This piece contains spoilers for the ending and subplots of Bugsnax.
Bugsnax is not a scary game. If you'd like to know more about how it plays and how endearing I think the game's cast is, my proper spoiler-lite review of Bugsnax has that covered. After seeing how other players have reacted to the game, though, I feel compelled to make this point about Bugsnax: it isn't a horror title, and to insist that it's one is to miss the point.
In forum threads, on podcasts, and sprinkled throughout other reviews of Bugsnax, I keep seeing folks talk about how scary or off-putting they find it—and to be clear, if a game where colorful furry bipeds have their body parts turned into snack foods disturbs you, I'm not here argue against that. If anything, I agree with the idea that Bugsnax is strange and hard to categorize, but to say it's a "scary game" or that it's defined solely by its body horror elements is either a willful misreading of what Bugsnax is, or simply an uninformed one.
Let me put this another way: Claiming Bugsnax is "secretly a horror title" is like being a person who obnoxiously insists Die Hard is a great Christmas movie. I can already see retrospectives on the PlayStation 5's launch lineup looming in the distant future, and I'll genuinely be shocked if most of them don't overemphasize the darker side of Bugsnax. I'm already exhausted at the thought of it, just as I'm tired of hearing the same handful of jokes about Die Hard every December.
From the very opening moments of Bugsnax, it's clear that something isn't right on Snaktooth Island. Filbo, the first Grumpus character players meet on the island, has no idea why eating Bugsnax has the effect it does. Neither do any of the others, though many of them have their theories (some of which are pretty unsettling, too).
Not one of the dozen or so Grumpuses hit upon the exact answer before the end of the game, though. As Filbo and the player learn when they finally find Elizabert Megafig, the missing Snaktooth expedition leader, the truth is that Bugsnax are parasites that want to be eaten. The entire island rests atop a mass of Bugsnax, and it seems they're hard bent on taking over the Grumpuses by way of being eaten by them.
Unless you're rushing through the story, skipping over sidequests, or simply not paying attention, I can hardly see how this reveal would be all that shocking, though. It becomes obvious early on that the truth behind whatever Bugsnax really are is not likely to be a comforting one. The smartest Grumpuses on the island have put together some troubling facts: Triffany has found the remnants of ancient Grumpus tribes with strange burial rituals and Floofty has evidence pointing toward odd regenerative capabilities of Bugsnax. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorist Snorpy thinks there may be a factory pumping out Bugsnax underground and self-styled shaman Shelda cries impending doom at every opportunity.
The climatic ending, where a Snakified-Elizabert and her partner Eggabell try to buy the Grumpuses time to escape the island, is neither all that surprising nor uncharacteristically creepy in context. The main point of the reveal is really to validate Filbo's perspective and unite all the Grumpuses.
You see, like John McClane showing up for a ritzy Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza, poor Filbo Fiddlepie at first appears to be in a situation he's by no means prepared for. The other Grumpuses who came to Snaktooth all have strengths and know-how that Filbo seems to lack—he's just friendly, a trait which doesn't go very far on its own. Still, Filbo trusts that Elizabert is out there, he pushes the player to reunite all the Grumpuses, and at the final hour everyone's shot at survival comes from working together.
Bugsnax Is No Different From Every "Weird" Movie You Loved as a Kid
So eating a Bunger turns turns Grumpus body parts into curly fries, and eating too many Bugsnax leads to their demise. That's frightening in a vacuum, but we're still talking about a monstrous parasitic hive mind made up of snack foods with googly eyes. Not only are the Bugsnax funny looking even up to the very end, their real narrative purpose isn't to strike fear into players: they're a stand-in for the obstacles that each Grumpus can only overcome together.
This is classic kid movie stuff, which is not to say that it's never a bit disturbing. Back when I talked to Young Horses co-founder and President Philip Tibitoski shortly after Bugsnax was first revealed, he cited FernGully as a touchstone influence for the game. That's an animated film with one of the scariest looking villains I ever saw as a kid, but the presence of a terrible Tim Curry-voiced goop monster doesn't make FernGully a horror film. At heart, it's still a movie about human-wrought environmental damage and the mounting need to stop it.
Bugsnax doesn't have quite as clear a central thrust to it as FernGully, I'd say. With its wide cast of characters, each of whom has a personal problem they work to overcome by way of reconnecting with the Grumpuses around them, it's a bit broad and (somewhat admirably) unfocused in its core message. Some of the Grumpuses need to rekindle or feel accepted in their love for one another, some need to soften their pricklier aspects, and others—like Filbo—really need recognition of the kind traits they clearly possess. I found each of those stories satisfying on their own, but they do all add up together to something more plain than their individual parts. "Be yourself" is a funny counterpoint to "you are what you eat," but it's also a simple, digestible takeaway. You know, like something you'd expect from kid-friendly media.
Another film I keep returning to when I'm thinkin' 'bout Bugsnax is Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. The razor sharp wit of Roald Dahl's original book still comes through in the 1971 film version while some of the more disturbing elements are toned down, and yet even so, the movie's chock full of jokes that will go over kids' heads and situations that you might think should scar them for life.
Mr. Slugworth. Augustus in the chocolate tube. The boat ride. Violet turning violet. Veruca Salt literally tumbling down a chute toward an incinerator. You can easily find these moments cited in vacuous fan theories and articles about why Willy Wonka is actually a child-torturing murderer and sure, you can read the film as such if you choose to. It's a heck of a takeaway to construct, though, when looking at a charming kids' musical built around goofy scenarios that impress crystal-clear lessons upon the audience.
I'm not a parent, so I won't pretend that I'm in any way qualified to say that Bugsnax is a game that all or most people should show to their kids. Still, as someone who was raised on plenty of kid-oriented media with a darker side, I can say with confidence that Bugsnax fits that same bill. Faced with people seriously trying to justify calling Bugsnax a horror game, all I see is time wasted on an effort to look clever.
Bugsnax should be lauded for its great performances and its heartwarming inclusion of queer and non-binary characters. It should be praised for how ridiculously funny it can be. The criticism it deserves most concerns its simplistic gameplay and some less-than-stellar technical performance. As for hearing folks cry foul that Young Horses has unleashed a title that's secretly intended to strike terror in the hearts of players, well, I'm just as interested in hearing what those people have to say about Die Hard and Willy Wonka—which is to say "not at all."