Members of the New York Videogame Critics Circle met Bobby Kent during the Reggie Zoom Fundraiser which we put on earlier in the month. We continued our conversations offline with Bobby and the result is this deep essay, which brings a new meaning to the narrative, characterization and gameplay within Bugsnax.
By Bobby Kent
Allow me to set the stage. I’m a disabled 23 year old with SMA Type 2, a neuromuscular condition that weakens my muscles. I’ve been gaming for as long as I can remember. It was always my hobby of choice. Like many, I played Bugsnax on release as a free PS Plus title for PS5 owners. I’d seen the memes, I’d heard the game of the year jokes, and I’d listened to Kero Kero Bonito’s ridiculously catchy theme for the game more times than I care to share. I went into this strange, colourful game expecting nothing more than a few laughs and some harmless fun. Yet, by the time I left the game after about a total 15 hours of gameplay, I realised what I had just experienced. The game about turning vibrant Muppet-like characters into strawberries, cheese puffs and pickles was so much more than that. On Snaktooth Island, I found a story, seemingly about a journalist digging for a powerhouse investigative story, that represented my struggles with mental health, the need for a community and the dangers that come without it.
Now, with apologies for revealing spoilers, here’s a quick explainer of the game’s method of play. Without this, I promise you’d think I sound absolutely ridiculous. Bugsnax is set on Snaktooth Island. A bunch of lively creatures called Grumpuses (the player also plays as a Grumpus) have relocated themselves to the island in the hunt for Bugsnax. Bugsnax, as the name suggests, are kinda bug and kinda snack. They are cute creatures that look like human food, but with silly eyes and all fully voiced – think Pokémon but more delicious. The Grumpuses eat these Bugsnax whenever they can due to them being so addictive, and when consumed they change a part of your body into that food. It starts off harmless, but gets significantly more disturbing, as they take over your entire body limb by limb.
The Bugsnax, however, are parasitic. The reason for their adorable nature and irresistible deliciousness is to get a Grumpus to eat them, thus becoming a host for them. This process, hilariously referred to as ‘Snakification’, is reversible if left for a long enough period of time. But if enough are consumed, the Grumpus will ultimately fall apart into a pile of new Bugsnax, with the parasitic Bugsnax having achieved their goal of using a host to make more of themselves. This process happened repeatedly over the years, leading to the shocking reveal about the true nature of the entire island – it’s Bugsnax. After we make this discovery, the game concludes with the aforementioned Kero Kero Bonito’s bubbly and fun song It’s Bugsnax!, a clever allusion to the ultimate reveal of the game.
This whole thing sounds silly, and it is, but for me there is something else there. The way the Bugsnax eat away at you isn’t just creepy, it’s relatable. The Bugsnax are addictive little things, that you keep taking in until you lose yourself, and that process isn’t unfamiliar to me. Being a physically disabled person, we are disproportionately more likely to have struggles with mental health, in large part due to ableist cultures and practices around us. This experience for me has led to me feeling for a long time in life like an outsider.
The view of myself as an outsider became a personal truth that I’d recognise every time I was pushed aside for my disability, reinforcing my belief and validating what was self-hatred. The process was an addiction, because it’s a reaffirmation of what you believe you already know. In the same way an artist might add a fresh coat of paint to their picture, or a musician will repeat a catchy hook, I would seek confirmation that I don’t belong with everyone else.
For me, the Bugsnax are a self-loathing, and the Snakification process was the depression that follows. It feels like an innocent thought at first, to see yourself as being the outsider of a situation. I make jokes about them, I brush them off and I smile because they felt so harmless, in the same way an adorable Strabby babbles as it crawls around with its oversized googly eyes, ready to get eaten. When you take the thought in, it multiplies. I kept making jokes, I kept on smiling, but inside me the parasitic process was taking over and making itself a habit. It culminated in a few dark months of nothing but misery and isolation. There was no joking or smiling left, just the outsider. No Grumpus, just the Bugsnax.
The end of the game can go two ways. If you choose to be there for your fellow Grumpuses and stop the climactic onslaught of Bugsnax, you can save them from peril and take them far from the island. If you completed their sidequests and listened to their stories, they are even invincible for this finale. If, however, you failed to support them when you could, or you didn’t support them in this moment of crisis, they will succumb to the Bugsnax. These charming friends you once had will be overtaken, and fall apart.
The parallels here are likely already clear to you. The gang of Grumpuses on Snaktooth Island were a community. They all had this parasite eating away at them, but if you were there for them in all their personal troubles earlier, or at the last moment you step in and fight for them, they have the strength to survive. If you fail to support them, they don’t. In the same way, it was the support from my family in this troubling time that would eventually take me away from my own Snaktooth Island, my own depressive abyss. Without it, I would have fallen apart too.
For me this ending is about a need for community. As disabled people and people with mental health issues, it matters that we have support from those around us to keep us going when we need it during mental health struggles. The world can feel like Snaktooth Island, a place where ableism and poor mental health can rot away at some of us and make us desperate for a release. Our communities of compassion, listening and understanding may just be the answer to take us away from the darkness that can consume us. Whether they are our family, our friends, our groups online or an island of strangers, they are our community, our light when we find ourselves in darkness.
I escaped Snaktooth Island, and now I can safely make my jokes and laugh without fear of being taken by those dangerous pesky snacks anytime soon. This entire story was of course personal to me, and some disabled people won’t feel the same way or struggle in the same way. But, for those of you that have or still do feel this way, know you are seen, heard and loved. Bugsnax and Kero Kero Bonito teach us one thing. Regardless of your ability, your sexuality or anything else that makes you who you are, one thing is true when it comes to Snaktooth Island: you are whatever you eat.
Bobby Kent is a writer living in the U.K. This is his first essay for the New York Videogame Critics Circle.