Thinking Outside the Box with Sokoban and Baba is You

You can watch this (admittedly quite long) video rather than read the text below, if that floats your boat:

Thinking Outside the Box with Sokoban and Baba is You

There are some game concepts that feel like they have existed since time immemorial. Tic-Tac-Toe comes to mind: it’s hard to even fathom a person “inventing” tic-tac-toe: the concept seems both so universal and simple so as to elude the fact that it is human-made. We have records of people playing tic-tac-toe, or some variant, as far back as Ancient Egypt! With a history nearly as long as human culture itself, it can be easy to think of the game as innate, something that was always going to be, when, in fact: it was made by people and for people. As such, tic-tac-toe must reflect some aspect of human experience and culture. Though, that might be for another video, because today we’re talking about Sokoban!

The Sokoban genre is another type of game that feels like it has existed forever. In these puzzle games, the player moves unorganized boxes from point A to point B, presumably where they *should* be. The trick is usually to fit them all together in a tight space. If this is already starting to sound “universal” that may be because you’ve likely spent a lot of time in your life moving stuff around! For instance, when I was a kid I had to haul wood from outside our home to the wood rack by our fireplace. In some essential way, I was playing a variant of the Sokoban game. If you have packed your stuff in boxes and moved to a new house, or packed your bags to go on vacation, chances are you have played real-life Sokoban too! Though it probably didn’t feel like a game, but tedious work.

I first experienced the *digital* version of Sokoban with the Windows classic “Chip’s Challenge.” While Chip’s weird little computer game adds elements to its simple progenitor, the concept of a top down square-based organizational game where you control an avatar became lodged in my brain for the next 25 years, reoccurring in some form with relatively high frequency. I don’t know what *your* first Sokoban game was, but chances are you too have played one, or many, of these simple box puzzlers. Perhaps you pushed boxes on your TI-86 calculator in high school! Even if you haven’t played a game with the title “Sokoban,” you’ve probably experienced one that dabbled with some Sokoban elements, like The Legend of Zelda or Pokemon. Sokoban’s influence stretches far and wide, and as a game few have heard of our discussed, I think it’s time somebody critically considered this important genre.

That’s what I plan to do in this video: explore and explain this small but significant part of gaming history. In part one we’re going to ask and answer the question: “What the heck is Sokoban and why does it matter?” Investigating it’s deceptively simple design, the meaning of that design, and what it says about normativity. In part two, we’re going to take a look at the best and most interesting Sokoban game ever made: Baba is You, and show how it assimilates, subverts, reimagines, and queers the genre. In order to get there, we’re going to have to “think outside the box.”

Part 1: What the Heck is Sokoban?

Sokoban games are built from a simple conjunction of rules. You play as a character, usually a man, who works in a warehouse pushing boxes around. These boxes are all out of sorts, and it is your task to arrange them in a satisfactory way. The “official” Sokoban website explains the basic rules quite well:

1. You can push and move one box.
2. You cannot push and move more than one box.
3. You cannot pull boxes.

As the website notes, these are “all the rules” however, these simple truths betray the incredible depth hidden within. Just as soccer is a lot more than “don’t use your hands and get the ball in the net” or how Othello’s tagline lures us in with “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master,” Sokoban is deceptively simple. Even its name, “Sokoban” meaning “Warehouse man” or “Warehouse Keeper” implies an unambiguous modesty. It entices you with the ease of its premise only to hoodwink you into playing increasingly difficult head scratchers. It seems so simple to move boxes to their desired place, but the game’s one true restriction: that you cannot pull boxes, turns out to be the lynch pin of the entire genre. The inability to undo mistakes [yes there is a rewind button in some games, we’ll get to that later!] leads to each decision having incredible weight to it. One false move can mean frustratingly resetting the entire level. Thus, Sokoban games are a thinking-person’s playground: I do not mean “smart” person’s playground, but that in order to solve these puzzles, the player has to visualize how each choice will impact the rest of the challenge. In Sokoban, the player oscillates between two modes: think and move. Moving in a Sokoban is the direct execution of thoughtful consideration, and standing still, sometimes for long periods of time, is to be expected.

Not counting whatever brilliant mind first thought to push an object from one place to another, Sokoban (倉庫番) was created Hiroyuki Imabayashi and published by Thinking Rabbit for the NEC PC-8801 in 1982. Sokoban was such a fire idea that it quickly became all Thinking Rabbit wanted to sell: they released some version of Sokoban for nearly every console possible from 1982 to the mid-90s. Whether is a game simply named “Sokoban” for a myriad of different PCs, Game Gear, Megadrive, or NES, “Super Sokoban” for the SNES, “Boxxle” for the Gameboy, or “Sokoban’s Revenge”, the box puzzler gave Thinking Rabbit a ton of mileage. Imabayashi, mostly known for creating Sokoban, never reached those heights again and remains relatively obscure, nowhere near the status of other Japanese gaming pioneers like Shigeru Miyamoto or Toru Iwatani. There are also surprisingly few interviews with him floating around. I suppose this is the price one pays for making a game that feels so intuitive. Certain games, like those of Hideo Kojima, beg the player to wonder about who’s behind the curtain, who made it, who thought of this mania? Others, like tic-tac-toe, feel like they’ve always been with us. Sokoban does not feel like its design is inspired, but that it just “is,” and thus, Imabayashi has faded into insignificance, despite the enormity of his accomplishment.

