Obsidian looks to add its trademarks of storytelling and worldbuilding to the survival genre in Grounded.
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You might not expect a game like Grounded to come from Obsidian Entertainment. The studio's modus operandi tends to be story-heavy RPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, and The Outer Worlds, which makes Grounded a major change of pace. It's a cooperative survival game about gathering food and water to stay alive and building structures for protection against dangerous creatures--and it's set in the tiny world of a backyard, in which your character is about the size of an ant.
Obsidian gave media an early look at Grounded at its studio in Irvine, California, ahead of its announcement of the game at Microsoft's XO19 in London. We got a bit of a sense of the broad strokes of Grounded's gameplay. You play as one of four teenagers in 1990, all of whom are shrunk down to mere millimeters as part of some kind of experiment. Either alone or playing online with up to three friends, you find yourself trapped in a backyard full of hostile insects and creatures, trying to stay alive. As in other survival games, you'll need to cook food and find water, construct a base, and craft weapons and items that'll help you fend off foes.
It might not be a traditional Obsidian game, but Grounded is an Obsidian game, and the small team of 13 developers working on the title is trying to bring things to the survival genre that are specific to the studio. The biggest is a focus on story, something survival games often elide in favor of keeping players in the moment-to-moment experience of just staying alive.
"Obsidian's known for building rich stories with memorable characters," game director Adam Brennecke told GameSpot. "So first of all, one thing that we're trying to bring to the survival genre are memorable characters that you'll know and love, having personalities, creating a rich storyline that the player can experience.
"The second thing is just world-building. I think we're masters at world-building, so we put in a lot of detail on how the world is built to make it feel like a real place. And then I think another thing we're also known for is letting the player experience the game that they want to play. So having a lot of ways to play through the game, not only in what you equip and personalizing your character in that way, but different ways of approaching problems and going through the game in different ways."
That story is told through the four teenage player characters, who Brennecke said will converse with each other as you play, as well as through the instructions you receive from the experiment's director, which guided players through a tutorial during Obsidian's hands-off demo. You'll also find story information and clues about what's going on as you explore the backyard in the form of journals and audio logs, as well as environmental storytelling. Though Brennecke wouldn't provide any details that might be spoilers, it seems fair to assume that you and your friends are not the first people to venture into the wilderness that is this particular backyard. He also said the narrative might reveal more about the Instructor, the voice on the radio leading you through the experiment.
The world of the backyard is also a huge part of what gives Grounded its identity. You'll weave your way through blades of grass and past giant mushrooms, encountering creatures such as ants, ladybugs, and spiders. Along the way, you'll find discarded items from the place's full-scale human inhabitants, like a He-Man-like action figure, or a slowly leaking juice box. Brennecke said these items can serve multiple purposes--they're landmarks that help you navigate, and they might also make for good places to build shelters. In the case of the juice box, you can also get juice from the huge item, providing you a useful source of water that also provides you some nourishment if you drink from it.
Brennecke said the entire world of Grounded has been hand-crafted; nothing in it is added to the world procedurally. It includes multiple biomes to explore, and it's also apparently teeming with life. The backyard supports its own ecosystems, with the plants growing over time and the various creatures who live there interacting with each other in a natural way. Kill enough of a certain kind of insect, it seems, and you might change the balance in an area of the backyard, adjusting its ecosystem. Those ecosystem changes mean that one playthrough will be different from the next, Brennecke said, with the backyard changing due to your influence and the interactions between its denizens.
In a practical sense, Grounded is about staying alive and traversing the backyard to learn its secrets. During the demo, an Obsidian developer chopped down massive blades of grass to craft planks, which in turn were used to build walls and set up shelter before nightfall. Things get markedly more dangerous at night, Brennecke said, so as in other survival games, you're going to be looking for a place to hole up and sleep most of the time. You'll also build tools like throwing axes and spears, which you can use to hunt insects to cook for food, and to fight off the more dangerous inhabitants of the backyard, such as enormous, deadly spiders.
Moving through the narrative will also move you through Grounded's tech tree, provides the game an RPG feel more akin to Obsidian's usual fare. You'll make different armor sets that carry unique properties, forge weapons you can use for various situations, and unlock items that will allow you to reach new areas of the backyard. Advancing through the tech tree is a big part of how you'll move through Grounded's story, as it allows you to take on tougher obstacles and reach places you couldn't otherwise explore. A weedkiller-covered section of the backyard known as the Haze requires you to craft a gas mask in order to enter it, for instance.
You don't have to unlock the entire tech tree on your own, either, Brennecke said. It's actually a part of Grounded's multiplayer, allowing for cooperation between you and your teammates.
"The tech tree is a cooperative experience," he explained. "So everyone in the game can build towards certain tech. I can't think of a game that does that, but it's a fun experience where everyone on the server playing together can cooperate and build towards certain tech."
"On the team, we're all like super hardcore survival game players," Brennecke said. "So there's a lot of stuff that we're trying to bring to the table to make the early game very accessible and approachable, but also have deep mechanics for those players that want a deeper gaming experience. Want to get into the nitty-gritty of stats and how to optimize their character builds and stuff like that."
Grounded can be played either alone or with friends, but it's purely a cooperative experience, Brennecke said. It's also not a shared world game--only the people you invite to your games will appear in your backyard, and vice versa. Obsidian plans to release the game in Game Preview on Xbox One and Early Access on Steam, and it'll also be part of Xbox Game Pass.
"We have experience doing sort of early access with our backer beta on Pillars of Eternity 1 and 2, and that let us kind of see how people are gelling with the game," Brennecke said. "So if there's some aspect of the game that they're not really liking, it allows us the opportunity to make adjustments and just make the game better."
Part of what Obsidian wants feedback on is how Grounded will tell its story, Brennecke said. When the game launches in preview and early access, the story won't be complete, giving Obsidian a chance to see how players receive its narrative approach. Other elements, like dynamic weather, are things the team wants to implement but which might not be in the game when it first becomes available to players.
Though we saw very little of Grounded--basically just a slice of its early tutorial, along with a little base-building--it already seemed as though the title adds a lot of interesting ideas to the genre. For fans of Obsidian, however, Grounded is a confident step in a new direction, and we'll need to wait to see whether the things people like about the studio's games, like storytelling, character development, and player choice, are compatible with the survival genre.
Grounded is expected to hit Xbox One and PC in spring 2020.