When we think of the best horror games, or even 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. As horror games go back, so does the aesthetic. It’s as common as it can be predictable, but one of the most powerful aspects of fear is its ability to surprise. Obsidian’s survival game Grounded, then, certainly qualifies as horror, while being perfectly cute. Warning: There is more spider imagery in this piece.
In fact, Grounded doesn’t sound like the kind of games we think of as horror. They often mimic movies like The Thing, Alien, and Jacob’s Ladder. Grounded, both in terms of pitch and aesthetic, Honey Eye Shrink is very close to The Kids, a sci-fi romp about kids who are accidentally shrunk by their father’s newly-invented shrink ray and are surrounded by giant ants. And things like that have to be avoided and returned to. Normal size. This is exactly what the ground is all about; You play as one of four young teenagers who try to survive in the backyard and find a way to return to their normal size. You can build houses out of pebbles with grass, axes and hammers, and there are weeds and aphids everywhere that make a good dinner. Water droplets hang from the blades of grass, and ladybugs swirl around making the most beautiful sounds you can imagine.
But all this belies a terrifying world. Your first encounter with the true nature of the backyard may not be like mine. Maybe you encounter a stinky ant, or maybe you accidentally kill a ladybug and turn it from a neutral animal into an angry killing dome. Or maybe you see the blades of grass rustling ahead of you and then hear the low sounds of a wolf spider. It won’t stay out of sight for long, though, as these things are about the size of a motorhome depending on your character. The second it sees you, it will do two things: scream and charge.
And it is this dissonance that informs the illusory intimacy of Grounded. It looks small, cute and friendly. You are in the safest place in the world: a backyard. But when you’re small enough to fit on the end of a garden hose, a wolf spider that once fit snugly under your shoe now dwarfs you. Scales have changed in both size and strength.
Importantly, Grounded doesn’t rely on the grim aesthetic of abandoned spaces to scare the living daylights out of you. Sure, there are dark places like anthills, antlion caves, and woodpile corridors, but they’re designed to look as natural as they can. This is not a hospital corridor or an empty classroom. And the monsters aren’t monsters at all, but largely harmless vermin of a standard American suburban environment. And they aren’t photorealistic either. Insects have large, round eyes. Bombardier beetles are yellow and green, and bees have the typical yellow and black stripes. Ladybugs are as cute as you’d imagine as long as you don’t disturb them.
The fear comes from the differences in size, strength, and speed of the insects, as well as some really cool sound design. In my home state of Minnesota, mosquitoes are a summertime menace. Definitely annoying, but not dangerous like they can be elsewhere. Even the sound they make when they fly is annoying but never annoying. A high-pitched scream. When you’re near a mosquito in the ground, you know it. Instead of a small screech, the massive flying fear Vulcan fires at full speed like a cannon. Despite being able to fight them off one or two at a time without being in any real danger, the sound is still annoying, as it’s engineered to hit a low frequency that would make the hair on your neck stand out. are
The ground almost feels like a gimmick. While it has completely hooked me, I’ve had several friends jump into my game with me, only to kind of never play the game again after an encounter with an orb-weaver spider or a stinkbug.
If you stick with it, Ground can be a deeply rewarding experience that allows you to grow in skill, gear, and bravery. 30 hours ago, I was running in terror when an orb weaver would round the corner. Now, I feel like Henry Cavill in that Mission Impossible scene where he Reloads his arms, despite the fact that my character is a 13mm tall 13-year-old who calls himself Hoops. Now, the things that terrify me are so extreme that I dare not spoil them for you. Suffice it to say, there are other things lurking in the upper courtyard. Even so, that haunting low voice of the wolf spider, followed by that soul-crushing scream, is enough to send me into a panic.
It’s impossible to deny, though, how beautiful the sun looks filtering through the blades of grass and how cute the Dungeons and Dragons knockoff game and its giant D20 are. Instead of priming you for horror with rusty fences and endless stairs, the grounds hide it in beauty. Is sarcasm scary? Of course. Who wants to put their hands in all those fleshy holes? But if you want to feel real terror, install Grounded and find a spider.
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