That said, I found one interview in BEEP! magazine where Imabayashi played 20 questions with the interviewer. His answers, curt and to the point, reveal something about the mindset of someone who would make something so hand in glove like Sokoban. When asked “What do you hate most about computers?” Imabayashi replied “Their inflexibility.” Which is pretty interesting, because Sokoban is one of the most *inflexible* video games one can play. It’s rules are incredibly strict, its levels claustrophobic. The player can only move and push boxes. As such, Imabayashi hated the rigidity of computers, and appears to have made a game just as unbending as the hardware they are played on. On the flip side, Imabayashi says that what he likes best about computers is “Their unflinching honesty.” And true to that, Sokoban is unflinchingly honest. No information is hidden from the player at any time, the only question asked of them is: how will you move these boxes from one place to another? Can you do it without messing up? At no point can a Sokoban game truly feel unfair to the player, because it bares its secrets, as much as it possibly could have them, directly to the player.

Thus, Imabayashi did not just make a digital game, he made THE digital game, at least in relation to how he defined computers in 1985. I mean this is pre-internet and everything, so I’ll forgive Imabayashi if his views have changed in the intervening 35 years. Representing the best and worst of computer technology, Sokoban is a piece of meta-hardware masquerading as software. Just like a computer, which performs tedious and unremarkable tasks rapidly to, the player swims in monotonous waters, performing the lackluster task of space management for an audience of one. Of course, all puzzle games feel uninteresting if we describe them in such ways: what makes Sokoban fun is that it forces you to think, to play, to solve! These are innately human characteristics as much as they are computer ones.

Sokoban games are “pure puzzles” just like many of your favorite puzzle games: Tetris, Sudoku, Minesweeper, or a Rubik’s cube. By that, I mean that there are very few layers of abstraction between what the player is asked to do and their ability to solve it. Consider the difference between Minesweeper and a puzzle in an adventure game. An adventure game might ask you to search around a room for a key, which then requires in built knowledge about where a key could and couldn’t be. You check the desk, under the bed, in the dresser, trying to find the key. In some ways, playing this kind of puzzle is less about knowing where a key should be, and thinking in terms of hide and seek: where would the developer *not* expect me to look? Minesweeper, on the other hand, has no hidden key. Instead it presents you with a simple puzzle: uncover all the safe spaces without clicking on any mines. Every game, in a sense, “plays out the same way” either you manage to not click on a mine, or you screw up and get blown away. Even though the maps are randomly generated, the rules and path to salvation remain the same each game. Regardless, the player *must* enact the principles of the game in order to succeed, just randomly clicking without thought will lead to defeat: this happens in all pure puzzle games, from Tetris to Sokoban.

Thus, pure puzzle games do not lose their luster after you know the “solution.” In “generic adventure game” if you know where the key in that room is, that’s it, the mystique is gone. You might think, because of the lack of randomly generated assets, that a Sokoban game would be more like finding the key in the room, but it’s weird, and you’ll have to trust me on this [or you can go play some Sokoban games yourself!]: if you’ve solved a Sokoban puzzle before and encounter it again, you *will* have to think about how to solve it. You probably aren’t going to remember all 500 or so steps you took to solve a room. Instead, you have to rely on the game’s fundamental truths to advance. Sokoban rooms are not riddles with a unique solution [well, they kind of are], they are puzzles with underlying principles that inform how you should approach them. To ignore those principles means failure.

The key difference between Sokoban and other “pure puzzle” games though is that the player actually controls a “character” while playing. In Tetris, the player “plays” as whatever piece is falling at any given moment. In Minesweeper, the player “plays” as their mouse on an abstract field of mines. In Sokoban, you is ostensibly the person down there, and yes, I mean “down” there, because like god we look at the Sokoban hero from above. This diminutive character, smaller than the boxes they push around, defines the player’s limitations. If they could jump or teleport or if the player could drag boxes, disembodied, with a cursor, then the intriguing concept of a Sokoban game would be completely lost. It is only because the player is stuck in a feeble body that the gameplay proves any challenge.

The Sokoban game is built entirely out of of limitations. What you *can’t* do defines how you *have* to play the game. Break any of the core promises of the genre, and the entire thing falls apart. If you could pull boxes, then every puzzle becomes trivial. Sokoban, like another great puzzle game: Sudoku, has nothing that can be subtracted without fundamentally changing the game itself. While I hesitate to say it, this has to make Sokoban a “perfect” game, right? If you cannot add or subtract from the formula without fundamentally changing it, then it must be flawless? Yet, there is one, unavoidable flaw of Sokoban: it’s tedium. But in order to discuss that, we’re going to have to consider the broader meaning of Sokoban, as you could probably guess: it is a game about rules and order. Concepts which, like the immemorial reality of boxes that have to be moved, cannot exist without some amount of banality.

