Beware--Grounded is full of adorable aphids, fun base-building, little hammers made out of rocks, and lightning-fast screaming spiders.
When we think about the best horror games, or even just the most popular, a certain aesthetic comes to mind: dark, grimy corridors; wet, organic, but indescribable objects; monsters that were once human but are no longer anything close. Dead Space, Outlast, Amnesia, Scorn, Resident Evil, Silent Hill. Almost as far back as horror games go, so does that aesthetic. It's so common as to be predictable, but one of the most powerful aspects of horror is its ability to surprise. Obsidian's survival game Grounded, then, definitely qualifies as horror despite being absolutely adorable. Warning: There's a picture of a spider further into this piece.
Indeed, Grounded doesn't look a whole lot like the type of games we think of as horror. They often mimic movies like The Thing, Alien, and Jacob's Ladder. Grounded, in both pitch and aesthetic, is much closer to Honey I Shrunk The Kids, a sci-fi romp about kids who are accidentally shrunk by their father's newly-invented shrinking ray and have to survive giant ants and the like and get back to normal size. That's exactly what Grounded is about; you play one of four young teens trying to survive in a backyard while also looking for a way to return to your normal size. You can make houses out of grass, axes and hammers out of pebbles, and there are weevils and aphids all over that make for a good dinner. Water droplets hang from blades of grass, and ladybugs wander around making the cutest sounds you can imagine.
But all of that belies a terrifying world. Your first encounter with the true nature of the backyard may not be the same as mine. You might encounter a stinkbug, a soldier ant, or maybe you accidentally whack a ladybug, turning it from a neutral beast into an angry murder dome. Or maybe you see the blades of grass rustling ahead of you and then hear the telltale slurping sounds of a wolf spider just out of view. It won't remain out of view for long, though, as these things are the size of a motor home relative to your character. The second it sees you, it'll do two things: scream and charge.
And this is the dichotomy that informs the deceptive intimacy of Grounded. It feels small, cute, and friendly. You're in the safest place in the world: a backyard. But when you're small enough to fit into the end of a garden hose, a wolf spider that once would've fit nicely under your shoe now dwarfs you. The scales have shifted, both in size and power.
Importantly, though, Grounded doesn't depend on the grimy aesthetic of abandoned places to scare the living daylights out of you. Sure, there are dark places like anthills, antlion caves, and the corridors of the wood pile, but they're designed to look as natural as they can. This isn't a hospital corridor or an empty classroom. And the monsters aren't monsters at all, but rather the largely harmless bugs of a standard American suburban environment. And they're not photorealistic, either. Insects have big, round eyes. Bombardier beetles are yellow and green, and bees have their usual vivid yellow and black stripes. Ladybugs are as cute as you'd imagine until you bother them.
The horror comes from the difference in size, power, and speed of the insects, as well as some truly excellent sound design. In my home state of Minnesota, mosquitos are a summertime hazard. Annoying to be certain, but not dangerous the way they can be elsewhere. Even the sound they make when they fly is annoying but never worrisome. A high-pitched whine. When you're near a mosquito in Grounded, you know it. Instead of a tiny whine, the massive flying terrors make a buzz more akin to a Vulcan cannon firing a full speed. Despite being able to fight them one or two at a time without being in any real danger, the buzz is still upsetting, as it's engineered to hit that low frequency that makes the hair on your neck stand on end.
Grounded almost feels like a trick. While it's completely hooked me, I've had several friends jump into my game with me, only to vow never to play the game again after an encounter with an orb-weaver spider or a stinkbug.
If you stick with it, Grounded can be a deeply rewarding experience that lets you progress in skill, gear, and bravery. 30 hours ago, I was running in terror when an orb-weaver would round the corner. Now, I feel more like Henry Cavill in that Mission Impossible scene where he reloads his arms, despite the fact that my character is a 13-millimeter-tall 13-year-old who calls herself Hoops. Now, the things that scare me are far enough along that I dare not spoil them for you. Suffice it to say that there are other things lurking in the upper yard. Even so, that upsetting slurping sound the wolf spider makes as it explores, followed by that soul-rending scream, is still enough to send me into a panic.
It's impossible to deny, though, how beautiful the sun looks as it filters through blades of grass and how cute the Dungeons and Dragons knock-off game and its huge d20 is. Instead of priming you for scary events with rusted fences and endless staircases, Grounded hides it in cuteness. Is Scorn creepy? Definitely. Who wants to stick their hands into all of those fleshy holes? But if you want to feel true terror, install Grounded and find a spider.
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