Originality and creativity are heavily valued in the games industry, arguably more than in comparable media. Critiques of popular video games often cite the derivative nature of certain series‒and even genres‒as an overall negative, demanding new ideas, mechanics, worlds, and stories for each and every title. I can’t quite say this is a bad thing, as some publishers are more than happy putting out repetitive, nearly cash-grabbing releases yearly. However, the constant search for the new and exciting gives all the more power to games that defy the mold, capturing the attention of the masses in the process.
At Sony’s game reveal event that showcased dozens of spectacularly intriguing titles, there was one game that was noticeably uglier, weirder, and creepier than the rest. I took one look at the cryptic reveal of Bugsnax and said, “Yep, that’s a horror game,” immediately shrugging it off. While I thought I learned my lesson about ignoring weird video games long ago, it still exited my mind, unlike another title.
It wasn’t until the announcement of its inclusion as a free PS+ game, alongside unnervingly good critical reception, that I said, “Yeah, I gotta see this.”
Note: I’m going to assume you have at least a basic understanding of Bugsnax, anything from watching a gameplay trailer to having platinum-trophied the game should suffice. That being said, I will not be spoiling anything related to the characters or mystery of Snaktooth Island.
Pretend I just barely finished playing Bugsnax, like, if this was a Youtube video essay, there would be a short montage with some music that abruptly ceased. Yeah, that was special.
Bugsnax’s weirdness and absurdity wears off rapidly as the adventure begins, but it still manages to leave a seriously lasting impression through the use of brilliant writing, relatable characters, and down-to-earth friendliness. It starts as a weird conglomeration of several games (composing itself with weird conglomerations of several food organisms), and ends up serving up a prime example of how strong writing can carry a game much farther than what seemed possible twenty years ago.
Right from the forefront of Bugsnax, the vocal performances stood out to me, particularly due to the early friend character, Filbo. Filbo shares their voice actor with Ryuji, the friend character, from Persona 5, an anime game with a massive portion of its budget allotted to the high-skill acting. I was intrigued, primarily because the game I was playing appeared to be of similar quality to the standard 3D Unity-based indie title. Why would such a game put such an emphasis on voices? I continued on. The next character, Beffica, was similarly the voice of both companion characters in Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I continued further, and as each grumpus stamped their personality onto the protagonist’s bugnsax journal, I continued to recognize vocal performances in awe. As I continued once again, spending time chilling with these characters, learning their depths, relationships, worries, and perspective on bugsnax, they slowly pierced my soul.
The aforementioned writing, that already smoothly develops each individually quirky character into a complex, town-wide, elevator-pitchable relationship tree, is to a consistently enjoyable quality that only the professionally-known talent present in the grumpuses could properly execute‒setting the foundation for a cast that could make any game, regardless of gameplay, a good game by default. These are all characters that feel real, being real before the player’s intervention, and continuing to be real during and after. For instance, a major part of the minor mysteries existing in each character’s past are brought out to be revealed during their interactions with the other characters. No grumpus stands alone in Bugsnax, as they each have previous, unseen relationships intertwining them into each other, often manifesting in surprising ways.
Everything within Bugsnax is drizzled with the concept of the bugsnax creatures, making it such a temptation to lift away the veil of the food animals to dissect the game at its core design. Bugsnax’s gameplay is a Pokemon Snap-like puzzle adventure, with bugsnax. Bugsnax’s characters are furry, anthropomorphic monsters, that can be composed of Bugsnax. Bugsnax’s story is a character-driven unravelling mystery, with the curiosity and discovery of the intervention of bugsnax along the way. And finally, I’m not going to pretend like it is a revelation, but the presentation of a cartoonishly simple artstyle and boppin’ nostalgic background music feel like a traditionally shiny video game, with the googly-eyed caloric texture of bugsnax. What I’m getting at is that bugsnax as a Pokemon conceptual-parallel are simply a well implemented gimmick. I mean that as a fully positive statement, as in, please do not interpret “gimmick” as an insincere word. I truly believe that the permeation of bugsnax in every layer of their titular video game is a stroke of minimal, holistic game design. It stands to reason that this is exactly what made Bugsnax work as a temporarily viral work of art.
While nearly every attribute of the game excels at what it's trying to do, not even its gameplay blend of puzzly-Snap and traditional collect-’em-all Pokemon is what makes it good. Bugsnax is good because of its unearned, relentless confidence in its own personality. Goofiness and insincerity could have acted as overly easy crutches for a game on the conceptual level as Bugsnax, making its emotional depth and lovable characters all the more shocking. Is Bugsnax a must-play, all-time great video game? Almost certainly not. It is, however, worth not dismissing.