Throughout this pandemic I’ve been passing the time playing video games with my daughters. Lately my eleven-year-old and I have been playing Obsidian Entertainment’s Grounded, where we each play one of four children who have been shrunk down to the size of bugs and have to survive in a vast backyard jungle rife with vicious insects.
My daughter has bounced between the two girl characters Willow and Hoops, while I’ve played Pete, who, coincidentally, shares my name. His intro is a very awkward, “My name is Peter…but my friends call me Pete!”
It wasn’t only his namesake that made me choose Pete. I asked my daughters which one I should play, and they picked him for me as well.
“Is it because he has glasses, like me?” I asked.
“No, it’s because he’s a nerd,” my nine-year-old replied.
Fair enough. So we started playing and were almost instantly hooked. Like a true survival RPG, we have to keep watch on our food and water, as well as our endurance and health. We spent the first several game days constantly running to this giant discarded drink box, or searching for dew drops, killing gnats or plucking mushrooms to keep us alive. Little by little we created a camp with a mushroom farm and a dew collector. We made tools out of pebbles and weed stems. We made armor from clover or pieces of ants. We hacked down towering grass blades with tiny axes so that we could build shelter, bridges, and other structures.
In order to get many resources, we’ve had to venture out among the other insects, braving ant nests, beetles, and a few different spiders.
The ants are an interesting neutral party. We can attack them to get ant bits for more useful armor, weapons, and tools, but if there are other ants nearby, they’ll swarm us. While wearing ant armor, however, they’ll mistake us for one of their own and leave us alone. Even better, if another insect attacks us, nearby ants will rush to our aid (which is a useful tactic against the more powerful spiders).
And ho-ly shit, the spiders scare the crap out of me every single time. It’s not just because they can one-shot kill me, or because of their look. They are creepy, especially at that scale. For those with arachnophobia, there is a setting where you can dial down the spider’s features until it appears as just a floating ball. I’m not sure that would make it less scary, however. And personally, I enjoy the fear—at least a little bit. I try to steer clear of them, but often I’ll get a hint of some waving grass blades not too far off, then I’ll see a leg, or maybe eyes or mandibles. Maybe it hasn’t noticed me. Or maybe it has, and I shriek to my daughter over the headset and run away. She’s no braver – she often takes a high, safe position and acts as my spotter as I gather acorn bits, flower petals, or whatever rare ingredient we need. The spiders are bigger than us, so they also get hung up on some of the other plants. One time a wolf spider got stuck, so my daughter stayed beyond its reach and punched it to death with just her tiny fist. (I haven’t even killed a wolf spider yet…)
We strategize about our base building, and cover each other as we gather resources. We’ve constructed bridges and staircases, safe spots and campsites. When not playing, we’ll talk about the game as we theorize about things or she shares insight from a youtube video. During long walks around our neighborhood, we geek out together about our next strategy.
For me, it’s a little bit of nostalgia. This game has captured our imaginations the same way The Littles did from my own youth. Despite everything going on, it’s nice to see my kids distracted by something that’s grabbed their curiosity. In the midst of all this, Grounded has been a remarkable vehicle for bonding with my daughters and sharing something wonderful.