Bugsnax is an interesting game to launch alongside the PlayStation 5, an expensive machine pitched to usher in gaming's "next generation." It is not a technical showcase, with frame rate drops while playing the game at 4K resolutions. It basically ignores Sony's fancy DualSense controller, showcasing none of its standout features, like Astro's Playroom. It doesn't check many of the boxes traditionally thought of as justifying fancy new hardware, which isn't entirely surprising because it's being released on PlayStation 4 and PC, too.
But folks, Bugsnax, the new game from the developers of the equally strange Octodad, is something more important: good as hell. I came in expecting a riff on Pokémon Snap, now with monsters mashed up with food, and also found a story about community, relationships, and the importance of communicating true feelings. I became as invested in helping a group of people pick up the broken pieces of their lives as I was in figuring out how to capture a Weenyworm, which Bugsnax describes as "a lazy little worm, it's only motivated by ketchup."
Be chill, Bugsnax. Damn. Some of us like ketchup.
The setup for Bugsnax is delightfully bizarre. You're a newspaper reporter who, out of the blue, receives a film reel in the mail that talks of a strange place called Snaktooth Island. On this island, there are creatures—living, breathing creatures with eyes and personalities—that also look like food, be it your standard issue strawberries or more complicated meal mashups, like hotdogs. When you eat these creatures, you also take on their appearance. An arm becomes a strawberry, a leg becomes a hot dog, etc. Researcher Elizabeth Megafig has invited you to document the weirdness happening on Snaktooth Island, but when you arrive, an enormous creature—a giant pizza moth, naturally—knocks your ship from the sky.
Upon crash landing, you discover things have gone very wrong. The people who'd come to build a life on Snaktooth Island have gone their separate ways, following the mysterious disappearance of Elizabeth, and it's left their village in shambles. You're then tasked with helping everyone come back to the village, which often involves finding them snax to eat.
Moment-to-moment, that means wandering around, observing Snaktooth Island, and taking notes. By taking a photograph of a bugsnack (bugsnax is the plural form), you learn likes and dislikes, hints about behavior, and what movement is like. This is crucial information for the next step of capturing them, which requires creative use of tools, including a deployable net, splattering sauces about to nudge them into heading into certain directions (or making them angry, possibly provoking a fight between bugsnax), etc. Capturing bugsnax is sometimes required to complete certain quests, but you can finish the story without interacting with many of them. Filling out the game's encyclopedia means observing and capturing the dozens of bugsnax in the world, which amounts to a series of individual puzzles about how to toy with the various creature AI to send them heading into your net.
Many of the solutions are equal parts funny and satisfying, though one I found personally delicious. Hotdog enthusiasts, specifically Chicago hotdog enthusiasts, should pay attention.
There's a sequence about halfway through the game where you're tasked with finding and capturing a Shy Weenyworm, a variation on the Weenyworm that looks suspiciously like a Chicago-style hot dog. Hot dogs are made in various ways, but the Chicago-style hot dog is specific to the region, and consists of a hot dog in a poppy seed bun, with yellow mustard, white onions, relish, a dill pickle, tomato, peppers, and celery salt. Like I said—it's specific.
Anyway, there's one rule about eating a Chicago-style hot dog: you don't put ketchup on it. As someone who grew up putting ketchup on bland hot dogs in the summer sun, this part of Chicago food culture has always perplexed me, but I know the rule and respect the rule.
The difference between the regular Weenyworm and the Shy Weenyworm is how they respond to—you guessed it—ketchup. The "shy" variant despises ketchup in all forms but loves mustard. And in Bugsnax, noting these details is important because it can help you manipulate how the creatures act. At this point in the game, you do not have access to mustard, which means you're only left with ketchup to play around with. In this area, there are two Shy Weenyworms milling about, and I couldn't figure out how to capture one. If I dropped my portable net down, they destroyed it. If I approached them, they attacked me.
On a whim, I loaded up my sauce launcher and splashed some ketchup on one of the Shy Weenyworms. The other one in the area quickly picked up on what had happened and, uh.
