I wasn't expecting this either. Obsidian Entertainment's first game for (relatively new) owner Microsoft is Grounded, a survival adventure which is essentially Honey I Shrunk the Kids. You and your friends play tiny teens in a sunny back garden filled with huge human debris and insects. You chop towering blades of grass to make bases and spit-roast aphids to eat. Honestly, it's captivating, but it's hardly the Obsidian Entertainment we know, hardly the studio which built Fallout: New Vegas and The Outer Worlds.
But don't panic. The most important thing to know is Grounded is not, by any means, Obsidian having a midlife crisis. Only a dozen people are working on it out of an Obsidian army of 185. It's a try-something-new experiment.
"Just like with Outer Worlds, we have big RPGs being worked on right now," Grounded game director Adam Brennecke told me. "We have a lot of stuff being worked on right now. I like to tell people [Grounded] is actually a pretty small portion of the entire Obsidian family, so I would expect to see things fans are expecting from Obsidian in the future."
Another important thing to know is Grounded was not Microsoft's idea - this is not a 'Rare making Kinect Sports' situation.
"We were discussing doing a survival game for some time, even while we were working on Pillars of Eternity ," Brennecke said - he being one of two people responsible for Pillars' existence (though sadly the Pillars of Eternity series has now been shelved). For reference: Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire came out in May 2018, and Microsoft acquired Obsidian in November 2018.
When Deadfire wrapped, then, Brennecke took a few of the team and brainstormed ideas for a survival game, and lo and behold, one day they came up with the idea of shrunken players. They liked it so they knocked something together for the rest of the studio to see, and the rest of the studio liked it too. Studio head Feargus Urquhart nodded his approval and Brennecke's team got the go-ahead to carry on. "That was all pre-acquisition," Brennecke said.
But a perk of being part of the Microsoft Studios family now means Grounded will be an Xbox Game Pass game. It will also be the first Xbox Game Preview game on Game Pass. In addition, Grounded will launch on Steam Early Access, and everything will arrive simultaneously in spring 2020.
All of the above should give you an idea of what to expect. In other words, temper your expectations - Grounded isn't the big new Obsidian RPG. But at the same time, don't rule it out. As a palate cleanser, it's very refreshing - cute and colourful, sunny and playful - and there's something instinctively intriguing about seeing a world we're familiar with from a different point of view. It's a world where baseballs tower over you like small houses and action figures lie on the ground like toppled titans.
"It's something that resonates with everyone," Brennecke said. "Everyone has an immediate understanding of what's going on in the game - it's very approachable, everything's recognisable."
Moreover, there's a simulated ecosystem of insects we totally ignore in day-to-day life unless there's an infestation. The aphids - and I never ever thought I'd say this - are utterly adorable. Even the mites are cuddly - mites! - although the spiders are terribly lifelike and most definitely no longer incy-wincy.
The gameplay in Grounded works like this. You choose one of four teens as your character, leaving your friends to play as the rest, although there's no local co-op or split-screen, which stinks. Then, you're shrunk to the size of a fingernail and put in a grassy forest in a sunny back garden.
It's fairly typical survival game stuff from there. Harvest the local area for materials to make tools and a base with, using a crafting system with a bench like Minecraft and a blueprint system like Fortnite. Before long, you'll have curvy grass walls, charming grass tent-beds and armour made from fallen acorns.
Hunger and thirst are things to keep an eye on and can be satisfied by slurping globules of dew - a lovely idea - and killing and cooking enemies like the adorable aphids, you monster. There's combat, then, but it's very hit-or-block simple. However, you can mix it up with different weapons like bows-and-arrows and two-in-one jabbale and throwable spears.
You need a base because the insects in the garden get nastier at night, as they do the longer you stay in their world. In this way the game keeps up the challenge: that docile ladybird might not be so friendly one day, and those ants who were once your friends might suddenly turn up with a whole colony.
But despite being made by Obsidian, Grounded is not a role-playing game. You will not earn experience and advance in levels, nor unlock new abilities and skills. The only progression comes from better materials to craft stronger stuff, and, while the teen characters have their own personalities and voices, they are otherwise, mechanically, the same.
Grounded does have a story - that Obsidian hallmark remains - and it's a unique proposition in survival game territory. I don't know what the narrative's about beyond the fact that there's an odd kind of robot assistant who shrinks and unshrinks you, and I'm sure it's not going to rival the depth of something like Fallout: New Vegas. I'm intrigued nonetheless. Brennecke says the story is "very important" and it's also the way Grounded will guide you to new biome-like areas where tougher insecty-beasts live.
Whether the story will hit iconic Honey I Shrunk the Kids beats, I don't know and Brennecke wouldn't say. But every time a question like "will there be a scorpion fight?" or "will there be a dog?" or "will we end up in the kitchen in a bowl of cereal?" was asked, Brennecke would smile it away, as if to say he can't tell us but of course that's the fantasy Obsidian is going for.
And to be honest, I'm up for that. I can't remember the last time I played in a world like this.
Flights and accommodation for this trip were paid for by Microsoft.
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