If we’re talkin’ ‘bout games that have come out recently, Bugsnax is an alright, though messy attempt at doing something different. But if we’re talkin’ bout’ endings, its final act ranks among the wildest of the year—even if, much like many other elements of the game, it doesn’t entirely work.
Bugsnax is the Bugsnax of video games. This is not a tautology: Bugsnax (the game) is like a Bugsnak (the creature) in that it’s assembled from all manner of disparate parts—many of which do not really cohere—with glue-drizzled googly eyes slapped on for good measure. Its ending is one such part. I would not say it comes out of nowhere, but it’s a heck of an escalation from what’s come before, the most extreme possible “what if” scenario suddenly made canon. When I first finished the game, I did not like it. Now, a week later, I cannot help but admire the audacity of it, even though I feel like it undercuts a lot of what the game manages to build up.
To get everybody up to speed, Bugsnax takes place on an island inhabited by half-bug, half-snack creatures that everybody just loves to eat for some reason. When your fellow Grumpuses—lumpy, Muppet-like humanoids—consume a Bugsnak, it immediately transforms one of their limbs into the corresponding food item. Arms become french fries, feet become beef ribs, teeth become Oreo cookies, and so on. The process is not grotesque, but the result can be, with popcorn appendages dangling from regular flesh. And yet, Grumpuses giggle with glee every time it happens. This juxtaposition is unsettling, but that and a couple other bits of foreshadowing aside, the game merely suggests that something is amiss. The nature of that something, and the fact that it’s insanely fucked up, do not become apparent until the big reveal. Until then, the game mostly sticks to a kid-friendly tone that sees Grumpuses learn too-tidy lessons about how friendship and love—not Bugsnax—are the solution to very real problems like addiction, mental health, insecurity, and marital problems.
Then the final act rolls around. By this point, the player has learned that the intrepid explorer who convinced a bunch of dysfunctional Grumpuses to come to Snaktooth Island, Elizabert Megafig, was having relationship issues with her girlfriend, and then she went missing. However, in a video you’re able to uncover, they seem to have set themselves on a path toward resolving their central tension—Lizbert behaves in overly protective ways because she doesn’t think Eggabell can handle herself—with some good old-fashioned communication. But then an accident happens, and Lizbert ends up sealed in a mountainside cavern.
Having learned all this over the course of many character-specific Bugsnax capture quests and some light item hunting, it seems like all that’s left is a basic rescue mission involving the player, Eggabell, and the makeshift Grumpus town’s bumbling mayor, Filbo. But then, during a cute dance party celebrating the fact that you’ve reunited all the Grumpuses via the aforementioned quests, there’s an earthquake, and a volcano on the island begins to erupt. You, Eggabell, and Filbo rush off to rescue Lizbert while everybody else prepares to depart the island.
After solving a quick puzzle that had previously prevented you from reaching Lizbert, you and your companions rush into the cavern. Almost immediately, the ground gives way. You fall. One loading screen later, you’re in a series of tunnels whose walls are made of gargantuan, glistening snacks. A brown-red fluid of indeterminate origin runs through them like a river. It is as though you’re traversing the intestines of something much, much bigger than you. Eventually, you find Filbo, and the two of you emerge into an arena-like area with Bugsnax occupying makeshift stands on each side. In the center stands Lizbert, except she is no longer anything even vaguely recognizable as a Grumpus. Instead, she is the centerpiece of a 30 foot-tall Bugsnak mega-mutant—a multilayer cake with Twizzlers for legs and pizza for wings. What remains of Lizbert extends from a centipede-like procession of interconnected sushi slices. It is the first of many “What in the absolute fuck?” moments.
Filbo takes it remarkably well.
“You’re alive!” he bellows. “I can’t believe it! We’ve got so much catching up to do!”
But Lizbert quickly quashes his excitement by saying that she can’t escape the island “like this.” She goes on to say that what you and Filbo are witnessing is the island’s true form: “Bugsnax all the way down.” Then she explains what Bugsnax really are, the sushi tendril with which she’s merged wriggling and writhing all the while.
“They’re parasites,” she says. “They get inside you and they... change you. Your body and your mind. They make you want them, and before you know it, you become them.”
She goes on to call them “insidious” and “patient,” saying that eventually you’ll show them a weakness, and they’ll “exploit it.” Everybody who previously tried to explore the island became part of the island. It’s an unsettling thought. But just in case your imagination can’t conjure up a vision of what that was like, Lizbert tells you exactly what happened to her.
“After I saved Eggabell, I fell into this place,” she says of the accident that trapped her in the cavern. “Before I knew what was happening, I was swarmed. Bugsnax were crawling down my throat. They tried to erase me, to make me into them. I almost lost myself. But somehow, I pushed back. I made THEM into ME.”
She proceeds to confess that she’s been more or less a fraud all along, sealing the deal on a plot beat that pretty deliberately hearkens back to Heart of Darkness. She then begs you to leave the island, adding that she’s the only thing holding it together as the Bugsnax go into a full-on “frenzy.” But then Eggabell shows up. Before Lizbert can stop her, she joins the Bugsnak monstrosity to be with her girlfriend, reborn as a second, heaving tendril. They kiss. It’s sorta sweet, but mostly very gross. They resolve to survive together, putting another neat bow on a set of pernicious interpersonal issues.
