Grounded is a game unlike any other Obsidian has ever created. It's a survival RPG where you're shrunk down to the size of an ant and have to craft, build, and fight in order to survive a hostile backyard. It's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meets Castaway – and you're the Tom Hanks/child actor hybrid at its core.
"That really doesn't really feel like an Obsidian game," the team told game director Adam Brennecke after he pitched Grounded. "But put together a prototype." And so he did, bringing the powers that be a game with giant spiders, tree-like blades of grass, and a healthy dose of humor. "We clearly have something here," Brennecke recalls after building the prototype. "We should continue working on it."
And so they did, and now Grounded is available on Xbox as an Early Access title that will continue to receive updates and new features as time passes and players give feedback. But how did such a big-small idea take shape? How do you take such a well-known world in real life (a suburban backyard) and make it feel entirely foreign in-game? I spoke with Brennecke on the eve of the game's release to find out exactly what it took to go big by going small.
In Grounded, an ant is a creature you can ride ("if we wanted to do insect-riding," Brennecke says cheekily) but one that can also kill you with its pincers. Blades of grass tower over you, a small puddle of water can be a drowning hazard, and the normally flat terrain of a game world is littered with mounds of dirt that make the surface seem surreal. On the scale of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids to Ant-Man, Grounded is decidedly smaller than both, although Obsidian has taken some liberties when it comes to scaling.
"We tackled the size question as game designers and game developers," Brennecke points out when I ask about specific measurements. "We want to be able to fight insects, so the player has to be somewhat similar in scale to your standard ant. In Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the ant is huge. So we were like, 'Well, if that's your first creature that you encounter, you can't expect a player to battle that thing in combat.'"
So the team adjusted objects and creatures to feel right for players – but don't take that to mean they arbitrarily picked out the size of everything in-game. "We prototyped a lot of manmade objects," Brennecke explains. "A bunch of cans, a quarter, a rake…. There's a little bit of fudging going on. If everything is exactly to scale it just doesn't feel quite right. If someone got the tape measure out and started measuring everything that we've done, I'm sure there will be weird inconsistencies. Our cans are quite a bit larger than a standard can, because when it's actually sized properly, it just doesn't feel right." The team even put a regular human-sized mannequin in the game build to make sure the size of the yard felt good when compared to an average human. "It was a little weird," laughs Brennecke as he recalls slotting prototyped objects into the mannequin's hand.
"The basic worker ant was our core idea," Brennecke says. "It doesn't feel like it's completely harmless. It also feels like it could be threatening, and you could battle it. You could also – if we wanted to do insect riding – you could put a saddle on that thing and go to town riding right around the backyard."
The team didn't just determine the size of everyday objects to help make this game world feel overwhelmingly large, but agonized over tiny details that add both realism and function – including how different parts of a backyard would feel like entirely different biomes for the vertically challenged.
"We needed to break up the grass, which acts like huge trees, but we didn't want just dirt across the entire ground," says Brennecke. "So we have these little tendrils and sprigs of new plants that are popping out of the ground, which also creates things you can pick up and craft stuff out of." You'll find that in the grasslands biome, one of three biomes you'll traverse in Early Access. Inside that biome are what the team calls sub-biomes, like a fallen tree branch that feels like a giant log, which certain insects call home. "There's sap there, too," Brennecke points out. "There's different craftables and different materials that you can find."
A leaky sprinkler system has flooded part of the backyard, dramatically changing what's still considered the grasslands. Brennecke teases: "There's gnats during the day that swarm over that watery area. But at night, the gnats swarm the backyard lamps." Cool, cool, cool; love gnats. There's even an area that speaks to the perils of pesticides. "We call it the haze," continues Brennecke. "It's very clear what happened there because there's a huge canister of weed killer on the ground that someone's left and the whole area is sprayed with this gas cloud. There's a bunch of funky stuff in there that you can find."
Oh, and then there's the oak tree, which is home to a lot of *shivers* spiders.
Creepy crawlies, but make them gigantic
If it's not infinitely clear by now, you are infinitesimally small in Grounded, and that means bugs are a serious problem. Entomophobics beware, because these insects are no joke, and making them scary has been "pretty easy" for the team.
"Early on, we had some test spiders in the game," Brennecke begins with a smile on his face. "And I knew that we had something pretty fun when one day we were all in the office working away, and one of our senior artists - John Lewis - was just messing around with the spider cave prototype. He was playing it and, he's usually really quiet, all of sudden he screams super loud. We all jumped and were like 'Whoa, what happened.' And he goes, 'Dude, the spider just snuck up on me. He scared me.'"
Take that as a warning – there are spiders afoot, and they especially like the giant oak tree that will act as a waypoint for you in the game. "We wanted that 'Frodo going into Shelob's Lair feel'," Brennecke explains as I shudder. "I think that's super fun to play with." Speak for yourself.
As for new bugs, expect Obsidian to keep adding more six and eight-legged friends and enemies (and maybe some frenemies) after launch. "We actually have a lot of features planned that we are still developing, so in Early Access life we'll be dropping creatures and adding new ones as we progress through our development," says Brennecke. "There's a couple fun ones that I'm pretty excited about that we'll hopefully get in pretty soon."
At this point I lean in, ready for confirmation of a bug I suggested earlier. "I can't promise a praying mantis or anything crazy like that," he says quickly.
Grounded is now available on Xbox Game Pass and Game Pass for PC.