Baba Is You creator on difficulty, Nintendo Switch and breaking the rules
© Hempuli Oy/Red Bull Games
We speak with the Baba Is You creator to talk difficulty in video games, breaking the rules and why Baba belongs on Nintendo Switch.
Times are tough for those of us who love video games. Not because of a paucity of quality releases, mind you. Studios and indie devs are delivering some of the most epic, thought-provoking and ingenious titles we’ve ever had the pleasure to lay our hands on. Times are tough, though, because many of these developers are intent on challenging us in unique (and often brutal) new ways. And frankly, we wouldn’t change it for the world.
Whether it’s the Soulsbourne series, the recently released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, or the pixel-popping platformer Celeste, masochistic gamers have been embracing the hard-as-nails experience, even if it costs them a few more grey hairs. Baba Is You, the mind-bending, rule-breaking puzzler from developers Hempuli Oy, absolutely belongs in this category, and since its release has enthralled players with its weirdo aesthetic, head-scratching problems and yes, tough-as-all-hell difficulty.
Explaining the game is almost as tricky as playing it, so we’ll leave it to the official website to do it for us: ‘the rules you have to follow are present as physical objects in the game world. By manipulating the rules, you can change how the game works, repurpose things you find in the levels and cause surprising interactions!’
We spoke with Arvi Teikari, the creator of Baba Is You, to talk tearing up the rulebook, why the game had to be on Switch, and what’s next for the maker of one of the most bafflingly brilliant puzzlers of recent times.
First, Teikari has his say on the video game difficulty debate:
“I wouldn't say that difficulty is a crucial part of the game; there are definitely places where I designed a puzzle and chuckled "this is pretty tough to solve" to myself, but even then the point was often that the main "trick" the level asks the player to implement felt satisfying or devious to me, rather than the level just being difficult in some general way. (Although the "trick" of a level being more devious probably correlates quite heavily with the level being more difficult to solve.) The game definitely turned out to be way more difficult than I expected.”
But was an Easy Mode ever a consideration? Teikari adds:
“In many game genres there are several quite straightforward ways to implement difficulty adjustments – action-based games can alter damage values, game speed or other similarly non-discrete variables, for example, without affecting the structure of the game. Turn-based puzzle games lack many of these variables, and thus the difficulty adjustments often need to be more complex, at least from a technical viewpoint.
“A hint system has been suggested several times for Baba Is You, and at the moment I think that'd be the best way to go, if I can figure out a good way to implement the hints visually. I'd really like to have them be more like helpful images than straight-up written hints. I'm pretty sure this feature will appear in the game once I get the details sorted out!”
Clearly a topic Teikari has wrestled with, he continues:
“Something that touches this topic is also accessibility – Baba Is You includes a high-contrast palette and some other accessibility features, but there have been some suggestions that could increase the accessibility of the game systems themselves in ways that I feel could also help with the difficulty.” He says, “For example, it's been suggested that there could be an option that makes the rules in the levels show a visual effect when they activate; this would make it easier to understand what's going on in a complicated level and thus would possibly make some of the harder levels less overwhelming, and so on.
“As Celeste and various other games have shown, increasing accessibility doesn't really "hurt" a game for people who don't want to use those features, but will make the experience much more enjoyable, or possible in the first place, for others.”
One rule: break the rules
Baba Is You is all about rules. While that may not initially sound like the most enjoyable use of time when picking up your Switch, the game’s willingness to let you bend the very rules of video games makes it a unique experience. Teikari explains:
“A very large part of the game's testing process has been eliminating alternative solutions that aren't interesting enough, and only very few of the levels made it to the release version without at least some tweaks. My aim when designing the levels was that every level would at least try to incorporate some new interaction or feature of the game system.
“At times these interactions require quite extensive setups, which leave the levels very open to unintended solutions. The problem is, many of these alternative solutions utilise quite similar approaches between levels, thus leaving them in would trivialise many bits of the game while showing the player very "samey" solutions and omitting the (hopefully) more interesting, intended ones.”
But has this openness to rule-breaking resulted in players conquering puzzles in ways even the developers didn’t see coming? Teikari says:
“"Alternative solutions" as a concept in itself is very interesting, and encouraging it in cases where things don't boil down to the aforementioned samey solutions is great. For example, early on in the game even the unintended, more trivial solutions often contain some element that's new to the player, and thus leaving them in is interesting. At times the unintended solution might even convey the same lesson as what the intended solution would have, just structured differently. Somewhat similarly, there are several later levels that have alternative solutions that still incorporate the main point of the intended ones, and again leaving those in makes the game more interesting.
