Indie puzzle adventure video game “Bugsnax” looks like a sweet-but-slightly-horrifying candy. But taking a bite reveals a frustrating, jawbreaker-like center that makes it hard to recommend for most palates.
“Bugsnax” is developer Young Horses’ follow-up to 2014’s smash-hit indie game “Octodad: Dadliest Catch”. You play a journalist tasked with exploring newly-discovered Snaktooth Island, searching for lost explorer Elizabert Megafig while feeding her companions the titular snack-shaped bugs. When a Grump (the non-bug species in “Bugsnax”) eats a Snak, their limbs turn into the food the Snak is based on. It’s a cute, scary, and original concept, enough to generate buzz from something as simple as a wild reveal trailer featuring an original Kero Kero Bonito song.
But the Snax surprisingly aren’t what flavors “Bugsnax” the most. Instead, most of the game’s calories are provided by its writing, featuring a full-course cast of voice actors who provide nuanced performances to characters that are much deeper than first taste. The game’s secret ingredient is core couple Elizabert and Eggabell, whose dynamic and realistic lesbian relationship changes over the game’s questline. It’s a step forward for LGBT representation in games. The recipe that makes them work is then copied across a baker’s dozen characters, each of whom has the time to break from their stereotype-shaped molds and share fears, regrets and yearnings with the player, seasoning the game with unexpected emotional depth.
Characterization is helped further by polish. So many little touches make “Bugsnax” charming to watch: Grump Wiggle Wigglebottom plays her banjo to the soundtrack when she’s in earshot. Each of the game’s quests comes with its own hand-drawn charismatic illustrations. Each Bugsnak announces its own name constantly like they’re the star of a 1990’s “Pokemon” ripoff. Its quest and environment design are similarly polished. Progress in “Bugsnax” is sporadic, and backtracking is frequent but not bothersome. Players will usually get to finish multiple quests at a time, returning to hub Snaxburg for a buffet of well-written and acted dialogue. The game’s side quests also show genuine variation, leaning on its walking-simulator elements to provide very helpful breaths of fresh air.
But “Bugsnax”’s gameplay is like a roux: the core of the piece that requires constant attention and is incredibly easy to screw up. It’s easy to compare “Bugsnax” to the shrines in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”. Both are puzzles where players are given a set of tools to navigate their way to a goal within a system. But while “Zelda” plays with every player’s wildest ideas, “Bugsnax” gives a full playground before punishing players who choose to do something other than use the slide. Its puzzles are not complex but are frequently inscrutable. Catching a Bugsnak is chaos. You watch the Snak’s every move and jury-rig a wonderful contraption only to watch it fail at the last possible moment. So you try again. And again. And again. And again. Sometimes they work, usually on accident. Sometimes you discover the beam sitting next to the Snak actually meant you could have used the intended, much simpler, solution that works immediately without issue. It’s always frustrating. Then there’s the ensuing hit-and-run to collect your Snak before it breaks free from its trap, which can sometimes be more frustrating than the act of catching the darn thing! Sometimes, you won’t need to put effort into catching a Bugsnak, as it’ll just get caught up in the game’s ramshackle ruleset and injure itself. There is no satisfying end to a Snak hunt. “Bugsnax” feels as though it wants to provide players with a system they can build their own chaotic, fun solutions in, but it instead gives players a system made of edge cases and intended answers that lead to controlless chaos.
It’s also hard not to feel like everything “Bugsnax” does has already been done better by another game. “Return of the Obra Dinn” is a gripping first-person puzzler, and “Gone Home” and “Night in the Woods” take steps forward for real characters and emotional depth in gaming relationships, too. And that’s incredibly disappointing, because it can be hard to reconcile “Bugsnax”’s frustrating gameplay with its emotionally satisfying story. The game’s final 30 minutes go exactly where they should, presenting a fun twist that tugs on the ties players have built with the game’s characters over its six-to-eleven-hour runtime. Its voice acting, central conceit, and writing all boil together to build a moment that does an excellent job at making players care. It’s just such a shame Young Horses weren’t able to build a game around it. — Quint Iverson
THE STORYTELLING MACHINE is a column about how games tell stories. Read more here.
Photo: The best part of Young Horses’ “Bugsnax” isn’t the titular food-shaped bugs, but the friends we made along the way. (Young Horses Games).