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Sony's PlayStation 5 reveal event last week brought out some huge, heavy hitter franchises, but it also surprised and delighted us with things like Bugsnax. More than any of the other indies featured in the presentation, Bugsnax immediately got people asking questions. Here was a new title from the developers of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, built around a simple-yet-bewildering concept and featuring a killer Kero Kero Bonito theme song. The trailer gave us a definition of what Bugsnax are—50% bug, 50% snack—but it left folks wondering what the game will ultimately be.
Philip Tibitoski, co-founder and President of Young Horses, was happy to fill us in on some of what players will experience in Bugsnax when they load it up later this year, but he's still keeping some details close to his chest. Hints dropped by Tibitoski and other members of Young Horses suggest there are deeper mysteries lurking beneath the sunny surface of Snaktooth Island and this first-person adventure.
In the interest of not revealing too much, Tibitoski wants to let questions about those aspects linger. He's pleased, however, that he can finally start discussing anything regarding Bugsnax after years spent keeping it all wrapped tighter than a burrito.
A Beginner's Guide to Bugsnax
"It's been really nice," Tibitoski says of the reaction to the reveal of Bugsnax. "Not being able to talk about this for like, six years, and then all of a sudden everyone knows about it is pretty fun and scary." Bugsnax is the big project that Young Horses has been hammering away at for the better part of a decade now, after having turned the student project-born Octodad into a full game in 2014.
"It was an interesting process for us, because when we started internally pitching ideas to one another on what we would do next, the general idea was that we would try to do something entirely unique again," says Tibitoski. "That's what we promised ourselves with Octodad. Like, 'hey, if this does well, we're not going to immediately go back to the Octodad well.' Even though we love it, we're going to try to do something entirely new."
It's not hard to see some stylistic links between the two Young Horses projects, but don't expect to be flailing around just like dear old dad. For starters, the perspective and objectives in Bugsnax are very different. "Bugsnax is a first-person adventure game where you play as a journalist who is sent a mysterious film from an adventurer named Elizabert Megafig," Tibitoski explains. "She says she's found these things called Bugsnax, these half-snack half-bug creatures, and she wants you to come and document her discovery with her group of misfit followers. You go to the island, you find that she is nowhere to be found, and instead run into some of her followers."
From there, Bugsnax is all about figuring out what happened to Megafig and what exactly these delicious creatures are. That means studying the behavior of Bugsnax, and yes, seeing what happens when they're eaten. As seen in the trailer, the fuzzy Grumpus characters including Elizabert and her expedition partners change as they eat Bugsnax, with their limbs and bodies turning into foods like curly fries, strawberries, or weenies.
Young Horses hasn't settled on a hard and fast rule about what is or isn't a snack—in other words, Bugsnax won't help settle any semantics arguments. "We've never been very good at sticking to a perfect set of constraints," Tibitoski says. "Octodad, for instance, that game technically takes place in the 80s, but has a sort-of 50s aesthetic, [and] then we break that rule multiple times. Similarly, in Bugsnax, some of the foods are definitely snack foods, and some of them are 'oh here's a cheeseburger with curly fry legs.'"
Tearing Up a Ketchup Patch With Kero Kero Bonito
It seems like there's a "you know it when you see it" principle that determines what is or isn't a Bugsnak (the official singular) and to what fits within the game's aesthetic. That's more or less how Young Horses arrived at seeing if Kero Kero Bonito would be interested in making the delightful Bugsnax theme song. "Doing the theme song approach worked out so well for Octodad that we wanted to see if we could do that again," Tibitoski says. "We were looking through a bunch of options, and a Kero Kero song 'Picture This' was something that we were immediately like, 'oh, that is the Bugsnax style.'"
On top of meshing well with the work of Seth Parker, composer and sound designer for Young Horses, Tibitoski and others in the studio were already big Kero Kero Bonito fans. "Personally, I've seen them at Schubas here in Chicago a couple times," Tibitoski says. "They have really good energy, and a lot of their songs are cute but fun to dance to. A lot of the themes that they've been exploring lately have kind of coincided well with what the themes for the game are." It's worth pointing out that Kero Kero Bonito's recent releases, Time 'n' Place and the Civilisation I EP, turn toward harsher sounds and headier ideas than their poppy debut album, which the Bugsnax theme fits alongside perfectly.