“In general, though, as the game progresses, the puzzles become more specific, and consequently it becomes harder to leave in alternative solutions that are interesting.”
The birth of Baba
If you’ve played Baba Is You, then you’ll likely have the same two recurring thoughts: How the hell do I do this, and how the hell was this even conceived. Handily, Teikari can answer the second one:
“I was at the Nordic Game Jam in 2017; NGJ is an event held every year where the idea is to make a game in 48 hours. The theme of the jam was "Not There", which made me think of how "Not" works in logic, i.e. how you can reverse the meaning of a concept X by stating Not X.
“This combined with inspiration from various puzzle games I had played over the preceding years, including titles such as Snakebird (Noumenon Games), Stephen's Sausage Roll (increpare games), A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (Draknek) and Jelly no Puzzle (Qrostar), eventually gave me the mental image of a block of ice being safe near a pool of lava due to the statement "Ice Is Not Melt". I wasn't very convinced of this idea, feeling that I'd either run into technical problems or that the concept would turn out to be uninteresting to play with, but decided to prototype it anyway; and there I went.”
The decision to prototype it paid off, with Baba Is You receiving critical plaudits upon release, and gaining a dedicated following among those willing to submit to its curious charms. Did this reaction surprise Teikari?
He says, “I think I had a good amount of trust in the game doing somewhat well based on past reactions to it at IGF, IndieCade and so on, but the size of the reaction was definitely surprising.
“The game had ended up being more difficult than I expected, and that combined with the minimalistic artstyle were things I assumed to weigh more heavily against the game than what ended up happening,” he explains. “Puzzle games in general have seemed less streamable than many other genres, and this was a factor I expected to matter quite a lot.”
It almost seems odd that a game as singular as Baba Is You would have its forebears, but according to Teikari, its strange design did have some precedent. He says:
“Snakebird by Noumenon Games is probably the singular title that has most affected Baba Is You's design. Stephen's Sausage Roll (increpare games), A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (Draknek), Jelly no Puzzle (Qrostar), Pipe Push Paradise (Corey Martin) and Corrypt (smestorp) are some other puzzle games that I drew inspiration from – the turn-based block-pushing archetype Baba follows to an extent is certainly a result of these.
“As for the art, the inspiration for that originates from Petri Purho's Crayon Physics Deluxe. To name another source of inspiration that goes further back, while Braid (Number None) doesn't resemble Baba Is You very much as far as puzzle games go, its approach to puzzle design affected a lot back when it was released and echoes of that can probably be detected in Baba Is You.”
As for the games that currently test Teikari, he lists increpare's Puzzlescript games, with Pip Schlepper and Recursed by Portponky also singled out for praise. And while you may think the mind behind Baba Is You would find most puzzlers a doddle, he insists this isn’t the case: “I still haven't beaten Cosmic Express by Draknek or Jelly no Puzzle by Qrostar despite picking them up several years ago, so I suppose those count, heh.”
Making the Switch
It’s hard to explain why, but the fact that Baba Is You first appeared on Nintendo Switch comes as absolutely no surprise. Nintendo’s hybrid console has been a welcome home for many great indie titles, and its portability make Baba Is You a suitable alternative to Sudoku when on public transport. But how did it make its way to Switch? Teikari explains:
“I've been a fan of Nintendo games since childhood due to my cousin's Super Nintendo, so having a game on their console felt like a very neat thing. Additionally, the game has very simple controls and is divided neatly into discrete levels, so it works very well as a portable game. People at Nintendo have aided the game a bunch, what with the game being showcased at Gamescom 2018 at the Nindies Showcase and the trailer being uploaded to their official YouTube channel, for which I am very thankful.”
And are there any plans for other platforms? He says, “No promises, but it'd definitely be cool to have the game on mobile! We'll probably want to concentrate on finalising some features on the existing platforms first, though, in part to keep the workload manageable.”
As for what’s next for Hempuli Oy, Teikari tells us that Baba Is You is still a very hungry baby, requiring patches along with some larger features that they’re planning for the future. He adds, “The largest of these is probably a level editor; getting a proper editor working on all platforms and polished properly will be quite an undertaking.”
And beyond Baba Is You?
Teikari concludes, “I have some old projects I put on hold to concentrate on BIY that I'd like to return to. I had a weekly stream going for a couple years before Baba took over my game development time, and returning to that with new/old projects would be ideal, too. I'll also need to finish my studies at some point, haha. On top of these there'll always be game jams and other reasons to make tiny prototypes.”
Baba Is You is out now on Nintendo Switch.