Thursday, November 30, 2023

Bugsnax’s Ending Was Originally Even Darker, Here’s Why It Changed

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Even from its initial reveal trailer, Young Horses’ charming first-person adventure Bugsnax clearly had something darker looming in the shadows of Snaktooth Island, literally and metaphorically. And fans with a sneaking suspicion were correct, as Bugsnax revealed a more layered world, not just in some of its darker twists but also in its nuanced approach to the ensemble cast and their respective lives.In the earliest draft of Bugsnax’s script though, that revelatory ending was very different, both on narrative and mechanical levels. Trust us – we’ve read the script.In speaking with Bugsnax Creative Director Kevin Zuhn, who shared the original script with IGN, it’s clear that the changes to Bugsnax’s ending not only allowed for a more emotionally resonant conclusion but also one that helped solve for gameplay, lore, and resolution issues from earlier versions. And one of the biggest changes from which many of the other alterations stem is a drastic change of fate for one character.Spoilers for Bugsnax’s original and actual endings follow! Do not read on if you intend to play – and to find out why you might want to, be sure to read IGN’s Bugsnax review.You can check out the full run-down of the ending in our Bugsnax wiki guide, but in short, here’s how the adventure actually wraps up: Players discover Lizbert Megafig (who invited the main character to Snaktooth Island in the first place) has now assumed a controlling role over the Bugsnax, but that hold is waning as the body-consuming parasites grow in power. Lizbert and her love Eggabell remain in the UnderSnax to keep the parasites at bay while the player, along with Filbo, head back to the surface to save all the other Grumpuses and escape the grasp of the Bugsnax. Players then go through a bit of a gauntlet, fending off the snax while saving the island’s denizens to make a daring escape back to the mainland safely with either some or all of the Grumpuses. Before returning to regular life, the player has a chance to speak with each surviving Grumpus about what’s happened, and what they hope to do now. There’s also a post-credits sequence, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The bones of this ending are in the original draft, unlike the bones of the boneless Bugsnax, but much of how it plays out is drastically different, simultaneously darker and sillier in many regards. But undoubtedly the biggest change from Bugsnax’s original version to what all of us actually played, occurs before you even get to the UnderSnax (which didn’t even exist in that first draft – it’s just some cave Lizbert is in). And that’s the fact that Eggabell died on her and Lizbert’s adventures up the mountain – and in a gruesome fashion.

Lizbert explains how Eggabell missed a jump as they were scaling the island’s peaks, and when Lizbert managed to pull her up, her Bugsnax-addicted love had become something else, something almost zombie-like in how fully the Bugsnax had taken over. After an altercation, where a clearly not-in-control Eggabell attacked Lizbert, the latter pushes Eggabell off of her, and off of a cliff, to her doom. And rather than even having a body to bury, Eggabell splits apart into a host of other Bugsnax.

Now, obviously, none of that happens in the actual game. Eggabell, in fact, is paramount to the third act. Very much alive, she helps players understand more about what’s happened and, functionally, set players off on a quest to open a mysterious door into the heart of the island.

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For a number of reasons that Zuhn dove into as we spoke, they succinctly explained how that original version of events, sans Eggabell, in his own words, quite simply “sucked.”

“At the time that draft was written, I knew that Lizbert’s partner had died before I knew who her partner was. I didn’t know that much about Eggabell as a character because of the way that story was structured. With the caveat that it sucked, all of it sucked,” Zuhn said.

One solution that came in between the first and final versions of the story was to add the videotapes players can collect around Snaktooth, which give a glimpse into Eggabell and Lizbert’s relationship. But Zuhn really emphasized that, while Eggabell remained dead, even that level of showing still felt more like telling.

“If [the relationship is] too abstract, you understand someone is sad about losing a partner, but you can’t be sad about it if you don’t know or feel anything about that relationship,” they explained. “And that’s why we created those video diaries to show what it was because it’s easier to show that than it is for Elizabeth to just tell you what a great relationship it was. That’s not good storytelling, though.”

