Let's just get two things about Grounded out of the way right now. First: Even though Obsidian Entertainment is famous for making RPGs like Fallout: New Vegas and The Outer Worlds, Grounded is not an RPG. It's a survival game. Second, it's definitely not an officially licensed Honey I Shrunk the Kids game, despite how much it looks like one. Seriously, I asked.
If Rick Moranis showed up in Grounded with a magnifying glass, or there was a mission to befriend an ant and ride it into battle against a scorpion, I wouldn't be surprised. The spirit of Honey I Shrunk the Kids is coursing through Grounded, a co-op survival game that casts you as a teenager, shrunk down to ant size. The world is your literal backyard, and all the typical survival mechanics, like hunger and thirst and building shelters, are viewed through that tiny lens.
There are many, many survival games on PC, and I've never been very interested in playing any of them. But after Obsidian took me through a demo at their studio and answered questions about their plans for Grounded, I have to admit it: They got me. The setting really makes all the difference—it's simply cute, and evokes that childlike sense of wonder that small, imaginary things do best. And despite having a premise pulled from 80s movies, Grounded still manages to feel original as a game, in how it puts small twists on typical videogame interactions.
For example, like every survival game, Grounded has hunger and thirst meters (you'll take damage if you let these deplete, though it will never kill you). But instead of finding a lake or river to drink from, you'll look at the blades of grass that tower above you like trees, find one with a flat globule of dew hanging from it, and punch it to knock the water loose so you can drink it. Food could be an insect you kill, slap on a spit, and cook over a fire.
"Everything you see is interactable in some way, and that's something we're really proud of," said director Adam Brennecke. "All the grass you see, all the foliage, all the rocks are interactable and can be used in crafting."
There's a nice sense of heft and physicality to these things in Grounded, conveyed through small details like how your character holds a chunk of grass "wood" after chopping it down, and how picking up more pieces makes them visually stack instead of just increasing a number in your inventory. You can throw anything you're holding, like your axe, which makes for an effective ranged attack and also makes these objects feel more real.
It helps that everything looks nice and chunky, cartoony but I'd say a bit more detailed than, say, Fortnite, which is similarly colorful. Both run on Unreal Engine 4. Grounded very much feels designed around its first-person view, though it does have a third-person camera option, too. The warm, soft lighting that filters down through the grass is an especially nice touch that makes this game look like a bigger project than it is. Grounded is being made by a very small team of senior developers at Obsidian—all the art, including the characters, world, animation and effects, are done by just five people.
The insects that populate Grounded's world will determine how interesting it is to play long-term.
"We have a huge, huge ecosystem of insects living and surviving just like you are," said Brennecke. "They're all doing their own thing. There are hundreds and hundreds of insects in this world. One thing we want to do as game designers is make the world very approachable. Insects behave as you'd expect. Ants behave as an ant colony. They use pheromones to communicate with each other and bring food back to their ant hill. Bees search for pollen in a flower bed."
There's some opportunity for emergent play here, like attacking an ant to enrage it, then running over to a spider to make the two fight. The spiders, by the way, are menacing—they tower over you and seem like they're going to take some serious tools to fight off. They seem to sleep during the day, and at one point in our demo Obsidian snuck past one to venture down into an underground tunnel while the entire room held its breath.
Spiders and some insects will try to kill you, while others, like ants, are neutral unless you piss them off. In our demo I saw aphids, mites, ants, weevils, spiders, gnats, and ladybugs, but it sounds like there are many more. Obsidian's most ambitious promise with Grounded is that you'll be able to significantly affect the environment and how insects behave as you play. Brennecke gave the example that ladybugs hunt aphids for food, so if you clear out the aphids from one area of the map, ladybugs will alter their behavior to compensate.
There's currently no kind of "faction" system that dictates, say, how much an ant colony likes you. You can't currently win insects over to be your friend, but that's something Obsidian wants to explore, and one of several systems we touched on in the demo that may be expanded later in development.
Obsidian is actually planning to launch Grounded in Early Access next year, on Steam and Xbox Game Pass, to help shape those features.
"One reason why we're going into Early Access is to continue to develop the game with the community," Brennecke said. "I'd love to have insect riding at some point, taming insects and riding them. I think that's a really cool feature that a lot of players will love." Another example: Weather, which the game doesn't have right now (though it does have a day/night cycle).
As it stands now, Grounded gets harder as you progress, as insects "see you as a bigger and bigger threat to your environment, and they'll start growing more and more hostile." Building a base, as in other survival games, will be important, as insects will attack you with different goals. Some will try to destroy the structure, while others will go after your or your food. And food will spoil, but you'll be able to craft ways to keep it fresh (I asked, and Obsidian would not comment on whether your character will barf when you eat spoiled food).
I didn't see much of the crafting and building system that will form the backbone of how you spend time in Grounded, but I saw enough to think I'd enjoy it simply due to the setting. Chopping up trees and rocks to build a base is Survival Games 101, but trade trees for grass and you've got my attention. Support for four-player co-op is the real selling point for me, as is the idea that Grounded ends. This isn't a forever sandbox—because it's a game from Obsidian, it will have a story that guides you through an adventure, and gives you a narrative reason to explore new parts of the backyard.
It won't be strictly linear, but will have some Metroid-esque ability or tool gatekeeping. For example, one part of the yard is covered in "the haze," aka weedkiller, which you'll need a gas mask to enter. "We do have a pretty robust tech tree," Brennecke said. "It's something we're actually pretty proud of, and it's a little bit different than most survival games."
Brennecke said they anticipate players going for multiple playthroughs, but I didn't see enough of Grounded to be able to tell why I'd want to play it multiple times, given it's built around a story. I think that has to come down to how deeply you can actually affect the environment and the routines of the insects within it.
"The game is a big simulation, so it will definitely change every time you play it. There are a lot of things we even find while playing the game, like 'hey, what happened to this type of insect?' because something happened behind the scenes. There's a lot of things running outside the view of the player. The game is definitely structured as an open world, so we'll be talking about how the story is evolving over time down the road. As we do at Obsidian, we want to have multiple ways of playing through the game."
There aren't narrative choices in the traditional sense, though—and while there are four characters, they're only cosmetically different, and there's no RPG-style progression here to experiment with between playthroughs. Instead, Obsidian wants your decisions in how you play to define your character.
"Right now, all the character progression is through items that you'll find and craft," Brennecke said. "All four characters are statistically exactly the same. The way that we're looking at it, it's how you actually play the game, so it's not the character you select, it's how you want to play. A funny story is that we're doing a lot of playtesting, and one of our playtesters didn't know they could actually be a melee character. They thought they could only throw items. So they built like 25 axes, and just started chucking axes. It was hilarious, and actually a cool character build. Through the items that you equip, we want to reinforce the ways that you want to play, and offer a lot of different possibilities and character builds that way."
Given just how many survival games there are on Steam, and Obsidian's reputation as an RPG studio, I think it's natural to be a bit skeptical of Grounded as the next big thing. But maybe it's okay if it's actually the next little thing—a survival game that's simply pleasant to explore with friends, without the grindiness of Ark or the oppressive "staying alive" mechanics of Scum or The Long Dark, and with no designs on being a forever-ongoing game-as-a-service.
Grounded is out in Steam Early Access and on Game Pass in spring 2020. It looks like the indie devs making Smallland have some stiff competition.