I find puzzles a lot of fun, and I enjoy games very much. However, putting those two together is more complicated than it sounds. You see, while “puzzle games” is a common category in any gaming catalog, it is not easy to create a fun game purely based around puzzles.
I’ve already written about impossible puzzles in games. Today, I want to explore how Baba is You by Finnish indie game developer Hempuli finds a sweet spot in balancing the puzzle and game aspects in its game design.
The Difference Between Puzzles and Games
Puzzles exist in two states, unsolved and solved. Once you solve a puzzle, you can’t go back and do it again with the same sense of enjoyment and achievement. That puzzle is done forever for you, unless sometime in the future you totally forget the solution.
Even from semantics, it’s clear that puzzles and games behave differently. You solve a puzzle, while you play a game.
The interest peak of puzzles happens when you solve it. The “aha” moment of solving a brainteaser, the satisfaction of finishing a crossword puzzle, or the achievement of learning a new skill like how to juggle is the catharsis of all the hard work you’ve put into it. You reap the reward at the end of the process.
Games, on the other hand, reward you throughout the process. The fun in a game is in the process of playing it rather than having completed the whole game. Interest peaks in games, then, are during the game, not at the end, which is a key distinction from puzzles.
Therefore, merging “puzzle” and “game” often results in a game structure that is a series of levels. In a typical puzzle game, each level is a separate puzzle, and they increase in difficulty as the game progresses. Many puzzle games of varying scopes and platforms use this formula, from Cut the Rope to Portal. This gives the player those interest peaks throughout the process that they look for in a game, which naturally occur at the end of every puzzle.
The Interest Curve of a Typical Puzzle Game
The problem is that the interest curve ends up looking something like this. Although we’re getting peaks of interest throughout to keep the momentum of the game, we’re also getting plateaus at very low interest levels when the player is putting in the “work” of solving the puzzle.
Worse still, as the puzzles get more difficult over the course of the game, there’s a higher chance that the player will get stuck or get frustrated, dropping the interest level into dangerous negative territory.
Puzzle Game Design in Baba is You
The genius of Baba is You is that it manages to circumvent these issues by providing small interest peaks throughout the puzzle solving process. It makes puzzles playable by making the process of solving a puzzle fun rather than work.
I will focus on three main design elements of Baba is You that help improve its interest curve over the typical puzzle game.
1. The Advantage of Sandbox Game Elements in Puzzle Games
Baba is You is one part logic puzzle and one part Sokoban (block-moving) game, but the best thing is that it acts like a sandbox. During a level, you’re free to experiment and explore, pushing blocks of game elements like text, symbols, or even other characters around. This means there’s always something you can do in practice, rather than sitting around pondering the solution to a difficult puzzle.
Allowing players to explore and discover new things keeps them invested in the game. For example, while playing the co-op mode of Portal 2, my friend and I learned that we could make each other jump higher by infinite looping our portals, which happened purely by experimentation. This in turn helped us to solve a puzzle.
Baba is You’s sandbox is broader than what exists in Portal 2. In Portal 2, the discoveries you make are largely engineered to help you solve the current puzzle. But in Baba is You, you can make unexpected things happen that may not help you reach your goal.
But that’s great, because the quirks of getting to mess with the actual functionality of a level – the premise and primary gameplay of Baba is You – add funny moments to the game. For instance, suddenly the whole level is full of Babas and you can’t do anything except restart.
Those moments are still interest peaks, because they make the player chuckle or think, “look what I managed to do”, and feel like they somehow managed to break the game’s rules and outsmart the game.
2. Player Feedback in Puzzle Games
Baba is You shines at providing feedback to the player, which is not common in puzzle games. For example, in The Witness, each puzzle is about tracing a path with certain rules. If you make a mistake, you get nothing back, except usually a faint buzzing sound and the line you’ve painstakingly traced out flashes and disappears, to indicate that you got the answer wrong. You don’t see the partial part you got right, or any indication that you might be on the right or wrong track.
In worse cases, The Witness undos all the hard work of previous puzzles in a series attached by a wire up to that point, making you restart from the first one. This means that you have to try them all again to test out a new solution, which is really tiresome and feels like work.
In Baba is You, even if you’ve messed up a puzzle, something has happened, and you’ve gotten valuable feedback along the way by trying things out. If you’re trying to reach a flag and on your first attempt it’s just one space away, you might consider next time pushing the character with an extra block behind it. Then you’d think about where that other block might come from. Or maybe the flag can be moved closer?
Constant feedback due to Baba is You’s internal sandbox structure means that you’re always being exposed to new ways of thinking, new possible steps to solutions and new ideas about what you can do. Getting something back in the interim to show your progress is more effective for the player than the yes/no response of many puzzles.
3. Forgiveness in Puzzle Games
The third thing I admire about Baba is You is that it’s a forgiving game, which is not always the case with puzzle games. Above many other games, Baba is You shows a mature understanding about its puzzles, where it values the process of solving them over the final solution.
Baba is You doesn’t punish players for being wrong. You can restart the level quickly and easily at any point, and what’s more, even if you end up in an unworkable state (like if you managed to kill Baba), you can undo your past moves an unlimited number of times. This means that you can get your game to a previous safe state without having to restart the whole puzzle.
Compare this to The Witness, which basically sends you back to square one if you fail, or to Minesweeper, where one wrong click on a bomb ends the game permanently.
Baba is You understands its structure where experimenting is the way to solve its puzzles, and therefore doesn’t penalise players for exploring when things go wrong. This simple undo mechanic is the game telling the player that it values the exploration and work they have put into the puzzle so far, by not throwing it away.
The Improved Interest Curve of Baba is You
Baba is You’s clever design moves give the game an improved interest curve that is more likely to engage players over longer, more difficult puzzles.
All in all, Baba is You delivers uniquely playful puzzles within its game structure, because it has found the secret sauce of putting puzzles into games – making players have fun while solving puzzles, not because they’ve solved them. Baba is You allows you to solve a game, and play a puzzle.