and science. http://prosetech.com

Young Coder

Code, science, and tech for kids and complete beginners. Silly hype not included.