Ludonarrative Synthesis: Baba Is You, Baba Is Everything

written back in 2019, republished here

Baba Is You is a deceptively simple puzzle game. The music is gentle, the sound effects are cute, and the visuals are quaint and charming. But behind this modest presentation is an intriguing new wrinkle to a long-standing debate.

In Baba Is You, the player is tasked with manipulating the rules of the game to progress through various puzzles. These rules exist as in-game blocks that the player can push around to make new rules. For example, the presence of the phrase “Baba is you” gives you, the player, control of the titular rabbit. If you push around the words and replace the word “Baba” with “rock” to create a new rule, “rock is you,” you’re suddenly moving around as a rock. As you progress, the rules complexify. “Rock on water is key” turns those rocks into keys when they’re pushed onto water. Constructing “Baba is you” and “Baba is win” lets you automatically win that level. The possible solutions to each puzzle feel infinite.

It’s this brilliant rule-bending mechanic that adds a twist to a specific videogame theory question. Like anything academic, this question is a bit complicated and obtuse. I’ll do my best to break it down as I understand it.

For a long time, the marquee debate in the field of videogame studies was situated as a conflict between two elements: ludology vs. narratology.

Let’s start with the easy one: narratology. Literary theorists and critics have been studying narratives for centuries, asking questions like: how do stories make meaning? what are the essential elements of a story? what are the implications of the act of storytelling? the invisible biases? the aesthetic baggage? “Narratology” encapsulates all of these considerations in a single word, standing in for all of the story-related elements in a game. This includes the characters, plot, setting, dialog, objects — in short, the fictive reality of the game.

Ludology, on the other hand, has to do with the mechanics of games. After all, games are not just stories, like movies or novels. They’re spaces governed by rules, restrictions, interactions, win-or-lose conditions, scoring systems, patterns, and complicated dynamics. The word “ludology” was coined to capture all of the game-y elements of a videogame into a neat little term.

So, to put “ludology vs. narratology” into simpler terms, I’ll use philosopher Ian Bogost’s summation from his keynote “Videogames are a Mess”: “Is a game a system of rules, or a type of narrative?” Is Breath of the Wild more like tic-tac-toe or Mad Max: Fury Road?

Any gamer will instinctually tell you that it’s not a question of either-or, it’s both. You can’t have a videogame without mechanics, and even the simplest videogames (like Pong) have an implied fictive element (you’re playing “tennis” against “someone”).

But pitting the two terms against one another does makes sense, because they are often in clear conflict with each other.

For example: how many videogames narratively situate you as the “good guy” while ludically requiring you to commit mind-shattering violence and mass murder? How many RPGs base their story on impending world destruction, while the gameplay incentivizes you to dilly-dally with treasure hunting and romantic side quests? How many titles use narrative elements like dialog and character development to provide the illusion of choice, while the game itself impassively shoves you into ham-fisted “good” or “bad” endings?

This is called “ludonarrative dissonance.” If it sounds bad, that’s because it is: it’s generally seen as a weakness in a particular game’s design, or in the medium as a whole.

There are those who compellingly argue that ludonarrative dissonance is not a bad thing. I, myself, tend to agree with this camp. I love Kirby games, for example, because of their ludonarrative dissonance: cute, rainbow-festooned realms of unchecked savagery, where adorable denizens are literally eaten and discarded like candy and wrapper. It’s delightfully incongruous and absurd, like a weird dada painting.

But I also believe that the most interesting videogames find ways for their gameplay and narrative to sit comfortably side-by-side, to balance and play off each other, so that your actions appear to make sense in the game world while the story cleverly compels your next actions. This is “ludonarrative harmony,” the opposite of ludonarrative dissonance.

Celeste, for example, uses its difficulty, vertical architecture, risk-vs-reward structure, and even its respawn mechanic to say something about how we can use challenges and achievements to overcome depression and anxiety. Sure, the plot’s main obstacle — the mountain — is a metaphor in the literary sense, but so too are the mechanics. The ludology and narrative work together (not unlike the game’s protagonist and her “darker half” at the end).

Dissonance and harmony are musical terms. Dissonance is a “tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements,” like slapping your hand down on a piano. Ludonarrative harmony is more akin to playing a C major chord. C-E-G. The notes work together in harmony and resonate with beauty and depth, creating something greater than its constituent parts.

So what’s going on in Baba Is You?

The main mechanic in Baba Is You is, “Manipulate the rules of reality to win.” These rules — the ludological underpinning of the game — exist as concrete objects in the game world, alongside other more quotidian objects like walls and doors.

In fact, these rules can override nearly everything in the game. They’re somehow more real than the other pieces of reality, more real than the hedges and flowers and rocks, whose elastic functionality fluctuates at the rules’ whim.

In other words, the realest parts of the game world are the rules. The ludology is the narratology.

Baba Is You presents a new solution to the hurdle of ludonarrative dissonance. Here, the perceived barrier between the game’s ludic and narrative elements — between the rules undergirding the game world, and the fictive reality of the game world itself — dissolves. The two are blended into something new: ludonarrative synthesis.

Back to our piano metaphor. Instead of dissonantly slapping a hand on the piano or delicately playing a chord, Baba Is You asks us to fluidly navigate the spectrum of possible keys and chords in all their unexpected gradations. It lets us experiment with different note combinations. Like a synthesizer, it invites us to experiment, warping and sculpting the notes to the situation at hand.

Sometimes, when the notes are wrong and too dissonant, the game’s reality breaks. You’ll find that you accidentally became all the walls, or the words all turned into rocks, or the stream swallowed the key you needed. The most common lose-scenario is when you accidentally physically break the “___ Is You” rule. Suddenly, the music stops. The game goes dead. Without your presence to act upon the game’s rules, dynamics, and mechanics, the game’s reality grinds to a halt. There’s no longer a player at the piano.

True, some of the game’s mechanics, like world progression and grid-based character movement, remain fixed and rigid. In this sense, Baba Is You doesn’t offer complete ludologic synthesis. I’m not really sure what complete ludologic synthesis would even look like. Maybe something more like Dreams or Garry’s Mod or Super Mario Maker. Maybe you could just choose to win in the opening seconds. Maybe winning wouldn’t even be possible.

As “videogame art” exits its self-conscious modernist stage and turns inward on itself, asking broad questions about reality, systems, and patterns, our old frameworks for understanding them will need to evolve to try and articulate those questions. Baba Is You represents a direct challenge to our understanding of the medium, requiring a retooling of the ludology vs. narratology question. Baba might indeed be you, but Baba is also something entirely new.