How Baldi's Basics taps into the real horror of '90s edutainment

Developer Micah McGonigal talks about the design and development of his edutainment horror game Baldi's Basics, in the process reminding us how weird and messed up old edutainment games could be.

"The most important thing I wanted to capture with the game was an unsettling feeling of things being off," says Micah McGonigal, developer of edutainment/horror mixture Baldi’s Basics in Education and Learning

"I didn’t want to go flat-out horror; I just wanted to create a mish-mash of different things that don’t quite meld together right, but also don’t seem ridiculously over-the-top and crazy."

Baldi’s Basics begins innocuously enough, tasking players with finding notebooks and solving trivia questions within a crude, explorable 3D world.

As players fail questions and wander, though, a sense of unease permeates events and meetings, one created by the visuals being purposely made to look a little bit ‘off’, not unlike many past educational games the developer has seen or played.

McGonigal draws upon accidentally-unsettling visual elements of old educational games to create a disturbing world in Baldi’s Basics, and in doing so creates unease from a general sense of something being wrong, and not so much from a frightening creature stalking the player. The game’s balding antagonist is far from terrifying, but through the game’s visual design, McGonigal harnesses unease to make the player feel dread even if they cannot pinpoint a reason why they feel that fear. By making things look ‘off’, he can create fear before the player even knows what they should be scared of.

By moving away from monsters and dark halls and into places that simply don’t feel right, the developer can also open up horror to people who might not find it tolerable, opening the genre up to new audiences.

Unsettling through inconsistency

“The main inspiration for Baldi’s Basics is pretty much Sonic’s Schoolhouse. I never played it growing up, but when I first saw it, I was immediately creeped out by it, and that was pretty much where the idea came from,” says McGonigal.

Baldi’s Basics doesn’t immediately strike fear into the player’s heart. There’s nothing especially frightening about the school halls or the man who wants to help you with your addition. Similarly, most of the educational games that inspired the game aren’t exactly terrifying all on their own, either, but through small visual elements that conflict with one another, they create a discomfort in the player.

The eponymous horror of Baldi's Basics

This particular unease was created through McGonigal’s experience and research into educational games and the many accidentally frightening elements within them. “I don’t believe there’s any one game that scared me when I was little, but I do know there were plenty of different things in different games that gave me the creeps,” says McGonigal. “One thing that was common in a lot of edutainment games that always creeped me out was the sort of uncanny CG graphics they would use. It was pretty cheap looking, but not too cheap looking. The characters and animated stuff were also often 2D, which made the CG stuff look even more out of place.”

Mixing two visual styles was one way that some of these past educational games would accidentally create unease, mainly done through these conflicting, inconsistent art styles. By not sticking to any one particular look, it would dredge up this sense that something was wrong, even if it may only be the fact that the art style don’t look right together at all.

A shot of BAP Interactive's 1996 banger Sonic's Schoolhouse

“A good example would be Reading Blaster Jr. Most of the scenery was CG, and I specifically remember this one game where you could collect these toys, and they always gave me the creeps… Hold on, now I gotta go look it up…Oh great, that’s gonna haunt my dreams for a bit I think,” he continues.

Beyond the conflict between the two art styles, there is a crudeness to the visuals of the toys in Reading Blaster Jr. In one minigame, there are animals and objects within the scene that are in 3D, with these contrasted against the animated characters who also appear.  The 2D animated characters move and shift their eyes, but the 3D animated ones stand utterly still, eyes unmoving and unblinking. The juxtaposition of the two styles, however accidental, makes the 3D characters feel unnerving in their stillness.

Reading Blaster Jr., released in 1995

“I also remember one time at the library there was a Reader Rabbit game on one of the computers, and Reader Rabbit was just standing there, his normal 2D self, when “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” started playing or something, and he started doing the hand motions…except his hands weren’t 2D. They were CG. It pretty much freaked me out [laughs].” says McGonigal.