1.2 – Rules and Order

Sokoban games are built upon explicit and implicit rules. We have mostly covered the explicit rules already: get the boxes to their rightful place, you can only push one box at a time, and you can’t pull boxes. Outside of these, we can also consider that in Sokoban *all* objects are exactly the same size, forming a grid, and that the player moves one square in that grid at a time. The uniformity of all objects is crucial for achieving the sense of “unflinching honesty” that Imabayashi describes. Yet, like computer code and language, the “basic rules” don’t reveal all possible limitations, there are a myriad of structural, implicit laws the player must also follow.

The first implicit rule the player is likely to learn is that they shouldn’t push boxes into a corner. Once in a corner, there is not vantage point for the player-character to push the box, and because you cannot pull boxes, that box cannot be moved. In some puzzles, you may need to place a box in a corner, but if this is not the case, corners must be avoided at all costs. As this implicit rule suggests, all walls are relatively dangerous. As such, most implicit rules run up against them. Another would be that you should not put two boxes against a wall next to each other, because, as you might be able to guess, you will have effectively put them in a corner against one another. Similarly, if you put a box against a wall you better have a way to get it *off* that wall, or else it will be stuck there forever. One more! Do not put boxes into a square, because, you guessed it, you will have cornered them all!

The danger of Sokoban is that breaking these implicit rules is not always apparent, but is always deadly. You will sometimes realize that you trapped a box on a wall or in a corner only after you’ve already put all the other boxes in their place, and your only way to proceed will be to restart. A mistake in Sokoban is a deadly poison with no antidote, it will get you in the end, even if you feel fine right now. After being poisoned enough times, the player grows weary of any hastily made moves, particularly those which do not put boxes in their designated locations fall under heavy suspicion: they will think “This box is in my way, but if I move it, will it screw me over down the line?” They will trace their actions to an inevitable conclusion, patiently insuring victory in the end. Thus, despite their complete lack of violence, Sokoban games are risky affairs: failure is always an option on the table.

What strikes me as odd is that NOWHERE in the explicit rules of Sokoban is failure mentioned or implied, and this is because, as you have probably noticed, all aspects of failure in Sokoban are consequences of level design, *not* the game’s base rules. In theory, if I gave you a Sokoban level infinitely large and with no walls, no matter how many boxes I needed you to move, you could get them all there, with few possible fail states. Therefore, Sokoban games are chiefly about *level design,* and each level is about the interplay between the game’s explicit and its implicit rules. The player’s goal is to figure how to use the explicit directions of the game to defeat the specter of implicit rules hanging above them. This means one of two things: either failure is entirely a consequence of level design, or we cannot unlink the game of Sokoban from its level design.

It can be tricky to disconnect any game from the levels within it, Super Mario Bros is a platformer in part because there are bottomless pits the player must avoid, a feature of the game’s level design. Being a level designer is pretty much on par with game design, after all: DOOM WADS and Super Mario Maker, or any level editors, are pretty much “game design” tools. But in these examples, there are seemingly infinite possibilities for level design extended from the base rules of DOOM and Super Mario, but this is *not* the case for Sokoban. Not only does the *player* need to follow the strict explicit and implicit rules of the Sokoban game, but so too does the level designer: who must construct a level that can be completed using its explicit rules. Thus, to *make* a Sokoban level is to *play* the implicit game of Sokoban explicitly, or in reverse. Even if we believe this is the case for all level design, Sokoban’s relative simplicity makes this relationship more apparent than any other game: there are just not enough tools at the designer’s disposal for them to work in any other way.

Though there are two ways that the Sokoban formula has been “improved” upon in follow up games: the addition of a “step counter” and the “reverse” button. Both can be found in my preferred version of the game: the SNES’s “Super Sokoban.” The reverse button does exactly what you’d expect it to do: it reverses your actions. This can give the illusion of breaking the core promise of the Sokoban game, as your character may appear to be “pulling” boxes, but in reality they are “unpushing” them, a surprisingly unintuitive difference. This tool does not influence how the player solves the game’s puzzles, but it does make the Sokoban experience a bit more forgiving. Without it, an accidental button press can spell unintentional DOOM. I suspect at least some piece of hardware has been thrown or smashed because of an a false move in Sokoban, because, as we’ve already discussed, the consequences for mistakes are quite high due to the nature of the puzzle. The rewind button is thus a welcome addition, a “quality of life” improvement, rather than a change to the gameplay.

