Last year, I found myself trapped in an oversized garden in Obsidian's Honey I Shrunk the Kids homage, Grounded, and quickly became a killer of ants. Much bug blood was spilled in those early days, but then came the guilt, especially when I discovered that, like many of Grounded's beasties, the ants aren't naturally hostile.
I've tried to make amends, and over the last six months I haven't so much as bopped an ant with my tiny fist. We're not quite friends yet, but we're definitely cordial neighbours. Well, most of the time. It's not been without its challenges, however, because these ants can sometimes be massive pricks.
After the initial revelation that I'd been needlessly slaughtering peaceful bugs, we still had some awkward run-ins. All of Grounded's many garden critters have distinct behaviours that go beyond just being chill or aggressive. A shrieking, skittering wolf spider will try to end you the moment it spots you, but isn't beyond bravely running away if you prove to be a bit too tough to handle. Goofy gnats, meanwhile, like to hover around and give you the occasional bop, but they won't instigate any fights. Of the lot, however, the ants are the most unpredictable.
When I started building my first base, back in June, the ants quickly started to become a nuisance. They're an inquisitive and slightly greedy bunch, so every day I'd have to chase them away from my little storage area, where they'd inevitably be rooting around for food. I became exasperated, because it wasn't like I was rolling in resources. I really needed that stuff. I could have died without it. Look, that's my defence and I'm sticking to it. The ants had to die.
After that spat, things got rough between us. Instead of just a few of them coming to rummage around in my vulnerable wicker baskets, wee armies started to appear. And when I fought them off, they came back with not just more ants, but bigger ants. These beefcake soldier ants can really kick the crap out of a miniaturized kid. They even started trashing my base, knocking down walls and entire buildings. Granted, these buildings were made out of grass, but grass is pretty thick when you're really tiny.
The relationship became untenable. I'd completely forgotten about the nightmarish spiders or my mission to embiggen myself, with this ant war taking up all my time. There were just too many of them, and they kept coming. I realised I'd probably need to move the base, but what if they followed me? Had I just picked a fight with one hive, or did all ants have it in for me? It might be a suburban garden, but Grounded's ecosystem still feels like an alien one that needs to be learned and studied.
I didn't end up moving. Instead, I started again, this time with a co-op bud in tow. This new beginning allowed me to avoid the mistakes I'd made with the old ants and try to be a better neighbour, or at least a less bloodthirsty one. My co-op partner and I were on the same page, which made it easier, and we worked together to find peaceful solutions whenever we bumped into some bugs. Shooing ants away and trying to block them with our bodies has just become part of our routine. And while it doesn't help, we do try to verbally plead with them to find some other spot to investigate.
On more than one occasion we've returned to our base to find a line of ants scarpering with our supplies. They clutch their ill-gotten gains in their pincers, shamelessly displaying what they've stolen, giving them a sort of roguish charm, and it's hard not to laugh as they leg it back into the grass forest with their bounty of stolen gnat meat. Sometimes we try to chase them, but once they've got their pincers around the goods there's not a whole lot we can do without fighting. Nature sometimes wins.
Burglaries have become less of a problem since we started placing all of our precious stuff high up, safely tucked away in buildings on stilts. The ants still visit frequently, but there are fewer opportunities for them to cause mischief. That hasn't stopped them from trying to bring chaos back into our base, though. Recently, I returned after an extended stay in a new waterside outpost we'd just established, and discovered that the ants has turned our old base into some kind of weevil murder pit.
Weevils are among Grounded's most friendly creatures. They don't fight, they don't cause any mischief, and they taste pretty good. They're probably more deserving of my friendship than the ants, so it's a shame that they're one of my main sources of nourishment. The ants like snacking on them too, which I guess explains why I found a huge herd of them being systematically slaughtered in my base. The ants had even managed to corral them into one of Grounded's giant landmarks, the Mysterious Device. It has a hollow interior, so the ants had chased the weevils inside it, leaving them hopelessly trapped. The noise… it left a mark on my soul. Unrelated, I was also very hungry, and that's the only reason I ducked into the Mysterious Device to grab the weevil remains the ants hadn't already snatched. No point letting it go to waste!
AI animals hunting each other has become a bit of a shortcut to creating a world that seems alive. It's incredibly effective, too. It's entirely conventional these days, but seeing the world react and change without my input still makes me believe in it more. That effectiveness possibly explains why most games stop at things like making animals hunt. Rockstar went to ridiculous lengths to make Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like a tangible world, down to the infamous shrinking horse balls, but while its critters still have behavioural patterns, ultimately everything still boils down to hunter and prey. That's why I keep coming back to Grounded, even though I was sure I was too exhausted for any more survival games. It's unpredictable.
That it's slowly unfurling through early access has unexpectedly enhanced its capacity to surprise. I'd generally much rather play fully-formed games, but Grounded is a big mystery—from its narrative to how its critters will react to you—and benefits from being revealed over months. You start getting used to things, and then suddenly there's a massive bird that's the size of a bloody skyscraper looming over your base, dropping feathers everywhere. Like a real ecosystem, a few tweaks can have a big impact. And because it's still growing, I don't feel the need to devour it all at once; I'm exploring it slowly, with some big gaps, and then returning to find a whole new set of mysteries waiting for me.
All survival games task you with expanding your knowledge and learning to master your environment, but Grounded's the first I've played in a long time where I'm actually excited to discover new things instead of just relieved that I'll have one less thing to worry about. When you've built a hut in the woods a thousand times, that doesn't hold many surprises, but Grounded's exotic world means that every construction project has a weird quirk and every expedition holds the promise of a long and meandering adventure into the unknown.
At first glance, it doesn't seem anything like Obsidian's RPGs, but the emergent narratives it creates would absolutely feel at home in any number of them. I've been stuck between warring factions of bugs, journeyed into the dark heart of an evil thicket with eight-legged monsters hounding my every step, and fumbled blindly deep below the earth in search of enlightenment—or as the game calls it, Raw Science. It's almost enough to make me forget all about bullshit like hunger and thirst meters.
Through all those trials and adventures, though, I haven't beaten up a single ant. Not since I started fresh. Not even the soldier ants that I occasionally come across, who are automatically hostile. I've gotten so used to it now that it might as well be a rule etched in stone: Leave Ants Alone. I didn't even seek out retribution when, after devouring that herd of weevils, they got over excited and completely trashed my moisture farm. I'm just trying to be a good guy here, but they're kinda being dicks. I won't stoop to their level.
If you want to get in a weird passive-aggressive relationship with your neighbours who also happen to be ants, Grounded is the game for you. It's also just shaping up to be a really inventive survival romp that isn't full of busywork, or at least does a great job of hiding the busywork behind myriad novelties and clever twists. It's received notable updates every month aside from October, and you can see what's been finished and what's in the works over on the Grounded feature board. It's due to hit 1.0 this year, if early access isn't your thing, but you can also take it for a spin via Xbox Game Pass.