The Unsettling Horror of ‘Bugsnax’
There’s a joke in the gaming community concerning the game Cuphead, comparing their expectations of a cheerful, family game to the reality of soul-crushing difficulty on par with Dark Souls. Sometimes you can’t judge a book by its cover, and other times the cover is simply there to lure you and your children into a false sense of security and familiarity before unleashing the nightmare that had been bubbling under the surface.
A person brought this game to my attention. Without knowing anything about it, I agreed to play it in exchange for them listening to an album of my choosing. Having fulfilled their end of the bargain, I was left with the task of playing Bugsnax. The experience is difficult to summarise, because there’s so few recognisably cohesive elements to set expectations on. The world of the game is similar to ours, except populated by Muppet-type creatures skirting on the edge of copyright infringement. You are a journalist asked to visit the island of ‘Bugsnax’, where Lizbert Megafig – an explorer – claims to have found a new species of creature with unique scientific properties. After your plane crashes on the island, you find the claims are true. The ‘Bugsnax’ are a hybrid of animal and…snackfood. Most of the game will be spent working out the method to luring out and catching the various Bugsnax using an arsenal of traps and gadgets.
Then you feed the Bugsnax to the locals, the small enclave of settlers seeking a fresh start in their life. When you do, part of their body immediately takes on the shape of the snack. It’s unexpected and confusing, but the characters take it as a given so you stop thinking about it. It becomes a the central motivation for your tasks and sub-quests. Catch the required Bugsnax across the differently themed environments (desert, beach, mountain, etc.) and feed them to the person who requested it. You progress by finding the members of the settlement and bringing them back together with the ultimate goal of finding the missing Lizbert. With your grappling claw, springboard, trip wire and slingshot, you’ll be working your way through the catalogue of 100 creatures to find, observe, and catch.
So far, so wholesome. But there’s an undercurrent through the game which is a bit odd. There’s a sinister and unexpectedly adult sense of humour and foreboding. On occasion you do favours for the settlers to finish their quest line and unlock clues as to the fate of Lizbert. Sometimes you need to find out what someone gets up to at night. On one early occasion you learn that a neighbour is spending his nights talking with the cactus he dressed up as his estranged wife. It should be noted that after you re-unite them he keeps the cactus around.
These odd little moments, and some of the weird innuendo, might go over the heads of younger players. Or perhaps they serve as a warning of what is to come, a way to put off the younger set before you open the large, stone doors in the mountain. But until then, there are adorable Strabbys and Kweebles to catch! Everything looks like a snack with googly eyes, and it’s hard to deny that a strawberry scuttling around isn’t adorable. Some of the behaviours are worth a smirk, including the jam sandwich bird of prey circling the peak of a snowy mountain until you overwhelm them with a peanut butter attack.
If you play 90% of the game, you’ll only ever see it as a slightly inappropriately toned variant of Pokemon set in the universe of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. Sure, it’s strange that the characters are all slowly changing into burrito hybrid monsters, but you also have to resolve the conflict between the guy trying to keep Bugsnax as pets and the one burying them to try and grow new ones. Sometimes characters will talk about the Mother Bugsnax potentially destroying them all. There’s also a shadowing figure watching your every moment.
We won’t completely spoil the ending, but the final act of the game takes a very sudden turn towards body horror with elements of The Last of Us and Aliens in the mix. Then there’s something of a bloodbath.
Can this game be recommended? For horror players, the real meat of it comes into play in the final hour. For those who enjoy researching and capturing the cute little beasts, the ending will be downright upsetting. It’s an oddity. We had fun, at the very least, and did catch all the Bugsnax. Now we want to play something straight forwards.