The same cannot be said for the “step counter.” In Super Sokoban, taking too many steps produces an angry boss, berating you for wasting company time and money with your inefficient warehouse management. The Step counter is a strange addition to the game: nominally, it forces the player to think about how they are moving and to complete the puzzles with as little extraneous steps as possible, but in practice, it often does not affect how the player solves the problem at all. Rare is the Sokoban step counter so strict that the player has one way of solving a puzzle and must rethink it to solve another way. Instead, the step counter gives the player one additional thing to “worry” about, but all it really does is act as a way to enforce the routine of play we’ve already described: think and move.

All of these patterns of design coalesce in a simple fact: Sokoban is about order. It is about making a discordant world right. And what it reveals about order is quite profound: there is a lot of tedium in keeping things moving smoothly. In a Sokoban game, knowing the correct order is only half of play, the other half is moving boxes into the right place once you know the solution. This can take a lot of time, which helps give heft to the consequences of failure. But, it is also tedious. To play Sokoban is to relish in monotony. In this way, it’s a lot like the actual warehouse task of organizing and stacking boxes, though without the back pain and peeing in bottles: you’re doing the same actions over and over until the job is done. But this is how order is often maintained: through monotony.

Think about how you get good at any skill: you first visualize how to do something, and then you do it enough that it becomes automatic. I play guitar, and when I first learned, just making my fingers into the shape of a chord was quite the trial, now, it is routine, it is automatic, it is *orderly.* Whether it is in Sokoban’s strict adherence to a set of explicit and implicit rules, the inability to circumvent those rules in any significant fashion, or the tedious routines it forces upon the player, the game is always about order. Putting things in order and doing it in the right order. If order is always tedious, then it stands to follow, that Sokoban must be, at least at times, tedious as well.

1.3 – The Normativity of Sokoban

This relationship between Sokoban and “order” points to the cultural significant undercurrent of the game: it reinforces normativity. “Normativity” refers to what a society understands as desirable and undesirable, typically regarding human behavior. A normative claim is one which seeks to corral a person’s actions or world view through an appeal to an invisible “right” and “wrong” way that things are to be done. For instance, if you work at McDonalds and say that you are underpaid, you are making a “normative claim” about what would be a fair value for your labor. I use this example in particular because normative claims are not inherently good or bad, but if they are used without the listener understanding that a normative claim is being made, the underlying “logic” goes unnoticed.

So what goes unnoticed in Sokoban? The most obvious answer is: “why do these boxes need to be placed into these particular places?” No reason is ever truly given for the player, it is taken as a given that *order* is the preferred state of things, though “order” is simply wherever the dots indicate where the boxes should go. This order is artificial, for all intents and purposes. It makes the game more fun and interesting, but it reinforces the idea that the player should “follow the rules.” That there is a “normal” way the world should be, and your job is to tediously reinforce this normativity.

This kind of normativity does not just exist in the game’s internal design, but also in what little story it has for its audience. This typically manifests itself in heteronormativity, or normativity which presumes that heterosexuality is natural way of things. In Super Sokoban’s opening cutscene, the main character’s romantic advances toward a woman are spurned in favor of (presumably) another man with a nicer car. The main character then resolves to earn enough money to buy a nice car himself, in order to win the hearts of women everywhere. This character is enacting normativity in a number of ways: first, he presumes that his problem with women is not related to him but to the way that *women* are, women like men with nice cars, ipso facto, a lot of money. He also presumes that wearing himself out at his warehouse job will result in more money, a normative belief that hard work will result in monetary gain.

Of course, in both of these instances, these normative assumptions are incredibly reductive. Perhaps this character should work on his personality, or not trying to pick up women who are walking down the middle of the road? And it is not a given that working harder at your warehouse job will yield you the money to compete with a rich guy in his sports car. Similarly, in the opening sequence of Boxxle, the main character says he will get a “gift” for a love interest, a gift presumably earned by organizing thousands of boxes. He is rewarded at the end of the narrative with her affections. Again, there is a normative presumption here the character is making: that to be loved he must make money, and to make money he must work hard.

It is at this point I would be remiss to not note the weird inversion of this trope in Boxxle 2, in which the main character’s love interest is stolen by aliens, and he resolves to buy a ROCKET in order to save her. What an amazing motivation for organizing your bosses boxes, this is the employee Elon Musk has always dreamed of. The ending cutscene returns to a familiar status quo: the player-character reaches the aliens, who tell him that in fact, his girlfriend is the princess of their world, and they have seen that he is a wonderfully competent worker and want to make him co-ruler of the planet. Which again reinforces that if you just work hard and do your job, you will get the keys to everything, even an ALIEN WORLD, I guess. It has this awful arranged marriage vibe too, which reminds me of Jacob from the Bible, who worked for 7 years to marry Rachel, only to be given Leah, and then worked for 7 more years to get the girl he actually wanted: I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that even the bible normalizes that making hard work wins the hearts of women.

