Please be warned that there are images of spiders in this article.
My dad had a spider in his shower for months and he named it Boris, and when one day the spider was no longer there, he seemed genuinely upset. It seems they’d formed quite a bond. I must have inherited his befriend-a-spider gene because I rather like them, like having them around the house. They’re my household security against other pests. When I see occupied corners and windowsills I consider the room well fortified because nothing stands a chance against them. They’re beautifully efficient, wonderfully designed.
But not everyone likes them, you might be surprised to hear. When I try to tell my girlfriend it’s good to have them around she doesn’t seem to understand. “Can you get rid of it? Don’t pick it up!” She doesn’t even care if it’s a house spider and it’s supposed to live here! She wants it evicted, how heartless. Mind you, one did crawl across the duvet onto her neck so I suppose that’s a contributing factor.
At least the spiders have me, their friend, around to displace them kindly. I hear horror stories of people vacuuming them or stamping on them, tearing around their houses causing spider genocide just because these things tried to make a home there. What a nightmare for spiders we must be. If only the roles were reversed, then we’d see!
Well what a coincidence, now they are. Welcome to Grounded, a Honey I Shrunk the Kids backyard world where you are the size of a paperclip, struggling to keep yourself fed, watered and alive among an ecosystem of things you never really noticed before: gnats, mites, aphids, all of which are now the relative size of a cat.
It’s a base-building game like Minecraft where you gather materials from the tiny-big environment around you, felling blades of grass the size of trees for example, and then turn them into a wide array of different things. The more materials you analyse at a research station, the more options you unlock, and there seem to be a lot, from stuffed mite pillows to slime sconces and mushroom gardens.
But Grounded, unlike Minecraft, has a more scripted world, with a story to providing structure and a path of sorts to follow. You’re essentially trying to find out what the hell is going on and why you’re so small, and why there are tiny research bases here. There’s not a lot of story implemented at the moment but what’s there shows promise, especially when you find a quirky robot with a moustache and dialogue options and daily quests. Here, Obsidian’s RPG hallmarks are plain to see.
But when I said Grounded is a world of things you’d never noticed before, of batteries and baseballs and juice boxes lost in the grass (quite a messy backyard actually), that’s not entirely true, because living here, of course, are spiders, and they’re magnificent.
The care and attention Obsidian has lavished on them warms my heart. It’s in the way they move, the way the legs come up and over as they feel their way forward, eerily gliding along like a scrunched up horror hand, or in the way their legs tuck close while they rest. And the size of them: my god they’re big. They’ll make you feel like Frodo facing Shelob. There’s no mistaking who’s boss here.
Spiders are the menace of Grounded, and there’s an arachnophobia mode that reduces them to friendly floating blobs if you’re totally not OK with that. They patrol around their nest, barging great blades of grass aside as they go (if you see grass-forests swaying, you know something big is on the move), and if they catch sight of you, even from a fair distance away, they will roar and rear up at you with their front legs held high, in the spidery way they do, and charge. And gee whizz can they shift! Because of course they can, they’re spiders – have you seen how quickly they shoot across your bedroom floor? They pack a punch too. Don’t think about fighting one, trust me. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been pounced by a roaming orbweaver while absent mindedly smashing acorns around the oak tree, and how many of my stuffed backpacks now lie around the trunk there.
But it was another spider encounter that really stuck in my mind. It all started when I needed to get out of a base under the oak tree because I was perishing from hunger and thirst. It was night time and I didn’t have a torch, and I knew what folly it would be to tear out into the dark knowing what could be there, but what choice did I have? It was then that I heard a noise, a kind of guttural growling.
I decided to investigate and poke my head out of the doorway and the moment I did, I heard a roar and the drumbeat of combat and darted back inside. “ALERT: Threat Engaged,” the game told me but I couldn’t see what it was. I waited, regained my composure and poked my head out again. Something moved and then a giant head with many glowing eyes and two huge fangs span to face me. That’s no orbweaver!
I bolted back inside to watch horrid thick, black legs feel around the entrance for a way in, but the beast was too big and couldn’t get in, or so I thought. Emboldened, I edged forward with my puny-looking spear and poked it and, to my surprise, it backed off. I waited, stared at the door, nothing happened. Did it go?
I edged forward again. Roar! No it hadn’t gone! And this time when it roared something unexpected happened: it jumped into the hallway with me. A wolf spider. A tarantula-looking spider the size of a car was now blocking the only exit from the underground base I was trapped in.
That moment terrified me. Even watching the footage back now gives me chills (it’s included in the montage embedded here, be warned). But it was thoroughly exciting. When I reloaded the same encounter and played it a different way, waiting and then dashing madly for the water as soon as I saw a hint of morning, I ended up on a leaf floating in the middle of the water watching the morning sun sweep across the garden to chase away the dark and light a new day, and I tell you, it’s one of the sweetest sunrises I’ve ever seen, and all because of the terror of the night before.
All the same, I was starting to get a bid fed up of dying to spiders. My experience of Grounded had been dominated by them and I wanted to know what more was there, so I set about studiously avoiding them. I knew roughly where the orbweavers patrolled (I had no idea where the wolf spider came from) so I steered well clear of them, choosing to stay close to the starter area where I would build a home.
Now, I’ve been around that starter area a lot and I have never had any trouble there, except for the time I punched an ant and then it steamed into me with a load of its mates and I learned the hard way not to mess with ants. But otherwise, no trouble. So imagine my surprise one evening when, while putting up some grass walls, I heard another bone-shaking roar and another – or maybe the same – bloody great wolf spider leapt into the base with me.
Somehow, by kiting the herculean nightmare around my research lab and then hiding inside it, I avoid those fangs, and then I cheated a bit by building a “lean-to” bed within reaching distance and slept the night and spider away even though it was standing right next to me (nothing like bending the rules in a tight spot is there?).
I recovered, and then bit by bit I began making the progress I was after. I made an acorn breastplate to go with my cloverleaf armour, and I finally found a thistle plant to collect spikes from for my spiky club, and to make arrows. I was still steering well clear of orbweaver patrol grounds, still being super cautions, and it was paying off. Until guess what I heard? You guessed it: Roar! And stampeding through the grass like an elephant through a jungle came the bloody wolf spider again. Why me?! What have I ever done to you? I helped your friends when I was big – why won’t you let me be?
But now there I am, holed up in a fizzy drink can with an apparently furious wolf spider trying to get in, even though this time it really can’t – fizzy drinks cans, folks, they’re great base fodder. No matter how far the spider wanders out of sight, the moment I step outside it comes barrelling back over the horizon to get me, so I’m pinned. I’m not entirely sure the spider is working properly, to be honest, but in some way I don’t mind because it seems appropriate I’m helpless before this wonderful beast. I’ve become slightly obsessed with it, with the idea I might one day stand up to it, and then what – I become king of the jungle?
Plus, I imagine, this is what it’s like for all those spiders around people’s homes who are hunted for no other crime than trying to exist. Maybe this wolf spider is taking the collected pain of its species out on me. Silly thing. Doesn’t it realise I’m a friend? My dad knew Boris.