I had a bit of a surprise a few weeks back. It all started when I decided to play the recently released Grounded with Mir. She’s a big fan of survival games, and it’d been a while since we played anything together. Thing is – I’m not big into survival games. In fact, it’s one of my least favourite genres. However, Grounded was a day one Xbox Gamepass release, so I didn’t have much to lose in trying it out. We’ve since put over 80 hours into the game, and spent the majority of the past 2 weekends going full potato mode on it. Imagine that.
Reflecting back on that time, I’ve been wondering what sets Grounded apart from its contemporaries. At a surface level it has all of the same components, and features of other survival games. Why was it able to successfully pull me in, when I normally bounce off these titles in the first couple hours? Ultimately, I’ve concluded that there are 3 key factors at play: introduction, pacing, and objectives. While these 3 factors aren’t unique, they do provide players with a strong foundation to springboard into the game, and I think that sits at the heart of why Grounded was so enthralling.
First up, we have introduction. What I mean by that is how Grounded introduces its core gameplay loop. Let me know if this sounds familiar: you boot up a survival game for the first time, and it cold opens into a world without giving you any direction. No quests, no friendly advice, no nothing. You’re on your own, kid. Normally I appreciate when games do this, as I find far too many games overbearing. However, I don’t have the same level of familiarity with survival games as I do other genres. As a result, cold opens always leave me immeasurably confused.
I’m not even opposed to this style of opening being available either. If I were a more experienced player I’d want to be able to skip right to the meat and potatoes. However, as a relative noobie I need a bit more direction. The amount of universal systems, and shared vocabulary that these games have always seen me running to a wiki. That’s not ideal. In a lot of ways it actually reminds me of when I first started to seriously get into fighting games. The difference being that I had an actual desire to participate in fighting games, whereas with survival games I’ve largely felt like I wasn’t missing out on anything special. Thus, I bounce the moment I run into any resistance.
To that end, Grounded makes great strides to help initiate the player into the world of survival games. Upon starting it up for the first time, players are subjected to a short tutorial. This establishes the core gameplay loop of Grounded: roam around looking for resources, scan the new ones, and craft stuff out of them. It doesn’t sound like much, but this was enough to keep me going for several hours. Instead of roaming around directionless like I normally do, I created a tiny fort, filled it with some basic amenities, and went on a crusade against the local insect population. During my conquest I found new materials, which prompted the cycle of explore, craft, conquest to repeat anew.
A big part of why this introduction is so successful ties into how Grounded handles its pacing. The game begins with only a small handful of basic blueprints. This feels like a deliberate choice on the developer’s part to help keep players from feeling overwhelmed by too many options. By only providing the bare essentials at the start, players can focus on the important tools they need to get started. This also ties nicely into that core gameplay loop as unlocking new blueprints works as a great reward to incentivize exploration.
While the deliberate introduction, and pacing of unlocks engage players in the short term, it’s the long term objectives that will truly help Grounded get its hooks into players. I’m not big on story, but there’s no denying that it helps to add structure to an otherwise open-ended romp. While the writing won’t win any awards, the story of Grounded does repeatedly ask players to venture into new, increasingly dangerous areas of the world. This helps to prevent stagnation, while ensuring that the core gameplay loop remains central in the play experience. It also provides a new bit of context for what you’re doing – you’re not simply looking to build stronger equipment for its own sake, but rather to complete the next leg of your journey.
I don’t think Grounded does anything revolutionary, but it does do something I’ve wanted to see from a survival game for a while now. By introducing its core gameplay loop, pacing out its information, and providing clear objectives Grounded feels far more approachable than many of its contemporaries. This has allowed me, a survival game noob, the ability to enjoy it instead of bouncing off it in the same way I do other survival titles. What’s wild is that Mir, a survival game veteran, also enjoyed the game, so in adding these features Grounded hasn’t subtracted from the core appeal of the genre.