“That one element definitely influenced Baldi’s Basics art style in a lot of ways. Obviously, Baldi and some other characters are CG, though they don’t quite capture that uncanny look I was talking about. Still, the sort of creepy, uneasy feeling those elements give me is the same feeling I was shooting for in the game,” he continues.

That inconsistency in art style seems to be key to create a revulsion in the player, one that makes the player wish to remove themselves from the play space, not unlike the fear that drives them to flee a lethal monster. It’s a sense that something is very wrong with this place, if only from the jarring differences in art style. This is put to work in the game through varied art styles for objects and characters, the game refusing to settle on one concrete visual design for everything. It creates a sense that the world isn’t put together right, developing that important unease in the player.

“The main inspiration for Baldi’s Basics was old 3D games - the kind with billboarding sprites that slide around, low resolution textures, and maze-like levels that are easy to get lost in. The most important thing I wanted to capture in trying to mimic this style was probably the ‘off’ feeling the cheaper 3D games often gave,” says McGonigal.

“There’s an old game I’ve seen footage of called 3D Dinosaur: Save the Dinosaurs, where you have to wander around a 3D map finding dinosaurs or something. Anyways, that game has a graphics style similar to Baldi’s Basics in a lot of ways. For example, it’s incredibly inconsistent. You’ve got wall and floor textures that vary from solid colors to photo realistic. There are billboarding, photo-realistic bugs and dinosaurs, but then cartoony portraits of dinosaurs on the wall. The inconsistency in graphics style and the low quality of it all makes the game just feel off and unsettling, at least to me,” he continues.

“Another game that inspired the look I was going for is The Museum of Anything Goes,” says McGonigal. “That game is all pre-rendered, but it has exactly the sort of ‘off’ feeling I wanted to capture. In the game, you basically just walk through an art museum. It seems empty, but every screen tends to have some sort of person or thing come on screen and do something… something really weird, usually. You can look into paintings and interact with them, and these often also have really creepy things. Bad CG, low quality audio, strange videos… None if it feels cohesive or makes any sense, but at the same time it’s not ridiculous or over the top.”

McGonigal does nothing to draw attention to the purposeful inconsistencies in the art style. It is simply left to exist, letting the player soak it all in as part of a coherent universe, but one that, again, isn’t put together quite right. It is built in this way to subtly create discomfort, moving through this world whose visual design and characters just look ‘unnatural’ despite being natural inhabitants of this bizarre space. It conflicts to the eyes, and loads Baldi’s Basics with menace.

Uncertain fear

“Funnily enough, Baldi was picked as the teacher pretty much randomly. He’s actually a character I made up years ago for a comic I wanted to do (There were like, 10 strips total. It didn’t last long.). The idea for Baldi’s Basics was also one I’ve had for a long time, so I don’t remember why I chose Baldi to be the main character. As long as I can remember, the idea had Baldi as the main character and the name Baldi’s Basics in Education and Learning. Still, if I hadn’t already had a character in mind when I went to make the game for the Meta Game Jam, I probably would have gone for Baldi anyways, or at least something similar,” says McGonigal.

McGonigal couldn’t have an over-the-top villain in Baldi’s Basics, as it would break the careful unease he’d created with the conflicting art styles. Also, in keeping with the educational game examples, it would just have to feel frightening without going for outright scares. It was about discomfort, not terror.

“I think the most important thing I wanted to get right about Baldi in the game was making him unsettling, but not necessarily terrifying. Once he starts chasing you, I could have made him have this huge frown, given him pitch black eyes, or, I don’t know, given him a knife instead of a ruler or something. I wanted to be subtle instead, as I felt that would be a bit more unique, and fit the overall feel of the game better, so I just sort of put a blank look on his face. I think that was more effective at creeping out players than some of the other options I could have taken,” says McGonigal.

This creep factor would be enhanced by small aspects of Baldi that wouldn’t communicate a reason to feel outright fear, but unease. Something felt wrong, but the game wouldn’t outright communicate things had gone awry, leaving the player with this unclear sense of things being wrong. It’s the not being sure that makes the game crawl under the player’s skin.