We can track the explicit and implicit rules of Sokoban onto these kinds of normativity. Explicit rules would be like laws that prohibit non-normative acts: these might include defining marriage as between a man and woman (Defense of Marriage Act) or punishing sexual acts between members of the same sex. Recent pushes in legislature across the US to limit the activities of transgender youth, particularly in the realm of competitive sport, are attempts to establish a heteronormativity of who is allowed to participate and who is not. The important thing to understand here, is that like the basic rules of Sokoban, these laws are (relatively) binding, they make don’t just infer some kind of normativity, they enforce it upon those unwilling to follow suit. All laws are in some ways “normative” in a sense, if a law says to not steal or not to murder, that makes a normative judgment on what a society values, but the logical underpinning of heteronormative laws often jumps through additional hoops so as to obscure that these laws are being made in the service of constructing a society that includes some “us” and excludes some “them” from public life.

Of course, normativity is more often enforced implicitly. Whether it is gender reveal parties or the fact that every Shakespeare comedy ends with a marriage: the result of implicit normativity is to make a culture that takes for granted that many of these distinctions are, in fact, arbitrary. These implicit norms sometimes act like the corner in a Sokoban game, where people can feel trapped by normativity with no way out, like they are damned if they do the non-heteronormative thing, damned if they don’t. Like Sokoban, we can imagine that society is constructed out of a set of explicit and implicit rules, and this is a way to generate “order” through invisible “right” and “wrong” choices whose true purpose is taken for granted. Again: normativity is bound to happen in any group of people, the problem is when normativity goes unchallenged, because that yields unthinking people.

While we can find normative claims in every kind of media, what is striking about the Sokoban genre is how much it *models* normativity in its construction. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that sex and Sokoban seems to go hand in hand, whether it is the scenes in Sokoban games we’ve already mentioned above, the strange pseudo-sexual vibe of a box game like Catherine, attempts to get a harem in the Sokoban-esque game Helltaker, or the many lewd titles one finds when searching “Sokoban” on Steam. Sex and courtship are aspects of life that particularly tend to be surrounded by peculiar and arbitrary norms, as evidenced by the invasive existence of heteronormativity in western culture. These games, whose ludic structure is fundamentally about order, also contain thematic material that both challenges and reinforces the capitalistic and sexual status quo.

This matters, because as I’ve already noted, Sokoban games feel as though they’ve existed time immemorial: the genre does not seem so much as invented by some creative genius, but that someone would have thought of it eventually. It appears as self-evident, like tic-tac-toe. That feeling, in itself, is a kind of invisible normativity placed upon you. We have to be able to reckon with the fact that all games are man-made and reflect aspects of culture. For Sokoban, this means understanding that in both its narrative and gameplay, it projects a vision of the world as it quote “should be.” That is problematic, because it never asks us to consider if the goals of normativity themselves are valuable, it simply asks us to put our head down and do our job. Interestingly, because the play pattern of Sokoban is to “Think and move,” the player ends up having a lot of time to ponder things while moving, and it is while pondering that we start to see and feel the cracks of normativity. Cracks that are busted wide open in the wonderfully queer love letter to Sokoban: Baba is You.

***Part 2: Baba is Queer***

2.1 – Baba is You

Baba is You is a 2019 puzzle game made by Finnish indie developer Arvi Teikari. In this surreal Sokoban experience, the player usually controls Baba, a rabbit whose sole goal is to “win,” sometimes by touching a flag. At a passing glance we can see a resemblance to Sokoban in Baba’s aesthetic: everything in the game is exactly one “square” big, the player’s avatar manipulates the world by pushing squares around, and while the goal is different, getting your avatar to the right place is not that dissimilar from moving a group of boxes to the right place.

It is my contention that Baba is You *is* a Sokoban game, but before we get to why I think that, let’s first talk about the unique ways it differentiates itself from the genre: you can push multiple squares at the same time, the levels are typically wide open fields rather than enclosed labyrinths, oh… and you can change the fabric of reality by reconstructing the rules of the game. Really, that last point is the important one. The rules of any given level in Baba is You are encoded syntactically within the Sokoban format. The name of the game is an example of this: Baba is You, or “You, the player, are Baba.” These simple sentences are the “building blocks” of the game’s rules, and are meant to be reconstructed: provided you have the space for the syntax.

Baba is You, like many popular indie games, was first constructed at a game jam. The theme of the jam was ‘Not There’ and Teikari says he “got the mental image of a Sokoban-like game that used the Not operator,” meaning a game where the player could turn on and off what is true or false. The “You” and “Win” functions are the clearest examples of this. “You” determines who or what the player is. Based on the name of the game, the player would probably assume that Baba is You, but really, “You” can be any object in the game, and likewise any object can be “Win.”

