The Mythology of Yaga
Prior to playing Yaga from indie developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, I’d heard the name “Baba Yaga” but had never taken the time to read through her full origin story. Because the game piqued my curiosity, I was inspired to dig a little deeper and ask… who is Baba Yaga?
The answer to this question is both long and unusual.
If you’re unfamiliar with Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a witch who resides deep within the forest. You’ll know you’ve stumbled upon her hut as it stands walks on chicken legs. As for Baba Yaga herself, she may appear as an old woman that flies around in a mortar while holding a pestle, or as a trio of women.
In Yaga, it feels like a bit of both.
You’re introduced to Baba Yaga on her own, though you also see her conspiring with three other women later on. Whenever these women advise Baba Yaga, they remind me of the Moirai (also known as the Fates) from Greek mythology: Clotho, Atropos, and Lachesis.
With the thread of life in their care, Clotho spins while Lachesis measures. Finally, Atropos decides when and how to cut the thread, completing the cycle of life and death.
Unlike the Fates, Baba Yaga chooses whether to help or hinder your fate based on your actions. She's not a textbook villain as she won’t attack you unless you bother her first, which is relatable on a human level. Leave her alone in her hut, and she’ll leave you alone.
Well, for the most part.
Despite her haggard appearance, Baba Yaga is far from a boogeyman creeping towards you through dark shadows as you sleep. She has the potential to bestow unconventional kindness if you work hard enough to win her over.
Or, if you get on her bad side and fail to complete the tasks she assigns you, she may decide it’s easier to cook you and eat you. She’s part grandmother, part cannibal.
The Mythology of Yaga
After reading all of the stories that mention Baba Yaga, I find myself inclined to like her even though she’s never written to be intentionally likeable. Breadcrumbs offers a great example of this with Yaga as it’s a story where she’s portrayed as an observer who can, at times, step in and make decisions.
As the player, you’re able to direct small aspects of the game as Baba Yaga and her counsel, like what time to explore an area or whether to give up and crawl back to safety after being defeated in battle. In Yaga, you play as Ivan, a one-armed Blacksmith known for being unlucky.
What could be unluckier than a one-armed Blacksmith?
Because of his luck (or lack of it), he draws the attention of a crooked Tzar who’s had a curse placed on him by Baba Yaga. In a way, your success in Yaga has the potential to help fulfill or break the curse made by Baba Yaga.
As Ivan, you not only you have to complete tasks for the Tzar and Baba Yaga, but as the player, the way you guide Ivan can almost feel like a way of appeasing Baba Yaga on a grander scale.
Like any good piece of folklore, Yaga has a lesson attached, and that lesson is taking full responsibility for your fate. In classic tales, I noticed that Baba Yaga has a tendency to appear those who are helpless, misfortunate, and at a crossroads. You could say that Ivan fits these categories in many ways.
After all, he's missing an arm, and his grandmother is constantly encouraging him to step into proper adulthood by finding a wife to settle down with. Who knows how long she’s been taking care of him? You can also choose to play him as a fool via your responses, further complicating things.
Throughout the game, you’ll find nods to many of the old tales that Baba Yaga appears in, and it’s a fun introduction to Slavic folklore as a whole. For example, there’s mention of a woman named Vasilisa in Ivan’s village.
The story of Vasilisa is well-known for being one of the most popular tales that Baba Yaga appears in. It’s also one of my personal favorites. In many ways, Vasilisa’s journey is reminiscent of Cinderella, though there’s no prince to rescue her. In the tale, Vasilisa’s father remarries, forcing Vasilisa to deal with a wicked stepmother and equally awful stepsisters.
After moving to a cottage in the woods, Vasilisa is manipulated by her stepmother and stepsisters into retrieving light from Baba Yaga. The stepmother and stepsisters hope Baba Yaga will kill and eat Vasilia, but things take an interesting turn. Yes, Vasilia meets Baba Yaga who agrees to give Vasilisa a light in exchange for her help in completing a series of tasks.
However, Vasilia is able to win over Baba Yaga with the help of her magic doll. This frustrates Baba Yaga as she had hoped Vasilisa would fail so that she could eat her. True to her word though, Baba Yaga hands over a special light embedded in a skull lantern for Vasilisa’s service.
When Vasilisa returns home, the light burns her new family to ashes while leaving her unscathed.
The story is dark, but comes with a positive ending in that Vasilisa doesn’t get eaten by Baba Yaga, her cruel stepmother and stepsisters get their comeuppance, and she gets to marry the Tzar of Russia and live happily ever after.
In a way, Baba Yaga inadvertently alters Vasilisa’s fate for the better, though Vasilisa’s quick thinking and hard work also play a major role.
As you play Yaga, your actions as Ivan will directly shape how the characters respond to you, and how the story plays out. You can receive aid from others, but in the end, it’s up to you to get the ending you desire. Speaking with Prima Games, Yaga developer Catalin Zima-Zegreanu shared advice on what you should prioritize if you want to be successful in the game.
“Ivan is a blacksmith, after all, so the best tip we can give is for the players to make use of the smithing skills. Forge hammers and tools whenever you have the opportunity!”
Yaga gives players the tools and lets them decide how they want to use them, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game outside of the core Slavic feel to the whole thing. While Baba Yaga is one of the most recognizable faces of folklore in the game, there are others I was glad to see included as well.
For example, you'll encounter the Likho, who’s essentially misfortune and bad luck personified. You get to know the dreaded Likho at the beginning of the game and it’s Likho who chops off Ivan’s arm, proving that evil fate exists and you absolutely do not want to mess with it.
Other traces exist in items that are available for purchase in Yaga, such as Vodnik’s Pipe. Depending on region of origin, the Vodnik can take human form and hang around near bodies of water. There’s a saying that goes, “Here’s your tobacco, Lord Vodnik, now give me a fish.”
In art, the human variant of Vodnik is often depicted with a tobacco pipe, fitting the reference. If you take the time to browse through the shops (Kopeks to spend or not), you’ll find that just about every other item offered in Yaga plays upon Slavic origins. Along with Vodnik’s Pipe, my favorites include Perun’s Rune and Czernobog’s Rune.
I could dedicate a dozen more pages to discussing the cool aspects of folklore and the tales I think you should read first, but I feel it’s more important to emphasize how cool it is to see these bits of culture in an indie game like Yaga.
I want to see more forms of media incorporate folklore and mythology as these stories are among some of the earliest examples we have of entertainment. They also serve as a way to get a taste for culture around the world.
You don’t often see Slavic folklore incorporated in games, and after playing Yaga, you really come away impressed at the sheer amount of time and research Breadcrumbs put in.
If you want to play something different, something that will immerse you in an engaging world of Slavic folklore, I highly recommend playing Yaga on November 12. Not only will you become acquainted with the infamous Baba Yaga, you may also walk away with dreams of the Likho and a desire to own a replica of Vodnik’s Pipe in real life.
Or maybe that’s just me… either way, there’s no doubt in my mind that Yaga is one of the most creative indies I’ve played in 2019.