Though I returned to “Skyrim” later, I never completed it. I have arachnophobia and spider-filled games are a frequent obstacle I face, especially as a fan of RPGs (the genre has a strange affinity for oversized spiders). Sometimes I stomach my fear in favor of a great game or engaging story, but it can make these virtual experiences much less pleasant and a lot more frustrating.
I was understandably apprehensive when I first heard about “Grounded,” a game from Obsidian. “Grounded” is stressful in ways similar to most survival games. You scavenge for resources, build shelters, and manage your hunger, health, thirst and limited stamina. There’s one big twist, though. It’s all about surviving a perilous, bug-infested backyard as a shrunken kid (similar to the 1989 film “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids”). Your foes are all gargantuan insects, and spiders are a frequent antagonist — among the toughest to overcome.
However, with its early access release on Xbox Game Pass and Steam, Obsidian announced an arachnophobia safe mode, letting spider-averse players experience the game safely. By using a slider in the settings menu, you can opt for spiders with fewer legs, no fangs and more. It’s mostly a cosmetic change, but it also brings tiny sound effect variations as well. If you’re playing in co-op, everyone experiences the spiders differently, depending on their customized options.
I chose the most extreme restrictions: The spiders in my game were transformed into disembodied floating blobs with glowing-red eyes. They don’t look like insects at all; yet there’s still something off-putting that kept me tense. With arachnophobia safe mode turned on, spiders are still scary, especially in their quick, jerky movements and immense strength that can kill your character in seconds. But this is a welcome and manageable intensity, swapping phobias for a sense of exhilaration.
While playing online co-op, one of my friends snuck into a spider’s den. Despite her best efforts, she was spotted by a spider that immediately lurched toward her. She begged us to come help. Instead, we all fled as the spider growled, hissed and chased us through the forest. We laughed and screamed the entire time. Somehow my spider lair-invading friend was the only one of us to survive.
“Grounded” is most entertaining and rewarding when playing in a group. You can help one another build weapons and bases, as well as aid one another in battle. Though the early access map is small, I still enjoyed exploring its nooks and crannies with others and marveling at the gorgeous sunsets and peaceful moments, like a group of ladybugs sleeping with their shells rising and falling with each breath. Staying alive becomes a united goal for your group as you coordinate and scavenge your way through a world ripe with danger.
I’ve never found spiders fun before, but the accessibility options in “Grounded” make that possible without erasing a core part of the game. This was made possible in part by studies, surveys and gameplay tests Obsidian conducted with Xbox’s research team before the game’s early access release. They discovered that most players feared specific body parts of spiders, like their eight eyes, and came up with the idea to remove those terrifying features one by one.
“Grounded” isn’t the first game to offer restrictions for phobias: “Sea of Thieves,” for example, recently added an accessibility option that automatically makes players float if they have a fear of underwater depths. And in “House Flipper,” a simulation game about renovating homes, you can swap cockroaches for broken glass.
Other times, some games turn to mods. The aforementioned spiders from “Skyrim” can be removed entirely with a mod if you’re playing on PC. Official accessibility settings for arachnophobia, though, are something I have never seen before.
Accessibility options are often specific settings for the disabled community, and we’ve seen developers take that audience more seriously in the last few years. However, accessibility can also accommodate different audiences and needs beyond that, and Obsidian makes a compelling case. Hopefully, future games adopt phobia-restricting concepts like this too, to widen the scope of players, who, like me, may quickly turn away from a triggering game.