Nothing is fixed in Baba is You. Like any language, there are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions to play with. Like Captain Kirk’s famed solution to the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek, the player is challenged to change the rules of the game in the face of an otherwise “no-win” scenario. The player’s goal is not to put everything in its right place, but change the rules until they allow her to succeed. The player breaks the world, rather than organize it. As a result, Baba is You is necessarily more abstract than Sokoban, as it deals in language and objects, not just the latter. Unlike the many boxes of Sokoban, which are all uniform in their function, everything in Baba is You needs to be looked at sideways, as nothing is what it appears. A wall may appear to impede progress, but if the rules of the level don’t explicitly say you can’t, then it’s just set dressing. Simply put, Sokoban is about what is, Baba is You is about what could be.

Yet, upon closer examination, Baba is You is certainly a Sokoban game. First of all, while sentences can be reconstructed to solve puzzles, the game employs the same “corners are death” design of the Sokoban game. Rules the game doesn’t want you to mess with are stored away in corners, unable to be changed. The game has the same top-down perspective, and the player’s primary limitation is that they only move “one square at a time.” When moving around, corners and walls are still dangerous, as text and objects placed upon them become “stuck” and sometimes unusable. The syntax of the game, which forces players to construct sentences from left to right, or up to down, is exactly the kind of explicit rule-making Sokoban is fond of.

Perhaps most pertinently, it has the exact same play pattern as traditional Sokoban: “think” and “move.” Nearly 40 years after Thinking Rabbit first published Sokoban, that stubborn style still remains. There are some “timed” events in Baba is You, but like Superhot, they only occur when the player chooses to move or “wait.” Thus, the player has infinite time to ponder their decisions and come up with a solution. Just like Sokoban, even if there are many different ways for the player to reach their goal, both games are explicit that the player reach the desired destination of “win.”

Where Baba is You rises above Sokoban is in its novelty. If Sokoban puzzles have tedious solutions, any tedium in Baba is You tends to be quickly forgotten because each solution feels earned, like the player really needed to “think outside the box” in order to receive a passing grade. That moment the player realizes the solution to a puzzle is surreal, like to become a wall, or to make themselves a key, or to multiply themselves infinite times, is so damn rewarding that the only tedium of Baba is You is when you struggle to figure out a puzzle and start banging your head against the game trying to get at it. And compared to traditional Sokoban, with its reliance on the player learning key principles of play and applying those principles to solve the puzzle, principles are your own worst enemy in Baba is You. Everything must be challenged if you want to succeed.

Thus, like Neon Genesis Evangelion is a mecha anime that deconstructs mecha animes, Baba is You is a Sokoban game that deconstructs Sokoban. Sokoban is static with rigid rules, Baba is You is dynamic with flexible ones. Sokoban asks you to use one tool, one object, one avatar to solve each puzzle. Baba is You asks you to make your own tools, reimagine your own objects, become a many avatars in the pursuit of solving the game. Sokoban is about work and labor, Baba is You is about creativity and exploration. Baba is You points, in some ways, to everything that Sokoban is not, while still somehow being a Sokoban game. And that’s the trick: if it *wasn’t* a Sokoban game, then it wouldn’t be pointing to anything. Dark Souls isn’t a deconstruction of Tetris and Half Life isn’t a deconstruction of Super Mario Bros. In order for something to deconstruct something else, it needs to share some DNA.

For Jacques Derrida, the most prominent proponent of the philosophical method of deconstruction, we understand the meaning of words through their negatives: “dry” has meaning only in relation to “wet.” Derrida calls this “differance.” To fully know something, we should seek to understand what isn’t being said, as meaning is found in the relationship between things, not in the things themselves. These connections, or relationships, never fully end, are never fulfilled. The classic example is that of a dictionary, where looking up one word only yields a definition comprised of more words, all linking to one another. Derrida was particularly invested in language, showing how words and things don’t have some eternal essence, only appearances. For Baba is You, we understand the gameplay, the way it functions, in relationship to what it is not: as its key features suggest it is “not” Sokoban, even though it has many of the hallmarks of the genre.

And thus, it is exceedingly interesting to me that Baba, and their in-game friend “Keke” take their namesake from the famous Bouba/Kiki experiment. For those unfamiliar, this inquiry asks people from different parts of the world, who speak different languages, to assign preset names to differing shapes. Researchers have found that across the world people prefer to name this jagged figure “Kiki” and this bulbous one “Bouba.” As with most interesting scientific things, Tom Scott has a video on this if you want to learn more. Regardless, this experiment endeavors to prove that some aspects of language may be universal. This doesn’t jive too well with Derrida, whose whole point is that language only has meaning because of the contrast. That meaning arises out of difference. To question what we believe is innate, or normative. But perhaps this is because, like Sokoban, Baba is You is still a game about explicit and implicit rules, and these rules, at their core, indicate an essence beyond language.

2.2 – Baba is Baba (Rules and Order Part 2)

While Baba is You is a game about changing rules, it slyly makes some rules immutable. If, for instance, a rule reads “Wall is Stop” and is then surrounded by Walls the player has no way to interact with that set of words. Any such sentence is akin to the explicit rules of Sokoban, core tenets the player must take into consideration as they attempt to solve the puzzle. The reason these rules are sectioned off makes perfect sense from a puzzle game perspective: if every noun was modifiable, then any sense of challenge in Baba is You would be lost. But because such explicit rules are no longer just in an instructional manual, but literally there for the player to read on the screen at any given time, the distinction between the object, or “sign,” and the word, or “the signifier” becomes impossible to parse.

