Going in, I never expected Bugsnax to get me thinking about my fellow humans. The buzzy game’s first trailer hinted at fantastical beings and a hunt for Pokémon-like critters that are also snacks. So imagine my surprise when I fired it up and met an entire community of Grumpuses in the central village of Snaxburg, all of them with rich inner lives and entirely relatable problems.
Everyone in Snaxburg wears their flaws and struggles openly. Filbo, the de facto mayor, understands that he needs to lead but he’s so immobilized by indecision and doubt that no one respects him. Wiggly clearly cares for Gramble, but she also betrays his trust on a nightly basis when she steals his bugsnax in the name of finding inspiration for her music. And Beffica has dedicated herself to rooting out every Grumpus’s secrets because she’s stopped seeing them as individuals worthy of thought and care.
Cromdo is an exception. He’s just…kind of a dick. Sometimes in the world, even the Bugsnax world, certain folks are irredeemable dicks. He does admit during the epilogue that he just wanted to do something that makes him happy, but he quickly pivots from that to scheming his next move.
Let’s also not forget about Elizabeth and Eggabell. As the Bugsnax story unfolds and more film reels documenting the couple’s past are uncovered, we learn that Liz is an adventurous explorer and researcher who sees Egg as someone to be protected. Meanwhile, the sickly Egg is constantly working in secret to improve herself for her partner, rather than opening up and leaning on Liz for help and support. Like the other love-matched couples in Snaxburg, they’re not moving forward together.
So this colorful, talkative, and seemingly cheerful community isn’t what it first seems. Everyone is actually broken in their own unique and deeply personal ways, like Wambus and Tiffany’s inability to fix their faltering marriage or the way Chandler and Snoopy are operating on different planes in what ought to be a loving relationship. But rather than actively trying to change their day-to-day, they’re all just treading water. They consume and obsess over bugsnax to fill the emptiness in their lives, but none of them actually realize the creatures are an insidious force that’s tearing them apart, both as a community and individually.
Can you imagine a more perfect representation of U.S. society, where Bugsnax was made? (Developer Young Horses is based in Chicago.) You don’t need to look much further than our economy-over-people focused responses to the coronavirus pandemic and violently partisan political divides to understand that America is deeply broken.
I never expected Bugsnax to get me thinking about my fellow humans.
The fact that more than 70 million people convinced themselves that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for civilized society speaks volumes. There’s not another U.S. political figure in modern memory who did more to accelerate our decline as a species.
Like Beffica (and really all the inhabitants of Snaxburg), so many of us in 2020 have become incapable of seeing others as individuals worthy of respect and love and consideration. That’s a difficult wall to climb when you factor in the long history in the U.S. of racism and othering of marginalized groups. But so many of us are unwilling to even self-examine and understand the roots of our own prejudices, both conscious and unconscious.
Some people are just too consumed by their hate. Others are held back by an overwhelming sense of terror. And even those who do put in the work can only do so much in the face of social and cultural momentum that’s built up over a period of centuries. At a certain point, when the rut has become a deep hole into which no light can penetrate, the most appealing strategy is to let gravity sink us further down. The rise of Trumpism, which emphasizes that kind of mindset, has only accelerated our descent.
It’s hard to look at the devolution of the social order in the U.S. (and beyond, let’s be honest) and not think that we, as a species, are caught in some kind of death spiral. For every victory that brings us closer to the light, there are a half-dozen setbacks keeping us moored to the shadows. It’s a destructive feedback loop that only gets more threatening with each passing day. As Trump continues to scream lies about fraudulent voting in the weeks after the 2020 election, there’s a not-insignificant fear that his preposterously telegraphed ploy to seize power illegitimately might actually work.
So it is in Bugsnax. The Snaxburg community is so caught up in their own personal dramas and bugsnax obsession that they’ve failed to notice Snaktooth Island’s giant, the lava-spewing volcano that threatens to consume them all. They’re not even a proper community when you first arrive; infighting and petty disagreements have driven the whole group into following separate, selfish paths. It’s heartbreakingly familiar.
For us humans, the bugsnax that Grumpuses keep chowing down on are analogous with our everyday distractions. The things we throw ourselves into, whether it’s to escape from the noise of the wider world or engage with it directly. They’re video games and streaming binges. Amateur cooking. Fox News. Social media. They’re all the various outside influences around which too many of us base our identities. We’re consumed by the very things we consume ourselves, in the same way, that Grumpuses are slowly, inexorably transformed by parasitic bugsnax, into more bugsnax.
But there’s hope. In Bugsnax, you are an agent of light and the representative of that hope. As a journalist seeking to uncover the truth and tell a story, your interviews help the Grumpuses see themselves again. Your questions are the answers they’ve all been looking for, and as you bring their stories out into the open air, they respond by reforming old connections. At the start of the game, the Snaxburg community is a wistful memory. But by the time the whole truth is revealed, the Grumpuses have all reunited on friendly terms.
At that point, they’re all finally ready to deal with the threat of an erupting volcano. They understand how their obsession with bugsnax has threatened their very existence and they’re ready to let go. The town of Snaxburg may be destroyed, but the community is stronger for that destruction.
That’s what the epilogue on the beach is all about. As the Grumpuses wake up from their long slumber on Snaktooth, the epiphanies pour in and everyone speaks their truths. These revelations take you back through the story, and in those arcs, you can clearly see how each Grumpus has grown, and how your efforts to make everyone look inward helped them get there.
Unfortunately, Bugsnax is just a video game. In our reality of 2020, there’s no mysterious savior or truth-teller in the press who’s going to step in and snap us out of our malaise. Our death spiral is reversible, but it’s going to take more effort and personal responsibility than the American public, and perhaps humanity as a whole, seems capable of in the present moment.
Bugsnax, then, is a warning klaxon. It’s a lovely little puzzle game with a darkly relatable underbelly, driven by a story that distills modern society and the human experience of 2020 into a colorful parable. A video game can’t save us from ourselves, but maybe talkin’ ’bout that bugsnax can get us part of the way there.