February 20, 2023
NEW YORK – You will meet his bloodshot, menacing gaze in any number of neighbourhoods in New York, his mouth stretched into an open, hungry grin, his tentacle-like limbs ready to envelop you.
In Chinatown, he is lashed to display racks in front of shops selling New York City-themed cooking aprons; in Brooklyn, he is a frequent presence on the tabletops of sidewalk sellers.
He might be blue, orange or tie-dye, or even wearing a little Santa hat and Christmas scarf.
Among those who sell Huggy Wuggy, many do not seem to know exactly where he comes from or what he is. But they know he is popular with kids – and the parents willing to drop US$10 (S$13.40) to appease them.
For instance, outside Ma68 Trading in Manhattan, Huggy was available on a recent visit in grey, red or green, each clipped to a circular clothes rack. The toy is so popular that the signature blue version is often sold out.
“I think he’s from a TV show,” store owner George Ma said vaguely. “He’s most popular with four- to nine-year-olds.”
In fact, Huggy Wuggy is the primary villain of an indie horror video game called Poppy Playtime, set in an abandoned toy factory.
Huggy, one of the toys formerly made in the factory, is first seen in a display with a happy, innocent smile before he mysteriously disappears. Players solve various puzzles and, later, he chases them through the factory’s ventilation system, his smile since widened to reveal razor-sharp teeth that he uses to eat the game’s losers.
It is freaky. But what makes Huggy truly unsettling is his second life on YouTube, where children as young as pre-school age come across fan tribute videos to the character – and then become fans themselves.
It is a strange lesson in the porous boundaries between media for many children, who are unwittingly led by Silicon Valley’s many and mysterious algorithms to follow their favourite characters no matter the context, online and off.
Ezra Watkins, a six-year-old in Manchester, England, first came across Huggy Wuggy on ExtremeToys TV, a YouTube channel that features two young brothers playing video games, having Nerf battles and creating short vlog-style films in which they chase and unmask various monsters like Bigfoot, Chucky and Huggy, all created using special effects.
Ezra’s father, Mr Gareth Watkins, sees Huggy as part of an “extended universe” of children’s Internet characters.
“It’s almost like the stock characters in commedia dell’arte or pantomime: Anyone can pick them up and use them for whatever they like and the audience will understand them,” he said.
While Mr Watkins allows his son to watch YouTube videos featuring Huggy, he said the game itself is a bit too frightening for Ezra.
“Even though there isn’t adult content or blood, the jump scares are much harsher than what you’d find in all-ages games,” he said.
For his part, Ezra said Huggy is “scary, like real scary. It was supposed to be friendly, but no”. Still, he claims to love horror and hopes to be able to play the game eventually.
Poppy Playtime was an unexpected hit for Mob Entertainment, the small studio that released the game in 2021.
“It’s not that common, from what I hear anecdotally from other video game developers, that your first game would be a success to the extent that this one has been,” said Mr Zach Belanger, Mob’s chief executive and the creator of Huggy Wuggy.
Mr Belanger, 25, found his way to video game-making via YouTube fan mash-ups himself.
At 18, he and his then-16-year-old brother, Seth, found popularity with their own channel, EnchantedMob, by making videos that remixed familiar characters from properties like the indie horror game Five Nights At Freddy’s or Minecraft.
Eventually, with a small staff and the profits from their YouTube videos, the brothers developed and self-published Poppy Playtime on the independent gaming platform Steam.
YouTube, once again, was pivotal to the game’s success.
Just one day after Poppy Playtime’s release, a popular horror gaming YouTuber posted a walk-through video of himself playing Poppy Playtime for his millions of subscribers. That video now has 33 million views.
While Mob declined to share the total number of times Poppy Playtime has been downloaded, the game – once US$4.99, now free – has more than 47,000 reviews on Steam.
Although not an animator himself, Mr Belanger developed the early concept design for Huggy Wuggy. The idea, mainly, was to create something entirely new.
“Is he a monkey? Is he a sock monkey? Is he a bear?” Mr Belanger said. “He’s a thing, but not really anything. He’s an animal, but not one you’ve ever seen before.”
To make the creature frightening, Belanger’s technique was simple: Make it really big compared with everything else onscreen. The conceit applied not only to Huggy Wuggy’s height but to his lanky limbs and outsize smile that, as the game progresses, morphs into more of a hungry maw.
It is easy for a child to become familiar with Huggy without having ever even heard of the game. YouTube is teeming with videos created specifically for children, and the platform goes to great lengths to keep them watching as long as possible.
While YouTube has cleaned up some of its children’s content (you cannot find scary Poppy Playtime-related videos on YouTube Kids, for example) and now gives parents the option to turn off its autoplay feature, the site still sends viewers down rabbit holes.
“There’s a lot of creators out there that will just create videos that are meant to game the algorithm for small children whose parents put an iPad in front of them and let YouTube videos play while they make dinner,” said Mr Ted Hentschke, head of productions at DreadXP, a horror game publisher in Los Angeles.
Mr Arsenio Navarro, Mob Entertainment’s director of business development, estimated that counterfeit products have cost the company millions of dollars in royalty revenue.
According to Mr Trevor Vogl, a Mob financial analyst, “upwards of 500,000” plush dolls and toys exported from China that were based on the company’s characters have been seized and destroyed by customs officials.
A service that Mob uses to identify counterfeit vendors has flagged more than 300,000 online listings for products featuring Mob’s intellectual property.
The company is targeting e-commerce operations and international manufacturers peddling fake Huggys. According to Mr Navarro, more than 15,000 Amazon listings have been taken down in the past three months alone.
Mob is working on expanding the world of Huggy.
Poppy Playtime: Chapter 2 was released last May and a multiplayer game set in the factory was released in December.
Although the fake Huggys might represent money lost, they have also served as an enormous unplanned marketing campaign for the brand.
“Most of our fans have never played our game,” Mr Belanger said. “The brand awareness is greater than our ability to monetise it successfully to this point.”
And as for the knock-offs, “it’s a good problem to have, I’m told”, he said.
To this day, Mob has never spent any money on marketing its games. NYTIMES