Mere seconds after being miniaturised, I find myself fighting for my life against the horrors lurking in Grounded's deadly garden. First, it's a gnat the size of my head. It floats towards me, menacingly, clearly primed and ready to eat my face or infest me with larvae—but I remember my training from countless other survival games, grab a rock and bash that bug. My first kill.
With Honey I Shrunk the Kids being Grounded's cornerstone, I expected more japes and less death, but I'd barely stepped out of the muddy hole in the ground I started inside and I was already covered in bug juice. And the battle wasn't over. The gnat had been hanging out with an ant, and it was heading in my direction, with murderous intent in its massive, soulless eyes.
Unlike the gnat, the ant puts up a fight. I bring down the rock again and again while it tries to bite me, both of us locked in a brutal, primal fight for survival. Only one of us can rule this garden. It breaks and makes a run for it, but my blood is up and I want my trophy. I give chase, weaving between massive blades of grass and bounding over huge pebbles. I manage to catch up and slam my rock down two more times, finally ending it. Just as I'm putting its head into my backpack, I realise the bastard has led me into a trap, and now I'm encircled by ants.
With two kills now under my belt, I've got no fear, so I rush in and start swinging. Two more ants die thanks to my trusty rock before my stamina gives out, letting the third ant finish me off. It's still 4-1 to me. I respawn close by, so it's not long before I'm back at the scene of the crime and able to pick up my lost belongings. The ants are still there, too, but they seem disinterested in me. I inch closer, but still they don't attack, and when one finally does move towards me, it simply stares at me for a few seconds and then wanders off. They're not hostile. What have I done?
I replay things in my head and realise I've made a terrible mistake. In every fight, I threw the first punch. The bugs got too close for comfort and I killed them, but I'd only assumed their intent. When I see a wolf in, say, Red Dead Redemption 2, I know it's probably going to circle me a bit and then attack. If it's a deer, I expect it to flee the moment it spots me. But I've got no idea what an ant or a gnat would do when faced with a tiny human. Since the most common way to interact with something in a game, especially a survival game, is to hit it, that's what I did. And why I now have innocent bug blood on my hands.
Navigating the garden means learning the rules of a whole new ecosystem where the familiar becomes alien. Every first contact is risky because who knows if the bug is going to eat you, ignore you, or create a big toxic cloud that chokes you. Even grass creates complications. It's so tall that it obscures everything, so you need to climb if you want to see where you're going, and each blade is as thick as a tree.
Stuck in a big, open garden simultaneously evokes a sense of vulnerability and claustrophobia. Its scale is daunting, but when you're on the ground you have to peer through the grass to see what's ahead of you. You're walled in, imprisoned by greenery. Rocks, baseballs and other discarded objects give you vantage points, however, as well as serving as landmarks that do a good job of helping to make sense of the maze. Some of this rubbish can also serve as sanctuaries, like a soda can you're able to hide in when you're getting chased.
Not all the garden's beasties are laid back. Mites jump at you like facehuggers, but they're easy to kill. Stinkbugs seem pretty chill, but then they go ballistic if you get close. And the spiders... Jesus, the spiders. 30 years of fighting eight-legged horrors in games did not prepare me for Grounded's monsters.
The wolf spider first finds me on top of a rock, lost as usual. I turn around, intending to head back down now that I've got my bearings, and there it is, climbing up behind me. It's huge. I am deeply arachnophobic but opted not to turn on the mode that makes spiders less... spidery. I regret it. I begin sweating almost immediately, lunge at it, and then I flee when I realise I'm doing barely any damage.
I think I might be able to lose it in the grass, but that plan falls apart instantly. While I have to run around the thick blades, the spider just charges through them, completely unobstructed. I'm injured and out of stamina and almost certainly about to die, and then I run right into a group of stinkbugs. I keep running right through them, which leads the spider into their midst, at which point it gives up the chase and settles for a stinkbug feast. The screenshots do not remotely do it justice. I don't anticipate having a good night's sleep for some time.
Though Grounded, even in a 30 minute demo, manages to hit most of the increasingly exhausting tropes of the survival genre, I found it surprisingly novel. The setting puts enough of a twist on the proceedings that even retreading old ground ensures a few surprises. It's more striking than any backyard garden has the right to be, occasionally terrifying, and packed with the unknown—the sort of place it's exciting to get lost in, even when you're nursing your guilt over the murder of some poor ants and one unfortunate gnat.
It was only after my time was up that I'd realised I'd done hardly any crafting and absolutely no building. I did chuck some items in a scanner and do science, however, so that's something. I think I learned some new recipes? It's not important. The demo time limit is actually a bit liberating. Knowing I wasn't going to make much progress, I just went for a wander, and I had a lot more memorable encounters because I wasn't busy building walls and chopping down grass.
It's one of the 900 demos available during the Steam Game Festival, so you can shrink down for 30 minutes and take a look yourself. The feast of demos ends on June 22.