Among my favorite games of the past few years are those that explore the imaginations of children. Be it the supernatural neighborhood hijinks of multiplayer stealth game The Blackout Club or the quietly tragic Among the Sleep, there’s a lot to plumb when it comes to the creative inner world of kids—in particular, how the world can look so big from a view so small. Entering that magical arena is the new multiplayer base builder and crafting game Grounded, now in Early Access on Steam Early Access and available for preview on Xbox Box Game Pass.
Its format merits obvious comparisons to Rust or Minecraft, but Grounded is more like Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets ARK: Survival Evolved. It takes the conventions of the crafting and base building genres and adapts them to the playful setting of an oversized suburban backyard. In it, a group of preteens finds themselves in an unusual situation: they are now about the size of a bug. To survive in this new world, they must find food and water, manage their energy and health, and research the other life forms while gathering materials to build a camp with increasing sophistication over time. Tools, weapons, and housing parts are improvised from items in the environment, be it a hammer made of stone and plant fiber, a water reservoir from acorn parts, or a foundation molded from clay. And complicating their survival is a wide array of insects that can either help or hinder their progress. The challenge is to put together a defensive base and negotiate the essentials of the landscape, no matter how benign or deadly.
It’s this mix of danger and dullness that keeps Grounded well-paced. It’s as beautiful as it is terrifying. The vastness of its playfield, demonstrated in thoughtful environmental details like massive mounds of mud, tree roots, and plant stems, is a fascinating exploration of scale, and the range of insect species and behaviors makes the foraging and hunting experience unpredictable. Its quieter moments of gathering weed stems and grass blades can be interrupted by a curious pack of ants, the hum of a giant ladybug, or the honest and exhilarating panic of running into an Orb Weaver or Wolf Spider. The resulting focus on stealth, necessary to safely navigate the yard, is as much a part of the strategy as learning how to gather and use the materials around you.
I like what I see of Grounded so far. Despite being in Early Access, it’s well-polished. Many base building and crafting games don’t have the structure or organization to provide focused non-linear objectives. Often they rely too much on the player finding their own goals and support system within the social dynamics of multiplayer mode. Grounded maintains enough framework that it’s easy to keep moving forward even as a solo player. Whenever I hit that inevitable wall and wonder what to do next, it is easy to get back on track by checking my crafting menu to see what I can build or finding a research station and new materials to expand my options. The yard has a central hub of sorts, located in a giant old oak tree visible from all points on the map, and within it, a robot provides a few external goals for technology upgrades. Between the two, I feel driven forward despite, as a solo player, not having the collaboration of a team to motivate me.
And though I might be missing out by not playing the game with friends (resource accumulation takes longer without a team), enjoying the sights and sounds of the backyard has been so relaxing that I haven’t minded much. Many crafting and base building games are not nice to look at or spend time in, making the constant acquisition of new materials that much more tedious. But Grounded pays valuable attention to the scenery, with details that are brilliantly supported by the game’s natural lighting and appeasingly complex audio. Combined with the strong execution of theme (I particularly enjoy the lost toys and dropped food found across the yard), Grounded feels like a sunny Saturday morning on your front lawn.
Grounded is one of the most promising base builder crafting games I’ve seen in a long time, with solid production values and a robust design foundation. The full game will be released sometime in 2021.
Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.