Yet still, Zuhn and the team understood that a story that had Eggabell dead from the start wasn’t quite conveying the emotional connection players needed to care about finding Lizbert. Eventually, the realization came that Eggabell, while an integral part of the game’s backstory, needed to also be an integral part of its present story.

“After that point was when I was confronted with the fact that this story would be better if Eggabell was a character who got to be in it instead of falling into a trope hole.”

“I was confronted with the fact that this story would be better if Eggabell was a character who got to be in it.”

That “trope hole” Zuhn is referring to is realizing they had inadvertently played into the Bury Your Gays trope in his original draft. In part, they attribute that realization to teammates like story editor Sage Coffey and others, who helped Zuhn realize the script played into a trope that sees LGBTQIA+ characters having love interests killed off as little more than motivation to another character in larger numbers than cis-gendered characters. By recognizing that the script played into that trend, which Zuhn of course wanted to avoid and move away from, Zuhn emphasized how it only made everything about Bugsnax’s story better to bring Eggabell more concretely into the game..

“Some of the members of my team had already told me, ‘This is a bad trope.’ But when Sage [Coffey] came on as the story editor, the first thing they said needed to change was [Eggabell’s off-screen death]. Sage was like, ‘This is the worst part of the story. You should do something different.

“That [original ending] by itself was a real nasty bummer of a story, but also in the context of the wider media landscape, is a thing that happens too much. And here, the story itself became stronger and better when I avoided doing that.”

How Story Informed Gameplay, and Gameplay Informed Story

Making Eggabell an active, independent participant in the events of Bugsnax’s current narrative translated into several major creative changes that allowed for a much more cohesive third act, one more connected to the DNA of the entire game. One of those changes was a huge structural shift, because if it weren’t for Eggabell’s proper introduction, players wouldn’t necessarily have that much to do in the last stretch of Bugsnax as they reached the Frosted Peak.

“[The Frosted Peak section] was just kind of a big blank hole in the story. You get up there, nothing happens, there’s a mysterious door and you don’t know what it is or how to open it. And it is almost bizarre the extent to which [I realized] ‘Well, Eggabell is alive, she’s there. She can tell you about the door and how to open it and why you should open it because she thinks Lizbert’s behind it.’ Eggabell can explain to you the events that occurred on that mountain that got Lizbert stuck in the UnderSnax.

“And at the same time that really, really changed Lizbert’s attitude going forward in the story, because in that first draft, meeting Lizbert, she’s really upset and almost angry. There is pretty much no resolution to her story because too much has gone wrong [in the original draft].”

As Zuhn explained, the addition of Eggabell benefitted nearly every facet of the story, the game’s structure, and in offering the player more reasons to actually care about and understand their journey.

“I thought of Eggabell as someone who really embraced coming to the island as an opportunity to change herself because that is what she wanted to do more than anything.”

“A lot of her struggle is with her feeling of self-worth, she struggles with a lot of depression as many of the characters do. But for her in particular it’s more debilitating. I thought of Eggabell as someone who really embraced coming to the island as an opportunity to change herself because that is what she wanted to do more than anything, is to not be herself anymore. It’s just that she made the choice of turning herself into Lizbert, which was the wrong choice,” Zuhn said of Eggabell’s characterization.

And as Zuhn began to bring Eggabell to life in later drafts, quite literally, it allowed for the player’s connection to the mystery of Lizbert’s disappearance to become more grounded and understandable in the grander scheme of things.

“In the [final] version where Eggabell is looking for her, they can meet again and they can reconcile the problems they were having. And both of them have the opportunity to move forward, which is a lot more in keeping of where the story actually goes,” Zuhn said, also noting that, for players who think Lizbert and Eggabell meet a grim end, that is not the case.

“After all of that some players are confused and do think that Lizbert and Eggabell die at the end but they don’t. They’re alive.”

Giving Eggabell and Lizbert the same emotional depth as the rest of the cast ultimately tied into Zuhn’s overall goals in depicting the ensemble battling with their personal demons. From the first to the final draft, all of the characters grow from more archetypal figures to well-rounded, nuanced characters with fuller arcs. Zuhn recalled one experience that really informed this mission.

