Interview – Talkin ’bout Bugsnax and its surprising inspirations with Young Horses

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The PS5 reveal event last week came with a ton of game announcements and things to be excited about, but one game really stuck out for being way, way out there. Bugsnax comes from Young Horses, the studio behind the similarly bonkers Octodad: Dadliest Catch.

We obviously wanted to know more, and caught up with Bugsnax’ game designer John Murphy to find out where it came from, the gameplay, and that adorably catchy theme song.

TSA: After Octodad I’m guessing you guys had quite a few ideas floating around for your next game. How did Bugsnax come about and why was that the game you decided to go with?

John Murphy: We used a similar process to what we did for Octodad where we started with a lot of really like high level pitches – just like a one page document so that you can pitch the idea in 30 seconds – and then slowly moved towards having more fleshed out pitches that sort of included what the sound design, the art style and the gameplay and all that sort of stuff is going to be like, before eventually getting to a point of doing a few prototypes. We then picked one of the three prototypes that we actually tried to build and I guess some version of Bugsnax was one of those!

One of the original inspirations was Pokémon Snap, so the earlier prototypes were much more like a Pokémon Snap with food bugs. It was based on something from our creative director, Kevin Zuhn, who just drew a caterpillar made out of waffles dubbed the ‘wafflepillar’, and that aesthetic is kind of the core that’s been around forever.

The gameplay has shifted a lot over time. We ended up incorporating various things from all the prototypes we did early on, so the game ended up like a weird amalgamation of all of these different game ideas. One involved a lot of, you know, like a small group of people and a lot of social interactions, and that’s how we ended up with an ensemble cast, and then that got mixed in with the stuff with food bugs!

It’s so long ago, and with all that’s going on, I haven’t actually had a chance to dive back into how we got here. There are a lot of steps. We’ve been working on this thing for almost six years because we just kind of took our time and let it kind of grow and change. We didn’t want to burn out, so it just took a long time to figure out what the game was.

TSA: You’ve mentioned Pokemon Snap and there’s also some inspiration from Ape Escape. What can players expect to be doing in Bugsnax?

John: I don’t know if everyone knows the overall idea of the game, but I’ll just, for context, give a narrative wrapper for it.

It’s a first-person adventure game, and you play as a journalist who gets a mysterious film in the mail from this disgraced explorer Elizabert Megafig. She’d gone to this island with a group of misfit characters and discovered Bugsnax, which are half bug and half snack, and has invited you to come bear witness to this and tell the rest of the world about this wonderful discovery. You get there and Elizabert is missing and all of her followers are sort of scattered across this island, so the game is about finding all these characters and bringing them back together.

In terms of gameplay, I don’t want to get into too much detail, but it’s a hunting game. You’re finding all these Bugsnax, you’re figuring out how to capture them with a bunch of contraptions. It’s very different from Octodad, but there’s a little bit of Octodad in there. The way that you trap bugs its comedic and silly.

My main job has been to build the tools and traps that are used to capture Bugsnax and to design the behaviours of the Bugsnax themselves. A lot of the games that have been inspiring to me have been some of like bigger AAA games of the past few years. Some of the stuff about hunting and tracking in Horizon Zero Dawn, some of the systems that are in Breath of the Wild, and then the way quests work and narrative design of something like the Witcher. This game is not nearly as big as those games; it’s kind of like a tinier, cosier indie cute version of those really big systems, if that makes sense.

TSA: In the trailer, you see the main character, eat one of creatures and then take on the characteristics of that creature. You see quite a few variations of that. How does that feed into the game?

John: So the characters in the game are these sort of like fuzzy, Muppet-like creatures called Grumpus’, and when you feed a Grumpus a Bugsnak, part of their body turns into the food that Bugsnak was made of. In the trailer, someone eats a Strabby, which is the name of the strawberry Bugsnak, and her arm turns into the strawberries.

It’s mostly narrative and aesthetic like it’s just like fun and silly to transform them. It’s kind of like a dress up mechanic, there’s just like billions of combinations of these transformations that you can get, and a lot of them are just very funny. That ties into the narrative in ways that I don’t want to get into yet, but there’s some interesting surprises related to that.

TSA: So this next question wasn’t ours, but a couple of people have been asking why did the strawberry have to die?

John: That’s a very philosophical question. I don’t know if the strawberry had to die; I guess the answer is because it’s irresistibly delicious. I guess it’s the same reason that animals die in real life, that people can’t help but eat them.

TSA: The game is coming to PC, PS4 and PS5. How have you found developing for the PS5 compared to the current gen systems?

John: It’s been really easy so far. Most of the time we’ve spent developing this game has been before we had access to the PS5. Most of my work is in working in a level editor and I don’t have a huge amount of direct contact, but I’ve played around. I’m familiar with the new stuff with the controller and things like that.

From talking to the programmers, it does not seem like it’s been like any sort of particular challenge for them to get used to and figure out to do stuff with the PS5.

TSA: Can you touch upon some of the PS5 features that will be in the game?

John: Some of the stuff that we’ve been playing with so far have been like, with the haptic feedback of the controller, like running on different kinds of terrain or running through water and things like that. Just having that sort of tactile feeling of being in the environment has been really cool. It’s interesting and pretty strange in this game, where it like does not look like real life, to have this sort of haptic feedback connection to being in the world.

