Baba Is You : Kinkshaming Rules Fetishism

For the final week of July, we decided to take a break from our summer-long play of Witcher III and play Baba is You. In this week’s playthrough, I was joined by anthropology professor, Thomas Malaby, as we observed English PhD student, Erik Kersting, play.

 Baba is You is a puzzle game created by the developer Hempuli Oy. This Finnish-based developer draws from the Japanese ‘sokoban’ style video game where players can push –but never pull – elements on the screen in order to solve puzzles. Its simple design in both gameplay and aesthetics hides a wealth of thought and exploration in its code and architecture. 

Baba is You is a game where puzzles are solved by the player changing the rules and the functional elements of the game in order to win the level. Objects such as walls, rocks, keys, flags, and skulls are given functions that the player can change by pushing the word-blocks in a new order. For example, if the level has the rules ‘Baba is you’ and ‘Flag is Win’, then having Baba walk to the flag achieves the goal of the puzzle. However, when these two conditions are not possible, the player can push words to create new rules – they can make walls become passable or impassable, they can change the conditions of ‘win’, they can change who Baba is, and they can change who ‘you’ (the player) is. Therefore, if the player is met with the blocks arranged to say ‘Wall’ ‘is’ ‘stop’, they can push ‘stop’ away to remove the rule that a wall will stop a player from passing. 

This game brings to the fore how sometimes, we as players reduce games to the rules that govern them and it highlights how these rules and digital architectures affect how we navigate games. In both physical and digital worlds, we generally are not able to walk through solid walls – these metaproperties sometimes made it difficult for the player to separate ‘world logic’ from ‘game logic’. For example, even though Baba could pass through the wall because Erik changed the rules so that walls did not mean ‘stop’, Erik did not immediately attempt to go through the wall as Baba because he was used to not being able to walk through walls as a solid, human person.  

Baba is You is a digital dérive a la Guy Debord. Instead of navigating these game spaces without question in regard to their architecture and design, Baba is You demands the player to be actively critical of how we navigate gamespace. It also demystifies the game images as a material truth, since the images with which the players interact are visual representations of code rather than a physical reality. 

Thomas mentioned how Baba is You challenges the ‘rules fetishism’ that often comes with games. This fetishism is not limited to just digital games. As a D&D veteran, I often hear how ‘rules lawyering’ can break a particularly poignant moment that didn’t follow the rules as written but made for better narrative or momentous moments in gameplay. I have always prioritized fun over rules in my campaigns as a DM, but Baba Is You asks‘why not both’? As Thomas stated during our playthrough of the game, ‘there is no randomness’ in Baba Is You. The game maintains an understandable line of logic that is malleable, yet clear. The game marries fun and rule-making (rule-changing?) for a gameplay experience that makes the player change their game-world logic moment by moment.

Casey James

One Comment

  1. Great post, Kelly. You capture the essence of our rich discussion. It was an excellent suggestion by Erik.

    It can be very hard to convey some of the distinctions that you handle very well here. Are we so ready to reduce games to their rules because of the long heritage of positivist thought in modernity? That is, are those of us steeped in the Western tradition of empirical inquiry ready to imagine and believe we find an orderly system in the rules of a game because we’ve been doing the same thing with our natural environment, and with human systems (the market, political systems, etc) for hundreds of years?

    In any case, in my experience it’s a challenge for pedagogy about games, and I’ll definitely be using this one in my teaching.

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