Exploring the horror of the Neopets Volcano Mystery plot

Neopets' Volcano Mystery plot haunted my childhood, and fascinates me in adulthood.
neopets horror mystery plot

Like many other kids my age, one of the first websites I ever visited regularly was Neopets – the all-ages virtual pet website populated by cutesy critters and fun mini-games. But while Neopets was (and remains) strictly for kids, its early days were defined by a strange darkness, filtered through an overarching story that players could stumble across.

Today, some of these remnants remain easily accessible for users. There’s the Lair of the Beast, a cave in Tyrannia haunted by a giant Pterodactyl known only as The Beast. There’s the Gallery of Evil – which explains the back stories of many Neopets villains, complete with light depictions of greed, vanity, torture, and terror.

Within that tome, you’ll find such creatures as the villainous Dr. Sloth, who experiments on Neopets. You’ll find the Malevolent Sentient Poogle Plushie, which is a living plushie with evil intent. You’ll even find possessed toys (The Fuzzles), sentient mounds of goo, creepy trees with glowing eyes, and so much more.

In modern times, much of Neopets‘ inherent horror has been kept by the wayside, to ensure it remains as kid-friendly and approachable as possible. But for those who remember, there are still elements of classic Neopets that haunt.

For me, the most horrifying aspect of the website arrived in September 2003, in the form of the Volcano Mystery puzzle plot – a tale that has stayed with me for 20 years.

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The mysteries of the Volcano

Those unfamiliar may be surprise to learn that classic Neopets was defined by a narrative plot that formed a tangible lore. There is backstory and explanation for nearly every character and land in the game, with most coming to life or being “discovered” in web-based story adventures.

Imagine me, eight years old, wandering around the islands of Neopets, bliss-free and innocent of the horrors of the world. I do my “dailies” on the website: spinning the Wheel of Excitement, playing mini-games, and eventually, I get to Tombola. Only, the Tiki Tack Man who runs Tombola is missing, and a greater plot is afoot.

The mystery of this disappearance was strange enough as a kid, but it’s what happened next in the plot that pops up in my nightmares on occasion. The point of the Volcano Mystery plot was for Neopets users to wander the site, discovering clues, to eventually discover what was happening, and how to fix it. You would meet a mysterious Fire Faerie named Eithne, and she would warn you away from the local volcano.

While you were distracted, the Techo Master disappeared, then the Island Mystic, then the Mystery Island Tour Guides, then Jhuidah the Cooking Pot Faerie. Desperate for clues, players would eventually find their way into the volcano, only to be turned away by an enraged Eithne.

Oh, and while all that was going on, the Tiki Tack Man returned to his post, only… he looked a little bit different.

Cracked head. Cracked mask. Blue skin in place of brown. Wearing that expression. After this event, players could get back to earning prizes in Tombola, but each spin would come with this message: “You must find my Tiki Mask and break the curse! Ask for help… please!

Okay. And me, as a young eight year old, trying to have fun on a website for kids, knows all about breaking curses, right? What followed was equally horrifying, as you’d have to ask around Neopets to find a cure for this supposed curse, all while trying to remember Neopets was for fun, and you loved Neopets.

Horror as a learning tool

From memory, it was this portion of the plot that I immediately got stuck on, thanks to that horrifying grimace – but years after, I learned the rest of the story. As it turned out, the Tombola man was cursed by an evil mask delivered by a strange shaman, and that shaman was causing havoc on Mystery Island.

And the horrors didn’t end there. Eithne wound up facing down a giant Moltenore beast in the volcano, who had been awakened from his slumber. Then, the evil shaman appeared, and a code phrase had to be deciphered to circumvent his magic, and save the island.

neopets mystery island plot
Image: Neopets

For a plot on a kid-focused website, the Volcano Mystery plot was surprisingly complex, and surprisingly deft. No other website was telling tales like it, at the time, nor experimenting with the same storytelling methods. There was delight in discovering new foibles to this plot, and to other plots, and to discover a slowly unravelling tale that tested your mental mettle.

I was perhaps too young to appreciate it at the time – but every plot in the history of Neopets was a wonderful, complex slice of early internet gaming. It was a sort of Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for a different era, allowing players to explore deep puzzles with mature themes, and experience light-horror for the first time.

In the years since I was scarred by the visage of the cursed Tiki Tack Man, I’ve come to appreciate this era of Neopets much more, particularly for its strangeness. Across an array of plots, Neopets deepened the story backing its many adventures, and while elements of horror may have been too much for a child of my age, the Volcano Mystery plot later served as a source of fascination. It’s a layered story, and one that illuminates just how innovative Neopets was during its peak.

As the website enters its next era, it would certainly be gratifying to see more mature plots like Volcano Mystery being developed, if only to teach more kids about the value of facing their fears, conquering the unknown, and solving puzzles with an open mind.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.