Amid all the big-name, blow-your-eyes-out-of-their-sockets ultra triple-A projects announced in Sony’s PS5 showcase, there was one outlier: Stray. Wait, sorry – two outliers: Stray and Bugsnax. The latter the thing Young Horses did next after its resounding success with the excellent and hilarious physics-based stylings of Octodad.
Bugsnax has been in the works for about six years now; a case of the team not entirely knowing what it was making in the course of its first few months – even years – of existence. But the vision cement-ed, the core loops were settled on, and what we have in front of us is… confusing. Wonderfully, de-lightfully confusing.
First, though: the song. Bugsnax arrived hand in hand with a bright little ditty from Kero Kero Bonito, a three-piece indie outfit leaning heavily on J-pop and video game music influences. It’s Bugsnax!, as the song is titled, is an earworm. It gets right in there. It doesn’t leave. And if this approach to game marketing suddenly becomes the de rigueur approach, then… well, we’ll take it.
Because it really is a fun little song, and it makes us want to play the game more. “We find that having a catchy theme song really helps to stick the game into people’s brains and draw them in,” says Kevin Zuhn, creative director on Bugsnax. “Kero Kero Bonito made such a cool song, and we’re happy to get it into as many hands/ears as possible.”
But the game – mustn’t forget the game – is a first-person adventure where you explore an island, encountering creatures part-animal, part-foodstuff, and you feed them to Grumpuses, creatures who don’t look too far removed from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. On doing so, the Grumpuses take on attributes from the Bugsnax fed to them – strawberry hands, maybe, or an orange for a nose, or many other examples. Why? Well, why not?
It’s a game of exploration and collection, bringing together influences like Ape Escape, Dark Cloud, and Viva Piñata – among many others. “There’s definitely [a] universal joy [in] collecting things,” Zuhn says. “And there’s also the observation, understanding, and interacting with an ecosystem. But outside of that, each of these [influences] is very distinct in aesthetic and structure. You don’t often see a ‘Viva Piñata-like’, and that makes it all the more interesting.”
The journey to making Bugsnax a Viva Piñata-like was, as mentioned, a long one. “About a year after launching Octodad: Dadliest Catch we were looking to start a new original game,” Zuhn explains. “Everybody on the team was coming up with pitches, and generally trying to out-weird each other. Trying to come up with ideas, I was looking through one of my old sketch-books and found an old drawing of a hybrid caterpillar-waffle (that I drew at Kevin Geisler’s request, he would want me to inform you).
“I pitched the vague notion of catching half-bug, half-snack creatures to the team, and it turned out to be one of the more popular concepts,” he continues. “It kept building steam throughout our prototype process and eventually became a real project.” That real project did take time to form up into something, though, and over the half-decade-plus of the game’s creation, there have been lessons learned: “That’s the trouble with starting from a vague concept; there are a million directions it could go,” Zuhn says.
“And we Young Horses weren’t always on the same page about what we were making. Combine that with our general high ambitions and lack of deadlines, and it took us a couple [of] years just to figure out what Bugsnax was. If anything, we’ve learned that clearly communicated ideas save a lot of time. And that we need a real production team.”
But when you’ve been quietly in development for a number of years, it can be just as hard to introduce yourself to the world as it was making sure there was an actual game with a focused core concept in the first place. Fortunately, Sony was keen on showing a bit more than just Military Battle Royale 2021 in its PS5 showcase, and Bugsnax received far more attention than might have been expected.
“It was incredibly exciting, and a bit intimidating,” Zuhn says. “After years of secrecy our game was suddenly in front of millions of people – now we’ve got art, memes, and fans eager to learn more… It’s all very validating for the amount of time and care we put into Bugsnax. We’re trying to balance being active in our new community with actually finishing the game. And me personally, I struggle every day not to spoil things about the game!”
Of course, with visibility comes negativity, and some subsections of the online audience have been vocal in their distaste for a title like Bugsnax – even if they have next to no idea what the game is or what you do in it. Ah, the internet. Still, Zuhn remains diplomatic about the nay-sayers: “We’ve seen the negativity, but we don’t spend much time thinking about it,” he says. “We encountered all of the same things back when we announced Octodad: Dadliest Catch. I hope that as we reveal more about Bugsnax, folks who had knee-jerk reactions against it change their minds… but if they don’t, that’s alright.”
With Bugsnax coming to a brand new console as well as current-gen and personal computers, there’s going to be more than enough chances to play it. Well, unless you own an Xbox or Switch. Sorry. Still, Zuhn is hopeful for the game’s future – and for those lovely licensing opportunities beyond just a brilliant earworm of a song: “I want tons of people to play it and love it,” he says.
“I want to see more incredible fan work, and to read all of the critical analysis, and to release a bunch of adorable merchandise. And if it’s not too much trouble, a Saturday morning cartoon and a breakfast cereal would be nice.”
Genre: Earworm simulator
Format: PS5 / PS4 / PC / Mac
Developer: Young Horses
Publisher: Young Horses