Right now, nothing is easy. It’s hard to imagine things getting better, given where we’re at right now—a raging, global pandemic, a violent attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government, and no real end in sight for the hardships we continue to endure. Scattered among the difficulties, though, are bright spots that make it easier to cope. To wit: video games. Whether you are a single person craving connection or the parent of a toddler desperate for some alone time (hello, it’s me), video games can help—help you find solitude, or just help turn your brain off, keep your hands busy, and stop you from doomscrolling for a while.
The year 2020 brought about many plot twists, but one of the welcome ones was buoyed by the Covid-19 lockdowns: “Casual gamers” entered the mainstream. In a time of economic hardship for many, console sales were up more than 35 percent. People picked up controllers for the first time ever, or for the first time in years, and lost themselves in entirely different worlds. “Casual gamer” used to have a pejorative connotation; it meant someone was not committed to “real” gaming. But for a lot of people, casual gaming is just a preferred mode of playing, something they do for distraction or to hide from their kids (or, hopefully someday soon in my case, to spend time with my kid). Being casual about it doesn’t mean they love gaming any less, and as the events of the past year transformed legions of new fans into button-mashers, their ranks became a formidable part of gaming culture.
Even though I’ve been a gamer for most of my life, I consider myself one of these more low-key players. I actually stopped playing for a few years because, as a woman of color, I didn’t feel valued by the gaming community. I was already experiencing daily harassment thanks to my very online day job, and I didn’t want to bring that into my personal life as well. What’s more, developers and studios seemed to be prioritizing titles and gameplay styles I didn’t want. I had no interest in playing online or multiplayer (and have even less interest now). I didn’t like (and am terrible at) first-person shooters. I can’t handle multibutton combos to fight. And I am a huge and vocal fan of playing games on Easy mode.
I came back to gaming with the release of the Nintendo Switch. Quickly thereafter, I bought a PS4 Pro. I started with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; that unfolded into Stardew Valley and Horizon Zero Dawn. Studios and developers, it seemed, were finally realizing that there were a huge number of gamers with disposable income who just wanted to have a good time. We’re not trying to be esports pros, but we are committed.
This last year has really helped me solidify and accept the kind of gamer I am. As a parent, I don’t have long, unbroken stretches of hours to sink into a game. That’s not to say I’m not playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla—I totally am—but the amount of time I have to play is limited on any given day. And right now, gaming is a more valuable escape than ever. I don’t mind if it takes me months to finish a game, but I can’t be so frustrated I want to throw the controller at the screen. Instead, I need ease and enjoyment. I have no shame, and I don’t find it virtuous or fun to choose a higher difficulty setting. (Some people do! That’s OK!)
My story isn’t really unique, especially this year. Animal Crossing: New Horizons brought so many gamers to the fold. We’ve all basked in the simple pleasures of this soothing game, allowing it to deliver comfort and escape when the world seemed to be crumbling. I know many people continue to log on and play for hours every day, but I’m not one of them. Once I completed the main storyline and outfitted my island the way I wanted it, I was finished. I need a goal with my gaming. I love exploration and experiencing the full breadth a game has to offer, but at some point, I need some sense of completion. I also really value a good story.
As a result, I’d been looking for a game that will give me the same cozy feeling as Animal Crossing but with more of a sense of satisfaction; an emphasis on narrative and more structure surrounding it (sometimes, a blank sheet of paper is too much freedom for my brain). Then, right on time, I found Bugsnax.
The hype around Bugsnax was real. But shortly after developer Young Horses finally released it late last year, it quickly faded away. A lot of that probably has to do with its release date—November 12, the same day the PlayStation 5 hit the internet. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this year’s next-gen console launches have been an absolute disaster, and the gamer news cycles were dominated by people trying and failing to secure a console. Bugsnax seems to have been forgotten amidst all this (understandable) frustration.
It also doesn’t help that, while Bugsnax was available as a free game for PlayStation Plus subscribers, only the PS5 version was included. That means that a lot of the people who were interested in playing the game and intended to buy a PS5 didn’t have the ability to actually play it.
I was lucky enough to secure a PS5 on preorder, and after it finally arrived, Bugsnax was the first thing I booted up. The premise is deceptively simple: You’re a journalist, invited to the mysterious Snaktooth Island by explorer Elizabert Megafig (the names in this game are fantastic) to uncover the puzzle behind Bugsnax, local insects that taste absolutely delicious. You arrive on the island, but Lizbert is nowhere to be found, and it’s up to you to figure out what happened.
I’m a sucker for a good mystery, so I was hooked right away. What I didn’t expect, though, was just how sweet this game would be. You’re introduced to a wide range of characters—Filbo, the town mayor who feels like he’s failed. Wambus, who just misses his wife Triffany. Snorpy and Chandlo, the gay couple I was willing to die for about three seconds after meeting them. These characters made my heart feel full, and I wanted to learn more about them, spend as much time in their world as possible, and stuff them full of delicious Bugsnax.
Bugsnax centers around strategizing to catch the different insect morsels around the island quest-style. As new areas unlock, the puzzles (and Bugsnax) get more complicated. But the game eases you in, and it’s always possible to figure out what to do. When you get stuck, Google can always help. (I am a huge supporter of trying to figure it out yourself—but then just searching for the answer before it stops being fun.) And the game’s pacing means it’s easy to do one thing and then attend to the other areas of your life. (In total, the game is only about 15 to 20 hours.)
Games that aren’t fighting-based often present a real difficulty in that most of the time there are no level settings. If you don’t find the controls intuitive, there’s not really much you can do. (It’s why I haven’t been able to make much headway in The Outer Wilds, though I’m going to try again.) But happily, I didn’t find that to be an issue with Bugsnax; the gameplay was simple and easy to figure out quickly.
What I really appreciated, though, was that this game has a high level of weird. The questions of what in the world are Bugsnax, why do they have transformative properties, and why everyone is so obsessed with them permeate the entire game and give you the feeling that there’s something sinister lurking behind everything you do. I’m all for a little bit of darkness behind the splashes of color and sweetness, and it’s entirely rewarded in Bugsnax. The storyline gets stranger as you progress, and the ending delivers an incredibly satisfying Wait. What just happened? kicker. It’s everything I didn’t know I needed from a game at the end of a turbulent year.
My experience with and love for Bugsnax is especially remarkable given that most of my gaming in 2020 was rooted in nostalgia. It was hard for me to try new things, because my brain craved comfort rather than adventure. I lived in the worlds of Star Wars, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Assassin’s Creed, and other franchises with which I had intimate familiarity. I knew what to expect, and that was critical. The release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II on mobile in December brought me an endless amount of comfort, as I reexperienced an old favorite. It says a lot, then, that I’m just as enamored of Bugsnax as I am of my KOTOR II replay.
My energy to consume anything new or unexpected was incredibly low by the end of 2020, and I don’t think I was unique in that—another reason, perhaps, that the hype around Bugsnax faded away so quickly. When everything feels exhausting, it’s normal to take comfort in the familiar. But what I adored about Bugsnax was that as I was plunged into this entirely new and different (and strange!) world, it felt comforting and familiar. Only now, in this moment, on this Earth, could something this bizarre feel like home.