Then you and Filbo flee back to town to help everybody else make their grand escape. There’s just one problem: The Bugsnax do not want you to leave. Once largely docile, they’re now mounting a full-on assault on what remains of the Grumpus village. Fortunately, your friends have modified your previously harmless Bugsnak capture tools to kill the fuck out of them. The first time you use your trap to take out a pack of strawberry-like Strabbies, it’s positively wild. Juice erupts from their tiny, big-eyed bodies, splattering like gore in a horror movie. It’s far from the first time a piece of media has put a gruesome spin on something cute—remember Happy Tree Friends?—but after carefully capturing cuddly creatures for the better part of ten hours, it’s legitimately shocking.
What follows, regrettably, is the most infuriating portion of the entire game. Grumpuses have split up into pairs, and to rescue each pair, you have to complete a different Bugsnak-murdering minigame based on a specific tool. However, where once you used these tools at a methodical, player-driven pace to lure and capture Bugsnax, you now have to trigger them rapidly and with a degree of precision—two things the game has absolutely not prepared you for. On PlayStation, at least, the controls are also really not up to the task.
This would still be a relatively mild frustration, but here’s the twist (nestled, at this point, within several other twists, like one of several different Bugsnak horrors): This segment decides the game’s entire ending. If the Bugsnax you’re attempting to keep at bay get too close to one of the Grumpuses, that Grumpus will slurp up the Bugsnak and partially transform. If they eat too many, they are irreparably altered, and when the minigame ends, they spout off something heinous, sad, or completely out of sync with their arc and crumble into dust. If anybody dies, you get the bad ending. Moreover, this segment contains no checkpoints, so if somebody dies near the end and you want to reload, you’ve got to start over from its beginning. (You can protect characters by completing their sidequests before this segment begins, but the game does not telegraph this.)
Either way, you and the survivors make it to your airship, which takes off just in time for you to get a good view of Lizbert-Eggabell-??? tackling a Mothra made of pizza out of the sky. You hover above them briefly. The sky is red. The volcano is spewing lava. The scene is apocalyptic.
The ship ferries you back to the mainland of whatever Bugsnax’s America equivalent is called. On an idyllic shore, you encounter all the Grumpuses you saved. If you save them all and get the good ending (which, based on the plot revelations that come after and set up a sequel, seems to be the intended ending), the game’s tone pivots once again, back to the family friendly, chummy vibe of its earlier portions, with the Grumpuses talking about the lessons they’ve learned from their journey. This part is bizarre. For many of them, it’s like the game’s whole third act didn’t happen. Instead, they just wax philosophically about how their time on the island taught them to be comfortable with themselves, make friends, and pursue fresh starts. A few make passing references to the nigh-unspeakable horrors they just witnessed, but none seem too bothered by that or the fact that they are all partially transformed—infested by parasites with no indication of when their crumbly, molding limbs will return to normal.
Nobody embodies this strange dissonance better than Snorpy, a diehard conspiracy theorist who the game consistently handles with a far lighter touch than conspiracy theorists deserve in this day and age. At this point, he has just borne witness to a scenario that would, you’d think, validate all of this greatest fears. Nothing, as it turns out, was as it seemed. The entire island was functionally a vast conspiracy with the goal of seizing control of Grumpuses’ bodies and minds. You know how modern conspiracy theorists are afraid that Bill Gates is trying to use vaccines to microchip their blood (lmao)? Well, this is that, except far more viscerally upsetting. But Snorpy decides, out of the blue, that “it seems my enemies aren’t so all-powerful after all” for reasons that are never fully explained—he just says it when you walk up to him—but that partially stem from the fact that he has a boyfriend now. It’s sweet, but none of it really makes any sense.
So what, really, was the point of the twist ending? Why put it in a game that ultimately doesn’t really seem like it was written to accommodate it? It’s surprising, sure, but it also feels out of place, like a hotdog limb jutting out of an otherwise pristine torso. In the end, Bugsnax is only partially even about Bugsnax. Its clever central conceit mostly gets pushed aside for a series of character stories that are earnest and impressively diverse, but could have fit just fine in a great many other video games. A game like this could have asked questions about bodies—what we do with them and how society perceives those who’ve chosen to alter theirs to better match their own identities, or in pursuit of their goals. While the game lightly touches on ideas like body dysmorphia, it doesn’t really go much farther than that. Meanwhile, the game is literally about characters colonizing an island, but right as it seems primed to engage with the island’s history and colonialism, it blows the whole thing sky high.
That’s sort of the ending in a nutshell: Instead of digging into the substance to which the game aspires with some of its headier character stories, it just blows everything up. Any lingering questions are obliterated by the fact that Bugsnax were categorically, undeniably bad all along and the island got drowned by molten lava. After the ending, the game then implies that one Bugsnak hitched a ride to the mainland and there’s an evil illuminati pulling the strings, but that sets up a very different kind of sequel that will not ask the sort of questions Bugsnax sort of gently tugged at before abandoning.
It’s weird to be talking about a goofy, cutesy game like Bugsnax on these terms. But then, Bugsnax is a weird game—all at once silly, serious, and in the end, very, very dark. In a game that tries as many things as Bugsnax, the ending is ideally where all the threads would coalesce, but they don’t. That’s a bummer, because independent of one another, the game itself is audacious, and so is the ending. Working in conjunction, however, they form an experience that’s less than the sum of its parts. In that way, too, Bugsnax is like a Bugsnak: Incessantly chattering animal-food hybrids are fun and all, but sometimes, you just want a dang french fry.