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The mechanics and banal brilliance of Baba Files Taxes
Baba is You creator Arvi Teikari explains how they created an absurd spin-off that plunges players into the world of monotonous white collar crime.
February 22, 2023
6 Min Read
This interview has been edited for clarity
Anybody who's ever felt the oppressive, crushing weight of the Tax Form will understand the subtle brilliance of Baba Files Taxes, a free Itch release for Windows PC that asks players to help Baba of Baba is You fame complete their tax return before the approaching deadline.
Baba is You creator Arvi Teikari unwittingly launched the tongue-in-cheek title back in January, right in the middle of tax season. While the timing might seem very deliberate, during a recent chat with Teikari we learned it was a happy accident born out of a desire to simply release This Thing they'd been working on stop-start over the course of months.
Although Teikari estimates that Baba Files Taxes only took about five days to complete, they actually began working on the initial concept last summer. In a bid to find some kind of creative catharsis by finally crossing some game ideas off their burgeoning to-do list, the Finland-based developer decided to create 12 short projects over the course of 12 months, but was unfortunately waylaid because life, as it always does, got in the way.
One idea, however, refused to disappear. After watching a streamer play a video game where they had to copy paintings, hopefully better than some IRL attempts, Teikari started thinking about how they might implement a simple algorithm that could evaluate the quality of a drawing or piece of artwork. "I wondered what kind of nonsense I could use to fake a game seemingly understanding what looks nice, or what is art," they explain.
At that point, they also recalled a how Nintendo DS game (the name of which is now long-forgotten) had used a similar mechanic to evaluate the signatures of players, telling them if it wasn't elaborate enough and providing other comical feedback despite the mechanic itself being fairly superfluous. Those ideas soon collided like a neurological big bang, and Baba Files Taxes was born.
Baba is doing white collar crime
The core mechanic behind Baba Files Taxes is simple. Players must replicate Baba's signature to the best of their abilities to help the adorable blob complete their tax forms. You see, Baba isn't great at reading or writing, so players need to quite literally lend Baba (who appears to be some kind of small business owner) a hand by forging their signature and engaging in some light criminal activity.
The title judges players by how closely they're able to replicate Baba's scrawling (seen in the top left of the document below) in the numerous "Your Signature" boxes scattered throughout the form. Getting a high score takes a bit of time and effort, but filling out paperwork is also dangerously dull, so, you know, don't take too long.
It's a "goofy" premise, according to Teikari, but one that was actually quite finicky to realize. They explain that creating the signature-matching algorithm was the "most complicated part" before suggesting it sort of "sucks" despite it working pretty effectively.
Teikari felt the easiest way to implement the system would be to create a system that recognizes how accurate a drawing is (in this case, a signature) by taking the source image (Baba's attempt) and the player-created image, cropping out the empty space, resizing them so they're the same proportions, and then overlaying them to check how many of their pixels are identical.
"Then, to make things more fair, because a literal comparison between the two images that considers how many pixels are the same [would really punish players for making a slight mistake], I made it so that if your drawing has colored pixels where they shouldn't be, that's less bad than if you don't have certain parts of the source image," they add, detailing how they sought to balance the system.
Teikari says that tweak had to be made because the human eye is capable of perceiving nuances that would escape the algorithm, potentially creating a situation where players feel they've managed to successfully forge Baba's signature, but would be told by the algorithm that their work is decidedly sub-par. That's worrying feedback when you're committing a felony.
"False positives aren't as bad as false negatives," explains Teikari, although they point out that it also meant players soon learned they were able to get a perfect score by simply coloring in the entire screen, which in reality would almost certainly raise eyebrows down at the tax office.
"When I realized people had noticed that if you just color the entire screen, the matches you get are weighted so heavily that you still get a perfect score, I tried to tweak it a little bit. People also told me it would actually be more funny if you could cheat the program, but at the same time—because I had already implemented the rating system—I though it would be cooler if there were still actual steps."
Teikari also designed all of the tax forms by hand, which is impressive when you realize how much wordplay is used throughout. We suspect that most players will scroll through the paperwork at breakneck speed to avoid sinking into a catatonic state, but in doing so they'd miss some of Baba Files Taxes' best gags.
"All the forms are just PNG sprites that I wrote on with small fonts. Then, because the whole system is kind of finicky and crude, I left these blank boxes to show players where the signatures should go," says Teikari. "I actually hard-coded the locations of the signature boxes, so each page is essentially just a layer of text I wrote by following my internal monologue to create nonsense."
The surreal life of Baba
The notion that Baba from Baba Is You needs to file taxes in their downtime is both absurd and enchanting. It's the kind of delirious idea that Teikari uses as the springboard for much of their work. In the past, they've spoken about how they want all of their titles—big or small—to surprise and amuse players, and Baba Files Taxes is no different. There's even a secret ending that's both hilarious and a little bit heartbreaking.
Towards the end of our chat, we discuss how Teikari approaches the art of comedic game design, and they explain that it's all about latching onto a concept or mechanic that players would never see coming. "When it comes to game design, the wish to surprise has its basis in some puzzle games and how there might be a concept that catches you off-guard. In itself, that's not directly related to humor, but it feels adjacent," they say. "I usually don't even start developing a game if I feel it doesn't have something like that in it.
"I've always enjoyed absurd humor. For example, in Baba is You there are some non sequitur, surreal, and absurd jokes that don't really make sense, but there's something about that that just tickles me. One game that specifically inspired me was Braid. In that game, for the first time I could remember, each puzzle did something different and tried to deliver a unique 'a-ha' moment. Even if that's outdated by modern standards, it stuck with me and has guided my game design in a really big way."
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About the Author(s)
News Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.
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