“A large motivator for me is the desire to surprise and/or amaze the player.”
It’s not every day that a game comes along which warps and bends your perceptions of what a game is. It’s even rarer for one to come along that challenges ideas about identity and objectives in such a simple manner.
Baba Is You crept onto Steam in March of this year but has exploded in popularity, with a cult following. As a puzzle game is has the simple premise of each level having its rules dictated by short, three word statements. But each word of a statement can be pushed around to create entirely new rules.
It’s an incredible title and we talked to its creator Arvi Teikari about his methods for puzzle design and innovation within the indie game space.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into games and what motivates you to make them?
I’ve wanted to make games from a very early age. My cousin had a Super Nintendo, and playing Super Mario World (among others) as well as watching older people play other games got me interested in the medium. As far as I can remember, it was common in my kindergarten for children to draw their own games and levels on paper and ask other kids to “play” through them. In primary school a schoolmate introduced me to Game Maker, and from there I eventually migrated to Clickteam products, with which I’ve stayed ever since.
I’d say that the greatest motivator is just general desire for self-expression. I also enjoy painting and drawing, and for me, all of these are largely means to showcase to other people whatever concepts bob in my head. Another big motivator is the desire to surprise and amaze players; I’d like to offer unexpected experiences for players because those are what I’ve enjoyed a lot when playing games myself.
Baba Is You came about through the Nordic Game Jam in 2017. What was it about the theme that year that brought this interesting puzzle game into existence?
The theme was “Not There,” and this made me think of how “Not” works in logic, namely how some concept “X” can be reversed by stating “Not X.” I had been playing several turn-based block-pushing puzzle games before the jam, such as Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Snakebird and Jelly no Puzzle, and inspiration [came] from those combined with this “Not X” concept.
What I ended up with was the mental image of a block of ice sitting near a pool of lava but not melting due to the statement “Ice Is Not Melt”. I was quite uncertain about this idea, but decided to prototype it anyway because, well, that’s what you do at game jams.
It’s a fascinating title because it plays on our familiarity of the puzzle genre and asks us to break it. How aware were you of how exciting the idea was when you were making it at the Nordic Game Jam? And how much did you delight in breaking the conventions of games?
To be honest, I initially felt quite lukewarm about the game, and I only understood its amusingness once other people checked it out and told me that they liked the idea. I thought some of the interactions in the game were funny, but didn’t expect people to find them as surprising as they eventually did.
For the latter question, it was definitely fun to realize that I could make things work in unexpected ways. I had initially planned for objects in the game to have intrinsic qualities (so that Ice would be Melt by default, for example), but ditched this once I realized how much more interesting it would be if the only meaning in the levels came from the interactable rules within them.
When you make a new level what do you start with? Are you focused on teaching players about how commands can be used or is it about misdirection and asking players to break out of their usual way of solving puzzles?
I usually consider the words I have (or word ideas in my head) and think of interactions between them until I run into something that seems like it might be ‘cool’ or otherwise have potential. Once that happens, I try to reverse-engineer a level that requires said interaction in its solution.
I sometimes allow for misdirection in situations where it seems especially funny or amusing, but at a certain point in the game’s development I decided to try to avoid red herrings and the like just for their own sake; they make the levels needlessly more difficult and don’t usually create very interesting problem-solving situations.
Games exist in a wonderful ecosystem of community followings. You’ve received a lot of great fan art of Baba, including a wonderful piece with characters from Hollow Knight and Rainworld. What does it mean for your game to be held aloft by passionate fans within this wild ecosystem?
It’s very cool! I’ve never before really been in a situation where a significant number of people would want to make fanart of a game of mine. There have been some really creative pieces of fanart on Twitter and I’ve tried to be active in retweeting what people send me. It’s very interesting to see how different people interpret the characters and scenes of a game, and fanart showcases the variety of these interpretations really well.
From this, how have you found the success of Baba Is You? Has it changed the way you approach games or are you still laser-focused on your own process?
It’s a bit early to say since I’m still hard at work on Baba Is You post-release content. Once things slow down a little I’ll have a better vantage point as to how my design/development process has (or might have) changed. I’m definitely trying to keep things mostly the same, because I’d like to avoid developing the feeling that whatever I do next would need to surpass Baba Is You, along with fearing that feeling an obligation to be more ‘serious’ with my game development could hurt the enjoyment I get from it.
Your previous games are wonderfully varied. What is it that inspires you to create these games? Is it experimenting with the limitations of genres or exploring certain mechanics in a unique way?
Maybe more of the latter; back in 2008 and 2009 I made a lot of tiny experimental games, usually platformers. Back then my standards were way lower, but the basic concept of making a short experimental game to explore some kind of a twist in a classic game system is still very intriguing to me.
As mentioned earlier, a large motivator for me is the desire to surprise and/or amaze the player – I’d like for the player to be caught by surprise by the game and have to reconsider how they approach or think of the game. Seeing a streamer play a game I made and react with amusement to some surprise the game offers is very satisfying.
In a medium bursting with innovation, what are the indie games of the last three years that have inspired you most? Also, how much are you inspired by works in film or literature?
Unfortunately, I have played fairly few games over the past three years. Especially once development on Baba Is You began in 2017, I’ve spent most of my computer time at home to work on it instead of playing other games, to the point that I currently have at least three games waiting to be played! Hmm. Stephen’s Sausage Roll is a very obvious answer, since it gave a lot of ideas for how to approach Baba Is You’s puzzle and map design. The Witness was another puzzle game from the past three years that I enjoyed; I’m sure something from there gave inspiration to how Baba deals with certain design elements.
There have been comments from Jonathan Blow that games are stagnating and that the promise they showed ten years ago in the indie scene hasn’t been fulfilled. What do you think about those remarks? Travelling to conventions and game jams around the world, do you think this is the case?
I don’t think I really agree. There are way more games being made and released now than 10 years ago, and while almost by necessity a large amount of those games are very similar to other existing games or follow hard-defined trends within their genres, there are many that combine concepts in more previously-unseen or original ways (and this isn’t to say that the latter would necessarily always be the better option for every developer.)
To me, it’d seem that the perceived stagnation could stem more from a generally larger amount of games fighting for the attention of the same audience on online marketplaces rather than from an actual lack of inspiring or innovative titles.
Of course, Baba Is You isn’t the only gem that Arvi has made, with his aforementioned experimental pursuits readily available on his website. Both his earlier work and Baba Is You illustrate that innovation in games can come in so many forms. Arvi specialises in mixing genres and experimenting with mechanics that rarely fail to put a smile on faces familiar with the medium.
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.