In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2022, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new personal picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
I've played so many survival games that have worn me out that I would never consider it one of my favourite genres, but things have definitely been looking up lately. Last year's GOTY, Valheim, was a cracker, getting rid of a lot of bullshit and instead focusing on adventures into the unknown and creative building. But it was this year's Grounded that made survival properly fun.
Grounded has all the hallmarks of a traditional survival game, from its beefy crafting menu to hunger and thirst management. But everything it does is recontextualised thanks to the novelty of the setting: you play one of four teens stranded in a suburban garden, shrunk down so much that ants are as big as dogs and spiders are as big as houses.
So instead of worrying about monsters and mutants or other humans, you instead have to worry about critters, whose patterns and behaviours are a lot more interesting than most survival threats. Regular ants, for instance, are inquisitive and might even steal some of your stuff, but normally they won't attack. But if you keep harassing and killing them, they'll start to perceive you as a threat, and even mount an invasion to drive you out of the garden.
Spying on these massive bugs and learning what makes them tick will leave you feeling more like David Attenborough than some desperate survivor. Even though death can be quite frequent, and being chased by a spider through a grassy forest at night is genuinely quite terrifying, the vibe is more nature documentary than horror. Before you dominate the garden, you must first understand it. The thread of scientific discovery running through the game accentuates this, and then rewards exploration with new inventions, both practical and aesthetic.
And for all the garden's threats, more often than not it's an ally, helping you out. Even before you start erecting mushroom gardens and dew collectors, it's easy to find nourishment beneath the tall grass. Chuck a rock at some dew hanging on a blade of grass and you'll quench your thirst. And all around you are little aphids and other tiny bugs that make delicious snacks.
Soon you'll be protecting yourself with shields made from ladybug carapaces, blood-sucking swords made out of dead mosquitoes and armour made out of acorns. Even pretty standard gear becomes so much more playful when you're an inch tall. And the application of videogame logic and a stylised aesthetic stops you from feeling like some kind of gruesome insect butcher.
Once you're more capable, you can start pushing further out, into the unknown. A sandpit full of spiders, a skyscraper-sized picnic table that's become home to some bees, a toxic wasteland filled with a miasma thanks to bug-killing pesticides, a massive pond patrolled by a hungry fish—when you're ant-sized, a garden can be just as exciting and exotic as the most out-there fantasy setting. This garden is also blessed with some phenomenal landmarks. Building-sized baseballs, discarded toys that dominate the landscape like the Statue of Liberty, even a massive, fully functional Etch A Sketch—there isn't a better survival space for sightseeing.
Eventually you'll be using ziplines and dandelion gliders to get around, or building elaborate staircases that wind their way up trees and huge thickets, evoking the halcyon days of treehouse-building. Again, the setting is Grounded's superpower, making construction projects infinitely more whimsical. To protect my pond-adjacent base, for instance, I turned a knocked-over juice box into a makeshift watchtower, allowing me to pepper any eight-legged invaders with arrows from safety.
The garden is huge, too, and the absence of fast travel means you'll be doing a lot of walking. But there's so much joy to be found in exploration that I hardly noticed the absence of this convenience. The longer the trip, the bigger the adventure. When I was a kid, I used to live near the woods, and in the summer I'd wander beneath the trees and sunbeams pretending I was on some epic, Lord of the Rings-style journey. Along with some friends I even created a base made out of tarp and sticks and leaves. Through rose-tinted glasses I remember being more content then than I've ever been since, and my trips through Grounded's garden and its permanent summer capture that feeling perfectly. It's a time travel device.
At night, though, the woods became more sinister, and it's the same for the garden. With every footstep there's another hint of danger. Am I walking right into a spider's lair? Am I about to wake up some aggravated bombardier beetles? With your vision limited, the familiar sounds of the garden start to become more menacing, threatening. But that can be exhilarating, and it makes those long trips more engaging. You have to plan for the possibility that you'll be far from the safety of your base when the sun goes down. If you prepare, or end up in a resource-rich area at night, you can rapidly build a little outpost, climb into your leafy lean-to, and sleep through the darkness.
When Grounded does become deadly, it never ventures too far from its Saturday morning cartoon and family-friendly movie roots. It always feels playful, and you see everything through the eyes of an upbeat kid, with each playable character offering commentary and gags. It's all very reassuring. Arachnophobes can even tone down the spiders, removing the features that freak them out. Is it the legs you hate? Gone! The evil beady eyes? Gone! Broader game settings even let you remove all threats, allowing you to experience the garden as a creative sandbox where you'll never die.
It's a great source of solo adventures, but Grounded really comes to life when you're mucking around with friends. There are practical benefits, of course, increasing the amount of resources you can gather in a single trip and letting you divide tasks—you lighting up dark caves with torches while your pals batter threats with two-handed weapons. But for me the appeal has been the shared experience: uncovering mysteries together, or dragging mates off the beaten track to show them the latest cool toy I've discovered.
Grounded has been a wonderful panacea for a gloomy year.