We all think we know the ins and outs of our own home. But what if we had to explore it from a new perspective? Say, from the perspective of an ant or a small bug? This would completely change the way we view our surroundings, turning a backyard into a jungle and a bedside table into an Everest to be conquered.
Recently, a number of games have started exploring this idea, letting players shrink down and experience familiar locations from a brand-new perspective. This includes everything from Obsidian’s action-survival game Grounded to Ovid Works’ loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s famous novella Metamorphosis, to Brain & Nerd’s sandbox-survival game Hortalius, to Cubit Studios sci-fi adventure game Infinitesimals. But what is it about the premise of exploring a huge everyday world that so appeals to players and developers?
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Grounded is arguably the most well-known of these projects. Obsidian’s multiplayer survival game is about a group of children who have been shrunk down in size and let loose on an American backyard filled with bugs, spiders, and natural resources to collect and craft with. It’s a gameplay experience that borrows from popular films, such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and A Bug’s Life. According to Adam Brennecke, game director on Grounded, the idea’s allure came down to its interesting “What if?” scenario and how it captured the imagination of both the players and developers.
“We brainstormed ideas for a long time before arriving at the idea of being shrunk down to the size of an ant,” Brennecke recalls. “The idea sparked a ton of great creative design ideas, and minds were racing on how many cool things we could do with the setting and scale.” In particular, the team set out to improve Unreal’s foliage systems for the game, allowing them to create literally thousands of blades of grass, which the player and insects could interact with while exploring the backyard.
As with all of these other projects, it was the scale of the world that presented the most fundamental problems, with constant iteration required to nail down the size of objects in relation to one another. What the team eventually arrived at was a combat-first perspective. As Brennecke explains, “We decided to scale the player where fighting ants and spiders would feel great and be an appropriate challenge that could be overcome over the course of the game. The rest of the scale fell into place after we felt good about combat.”
A Very British Survival Game
Unlike Grounded, which is clearly set in an American backyard, Hortalius is set in a British garden and takes more of a realistic approach to the environment, with the team planning to explore the possibility of using micro-photogrammetry to capture the fine details of objects such as sand and leaves. According to the game’s website, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was again the jumping off point for the project, but the developers also took influence from other survival titles, such as Subnautica and No Man’s Sky.
In Hortalius, you play as a scientist who has been shrunk down by their employer as part of an illicit experiment. It’s up to you to survive in the garden’s harsh climate, while learning more about your boss’s intentions and the purpose of their research. You’ll build bases, craft items, and have to cope with complex weather systems that will transform sections of the map with ground-flooding and flash rain. That’s not to mention the wildlife, including bugs and insects, that roam the map.
“You’ll also notice things like ladybirds and different types of bees and wasps that are common to the UK,” says Tina Lauro Pollock, co-director at Brain and Nerd and producer/project manager on Hortalius. “And you’ll be able to ride on ants’ backs. We are very lucky that we have friends who are in that space in terms of their own professional background and research. So, we’re going to be working quite closely with them to make sure we get it right when we look at the behaviour of those insects.”
Brain and Nerd are aware they’re not the only ones working on this style of game, but that doesn’t discourage them. In fact, the opposite is true. “We sort of breathed a bit of a sigh of relief when we saw so many other games coming out with a similar sort of setting,” Pollock tells me. “For us, it’s made conversations with publishers and funding bodies that little bit easier because it gives a very clear point of reference and it shows that there is demand and there’s a bit more proof behind this type of game where you really do play with scales that people know.” She also believes that Hortalius will have enough of its own identity upon release to be able to stand on its own two feet.
Close Encounters of the Small Kind
Though both Grounded and Hortalius have an element of sci-fi to them, the third-person immersive sim Infinitesimals takes that aspect a step further, focusing on the exploits of tiny aliens visiting earth. James McWilliams, the lead developer at Cubit Studios, tells me he has been working away on the project since 2013, and that he was inspired to pursue the project based on stories from his own childhood, rather than film or TV.
“[I’ve always] had a great interest in nature which I think was influenced by my grandmother,” McWilliams says. “She used to read a lot of stories to me, many of which featured small animals in nature. By making the protagonists small technologically sophisticated aliens I get to combine that with my interest in science and engineering which likely came from my grandfather, who was a pilot in World War II.”
Infinitesimals isn’t actually a survival game – a genre McWilliams is not particularly keen on. Instead, he calls it a third-person immersive sim with vehicles. For the first three years of the game’s development, McWilliams worked on the project alone, while continuing to work in AAA game production. But recently he has gone full-time on the project, adding six other members to the team. The screenshots and animations they’ve revealed so far have been stunning, showing detailed alien crafts exploring a vast sea of grass as well as incredible prototypes of aliens traveling across this odd, new landscape.
“When I started Infinitesimals there wasn’t much of anything exploring the concept [of shrinking] in recent memory,” McWilliams notes, “so I felt there were a lot of interesting things that could be done with it. Perhaps the concept gained ground since then…”
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A Bug’s Life
There is an element of the surreal to all of these games, given their unusual premise, but Ovid Works’ Metamorphosis is the only project that truly leans into the absurdity of its situation. The game is inspired by the work of Franz Kafka and has players assume the role of Gregor Samsa, a man who has been transformed into a bug.
The idea for the project came about in 2005, when the game’s director ZaQ Chojecki was working on a film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novella where he hoped to employ a first-person perspective. It was during production that he decided the idea would probably work much better as a video game. But it wasn’t until 2012 that he got the chance to act on the impulse, finally building a team to realize this vision.
“The first idea was to do an adaptation of Metamorphosis where the character was actually a big bug,” Chojecki remembers. “But we thought the gameplay possibilities of being small are so interesting, so let’s actually have the bug shrink.”
There were a lot of challenges on the project due to this change in scale, with the most obvious being its art and direction. Initially, the team wanted to go for a more realistic aesthetic, but they quickly realized that this type of presentation lost the surreal quality of Kafka’s work and was confusing to players who were trying to navigate the more photorealistic environments. As a result, the team settled on a semi-realistic approach, with hand-painted assets giving the environment some much-needed texture without distracting the player.
The level design also proved problematic, as the game includes several manmade interiors. The team experimented with different approaches, with the most outlandish experiment being a prototype in Unity where the team filled a drawer with 3D items and used physics to try and determine how the items would fall and how a player could navigate this space. According to Chojecki, this approach proved way too chaotic to use. Instead, they took a more traditional route, planning the environment in greyboxes and making alterations based on the items that were going to be incorporated into the scene.
“It was a really iterative process that had to take into account that understanding the environment on this small scale is totally different,” says Chojecki. “That came from those early experiments in the box. The player will try to think and frame them in their natural context: ‘Okay, this is a corridor, this is a bridge, this is a passage.’”
Chojecki couldn’t offer a concrete reason for the popularity of games that shrink the player, but that didn’t stop him from speculating. “I’m sure games like that have been tried, there have been a lot of prototypes — but they were coming to those problems that we had to challenge… now the gates have been opened, I’m sure there will be more and more of these experiments at various scales.”
While many of these projects share a lot of similar qualities — whether that be the scenario, the abundance of bugs, or the mixture of science fiction and fantasy elements — it’s fascinating to see how they’ve diverged from one another, incorporating other influences and heading in different directions to realize this fantasy. Regardless of the specifics, there’s something about changing scales that seems to capture our imaginations. Maybe it’s just that games have explored fantastical worlds and places for so long that we’re overdue for games that explore settings that are a little closer to home — albeit from unexpected perspectives.