Disclosure: Travel costs were covered by Obsidian for coverage on Grounded
My mind was abuzz with possibilities as I traveled to Obsidian two weeks ago to check out what was to be its first real game as a Microsoft studio. In the wake of its success with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian's profile is higher than it's been in quite some time. How do you top a major RPG by the masters of the genre?
Obsidian's answer isn't what you'd expect. Its first game as a proper Microsoft game studio is Grounded, a new co-op survival game that bears a strong resemblance to the 1989 classic Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. On the surface, it's a puzzling choice. In a period when Obsidian should be making a splash, it's instead going with an experimental passion project developed by a team with just over a dozen people. It will compete in an extraordinarily crowded space, including with Microsoft's own Minecraft and State of Decay.
Longtime Obsidian fans could be forgiven for being a little disappointed that it's not a new RPG. But before you write it off entirely, I will say that it's actually a bit cooler than the overly twee trailer suggests. Bear with me on this.
In Grounded, you play as a teen who has been shrunk down and placed in a vibrant backyward setting as part of a scientific experiment. It has all the trappings of your typical survival game: you need to eat, you need to create shelter, and you're in constant danger of being eaten by the local fauna. All of this is contextualized in the idea that you're smaller than a gnat. So for instance, you can capture and roast aphids; use mite fuzz to craft helmets, and drink water that forms on blades of grass in the morning.
It's not obvious in the trailer, but Grounded is primarily a first-person game (it can also be played in the third-person), and Obsidian is clearly intent on havng fun with the unique perspective afforded by being microscopically tiny. One of the first things you see is a dirty baseball the size of a mountain. Objects like these dot the landscape, bringing to mind the moment in Honey, The Shrunk the Kids when the main characters find the giant Oatmeal Cream Pie cookie—surely every kid's dream.
But what interests me more than any of this is the ecosystem Obsidian created for Grounded. Director Adam Breenecke tells me, "I'm a programmer at heart. One thing I'm personally excited about is having an ecosystem that's running behind the scenes, and being able to poke and pull on those levers. If I go into an area and hunt, small things are going to change over time, or if I start harvesting something, it's food for a particular insect. That's something Obsidian always tries to push: How can players affect the world."
You can see these elements just in walking through Grounded's backyard. Gnats dangle in spiderwebs waiting to be eaten; ladybugs tangle with spiders as you look on from a distance, and ants trundle along build their colonies. Building your own fort will necessarily have major impact on these creatures, lending Grounded a little bit of a conservationist theme.
It all amounts to a cool little experiment by Obsidian; a pet project that maybe has a chance to become something more. That doesn't mean it will be small-scale, per se. It will have co-op gameplay; a full story, and a large tech tree. Longtime fans will no doubt side-eye it, but it's hard for me to begrudge it experimenting and trying something new. Who knows, the concepts developed in Grounded could provide the foundation for its next RPG.
Either way, the "Obsidian as a Microsoft Studio" era is off and running. It'll be available Spring 2020 via Xbox Game Pass, and will launch as part of Microsoft's early access "Xbox Game Preview" program.