The members of Kero Kero Bonito are part of a smallish group that have actually seen a lot of what Young Horses has been working on with Bugsnax. In the interest of making the song "more of a real collaboration," Young Horses provided the band with a playable build of the game and access to things like design documents and character references.
Tibitoski estimates that over 100 people from "different backgrounds and age groups" have gone hands-on with Bugsnax throughout its design and testing. In terms of humor and story appeal, Tibitoski says the team hopes for a sort of Pixar range; enjoyable for all ages, with some gags flying over the heads of little ones right next to jokes "that only a kid might laugh at or care about."
Young Horses is also focused on accessibility, "which is a funny thing to say, maybe, with Octodad," Tibitoski says with a grin. "That was difficult, but it was also difficult for everyone. It was a control style that hadn't really been touched upon much, prior to that. Everybody was learning it pretty much at the same pace, which was the goal." With Bugsnax, Tibitoski and the team want much of the experimentation and exploration to be things that everyone—kids, adults, and pop musicians alike—can discover for themselves.
Going Big and Drawing Deep for a PS5 Debut
Amongst the few who've seen more of Bugsnax are folks at Sony and Epic, thanks to arrangements that have Bugsnax set to debut on PS4, PS5, and the Epic Games Store. Tibitoski adds that on top of the financial security that those deals bestow, it was a morale boost to see larger companies excited for the ideas behind Bugsnax. "It's nice to know that," Tibitoski says, "and to be able to be a bit more confident that people outside of our small studio believe in us and what we want to do."
Coming to Sony's next-gen console also means Young Horses gets to work with new tech, and Bugsnax could be an early and eclectic showcase for the PS5's new controller, the DualSense. Sony boasts that it will "heighten" players' immersion thanks to new haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, and while taste might be the ideal sense to pair for Bugsnax, it sounds like tactile feedback will be front-and-center.
"Running around in the environment and feeling the different types of terrain under your feet while sprinting is really cool and weird," Tibitoski says. "Past vibration in games has felt good, it's a nice addition, but it's never been essential, I guess. Now, it feels like it makes a big difference in the game, whether it's running through a stream of water or, when trying to catch a Bugsnak, it being in your trap and finding "oh, is it trying to escape?" You can feel how intense it is and how close it is to escaping."
There will be 100 Bugsnax to study and capture and multiple biomes on Snaktooth Island to find them in, but beyond that Tibitoski is reluctant to say how players can expect to wrangle them all. Tibitoski points to Sony's Ape Escape, which popped up in a list of Bugsnax inspirations from Programmer and Producer Kevin Geisler, as something people can look to for an idea of how Bugsnax plays.
That said, looking at Young Horses influences also raises more questions. Seeing Viva Pinata and Pokemon Snap pop up in Geisler's list immediately makes sense. Between the colorful environments and collectable creatures, the parallels are clear. But what's there to make of a nod to Dark Cloud, Level-5's action RPG that challenged Zelda's primacy in the early '00s? What is Creative Director Kevin Zuhn hinting at by including BioShock amongst his inspirations for Bugsnax? Tibitoski remains coy when asked about these, but tosses out one more: the movie Fern Gully, given its "consideration for the environment," might tread similar ground as Bugsnax.
We will get to see more of Bugsnax between now and launch, Tibitoski promises. Closer looks at individual Bugsnax, details on the locales around the island, and a gameplay trailer are on the way.
Positive reactions to the PS5 event reveal aside, Tibitoski feels fortunate to have Bugsnax on track for release. He says "it's been a process" having the now nine-person dev team working away over the years. Keeping to "reasonable" 30-40 hour work weeks while developing this idea in secret, beginning it with about half the team still working on ports of Octodad, and having to scale Bugsnax back from "probably three games worth of mechanics," were all new challenges for Young Horses. Tibitoski is quick to note that the team had "the privilege and comfort to be able to do that," tackling those issues in the time between the retail release of Octodad and today. "Why not take advantage of that rather than trying to push something out quickly?"
Tibitoski also says the team was, in some ways, "pretty prepared to work remotely" given the need for social distancing during the pandemic. Young Horses only got an office after the release of Dadliest Catch, and according to Tibitoski, working from home was already something "nobody really bats an eye at" in the studio before it became a necessity.
Years ago, though, the team could scarcely have imagined wrapping up Bugsnax at a time like this and with the added attention from coming to a new console, but it's something that Young Horses seems to be taking in stride. "It's a very weird time to be making video games... or being a human, in general," Tibitoski says.