“I went with CG for the reasons mentioned above, but also because it gave me the opportunity to do crazy stuff when animating him, like his wonky hand wave (That was actually a mistake, but I felt it was creepier so I left it! :P) and, the most important part, his slow transition from smile to frown when getting a problem wrong,” says McGonigal.

A smile turning to a frown or an odd wave doesn’t seem like much to be frightened about, but it is about that feeling that things are going wrong, in a world that doesn’t seem to be put together quite right, that is meant to set off alarm bells in the player’s mind.

This is assisted by the elements of education within the game, as well. “When designing the gameplay of Baldi’s Basics, while I wanted to incorporate elements of educational games into the game, I was more concerned with creating fun gameplay. I didn’t want to throw educational game mechanics in if they would break up the gameplay too much. That’s part of the reason why I’ve left the math problems as simple as they are. You do some quick calculations, but then get right back into the game! You don’t have to stop to do some lengthy equations or anything,” says McGonigal.

These educational elements would be key to the particular turn McGonigal wished to create (and were important aspects of the game’s inspirations). “I felt like edutainment and horror would go good together because they’re pretty much opposite genres, and I thought having the sharp turn from edutainment to horror would be both unnerving and funny at the same time,” he continues.

“The funny thing is, despite the game’s name there’s actually no real learning in Baldi’s Basics. You get math problems, and it tells you whether you’re right or wrong, but it doesn’t actually tell you how to get the right answer, or what you did wrong. I was able to work failing into something that scares the player by making it the trigger that begins the actual horror game, and making it so Baldi speeds up each time you fail. Of course, you’re also forced to fail eventually, and the glitched out text I think is a good way to start the ‘something is off…’ feeling before the game goes into horror mode. I’ve always really enjoyed seeing people react to the impossible problems for the first time,” says McGonigal.

That fear of failure draws upon the common fear of failing many would feel in their real lives, and combined with the unsettling art and some unnatural movements from its teacher protagonist, it creates a creeping fear out of educational software, creating the same unease the developer himself felt long ago playing unintentionally frightening educational games.

Newly afraid

By ditching more overt horror elements, McGonigal has created a subtle game of terror. In doing so, he’s opened up the genre to a broader audience who may not enjoy its more heart-wrenching entries. In doing so, he’s brought in many kids who are curious about horror but might not necessarily feel comfortable with it.

“I’d first learned about Baldi’s Basics when a YouTuber that I like started playing it. I was really curious about what it was, but me and horror games don’t mix very well. I slowly got better with them, and now I enjoy it,” says a young boy who agreed to be interviewed about Baldi’s Basics for this article.

“The level of scariness isn’t really at the maximum. It does put a lot of pressure and worry on you because you’ve got this guy chasing you and you’ve got these other characters blocking you,” he continues.

This more subtle fear, born from the conflicting art styles and various other uneasy elements, made horror far more palatable for the boy, and several other children interviewed expressed similar feelings.

"My friend told me about it at school,” said another child who agreed to talk about Baldi's Basics. “He said it was a horror game, and he said it was kind of funny at the same time. I like that. My sister also really likes it. I kinda like how it jump scares but it’s quirky and silly. It’s weird, but I like it.”

When pressed about what he felt was outright scary about the game, the first child replied “The only thing I would say was even remotely scary would be Baldi’s office when there’s that guy with all the messages. I literally cannot deal with it.”

This movement away from trying to outright terrify the player, but instead making them feel like something was ‘off’ about the world, allowed even children to enjoy this horror game, helping kids dip their toes into a genre that can often be far beyond them, and all while McGonigal showcased a deft hand at creating unease within all of the game’s players.

“It’s really funny to hear kids are playing pretend Baldi!" says McGonigal, with a laugh. "A few months ago I never would have believed anyone if they told me something like that would end up happening."

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