Time for another Puzzle Autopsy! Past entries in this series have focused on more famous virtual escape-the-room-games. This time out, we’re playing a much lesser-known title called Baba Yaga, which comes recommended by the writers at JayIsGames.com.
Go play the game, and then come back here for a spoilertastic discussion of what worked, what didn’t, and whether or not Baba Yaga would survive the transition to a real live room escape game.
Coming years after the earliest escape the room entrants, Baba Yaga gets a lot of things right that other titles get stubbornly, consistently wrong. The brief but effective intro cutscene depicts the treetop house of Baba Yaga, a witch from Eastern European folklore.
I was a little bummed out that the house wasn’t standing on chicken legs, which is the weirdest and most easily identifiable aspects of the Baba Yaga myth. As you can see from this Hero’s Quest screenshot, it’s such a visually interesting element that I’m surprised the artist didn’t include it:
In the game’s intro, Baba Yaga captures you in a sack and locks you inside her non-chicken-footed treehouse. It’s only about five seconds of story setup, but that’s all it takes to create a compelling reason for the player to want to escape, and it reminds me quite a bit of our own Escape the Book Club Killer. If you put the player inside the abode of a stock evil character like a witch or a serial killer or a tax auditor, that character’s intent to harm the player is implied, so a lot of your story work is done for you.
In Baba Yaga, you’re not dropped somewhere vague with no idea who you are or how you got there, the hallmark of lazy/non-existent storytelling. We don’t really know who we are or why we’ve been captured, but the game attempts to fill in those details later. I think.
Witch Way Out
As for goals, Baba Yaga covers its bases quite well. All exits, which include the front door and three windows, are either locked, or guarded by the witch. A tantalizing padlock is protected by a fire-breathing cat. In the next room, a morose-looking elf or somesuch sits bound by three different metallic cords, inside a birdcage.
There are a few cases of Reverse Solving in the game, which we saw earlier in our Puzzle Autopsy of Submachine 1: The Basement. Because of the way the game is programmed, I selected the correct pattern of playing cards before I saw the puzzle’s hint in a nearby book, because the relevant cards were the only ones that remained clickable after I flipped them over.
(Even after discovering the hint, the puzzle doesn’t make sense to me … the hint depicts only the “hearts” suit, yet the solution involves a number of different suits.)
In another case, I fed a worm to the owl before I had discovered the imprisoned elf-thing that the owl was helping me to free. But even without feeding the owl, I’m sure I could have figured out that the bronze, silver, and gold knives are for cutting the bronze, silver, and gold ropes binding the elf.
Likewise, I grabbed an angry-looking worm before I knew I had to feed three of them to the owl.
If I were developing the game, I’d be tempted to leave the owl out until the player sees the imprisoned elf, and then fly him into the room. The worms wouldn’t appear until the owl did. The new problem that creates is that players could visit the wormholes, see no worms, and never visit that location again, because they’ve already checked it and they don’t expect it to change. And it wouldn’t make sense at all for worms to appear in the dresser only after the player has witnessed the kidnapped elf. So a good solution for this whole thing to work, to solve any Backwards Solving problems, is this:
- The game starts with no owl, no worms, and no wormholes.
- The player witnesses the elf in the cage.
- On returning to the first room, the player sees the owl fly in, peck at the bottom of the dresser, and then fly up into the rafters.
With that, we’ve avoided reverse solving, and there’s a (somewhat spurious) reason the worms have appeared – the owl has pecked some holes into the worm-infested furniture with its beak, trying to get at the grubs inside. But setting it up that way is a lot more effort, and a long way to go to tell the player to cut a bronze rope with the bronze knife.
The game fleshes out the story by having you discover a note behind the dresser explaining that you’ve stolen the witch’s wand, which is presumably why you’ve been dwarf-napped:
(This is assuming that “the dwarf” refers to you, the player, and not the Unspecified Magical Creature in the cage.)
It’s a strange narrative decision that I’ve seen before, that I’m not sure I’m onside with it. If I’m a dwarf, and I’ve stolen the Baba Yaga sisters’ magic wand, I should know that about myself. I don’t need a note to tell me that. And if I DO need a note, that means I have amnesia which, as we’ve seen, is lazy and unimaginative storytelling … but it gets around the problem of The Story Dump at the beginning of the game. The Story Dump is an amateurish approach that puts the story into a Star Wars-style Text Glob on the first screen of the game:
Perhaps a better way to approach it is this: during the very brief animated cutscene that kicks off the game, start with you, the dwarf, looking down at his dwarf-like hands (in first-person perspective) holding the witch’s wand. Then Baba Yaga kidnaps you. It’s one extra drawing, and another brief story beat that would take at most another second or two, but it would eliminate the need for that somewhat hand-handed note later in the game. Show, don’t tell.
Nice Touch on the Touching
The main crux of the game’s puzzle structure has you working on a recipe to change Baba Yaga into a bat. I started collecting ingredients without knowing this, because the game helpfully told me I had x out of y items of various kinds. While it was technically helpful to know that I needed a total of 6 golden coins for … some reason … it had a sort of interfacey “game smell” to it. And once again, I was solving puzzles to collect coins long before I knew why I needed them.
The game does have some fun and interesting puzzles. Move the books to discover the key to the chest, only to have it blasted out of your hand by the fire-breathing cat when you try to use it. That’s fun.
The windmill puzzle was enjoyable. You have to trace the alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise motion of the gears, filling in the gaps as needed with loose components, to make the machine work.
Snooping around the house moving furniture around and poking at everything you see is also a highlight. A nice amount of detail was put into the game. There’s nothing important about most of the furniture in the game, but many of the plush furniture dimples a bit when you poke at it. Well done.