Ouch. The Shy Weenyworm doused in ketchup suddenly found itself under attack because of the mere presence of this delicious red sauce, prompting them to be temporarily knocked out. This gave me a few seconds to run over and capture them, thus completing my task.
Moments like this play out all the time in Bugsnax, a game that deftly walks between rewarding players for their creativity and reveling in finding "solutions" born from unexpected chaos. More than once, I managed to capture something because I caused a bunch of creatures to interact with one another in weird ways. Was it the correct answer? Assuredly not, but the game isn't always interested in right or wrong—it errs on letting chaos reign.
Some of that feels necessary because the act of controlling Bugsnax is pretty finicky. It's hard to aim certain tools, and my plans would go to ruin because of these issues. Bugsnax embraces this, and because the results are so dang funny, there's not that much frustration.
Still, sometimes it's annoying how you can't just do what you want to do.
The other half of Bugsnax, the part that caught me by surprise, is talking with the people on Snaktooth Island and becoming part of their lives. None of them are native to this place, but have, for one reason or another, arrived here. Maybe they weren't satisfied with how things were going back in the "real" world, and hoped a new location and a new way of viewing life—in this case, eating bugsnax and letting them modify their body—can right the ship.
But in every case, the problems go deeper. Snaktooth Island is just a convenient distraction.
Because of Bugsnax' cute aesthetic, present in everything from its art direction to the catchy theme song being used to promote it, I believed this was a glorified children's game. There is nothing wrong with a good kids game, mind you, but one's storytelling expectations change.
At its core, Bugsnax asks and teases out some basic but important questions: What does it mean to be part of a community? What is your responsibility to others? It defines community in different forms, too. A "community" can be the relationship between two people, and it can be the social apparatus that binds together groups of people trying to build a world together.
One of the first quests in Bugsnax has you helping a farmer whose partner has left them for another part of Snaktooth Island. They're trying to pretend everything is okay and put up a brave face, and then late at night, you discover they've dressed up a cactus plant to look like their partner, because they miss talking to them, touching them. You eventually find a way to convince their partner to come back to camp, and the resulting conversation, where two adults in a long term relationship talk about how easy it is to take one another for granted when you become too comfortable over a long period of time, hit me like a ton of bricks.
(My wife and I have been together for, depending on what you call "officially" starting dating, 15 years. The ups and downs of a long term relationship is something I'm familiar with!)
It most reminded me of a good Pixar movie, where the words coming out of the mouths of the character are sure to sail over the heads of children, while landing square in the hearts of adults. It's not so overly serious or dark to make it inaccessible to children, nor so overly simplistic as to make it boring for adults. Bugsnax frequently deals with serious subjects, ranging from social anxiety to queerness, and it's smuggled through bubblegum wrapping that allows these points to hit harder precisely because you're not expecting it to happen.
I was able to sit down with my four-year-old daughter and ask what bugsnax she'd like me to capture, while also holding back a tear when capturing that bugsnax led to a personal revelation for someone on Snaktooth Island to help them become a better person. It's a delicate balance that Bugsnax walks pretty comfortably on multiple impressive occasions.
The presence of these pillars—exploring and community building—are important, because I'm not sure how much Bugsnax works without the other. Capturing creatures is enjoyable but gets repetitive. (This is not a game I would recommend rushing through.) But when that creeps in, there's always something to do with one of the game's colorful characters, who often make unique demands and prompt players to approach the game a little differently.
One of the highest compliments I can pay Bugsmax is that when the game warned me I'd hit a point of no return in the story and I'd no longer be able to complete any unfinished side quests, I panicked because I really wanted to finish them. Could I find a way to delay my review? Hmm. Sadly, my deadline for writing this piece, written in the midst of pandemic and election, meant that wasn't an option—I had to push forward. And so, reluctantly, I did.
When the credits rolled and I saw a "continue" option on the main screen, which brought me back to moments before I'd kicked off the endgame, I cheered. I could go back to Snaktooth Island, spend more time with my buddies, and see what else they had to tell me. The story may be over, but my time on Snaktooth Island was not. Chances are I'm gonna stay awhile, because there's a good chance these people still have something to teach me.