Developer Interview: Hempuli Oy

When Baba Is You launched on March 13 of this year on Steam and Switch, it became an instant sleeper success. Baba Is You invites players to navigate bite-sized puzzles as the endearing Baba, deconstructing and reconstructing rules in order to align the way to a win. The simple system behind Baba Is You is simply brilliant. We spoke with the solo mastermind behind it all–Finland-based Arvi Teikari, otherwise known as studio Hempuli Oy–about his indie treasure, and his path to such a glowing victory in the puzzle genre.

|| Can you tell us a little about who you are and your journey to becoming Hempuli Oy? We hear you’re located in Finland and that you have an impressive portfolio of artwork to your name. How did you find yourself becoming a game developer?

I’ve wanted to make games in some form since kindergarten; this is probably thanks to watching relatives etc. play videogames. In primary school a schoolmate showed Game Maker to me and we eventually had a small group of people dabbling with it. However, Game Maker required understanding its own scripting language, and at that point neither my patience nor my English skills were high enough to fully appreciate the program. Once another schoolmate introduced me to Clickteam’s The Games Factory, which used a simple drag-and-drop system, I migrated to it very quickly and in fact have kept using tools of the same family since.

(Around these times there was actually a larger community of Finnish schoolkids, probably slightly older than me, making games using the same tools and sharing them on cheap websites; these and a couple community websites really fueled my interest in the hobby.)

At the end of highschool game development as a career didn’t feel secure enough, especially considering that I didn’t really know how to program, so I decided to study other things and make games solely as a hobby. After finishing my next larger project, however, I decided to release it as a commercial title and that required setting up a company and also otherwise shedding the “hobbyist” status to an extent. I guess for me game development kind of slowly drifted from a hobby to a full-time job?

|| How did the Nordic Game Jam 2017 inspire Baba Is You? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Baba Is You was created for this contest—and, in fact, won that contest. Was Baba Is You something you already had in mind, or did the contest’s stipulations bring it out?

I had very low expectations for what I’d be able to make at the jam; I was already very busy with a couple other projects. Initially I came to the event more to enjoy the atmosphere and the community rather than to try to win.

I got the idea for Baba from a combination of things. The theme of the jam, “Not There,” made me think of logic operators; this thought interacted with inspiration garnered from various puzzle games I had been playing during the past couple years (namely Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Snakebird and A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build, plus a few others) and ultimately led to a concept where the player could prevent ice from melting in a pool of lava by stating “Ice Is Not Melt.” I started developing a prototype around this concept, although initially I was quite sceptical of how well it’d work as the basis for a puzzle game. Once I got a bit further other people encouraged me to keep going since they found the concept intriguing, and in hindsight I’m very thankful that they did.

|| We have to know. Just who is Baba? Is Baba loosely based on a pet you had? Perhaps artwork you’ve been making? Or is Baba just a convenient vehicle for Baba Is You’s gameplay?

In the original version, Baba was a very minimalistically-drawn robot; since I had to make the game in 48 hours, I opted for an extremely simplistic visual aesthetic. The names “Baba” and “Keke” got their inspiration from an old psychology experiment where people were asked to name two shapes, one spiky and the other round & bubbly, either “Kiki” or “Bouba.” After the jam Jason Boyer, an indie developer friend, made some very cute fanart for the jam version where he interpreted Baba as a humanoid goat-person (the robot’s antennae could very easily be interpreted as horns). When choosing the final art direction for the post-jam version, I took inspiration from Jason’s art and decided to make Baba a cute, wobbly creature. I semi-intentionally left details of what/who/why Baba is vague, since clearly defining that would’ve felt quite limiting and unnecessary.

|| What’s the process like behind developing the puzzles in Baba Is You? There are over 200 puzzles in Baba Is You, and their unique core mechanic of altering the game’s rules by moving words is what’s won the title so much praise. How do you imagine and then bring to life puzzles like these?

I generally developed the puzzles “backwards.” That is, I tried to think of interesting interactions between the game’s rules, and once I got an idea I reverse-engineered a level that requires using that interaction to be solved. Since the game’s rule system is quite versatile, this method worked very well, although it did leave the levels initially very prone to having unintended solutions due to the initial approach often locking my mindset down on a singular viewpoint. Nothing lots of testing couldn’t fix, though, haha. Another semi-common issue has been me being so used to the intricacies of the game logic that the interaction I’m building a level around ends up being more buggy-feeling or unintuitive than interesting.

|| Do you have a favorite among all the levels in Baba Is You? If so, which one is it, and why do you enjoy it so much? If not, why do you think you don’t have a favorite?

I don’t think I can pick a singular favourite; many levels have things that I find amusing. I’d say that all levels that introduce a completely new concept are my favourites as a group, because those levels usually induce the most surprise in the player. Watching someone else play the game and have a little chuckle at some implication they hadn’t considered is a big part of what makes me appreciate certain levels.

|| If you could pass along a single piece of advice to other indie puzzle-game developers, what would it be? Did you learn anything particularly interesting or insightful as you were making Baba Is You that you think others would benefit from?

I don’t feel very confident in viewing myself as a person who knows about designing puzzles as a general craft. A lot of Baba‘s design came somewhat naturally so I can’t claim that I’d have spent that much time carefully planning things. I guess there are some things that I feel could help others as well, though: spending time prototyping ideas even when they don’t seem very interesting initially, be it at a game jam or elsewhere, and combining ideas/inspiration from other games while brainstorming or doing said prototyping in order to potentially find unexplored spots in genres and systems.

|| You’re stranded on a desert island, but you can pick three puzzle games for any system and from any time period to have with you. What do you choose, and why? Your own games are included, of course!

Probably two wooden puzzle boxes and one metallic, let’s say traditional jigsaw puzzle (since those exist); I could potentially transform the metal into sharp tools for cutting and otherwise gathering resources, and if nothing else the wooden items could be used to make a fire. Puzzle games tend to be fairly one-off experiences, at least the ones I’ve enjoyed most (e.g. Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Snakebird, Cosmic Express, Jelly no Puzzle, to name a couple), so it’d be hard to imagine ones to take with me that’d last the potentially very long desert island sentence. I guess something like a sudoku/picross/crossword autogenerator could turn out to be the most solid option in terms of longevity-versus-sameness?