I first experienced Don't Hug Me I'm Scared in the same fashion that I'm sure many others have; through a friend who's quite comfortable with condemning their entire social circle to weeks of sleepless nights. This particular friend was a university roommate, who decided to pop the web series' first episode onto our living room TV one evening without context.
The initial reactions were, naturally, mild bemusement and bewilderment, before quickly transitioning into nervous laughter, until a collective sense of primordial discomfort cast a permanent shadow over the entire atmosphere. The laughter continued for a short while once the credits had rolled, but when all was said and done, it was the show's existential horror that lingered in our minds as we dispersed to our separate bedrooms that night.
If you haven't watched Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, I'm not sure I'd recommend doing so, but let's just say that the show masterfully plays with our perception of something deeply unsettling percolating behind the surface of live action children's TV, especially when puppets are involved.
Its invocation of that tonal disconnect has stayed with me ever since, and so when the Bugsnax reveal trailer first appeared during the PS5 showcase, depicting muppet-like creatures seemingly malforming themselves by gorging on living fast food critters (all to the backdrop of a catchy Kero Kero Bonito tune, no less), you could say I was suspicious of what I was looking at.
I wasn't the only one. Plenty of onlookers theorized that what appeared to be a bright and breezy getaway to Snacktooth Island would actually turn out to be a sinister horror game in disguise. Young Horses at the time denied this, though studio co-founder Philip Tibitoski did tease that there was indeed "something a little bit deeper behind" the game's surface.
Now that it's finally here, however, it turns out that Bugsnax really is, at face value, a game about catching bugsnax. There's no jump scares. No harrowing chase sequences. Not even a single drop of blood. And yet, despite it all, Bugsnax somehow manages to be just as unnerving as many of us were predicting.
What happens on Snacktooth Island…
Bugsnax channels the same dark chaos energy as the Saturday morning shows that were supposed to entertain you as a child, but instead left you scarred for life. Thomas the Tank Engine, Mr. Blobby, Pinky and Perky… you know the ones.
While everything seems bright and dandy at a surface level throughout your time on Snacktooth Island, a palpable stink of dread wafts in the background of all your interactions with its residents. It's rumoured that one of the Grumpus' is a cannibal. Another will continually take photos of you behind your back.
Though they present themselves as mostly polite and civil in conversation, trying to integrate with this commune made me feel like Florence Pugh amidst the Hårga – only this time it seemed I was more likely to become their next snack of choice than the annual May Queen.
The music doesn't help, either, with Bugsnax's synth-pop soundtrack warping its otherwise lethargic melodies with gnarled distortion effects. It's just one more piece of evidence to suggest that, for all its paradisiacal qualities, Snacktooth Island is one long psychoactive trip that could turn foul at any minute.
Bugsnax's story mirrors its dual tones of light and dark, too, at least to an extent. As you continue to feed the Grumpus' – slowly transforming their limbs, faces, and eventually entire bodies into manifestations of their diet – you can't but wonder whether these titular bugsnax are causing more harm than good, changing the very essence of who they are.
Of course, without going into spoilers, Bugsnax's ending does indeed offer a revelation to that central mystery, but it's almost too on-the-nose to satisfy our suspicions about this strange, off-kilter world. Instead, the journey to that climax, and its undercurrent of Lynchian surrealism, remains far more effective at getting under the skin than the bombshell reveal itself.
I thus left Snacktooth Island still unsure about what I had seen, and wondering whether I had only really scratched the surface of its true nature. Like all great horror, it's fear of the unknown that proves the strongest drug.
I still don't know whether the unsettling body horror and ambiguous unease of Bugsnax was an intentional design choice on Young Horses' part, but the studio certainly achieved it either way. Either that, or I should probably speak to a psychologist about my fear of puppets.