Trust an RPG developer to have a counter-spell ready. When Obsidian announced the shrunken-perspective survival game Grounded at X019, studio design director Josh Sawyer dispelled any potential backlash before it even had a chance to begin.
“It’s something that was in production before we became part of Microsoft,” he said. “I know a lot of people associate our studio with RPGs, but we do have multiple teams working on things at different times, so you can expect to hear more about the RPGs we’re working on in the future.”
The subtext was clear: Obsidian didn’t want anybody thinking that Grounded was a corporate volte-face, a sign that its new owner had stripped the studio of its identity. Microsoft has a historical reputation for doing just that – mandating the use of restrictive hardware like Kinect and wasting the time and talent of once-great teams. ‘Once-great’ is not a reputation anyone is keen to foster.
In reality, there’s little cause for concern: Grounded is totally in keeping with Obsidian’s MO. This is a studio with as much claim to the survival genre as anyone. Back before DayZ and Rust, before Steam’s bestseller list was knotted with games about punching trees and tracking your metabolism, there was Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian was hardly the first developer to adopt hunger meters – Minecraft’s nascent Survival Mode came online a year earlier – but it was an early mainstream proponent of the life-prolonging mechanics that would come to dominate the industry.
New Vegas’ hardcore mode was a peculiar prospect for RPG veterans, who were used to dictating the pace of their adventures. Beneath the familiar and friendly thrills of dialogue and XP collection lurked a slow-burn urgency. The Mojave sun beat down on their heads, and thirst waited for no fetch quest. Too long in the desert without sustenance led to death, as surely as dancing with Deathclaws.
Survival mechanics turned Fallout into a game of trade-offs – clean water was a rarity, which meant calculating whether you were comfortable with the dose of radiation that came from drinking at the toilet.
The name of New Vegas’ first town, Goodsprings, was imbued with specific meaning in hardcore mode, since it provided access to two or three pure water sources. What’s more, it had a doctor – somebody who could reset the broken bones stimpaks simply didn’t touch on survival settings. It became natural to cling to places like these, which could attend to your needs after long deterioration in the wild. By making the wasteland more hostile, hardcore mode instilled settlements with a genuine sense of home.
The long-term influence of hardcore mode is undeniable. Bethesda added a similar option to Fallout 4, and in Fallout 76 committed to hunger and thirst meters as the default – albeit in a less lethal form than Obsidian imagined.
Obsidian itself has continued to iterate on the idea too. The Outer Worlds, the studio’s spiritual successor to New Vegas, has a Supernova mode that makes periodic eating, drinking and sleeping essential. What’s more, it ups the challenge of combat encounters, makes saving impossible outside checkpoints, and permanently kills off companions downed by enemies, cutting short their long and nuanced character arcs at a stroke.
These are no longer novel ideas in a survival genre overflowing with developers competing to be as cruel to the player as possible. But they’re rendered strange by the setting: the Halcyon colony isn’t an open world ripe with scavenging opportunities. Instead it’s a series of smaller hubs, mostly urbanised by corporations. Water is something you have to scrounge and save up for, purchased from your nearest Spacer’s Choice vendor. Starvation is more a symptom of poverty than a failure in exploration. In that way, survival mechanics actually reinforce the game’s themes of basic necessities packaged and sold to those who are owed them as a human right.
Grounded has its own twist on the genre: a premise that’s simply sweet where its competitors are relentlessly bleak. Obsidian plans to add insect taming to the game, and you can’t imagine Ron Perlman growling “war never changes” over an image of a tiny kid riding a ladybird. There’s also a story to follow and finish, rather than the survival genre’s usual ending of finally succumbing to a relentlessly hostile environment.
It’s set to be kinder than its Obsidian predecessors, merely maiming players who forget to eat regular meals rather than killing them outright. And it’s co-op, which means players can work together to build something, rather than just getting by. Yet there’s no doubt that Grounded has one foot firmly in the studio’s long history of survival mechanics. It’s just that this time you’ll be knocking an oversized droplet of water loose from a long blade of grass, rather than supping from a toilet bowl.