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Obsidian Entertainment’s first game under the Xbox Game Studios banner is a more … down to Earth than the likes of Pillars of Eternity or The Outer Worlds.
It’s Grounded, a co-op survival role-playing game that takes place in a suburban backyard, not a world of magic and mythical monsters or spaceships and energy weapons. It’s coming next spring, and it’s going to be an Xbox Game Preview release for Xbox Game Pass and Early Access on Steam. Obsidian made the announcement today at the X019 event in London today. And it feels like a riff on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You play one of four kids who are unwilling participants in an experiment. They’re now the size of ants, and they must work together to survive in a backyard-turn-laboratory.
You can play by yourself or with up to three other people (making for a party of four). As you try to survive the perils of a backyard, avoiding insects, birds, and other critters, you can build bases with stuff you find laying around. You can grab some wood and build a base around a can of beans that missed the garbage pail. You can make armor out of a nut shell, or turn some sticks into weapons so you can find some tasty grubs to eat.
This is the first game Obsidian has announced since Microsoft acquired it last November. And it’s unlike anything in the studio’s portfolio. The times it’s strayed from RPGs, it’s made either a digital adaption of a tabletop game (Pathfinder Adventures) or a multiplayer tank game (Armored Warfare, which publisher Mail.ru took over in 2016). It’s the work of a small team — 12 people.
“We always try to look at where we can add, as far back as [2010’s] Alpha Protocol, how can we add RPG elements to our games that we make,” Grounded game director Adam Brennecke said about trying new things in a recent video call with GamesBeat. “The other thing we like to do, and it’s something we pride ourselves in, is world-building. We spend a lot of time crafting a cool world to explore. There’s a lot of detail in the backstory of this game. … Everything has a purpose. It’s something we take very seriously here.”
Brennecke was the executive producer and lead programmer for the Pillars of Eternity RPGs. He started at Obsidian in 2004, and his work includes the underappreciated Neverwinter Nights 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, and Fallout: New Vegas. This is his first go as a game director.
Grounded also stands out because its Obsidian’s first game appropriate for younger kids.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, because South Park: The Stick of Truth looks like it, but you know, it’s not.’ Yes, I think this is this is a kind of new territory for us,” Brennecke said. “But one thing that we we found [with Grounded] is it’s very approachable for all ages.”
Tiny people, big characters
You can play one of four teens.
- Max provides the humor. “He’s like a mix of Bart Simpson and The Fresh Prince,” Brennecke said.
- Willow is what Brennecke terms as a “typical teenager. She’s very grumpy. And she does have a sassy personality.”
- The bespectacled Pete is more like the group’s Boy Scout.
- Hoops is a basketball player, and she’s leadership material for the group.
The experiment starts; The Instructor (the person running the experiment) is telling you what to do, and they’re monitoring your vitals. These instructions are your walkthrough as you learn how to eat, drink, and survive in the wilds of a backyard. You can eat a mushroom or drink from dewdrops.
It’s a pretty nice yard. It has a fence and a house, and in the middle is a good-sized tree. It has a koi pond, flower beds, a greenhouse. Some of it is overgrown.
A bug’s life
And as you start your adventure, you notice insect life around you. “They’re curious about your presence in this area, but they’re also just doing their own routine,” Brennecke said. “So one cool thing with [Grounded] is that we are building a huge world, and it’s very hand-crafted. But we also have a lot of insect life that’s doing its own thing behind the scenes. And we call it basically a simulation of AI. So all these insects have their wants and needs, so they go hunting, and they get hungry.”
And yes, you can be their dinner. Or watch them gather their food, as with the backyard’s ant hill.
“It acts like an ant colony. One really cool thing in the game is just to observe this as a player where ants will search and send their workers to go find and hunt for food. Once they find a food object, they’ll actually communicate that back to their anthill with a pheromone system. So you can actually see a line of worker ants form when there’s a food object in the world that they find.”
If you give the ants food, you won’t be their friends, but they’re mark you as a source for food with their pheromone system. They won’t attack you, as you’re not an asset, not a threat. But build a big enough base, have a big enough fence, and the ants will view you as a threat.
And they’ll steal food from you, too. Opportunistic little buggers. And you can’t domesticate them — no pens of ants or other bugs, waiting for you to harvest them. No ant-busting, either … though Brennecke said that riding the insects isn’t in it right now, and they’re going to monitor feedback to see what players want after it goes into Xbox Game Preview/Early Access.
You’ll see ladybugs, bees, and aphids. Those are important, as they you can eat them.
And you’ll find spiders — some are hunters, and others are more passive. But they can be dangerous, and if your found the Mirkwood scene in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug to be uncomfortable, you’d better prepare yourself for giant spiders.
With the use of insects and other creepy-crawlies you’d find in, well, maybe your own backyard, I asked Obsidian if it had consulted any entomologists on insect behavior. A representative answered over email: “Whenever we add new insect and even plant life into the game, the designers do their homework. First, we look it up on Wikipedia to see if there are interesting details about the insect. Details such as what it eats and where it lives are used to design the behavior of the creature and how it could be possible used in crafting. Our goal is to capture the feeling and flavor of the insect, but we try not to get into the nitty-gritty biological details.”
“Secondly, the team also enjoys watching insect enthusiast videos online to watch and see how insects interact with each other and through their environment. It’s great reference material for animation as well.”
The backyard has a lot of stuff in it: baseballs, juice boxes, a magnifying glass (imagine just what you could do with this), and other junk and natural materials (leaves, sticks, and so on). You use this to make what you need to survive in this suburban jungle: weapons, armor, bases, and such.
But there’s also a gaseous substance called “The Haze,” and you need to craft a gas mask to go through it. Brennecke said that getting around is kinda like a Metroid game in that you need to make certain items to reach certain places.