Baba Is You, Everything and the Supreme Fear

The world of Baba Is You is made of objects. Keys, doors, statues, skulls, trees… but also lawns, walls, ice blocks, lava rivers and conveyor belts that can be broken down into single solid, liquid or intangible units, still or in motion, hot or frozen; and finally Baba herself who, like Keke or Me, is only one of these objects, temporarily linked – and this is where it gets interesting – to the playing subject. Because Baba Is You is a game, specifically a puzzle game. Created in 2019 by Finnish game designer Arvi Teikari, it was immediately covered with prizes and praise.

“Baba is you”. Baba. Is. You. In the two-dimensional space of the game, these words exist as objects that can be manipulated as any other. Combined together, words form sentences that determine the qualities and faculties of things. Since we are talking about grammar, let’s try to be precise: the words in question can be nouns (like BABA or STAR), operators (like IS or HAS) and finally properties (like SHUT or MELT). These elements make up a very simple formal language not unlike the one we normally use when we speak, the so-called natural language. However, the game’s language is concrete and has immediate effects on reality. In the gamic world, “Baba is you” is not an observation, but an instruction.

All of which means that nothing prevents me from impersonating a plant, or why not, an entire building, or – and here I get a little anxious – everything that is empty in a level. Or again, I can gain control – while anxiety turns into panic – of the same words dictating the game’s rules. And as a plant, building, void, or text, I may be able to touch the flag that corresponds to victory; as long there is a sentence that declares such correspondence, because even a skull or a jellyfish can be made into benign entities.

Clearly, the emotions I describe are fleeting and all but unpleasant. On the contrary, they are what makes the game fascinating: small reality destabilisations that are necessary to proceed. To take them seriously, and catch them before reason intervenes, these destabilisations are a bit scary. There is something frightening in the possibility of redefining the structure, and therefore the meaning, of the world in which we live, turning good into evil and vice versa. “Panic” seems to me the right word. Panic can be understood as a state of mind that combines dismay, astonishment and full involvement in what surrounds us. Panic is what you feel when you sense that everything is similar to everything else and that each thing can become another one.

Totality is a consistent concern in the history of videogames. Usually, it is linked to a desire for realism that can become a craving: moving every muscle, entering every house, driving every vehicle, using every artifact, conversing with every character. Within the gamic simulation, it is real what you can interact with, the figure that functionally detaches itself from the background.

If there is such a thing as a tradition of videogames about totality, namely, games that attempt total interactivity, Everything would not just belong to it, but also raise its bar. Published in 2017 by David OReilly (author of the infamous Mountain), it is a simulation game in which you can embody anything at any scale: a galaxy, an atom, a particle of dust, a slice of pizza, an oil rig, a fish scale, a pack of snow lions… Each entity in the game can think and communicate. New thoughts, more or less intelligible, emerge from listening to those of other beings.

The game has no precise goal other than to collect beings with which to create a bond, as well as retrieving audio clips from the philosopher Alan Watts, an expert in Buddhism and Taoism, on the interdependence of every entity in the cosmos, including humans. The underlying message can be summarised in this way: everything is connected, everything is of the world rather than in the world.

No destabilisation this time. No sense of anxiety or panic. Everything (the game I mean) is calm and comforting. Perhaps, this is due not only to the elementary graphics and the extravagant movements of some beings, but to the fact that this is, all in all, a traditional simulation. Individual identification and character variability prevail over the faint sense of interconnectedness and totality. In Everything you cannot really be everything but each thing, or at most a group of them. Moreover, each thing remains true to itself because its qualities, apart from its size, stay unchanged.

This brings us back to Baba Is You and to the issue of gamic reality and its relationship with every thing. The game does not make concessions: here the totality is overwhelming, hardly thinkable and often unmanageable. Baba Is You can be considered a mixture between a puzzle game and a level maker. And what’s more real in a videoludic sense, or even more true, than the toolkit that is used to create a game? A toolkit that allows you to make revealing mistakes: Baba Is You turns glitch (the territory that becomes the subject, the background that becomes the figure) into a game mechanic. This time the underlying message is a different one: everything is a sprite.

If panic is the kind of turmoil that marks the act of playing, there is another one that arises when the gameplay is interrupted. In videogames, it is normal to die, that is, to witness the defeat of the character you control. In Baba Is You, the gamic death can take a different form. Dying may mean that the YOU block is detached from the other language blocks (BABA, CRAB) and therefore from what these objects represent. Death coincides with the breaking of the link that binds the player to the game syntax and therefore to the game world. When you “die” the world remains there, persistent and logical, while the player self disappears, invisible to the algorithm. Therefore, we should talk of annihilation more than death. Baba Is You allows you to feel, just for a moment, a radical dismay: the supreme fear of death as disappearance from the world. This negative nothingness accompanies the panic awe of being everything.

Actually, what allows the player to experience the persistence of the world even after its disappearance is the fact that they not only control the movements of the objects to which they are attached, but also time, which can be rewound. Like space, Baba Is You’s time is discrete: it is a sequence of steps. Even after the player has disappeared, time can continue to flow, both backwards and forwards. This can be deduced, for example, from a conveyor belt that is still running or from a robot connected to a property (MOVE) that forces it to proceed relentlessly. So, is time the primal force that activates the game? Is it time that infuses vitality in Baba Is You?

I stop playing to articulate these intuitions. My emotional reactions are already fading and I feel that they will soon disappear completely. I jot down a few lines and then decide to take a walk to mentally retrace the steps of a particularly difficult level. In the tiles on the sidewalk I recognise the two-dimensional grid of the game. I see myself stumbling into the language blocks that bind me to this body and this world. I try to think of myself as a lake or a mound. Painstakingly, I try to dissociate myself from everything physical. Then, I imagine the Player. They are struggling with temporary associations, functional to obscure purposes to everyone and everything except them. I look up, in search of a flag.

This text was originally published in Italian on Ludica.