Obsidian’s next project is a survival game that will soon hit early access. Yes, your skepticism is understandable – this is a studio that’s known for meaty RPGs with substantial stories, and a game where you punch trees and tie rocks together sounds like the furthest thing from the Obsidian spirit. But after seeing a demo of Grounded and speaking with members of the small team behind the apparent passion project, I can say this is much more than an effort to capitalise on a formerly-trendy genre.
Conceptually, Grounded is Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You’re a teen who’s been shrunk down to insect size, and you’ve got to survive the tiny terrors of a suburban backyard as you look for a way to regain your former stature. Everything you’re used to crunching underfoot scales up to fulfill the survival tropes. You chop down blades of grass to get planks for construction. You build armour out of acorns to take on towering spiders. You hunt bugs for food.
While most of the survival tropes are accounted for in bright and charming variations, this is still an Obsidian game – and here, the studio insists that the most important hallmarks of its games are the worlds they let you inhabit. Grounded is not procedurally-generated. Every detail has been built by the hands of a human designer, and there’s a “very crafted” story that guides you through the tech tree toward a definitive conclusion. This is a game that “still has Obsidian’s soul in it,” according to director and producer Adam Brennecke.
“We’ve been wanting to make a survival game for some time,” Brennecke tells me. The small team on Grounded, currently just over a dozen people, began work in earnest after Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire launched, shortly before the Microsoft acquisition, but “we tried to get a prototype even before that point. It’s a passion project for a lot of us here. We really liked the survival genre. It’s really cool to innovate in that area and add our own Obsidian spice to the mix”.
He continues: “Pretty much everyone on the team has worked at Obsidian for their entire careers. It’s in our soul and our DNA that we make Obsidian games. I only know how to make Obsidian games. There’s going to be a lot of things that you would expect in an Obsidian game in this title. We want to create not only a handcrafted world with a lot of world building and detail that you would typically find in an Obsidian title, but a rich narrative that will lead you through the story.”
Grounded’s narrative focus and crafted world feel a lot like Subnautica, and Brennecke says the team has drawn plenty of inspiration from their own love of survival games – and at the very least, that passion shows in some of the quality of life features on display. The crafting menu lets you immediately build the materials you need for advanced projects without scrolling through pages of building options, and you can build custom markers in the world that will act as waypoints on the HUD.
But Grounded’s real point of differentiation is its setting – in particular, its ecosystem. Each insect has its own behaviour patterns, and those will change in response to your actions. Kill all the aphids in one region, for example, and ladybugs will start to move elsewhere in search of food. These ecological simulations continue to tick behind the scenes, so ants will create pheromone trails to stockpile food and nocturnal spiders will head out hunting at night even while you’re not looking.
You can also take advantage of those behaviours to follow critters and find food for yourself, for example. You can get really creative with the system: Bugs belong to factions, so if, say, a pair of ant colonies were to go to war, you could step into the conflict to manipulate the outcome.
While you can craft most of the basics with items that grow naturally in the world, you’ll also be able to harvest man-made objects to build unique pieces of gear, some of which you’ll need to progress to new biomes – the developers explicitly used the term ‘Metroidvania.’ One biome is covered in weed killer, and you’ll need to build a gas mask to make it through. Another biome under a broken sprinkler will be full of flooded areas to cover. A hedge biome is full of vertical platforms to climb.
Grounded has four playable characters and a big focus on co-op, though the feature’s a bit limited as it stands, as progress happens purely on the host side. There are some smart additions for multiplayer, though – for example, when you’re constructing buildings, you set down an outline of the object you want to build, then any player can contribute materials toward completing the construction.
As the game still hasn’t even hit early access yet, some features are still very much up in the air. There might be weather effects in the future; you might be able to build and maintain a garden. The early access version will not have the full story – that’s going to be built out over time. Obsidian has plans for new biomes and insect life (as well as the rest of the story, of course) after the early access launch, but the shape of those future updates will be determined in large part by community responses.
Grounded looks good, and it’s filled with clever touches that bring its ant-sized world to towering life. It is absolutely a departure for Obsidian, but the team is taking the right lessons from the survival genre and translating them to a fascinating new setting. Grounded is set to launch into early access on Steam and Microsoft platforms (including Game Pass) in spring 2020.