Game design at its core is creating a ruleset. Good game design is creating a ruleset and making it fun. Obviously, a ton more goes into game design than just making rules, but this is the baseline. If an amazing and beautiful world is created, but there are no rules, it’s not a “game.” It’s just… space. It’s a world where nothing can be done but observe. Games need to be interactive. The players need to be able to do something and have it be consistent within the game’s context. When a game does unexpected things, when its results are inconsistent, it’s not a feature. It’s a bug. Unless, of course, the rules are meant to be malleable, meant to be inconsistent. What if the player is given a degree of control? Does that make for good game design?
This is certainly the case with Baba Is You, a 2D puzzle game developed by Hepuli Oy. Each level in this game is laid out in blocks on a grid. How these blocks interact (or don’t) however, is often up to the player. The objective of the game is simple: the player must move whatever block is labeled “you” to whatever block is labeled “win”. What this means is the player character can change depending on what the player does, and the same goes for the goal. This starts out as relatively simple, but as more and more block types and labels get added, it very quickly becomes increasingly unclear how the player must change the rules in order to progress. This is what makes the game challenging but also interesting and fun. Each level feels like an exercise in visual programming, using problem-solving skills and creativity to bend “reality” to your will. And when that doesn’t work, doing it again and again until it does.
Baba Is You is an excellent example of creating a base ruleset and letting the player build upon it in fun, thoughtful, and engaging ways. Giving the player power over game rules is usually a very dangerous thing, but in the right context and when handled the right way, it can not only define a game but be precisely what makes the game fun in the first place.