“We had the early version of the Garden Grove and you would meet up with Wambus and do these quests. [Producer and Programmer] Kevin Geisler’s dad played it. Kevin Geisler’s dad is a farmer by trade.

“He played it and he made the comment to Kevin, ‘You made the farmer stupid.’ And that hit me, because I thought, ‘Oh well, I didn’t mean for Wambus to come off as a stupid character.’ But I understand that I’d written him in a way that isn’t empathetic enough to what his problems are and how he feels.”Zuhn explained that they still wanted to make Wambus, and every other Grumpus, fallible, and still bring their unique personalities to the game, but they aimed to do so with more empathy than before.

“I reworked a lot about his character. He’s still Texan. He still has a farm, etc. But I wrote in a way to make sure that he was empathetic and relatable because any character that I put in this story, someone is going to relate to them and they don’t want to see themselves made fun of.

“I think once I understood that was my mission… they grew. It’s not that I had to completely rewrite anybody, but me understanding them better helps the audience to understand them better.”

Return of the Living Bugsnax

The dramatic changes to Bugsnax’s ending kept coming, though. In the original script, one of several endings could occur: the neutral ending sees whatever Grumpuses survive fending off zombified Bugsnax versions of the Grumpuses who do not survive, before deciding to leave the island; the bad ending sees every Grumpus but Filbo transform into a zombie and after a short chase, Filbo sacrifices himself to save the player, who returns home safely, but without much evidence of what has happened; and in the good ending with no zombie Grumpuses, everyone but the player decides to stay on the island and try to make life work, knowing that they just can’t constantly eat Bugsnax as they were. And that major battle in Snaxburg? It didn’t exist at first, and at one point even took on more of a tower defense mechanic.

Zuhn explained how these original endings were born largely of the same idea that made it into the final game, but that they didn’t really quite gel narratively and mechanically.

“Our thinking going into this first draft was that we knew the game was going to have a dark ending because we knew that Bugsnax were not good. You should not be eating them and that there would be consequences for having done so. And that was why initially… shit goes bad.

“It goes wild, everyone eats each other at the end, but I think it was apparent pretty early on that, though that is very shocking, it’s not fulfilling. It doesn’t do anything with the theme.”

“I think it was apparent pretty early on that, though that is very shocking, it’s not fulfilling.”

Much of that thematic work was making sure the Grumpuses and the journey you went on with them had some emotional “reckoning” – there had to be a reason you all went through this harrowing ordeal, otherwise it lessed the player’s reasons to care about any of it.

“Everyone just turning into zombies didn’t really give any of them a reckoning with their personal demons or put any focus on them as characters,” Zuhn said. “It was just a bad thing that happened to them. And it’s antithetical to where we ended up going because Bugsnax, as it is in release, is so much about the characters and their journeys as people. I wanted to do a version of the ending that actually involved that.

“And granted, they do come after you at the end of the game right now, but that’s a physical manifestation of [Bugsnax’s true nature],” they explained. “What really matters is that if you take them, you’ll lose yourself. And the zombie thing, the threat of this is that they were zombies, that they’ll bite you, and that’s nothing.”

That nothing became very much something that tied into the entire journey that preceded it – with the introduction of the UnderSnax and the added focus on Eggabell, Zuhn and the team figured out how to weave the ending more directly into the emotional patchwork of this ensemble story.

“The way to get at the heart of it was to say any physical change happening on this island is a result of the Bugsnax themselves. They are the heart of everything on this island, and that helped shape the way the ending happened because one, Bugsnax come out of this underground. They can be everywhere. There’s kind of no escaping them. And because there’s this big underground network of Bugsnax, Lizbert has a connection to them throughout the island. This explains how she’s been able to keep them in check this whole time. And then, also this speaks to the aspect of willpower having an effect on them,” Zuhn noted, reflecting on the willpower most of the island’s denizens didn’t have to stop consuming Bugsnax at that point.”Another major aspect of solidifying not just the ending, but of the entire game, was in deciding who the player character actually was. The original draft sees the player as no one in particular, and various other roles were attempted, including making the player related to Lizbert. But as Zuhn noted, that didn’t leave much room for mystery.

