Bugsnax might have been the biggest surprise of last year for me. It burst onto the scene during the PS5 Showcase, overshadowing much bigger games thanks to its catchy theme tune, and I wasn’t entirely sure it would be able to live up to those expectations. In the end, Bugsnax exceeded those expectations to become one of my favourite games of 2020, but that’s not where the surprises stopped. The game takes some dark turns, but also makes some impressive strides for queer representation in video games. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the lot though was how many games seem to have been crammed into one, and without a doubt the most interesting part is the character customiser game you can play back in the hubworld of Snaxburg.
I won’t get too much into the plot of Bugsnax here, since that has been deliberately kept out of the game’s marketing, and uncovering the mysteries of the island comprises a major part of the game. What I will talk about however is how the game’s feeding and customisation mechanics work, and what I think gaming as a whole can learn from them going forwards. As you’ll know, whether you played Bugsnax or not, the main focus of the game is to catch creatures – kinda bug, kinda snack – and feed them to your friends, watching them suddenly grow strawberry arms, mushroom legs, or curly fry teeth. At the start of the game, this is just goofy fun, but the longer it goes on, the more complex and nuanced it gets.
Initially, when you feed somebody a ‘snak, they transform randomly. However, before long you get a device that allows you to choose which body parts become snakified. There’s still a vague order – you can’t do upper arms before lower arms, for example – but you get a lot more freedom. Later still, you get another device that lets you mix around at any time you wish, so if someone has a bacon leg, you can use this device to also give them bacon arms, bacon hair, and bacon teeth without ever giving them another bacon flavoured bugsnak. It’s once you get this device, and once you get your villagers so full of bugsnax that their body itself becomes snakifed, that you realise how amazing this character customiser is.
Let’s crunch the numbers first. There are 14 body parts that can be customised on each character, although due to the symmetrical bodies, some are doubled up. Taking those out, you’ve got nine: upper arm, lower arm, upper leg, lower leg, horn, head, nose, teeth, and body. Then there are a nicely rounded 100 bugsnax in the game, and while there’s some very similar ‘snax – a few different types of almost identical soda cans – there’s north of 90 varieties. So that’s 90 different types of customisation, which can be applied to nine distinct body parts. Plus, there are tall characters, short characters, thin characters, round characters… while the transformation is basically the same across each one, there’s still body shapes to account for. That’s a huge range of options offered to you, and this is only a tangential part of the game. I ended up messing about with it all the time, ensuring all the characters – even the sleepwalker who’ll only eat at night – were fully snakked out in different combinations. But that’s just because I liked it so much; to finish the game you only need to have five or so bugsnax on most characters, and even then, there’s a lot of duplicates with the early game and easy to catch ‘snax in there.
Bugsnax simply doesn’t need to have this many options, but I’m so glad it does. Not only was it far more fun to feed people ‘snax than it is to catch them, it expands character customisation in ways few games bother with. It felt like one of those ‘Dress Up Princess Elsa’ games (but you know, actually good) dropped into the middle of this weird Pokemon meets body horror meets cute indie mystery game. It’s brilliantly creative too, from the watermelon pips being used as a moustache to the lemon segment becoming a mohican. More than that though, it lets you completely change the way you interact with the rest of the cast, and with the world. Catching new bugsnax isn’t just about filling up the bugdex, it’s about trying out new combinations until you find the ones perfect for each character’s personality.
I wish more games gave you this level of control. More direction over a character’s look, fashion choices, and influence on how their design might shift throughout the game. Young Horses, the team behind Bugsnax, is a relatively small studio, and yet they managed to put out one of the most engaging character customisers in gaming. It’s not even for your character either! I’d love to see more games try to take advantage of the increasingly powerful technology not just to make things look crisper and cleaner, but to put more control into the players’ hands. To make us feel like we’re in charge of this world, and to give us options on how to shape the characters around us. I don’t need every game to give me the option to make my squadmates into strawberries, but a bit of variation in their haircuts and jackets wouldn’t go amiss.
Next: Hogwarts Legacy’s Transgender Character Creator Changes Nothing
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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