Room to Grow
Things go off the rails in a few other places, though.
You find a book describing three different plants. You see the plants’ seeds, their leaf types, and their … character alignment? Two of the plants are clearly deadly poison, and one will make your heart glow (or something?). Even after playing, I’m not sure what bearing that has on anything. You have to demonstrate your knowledge of these plants by plugging their attributes into some sort of magic advent calendar.
The problem is that if this is a simple matching puzzle, some of the elements don’t really look the way they appear in the plant almanac. It took a bit of guesswork.
Guesswork completed, you’re rewarded with the seeds from all three plants. You have to grow a hybrid plant by getting rid of this obscene thing:
and putting all three seeds into one pot. Because that’s how hybridizing a plant works. But it’s okay, because magic.
The next step really irked me though: you need to grow this plant, so you look for – what? Water? Probably not water, because you need to do something magical. But in the absence of this magic witch wand you supposedly stole, what will you use? I dunno. Let’s try water.
There are plenty of water-carrying vessels around Baba Yaga’s house. You’re allowed to take exactly none of them. In fact, there’s even a water-filled pitcher in Baba Yaga’s bathroom that teases you by splashing water around every time you click it, but you’re not allowed to remove it from the room.
I understand (now) that watering the plant isn’t the solution to the puzzle. But because it’s such an obvious solution that’s been used in so many puzzle and adventure games, I felt that I should have been able to try watering the plant, only to have it fail. That would have conveyed that water was not the answer.
Because the game doesn’t do that, I’m left to wonder if, as in less well-designed games, I have to find the one water vessel the game will allow me to use? You see this all the time in adventure games: you have to pound a nail, but you’re not allowed to use any old hammer-like object you find in the game: you have to use the specific hammer-like object that the designer intends for you to use.
That’s not the case here, but the actual solution to the puzzle is arguably even more frustrating.
The recipe book has a second page you can flip to. Once you repair the book with the torn corner of the page, the text lights up. This is a magic spell, obviously. Not obviously, the solution here is to peel the letters off the page like some sort of wizard window decal. Again, I ask: wouldn’t it make more sense to load this spell into the wand I supposedly swiped?
Anyway, I got stuck in a few places while playing Baba Yaga, and peeling the spell off the page was one of them.
The other sticking point that I felt was a little unfair was that I had an item called a “Wheel Key.” I was supposed to use it to open a cabinet in the second room:
I found this unintuitive because 1. I’ve never met a cabinet that opens via a spinning wheel mechanism (and all of the other furniture in the game functions expectedly), and 2. the receptacle for the wheel key looks like decorative inlay in the front of the cabinet, not a functional contraption.
This is a graphics problem that you wouldn’t encounter if Baba Yaga was a real-world escape game. You’d be able to see the receptacle from multiple angles and determine that it would interface with the wheel key. In more technologically advanced escape games like The Room (which I’ll cover in a future article), you’re invited to turn the 3D items over in your “hand” to get a better sense of how they function, and every machine is designed so that it believably interacts with any related objects (even if the machines themselves couldn’t exist in real life).
To make this puzzle more fair, and for me to feel like my utter failure to win without a walkthrough was my fault instead of the game’s fault, the cabinet on the other side of the room could have been of the same design, with its door slightly ajar. This would telegraph that the cabinet in the opposite corner could be opened, and would encourage me to look for the key.
A very likely sticky bit that I overcame through sheer rubbing-things-on-other-things was the solution to the fire-breathing cat puzzle. In one cupboard, I grabbed a magic sausage. In a bout of frustration, I fed it to the cat, which made the cat grow gigantic, crushing the chest and making it spill its treasure.
A number of things irked me about the magical sausage-loving fire-breathing cat puzzle:
- There are two black cats in the game Why does one like eating magical sausages, and the other doesn’t? I want to make the other cat gigantic, but I’m not allowed to.
- There’s a whole plate of magical sausages in the cupboard. Why can’t I take any more of them? If I only need one, why not just draw one? Stop leaving these tantalizing magical sausages all over the house.
- Why does the cat stop breathing fire once it’s eaten the magical sausage and grown gigantic? If anything, it should be more vigilant now that I’m actually rummaging through the treasure in the chest. Did the magical sausage remove the cat’s fire breathing powers? How does THAT make sense?
- If the item I need from the pile of treasure spilling out of the chest is a gold coin, why make the rest of the treasure gold coins? Why not make them jewels instead?
- Can you somehow telegraph what’s inside that chest so that I know which puzzle it connects to?
- If I’m blocked in a game by any knife-averse small animals, like cats, don’t give me a knife as an inventory object. Because I will want to use the knife on those very same animals. The fact that I can’t knife those animals requires some ‘splainin, which you don’t look ready to do.
The very last gripe I have about the game’s puzzles is that if you want a player to collect three flower buds as a puzzle ingredient, be careful not to draw that item as a non-interactive object in your background!
Recipe for a Room Escape
Complaints aside, I found Baba Yaga to be a much more logical, thematic, and ultimately capable game than many of the virtual room escape adventures that I’ve played in the past. The puzzles were mostly fair. I’d be interested to hear if any of you got stuck in the same places I did, or if I’m just daft?
The concept of gathering ingredients to make a potion or a meal is a strong one, and I understand it’s been used in a number of different real room escape games around the world. It’s definitely not one of the more common escape game structures, but perhaps it should be. It’s logical, it’s methodical, and it’s familiar – everyone has followed a recipe at some point or other – and the “scaffolding” structure for your game (the recipe card or book) feels natural. I’d love to see more recipe-related themes in escape games in years to come.