“We wound up at journalist after trying these other ideas because we thought it was the right career for someone who is going on an investigation, who will say, ‘Oh, there’s a mysterious island and a bunch of mysterious characters that I want to know about,’” Zuhn explained.

“You’re not just a journalist, you’re a journalist who is in a lot of hot water and really needs this to work, to kind of also nail in that part where you two are like the rest of the characters in this story. Someone who has come to the island trying to make up for something in your life.”

All of that motivation, Zuhn said, cleared up a lot of playtesting misconceptions about why this journey mattered and, again, aimed to bring more emotional resonance and importance to every interaction. That included the interviewing mechanic – while, yes, the game previously had dialogue interactions, the concept of really digging into these characters “crystallized around your role as a journalist.”

Bugsnax Screenshots – 4K

Giving the player more reasons to care and learn about the Grumpuses throughout the story, to better understand their personal trials as well as the greater stakes at play, as well as to realize just how much of a threat Bugsnax actually were, Zuhn realized through production how those bad and neutral zombie endings offered little in the way of emotional catharsis, and the good ending flew in the face of what the Grumpuses should have learned by that point.

“At the time [of the original draft], a big calamity is going to happen but nobody has eaten enough to transform into a zombie and they’re like, ‘Well, nothing bad actually happened to us, so I guess it’s fine and we can just stay here and will be careful about those Bugsnax because we know they’re dangerous now.’

“I get why I put that on paper, but as yet another symptom of not having gotten the theme yet that Bugsnax represent your personal demons, you can’t just sit and eat some of them, some of the time and be fine. No matter what happens in the ending, they have to leave this place.”

That realization, of ensuring that the Grumpuses had to leave the island, led to the creation of Bugsnax’s denouement, where the Grumpuses that did escape, along with the player, ruminate on what’s transpired and look toward what the future might be. This scene largely came together, Zuhn explained, once the final battle in which you hold off Bugsnax attacking the Grumpuses, came together.

“Because that ending final battle thing coalesced, that inspired me to then make what the epilogue is,” they said. “I think that scene is way better than any scene where they stay there. We had finally figured out what shape the gameplay would take, and that gave me the ability to move forward from there, because sometimes it can be very difficult to write a future scene without knowing how the game could impact it. Anytime I did that previously, I would turn out to be wrong, I would be presupposing too much.”

“Every running joke is an opportunity for more storytelling.”

That scene became more than that, because for players who manage to save every Grumpus, a post-credits scene teases that, perhaps, there are more in the world who know of Bugsnax and what they’re capable of. The entire game, Snorpy speaks of the Grumpinati as some shadow organization, but it could be viewed as just a silly conspiracy theory. Until that scene, of course.

But Zuhn cautions that you shouldn’t believe everything every character says, while also noting they were very intentional about what clues and teases ended up in the story.

“Every running joke is an opportunity for more storytelling,” Zuhn said. “I don’t see any reason not to explore the idea. At the same time, everybody should really take what Snorpy says with a big grain of salt. Just because a character in the story thinks something is true doesn’t mean that their opinion is good. But at the same time, clearly there is something going on that Clumpy knows more than she was letting on at the start of the game. And I wanted to do that at the very end of the story to give you something to wonder about, to re-contextualize some things you might have been thinking.”

And it’s clear that Zuhn was able to re-contextualize much of the work in his original draft into something more emotionally resonant to the themes at work and considerate of its characters to craft the stirring ending present in the final release. Were it not for the addition of Eggabell into the present story and the move away from the zombified endings, it’s impossible to say how players would have received the ending. But as it stands now, Bugsnax offers a more well-rounded conclusion, and just enough dangling questions to leave players, this writer included, hungry for more.

Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.


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