More than giant omelettes and its rainbow menagerie, I remembered Neopets as a giddy world of roleplaying and adolescent enthusiasm. It was a time of speaking in CAPSLOCK and *asterisks* and /vaguely aggressive stage directions/. Netizens tackled you without your consent and launched virtual hugs in your direction; you had to roll with it somehow, like a bizarre form of improv.
For those who don’t know Neopets, a crash course: Adam and Donna Powell launched this addictive website that let you take care of fictional pets in November 1999. Here, you could play games, explore lands, join quests, and make friends online.
At ten years old, I was a shy, fidgety girl with too much time on her hands. Neopets was a charming world I could disappear into for several hours after school. As soon as I got home, I squandered my study time into playing Hannah and the Pirate Caves. I spun the Wheel of Enchantment in Faerieland, blasted clowns in creepy fairgrounds in the Haunted Woods, and took off with curiously-flavored slices from the Giant Omelette: cheese, pizza, rotten eggs, marshmallow, and at one time, clay.
It didn’t matter to me that this was the domain of bored college students, or that the graphics team seemed to be crying out for help in MS Paint. The world building and encyclopedic history of the site only made it more endearing, if not weirdly intense. You could tell the creators put in a lot of love and thought into their work. And in turn, so did we.
Like many kids growing up in the early 2000s, it was Neopets that taught me how to code. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of artistry involved on my part (let’s be real: there was none), but I can still recall how fun it was to cobble together scraps of HTML and customize my own web pages. I built profiles for each of my Neopets — again, not much potential there, unless you liked floating snowflakes and oddly shaped cursors that made it too difficult to click on anything. It was mine, though, and I loved the tinkering more than the results.
Lit by the glow of the computer, I tried my hand at poetry and read stories from The Neopian Times well past midnight. This was my first brush with fanfiction, long before I knew what to call it. I fell in love with its culture of invention and play, like pottering around in someone else’s garden.
Then strange things happened in Neopets.
Fast forward into the future: players were now being encouraged to dress their pets with clothes that could be bought with real money. Trading your pets outright with other users suddenly became okay too, even if it clashed with the squeaky-clean narrative of being responsible pet owners.
It wasn’t until I visited Neopets as an adult that it struck me, finally, how much of a relic it was.
Many people on the internet have a way of protesting and rallying anytime an object of their affection changed beyond recognition. Looking at Neopets now, I wondered if it was more surreal to come across a remnant from your childhood and find out that it hasn’t evolved at all. Twenty years since its inception in a college dorm, the site was still tethered to Flash support. The moment you switched off your browser’s plug-in, that candy-colored universe sputtered and died.
Even the latest developments in the game seemed ornamental: smoothening over the basic character designs and adding locations that nobody asked for, yet failing to address the targeted advertising that had burrowed deeply into the site’s infrastructure.
Chipping away further at my admiration was the horrible knowledge that for at least five years — at the darkest point in its history — Neopets had been owned and controlled by Scientologists.
So, yeah. Neopets had a pretty wild run.
From attracting 2.2 billion page views at its peak month in 2005, Neopets has trickled down to several million page views in 2017 — after having lost more than ten million users’ information to data hacks and seeing an unlikely future in mobile gaming.
Despite its slow and agonizing retirement — and the unfortunate incident with Xenu — Neopets is still going strong. Somehow, its failure to adapt to the times became part of its allure. No longer in a position of being led into the future by any corporation, it could remain squarely in the age of earnestness and “squee,” enshrined as a pure dose of nostalgia.
Maybe this was the reason why long-time players found themselves logging on their accounts recently, and staying there. And why I suspect that I would do the same, at least until Adobe finally pulls the plug out on Flash support by the end of this year.
These days, I find myself flitting between high-energy thinking sprees, and deadened lulls where I can barely summon the energy to finish a book. In a last-ditch effort to save my mental health, I’ve turned to the familiar embrace of old shows and movies that have helped me stay afloat in the past — quality be damned. I’ve bookmarked articles and tutorials, too, saving them for more lucid days.
And somewhere between the dizzying amount of reading materials available online and the urge to be performatively productive, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “Screw it, I’m playing Neopets.”
Sometimes I grimace and feel the sudden urge to explain myself — what was I doing, waiting for the Snowager to fall asleep so I could steal his treasure at 11pm?
But just the other day, my best friend and I were talking about how navigating the site felt almost therapeutic now. We laughed over how ridiculously broken the economy was. We speculated over the connections between NPCs. (Illusen and Jhudora weren’t just rivals, is all we’re saying!) And we took comfort in our fictional bank accounts — because if we couldn’t nail capitalism in real life, we could at least save enough fake money to paint our childhood dream pets the colors we always wanted.
More than anything, I think I missed the way that Neopets poked fun at itself. How it never took things too seriously and knew what it meant to people.
I thought about that every time I felt like coming up for air during these last few weeks. Neopets felt like it could hold my mounting anxiety at bay, just long enough to help me catch up with myself. That was the solace I was looking for — a softer place to fall, a little breathing room to come to terms with the world, changing faster than anybody can bear alone.
Header image via facebook.com/neopets
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