Then there’s stuff like when you capture a Bugsnak in your trap, and being able to do stuff with like feeling like there’s a bug rattling around in your hands, that sort of thing. What I’m really excited about, since I’ve built a lot of the contraptions that you use to catch the Bugsnax, is some of the stuff with the adaptive triggers. Activating all your different traps and having different feelings is really cool.

Most of the stuff that we can’t talk about right now is really related to the controller, but having the Bugsnax say their names or stuff like that when you capture them, and that coming out of the controller is like really, really silly and fun.

TSA: What’s been your personal favourite part about developing Bugsnax?

John: I’m really excited about the story, which is funny given that I’m much more on building the gameplay. We have a really exciting ensemble cast of voice actors for the game. We’re excited to later on talk a little bit more about who is in the voice cast and stuff like that. I’m really excited about that.

On a day to day basis building the traps and and designing the Bugsnax. The fact that the game surprises me is really fun and exciting and unexpected, cool and like silly things happen with the stuff that I’ve been building. I’m really excited for people to get to see that and play with that.

TSA: It looks like Bugsnax is trying to reach a broad audience. In terms of accessibility, what kind of options will Bugsnax have for players?

John: It might seem kind of weird, given that we made Octodad and that seems maybe not accessible, but you know, it’s inaccessible to everyone in a similar way, or inaccessible to many people in a similar way.

Accessibility and appealing to a broad audience is one of the main things that we try to achieve. I don’t have on hand like, the answers to a lot of the specific features related to accessibility, but we do try to make our games so that they are accessible. We’ve had a lot of playtesters who aren’t traditionally gamers and they are able to take to and figure out the game. We’ve done a pretty good job, I think, of making it so that people who don’t play a lot of games, especially 3D first-person games, and people who do play a lot of games both have fun with and enjoy the game.

TSA: The song in the trailer from Kero Kero Benito really stuck out to a lot of people. How’d they get involved with Bugsnax and what kind of access did they have to the game to actually create the music?

John: We knew that this trailer was going to be really important and with Octodad also having a catchy theme song, that was what we thought was an important way that we got people to be aware of and get excited about the game. We wanted to do something like that for Bugsnax as well, so when we were starting to figure out this trailer we just did a lot of research looking at bands that we’ve enjoyed and that we think had a similar vibe to Bugsnax. Some people on the team just have listened to and enjoyed Kero Kero Bonito and we just tried putting some of their music over an early version of the trailer.

There are some similarities between our sound designer and composer Seth Parker, who does all the in-game music. The stuff that he’s been doing there’s some stylistic similarities [to Kero Kero Benito]. We just reached out to them, and they were excited about it. They were aware of Octodad, which was cool, and we just talked to them about it.

We were able to have them play the game, because whenever we’re working with people outside of the team we want them to feel like they are collaborating with us rather than us outsourcing it to someone. They played the game and we sent them some of Seth’s music with some examples of songs of theirs that we thought were a similar vibe to what we were going for. We gave them a rundown of the sort of themes and story of the game. So they had a lot of access to that stuff, and yeah, they knocked it out of the park with that. That was really, really cool.

TSA: Bugsnax is coming PS5, PS4 and PC, as we’ve said. Do you see coming to other platforms further down the line?

John: So we plan on bringing it to other platforms eventually. We don’t have any plans right now to do so.

TSA: Outside of Bugsnax we’ve seen a lot of new reveals. What are you looking forward to playing?

John: You know, I’ve been so tied up in looking at the reaction to this that I’ve barely had time to get excited about other stuff. I mean, Horizon was an inspiration for this game, so I’m excited to see the new game that they’re working on. I was also really excited about the Spider-Man: Miles Morales thing, even though I haven’t played Spider-Man. It was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to play Spider-Man for years!” Any Resident Evil game I get excited about – Resident Evil 2 is one of my favourite games of all time – so yeah, that.

It’s always weird that it’s the AAA stuff that I get excited about, even though I don’t make those. I want to make and do make weirder things that are very different from that. Stray? Oh, yeah, that looks really cool. Yeah, I think that’s a pretty solid list of upcoming stuff that I’m excited about.

TSA: You said you were looking at the reaction to Bugsnax. How has the reaction been in your opinion?

John: It’s been awesome. I’m just so deep in working on this and, you know, it was kind of like a mad rush to get the trailer together and to be ready to announce it. I didn’t even like, have time to be like, “Oh, I wonder how people are gonna…” I mean, I didn’t get past wondering how people are gonna react to this. I kind of got stuck there and didn’t have any expectations other than I hope people like it.

It’s been better than I could have hoped and much better than I anticipated. We wanted to make something that wasn’t another Octodad for our second game because we don’t want to be like a one-hit wonder studio. This is gonna be a better game, but I don’t know if it’s going to be as much as a meme as Octodad. It hooks into your brain.

I don’t know, it seems like people are similarly excited about this game, so that’s really awesome. I’m just very excited to have people play it.

TSA: Finally, once Bugsnax is released, is there going to be post-release support? Are new creatures going to be added or is it going to be this is the full package and we’re gonna move on to the next thing?

John: We’ve talked about that, but we don’t have any solid plans for that yet. Right now we’re just focusing on getting the game done and ready to be released. So, you know, there’s like, hints and we’ve got ideas of what we could do, but we don’t have any concrete plans yet.

We would like to thank John for chatting to us about Bugsnax. Bugsnax will be available Holiday 2020 for PS4, PS5, and PC. 

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From the heady days of the Mega Drive up until the modern day gaming has been my main hobby. I'll give almost any game a go.