Spending some time playing Bugsnax reveals its narrative focus, puzzle core, and slightly cult-ish underpinnings.
I expected Bugnsax to be lighthearted and funny. Its reveal trailer sprays cute into the atmosphere; it radiates cute like some kind of cuteness bomb. What I didn't expect was its underlying narrative drive, or the potentially darker bits of media its developers counts among their inspirations--the likes of Lost, Apocalypse Now, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. But, despite the unexpectedly dark inspirations, and I can't emphasize this enough--Bugsnax is still extremely cute, lighthearted, and funny.
Bugsnax is much more story-driven than it might appear to be at first blush. We got a chance to try about an hour of the game, which introduces the narrative and outlines what the hell Bugsnax is all about pretty well. You play a journalist who previously covered the famed, eccentric, possibly prone-to-exaggeration Elizabert Megafig, an explorer and cryptozoologist. Elizabeth invites you to the island where she and her colleagues discovered a species of insect called bugsnax, and after some convincing, your editor lets you go to try and get the scoop--despite the fact that your last story about an Elizabert Megafig discovery turned out to be a hoax.
As you journey to the island, disaster strikes. You fall off your airship on arrival and, as you start to explore, the place is plagued by earthquakes. You soon discover Filbo, one of the inhabitants of Elizabert's town of Snaxburg, lying on the ground and injured, asking for food. He introduces you to what you'll be doing for the rest of your time on the island: seeking out and capturing elusive bugsnax.
It quickly becomes apparent that Bugsnax is something of a role-playing game, as you receive quests from various inhabitants of the island (a furry, Muppet-like species called Grumpuses, of which you are also one), and a puzzle game. The puzzle part comes from interacting with the bugs on the island, of which there are 100 varieties. If you want to catch one to feed to one of the grumpuses you meet, you'll need to figure out its behaviors, something you can do with a scanner that gives you information about each bug species. The first snack you encounter is a strawberry-flavored strabby, which walks a preset circular path but flees into a bush when you approach. To grab it, you need to leave behind a trap and trigger it from somewhere out of sight. Then you bring it back to Filbo and feed it to him, pepping him up (while also transforming one of the grumpus's limbs into a strawberry, at least temporarily).
That's the core of Bugsnax: meet grumpuses, find out their deals, help them catch bugsnax. It's easy to recognize gameplay inspirations that include Pokemon Snap, Viva Pinata, and Animal Crossing. You quickly find out from Filbo that Elizabert has disappeared into the wilderness of the island, and as a result, the community she's built on the island, Snaxburg, has pretty much disintegrated. Everyone has wandered off on their own and nobody is working together anymore (or gathering bugsnax to feed everyone). In order to find Elizabert, your job becomes meeting each of the grumpuses, of which there are 14 in total, and solving their problems in order to convince them to return to Snaxburg. Eventually, you'll get to interview each of them and try to piece together the story of what's going on with Elizabert, the island, and the bugsnax. It turns out, the game is much more driven by narrative than it might have seemed at first blush.
"I feel like we kind of did the same thing with Octodad, where people initially thought it was just a physics toy sort of thing, or just a slapstick comedy thing, and then we hit with the launch trailer that has some more, heavy story stuff," Young Horses president Phil Tibitoski said in an interview with GameSpot. "I think at Young Horses, our whole thing is world-building and storytelling. We do the mechanics thing and we do the weird thing, but a lot of it is about our games having heart and being relatable."
There's also a lot of complexity in Bugsnax that's not immediately apparent, as well. Sometimes you'll have to use the behavior of one bug to trap another. In one puzzle situation, I used ketchup packets growing on a bush and a slingshot to convince the hamburger-like bunger to slam into a bush, scaring out a shishkabug so I could catch it. At another point, I sent a strabby in a hamster ball into a burrow to flush out an orange peelbug, then lured it back to its pen by covering the ball in chocolate with my slingshot.
The island has several different biomes where you'll find different kinds of bugs, as well as a day-night cycle that affects when you see bugs and grumpuses and what they're up to at that time. At one point, I finished a grumpus's quest and sent him back to Snaxburg. When I returned to the town, I watched him have a conversation with another grumpus, sit around a campfire, and eventually head off to bed--before then wandering around town for a few hours, sleepwalking. It gave Bugsnax a very Skyrim vibe, suggesting that each of the characters is doing more than just standing around, waiting to provide a quest prompt.
"We kind of accidentally made an RPG, without fully intending to do that at the start," Tibitoski said.
Over the course of an hour or so playing the game, I interacted with several grumpuses and got a sense of some of the interpersonal relationships that are at the core of the Bugsnax story. Some characters, like Filbo, are trying and failing to hold the community together. Others are going their own way on the island and only looking out for themselves.
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Throughout my time with it, the tone of Bugsnax remained light, bright, and funny. But there also is an inkling of darker or more adult ideas at play, it seems. Wambus, a seemingly grumpy grumpus, had been left by his wife, another resident of Snaxburg, as Filbo explained. I ran into Gramble, a grumpus who had befriended bugsnax and didn't want to see them eaten, while another, Wiggle, serenaded him with romantic overtures, seemingly in an attempt to convince him to offer up his bugsnax pals as snacks--or to let his guard down.
And Snaxburg itself has a bit of a cultish vibe to it. After all, it's an idyllic community far from the rest of civilization, created by a charismatic leader and the people who upended their lives to follow her. Even though it's a light, comedic game, Tibitoski mentioned a few interesting, darker inspirations for Bugsnax, and likened the approach to the one Pixar takes with its movies.
"I can say that inspiration-wise to varying degrees, we've taken from all sorts of different media and sources, things like Adventure Time, or [on] the other end, Apocalypse Now. Also things like Island of Dr. Moreau [and] Ferngully," he explained. "But I think something that a lot of people on our team enjoy about Pixar films is that you could watch them, whether you're a younger kid or if you're an adult and find something to like and enjoy about them at like both levels and everywhere in between. And we try to kind of hit that same varied accessible mark."
Though the preview didn't show nearly everything Bugsnax has to offer--Tibitoski said completing it will probably take the average player about eight hours--the impression the beginning of the game presented was that Bugsnax is likely to stay pretty light in its tone. But that doesn't mean the game won't deal with heavier concepts. Tibitoski explained that he thinks that, when presented in the right way, kids are able to understand complex themes in media, and that media that's geared toward kids doesn't have to be simplistic.
There seem to be complex themes to explore, like a group of people's ecological relationship with an island full of edible bugs, and the interpersonal struggles of creating a community.
"We were definitely drawing inspiration from real-life insects and bugs and arachnids and all sorts of things," Tibitoski said. "But also the theme of exploration in this and of, I don't know if you'd call it Gonzo journalism, of believing in something, having no one else in your immediate vicinity believe in that too. And then having to try and either prove it or find a new group of people to relate to and be associated with."
It turns out, there are some mysteries to solve while you're talkin' 'bout Bugsnax. The game is set to release on November 12 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC on the Epic Games Store.