This unification of sign and signifier could be construed as Logocentrism. Logocentrism is a little tricky to define. In some contexts, it refers to the distinction between speech and written word, arguing that the latter is just a signifier and that speech itself is the real juice. Derrida rips this apart, and while it would take me too long to recap his entire argument, suffice to say that both speech and written word are signifiers, one is not more valid than the other. The other way of defining logocentrism is the idea that words and language are representative of something beyond themselves, that they reflect an essence. If you are familiar with Platonic forms, where objects in the physical world point to a metaphysical reality that exists beyond our own, that is kind of what logocentrism is, except that it views language as having that crucial irreducible essence.

Baba is You is logocentrism: the game. While “Baba is Boulder” makes all Babas Boulders, or “Keke is push” changes how Keke works, showcasing a flexible game world, the words themselves always refer to an essential form beyond themselves. Baba IS Baba, the plucky little puzzle solving rabbit. The word “Baba” always means the exact same thing, it points to an external reality beyond the level in question. You can’t construct a sentence where “Flower is Baba” and have anything other than the flowers becoming Baba. This is the implicit reality of Baba is You. Just as in Sokoban the player cannot push a box into a corner or get a box off a wall, the game implicitly tells the player that the word “flower” always refers to the exact same, expected thing.

The game beautifully engages with this further in puzzles using the “word” and “text” keywords. The “Word” keyword flips the script on how language functions, allowing objects to become words. For instance, normally to push a Boulder, the player would need to make a sentence that reads “Boulder is push” but if “Boulder is Word” then placing a Boulder at the start of the sentence accomplishes the same task as having the word “Boulder” there. The “text” keyword literally objectifies language, if “text” is “float,” then all text floats. If “text is open” then text becomes a key that can unlock doors. In both of these cases, what is language and what is object is obfuscated: they function identically, so they might as well be the same thing.

Making words and objects interchangeable is like supercharged logocentrism, where a word does not just hint at some eternal essence in the object is signifies, but the object itself also signifies the word that represents it. It’s like metaphysical mobious strip, an infinite loop of the physical and the representative interacting with one another. There is perhaps no game that so artfully projects Plato’s allegory of the cave as Baba is You. It is important to note that, if Baba is You was just a playground for changing terms and and identities, these wouldn’t really be “implicit” rules, but because it is a puzzle game, with “right” and “wrong” actions, with solutions to “win” and solutions to “fail” the player *must* engage and in a sense “believe” in the logocentrism of the world to play the game.

This would perhaps be deeply troubling for Derrida, who potently rejected this kind of logocentrism, and as we already noted, understands language as informed by “differance” rather than essence. Derrida’s term “trace” is quite helpful in understanding why Baba is You’s use of language is problematic. Derrida writes that “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace.” Trace, then, is not too dissimilar from “differance.” It refers to the fact that any sign contains within it things it does not mean. A literal example of this would be the word “Woman” which in itself contains the word “man,” ostensibly its opposite. The word “woman” does not make sense, except in relation to the word “man.” Every word, even those not in a binary relationship like this, contain traces of the things things they are not, even synonyms. “Push” and “Shove” are similar words, but they hint at the other when you one in a sentence. If we imagine “shove” to imply more malice or aggressiveness, then saying “She pushed him” has a different meaning than “She shoved him” precisely because of what is *absent.*

As I’ve already argued, Baba is You’s words contains no such trace in them. We could graft some amount of “trace” onto the game if we try to imagine that “Baba” is “Baba” and therefore not “Keke,” but because Baba is Baba, even if Keke does not exist, they do not have a relationship, they do not inform each other. You could subtract one and the other could still exist. Meanwhile, any sentence shifting to change the meaning of words might change the “essence” of that word or object, but still affirms that it has *some* essence. You, as the omnipotent god of this realm, can manipulate those essences, but not that such essences exist. Thus, Baba is You subverts the rules of Sokoban and the way we traditionally think of language, but embodies the spirit of those rules in its design. It deconstructs Sokoban and language, but instead of deconstructing to get to some deeper meaning in their artifice, Baba is You is about reassembling that language to serve a new purpose: chiefly, solve puzzles. This isn’t a negative quality though, I think it makes Baba is You queer.

2.3 – Baba is Queer

It’s probably best at this point that we define “queer.” Though, it is a famously slippery term, and I’m certainly not qualified to give an exact definition. For our purposes, I defer to Bo Ruberg’s discussion in “Video Games Have Always Been Queer,” first, that “queer encompasses all of the identities described by the acronym LGBT and many more–though not everyone in these categories self-identifies as queer.” If we were going solely by this definition, I think it would be a mistake to describe Baba is You as queer, because there is little evidence of gender or sexuality in the world of the game, only puzzles. But Ruberg gives a second definition, more conceptual in nature:

“To be queer… is to resist the hegemonic logics that dictate what it means to be an acceptable, valued, heteronormative (or homonor-mative) subject. Queerness challenges dominant beliefs about pleasure and power. It names a longing to ‘live life otherwise.’ [Queerness is a term for] reimagining, resisting, and remaking the world.” (7). This is what I mean when I say “Baba is Queer” (short for Baba is You is Queer), that it reimagines, resists, and remakes the world. So saying a video game is “queer” doesn’t necessarily mean it contains a trans character or a lesbian romance, but that it resists hegemonic logic.

So *how* does Baba is You do this? As a game literally full of logic puzzles, how can it possibly resist hegemonic logic? First, identity is incredibly fluid in Baba is You. Because the player constructs sentences writing “___ is You” in order to determine which sprite on the screen they control, the definition of “you” is constantly changing. Compare this to hegemonic ways that heteronormativity operates: it demands that a female assigned at birth present their body in a certain way, be attracted to men, and define themselves as “woman.” While I have argued that the goal-oriented nature of Baba is You reinforces the idea that certain things have “essences,” that *same* goal oriented nature makes it clear that sometimes, in order to reach our goals, whether thats a flag or to “be ourselves” we have to change what or who we are.

Similarly, the function of objects is in constant flux for the player. One moment you can push a boulder around, the next moment you can’t. You can set an object to move on its own or fall down to the bottom of the screen. Any object can act as a “key” or as a “door” to be opened. Thus, the game asks the player to reimagine the purpose of objects, to see them as malleable rather than fixed. It remakes the world as one where use is not singular, but multiple.

Finally, Baba is You plays with desire. Consider that heteronormative logic dictates that there is one romantic goal: a partner of the opposite gender. Yet, in Baba is You the goal posts are constantly shifting. “Flag” might be “win” one moment, but you might switch that goal to “Boulder” or even yourself! Thus, the object of desire is just as fluid as identity in the structure of Baba is You. It’s about finding the goal that suits you, not the one predetermined for you. This idea is complicated a bit by the design of puzzles, which are often constructed so that there is only one way to win, but since that way to win is rarely what it seems, any normative assumption as to how to advance forward is automatically challenged. Is “Flag” win, or could it be something else? Regardless of the answer, the player is still put in a place of questioning what their identity and desire are and could be.

This act of questioning is core to Baba is You’s queerness, because it asks the player to reimagine the world, to ask “what if?” What if I were Keke? What if my desire was a skull instead of a flag? What if a door unlocked a key, rather than the other way around? This questioning, fundamentally, resists hegemonic logic, because rather than having who you are and what you want predetermined and forced up you, you freely explore, asking: maybe I am “blank,” maybe I want “blank.” There is nothing intrinsically forcing you, in the act of investigation, to choose a side. Thus, Baba is You, despite being a Sokoban game, rejects the normativity of its progenitor, and suggests a world without such strict parameters of success and failure.

It is important to note that a game can both be normative and transformative at the same time. While I didn’t propose such a reading here here, we could try to interpret Sokoban as a queer game too! Baba is You’s insistence on achieving goals to advance is normative in some senses, and nuances of grammar and language are lost on its simplistic portayal of nouns that exactly relay to the essence of the word they represent. Yet, in the act of play, there are no “normative” answers in Baba is You. It is a game where perception and reality rarely line up. One which encourages an inquisitive and open mindset, rather than a closed and rigid one. This resistance to normativity makes Baba is You a queer game.

So, I guess it’s time for the… Bottom Line. Sokoban is a beautiful puzzle game about pushing boxes informed by a peculiar set of explicit and implicit rules that make it fun. It proposes a normative world, one where work always yields results and solutions are always straightforward, the tendrils of this heteronormative underbelly reach far beyond itself to future sexualized box games like Catherine, Seek Girl I-VIII, and Helltaker. Sokoban is unflinchingly honest, and almost unbearably inflexible in its tedium, mimicking its designer’s opinion of computers.

Baba is You expertly deconstructs Sokoban, it resists its hegemonic and normative impulses to propose a new world, where identity, purpose, and desire are not fixed. In this deconstruction, it suggests the complicated nature of words while reifying the western tradition of coalescing language and reality, but still manages to present a queer vision of the world. It fulfills the core promise of Sokoban a few decades late: making you think outside the box.

Erik Kersting

One Comment

  1. This is so cool! It’s interesting how Baba is You is both anti-normative in its design but also follows some standard conventions in puzzle design, levels, etc. It negotiates and pushes the boundaries of the puzzle game genre. I just read this introduction to a 2015 Differences special issue that questions anti-normativity as a founding principal of queer scholarship. It made me think of how a lot of games work within and across genre conventions to disrupt them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *