Written by Jonathan Wojcik

September 6: A Tribute to the Brain Tree!

   Though the single best thing ever on Neopets.com was heartlessly retconned from existence, the site is still home to what remains one of the most beautiful, endearing characters in the entire known history of game-like-interactive-website-experiences. BEHOLD:

   The Brain Tree has been around since the early days of Neopia, the signature inhabitant of their Halloween Haunted Woods setting. I've always been a stickler for the spooky, haunted trees we see throughout Halloween iconography, and you know how I feel about brain-based monsters. Put the two together in any conceivable way and I can't not fall in love with the results.

   Neither good nor evil, the Brain Tree is said to watch over the trees of the haunted woods and desires nothing more than to steadily amass more knowledge. When actually visited on the site, however, he only ever asks the same thing: to know when and where somebody died. The character name, location and date are randomly generated, and despite the tombstones positively littering the Haunted Woods, there's apparently only one place to turn for the knowledge we seek:

   The Esophagor is hardly as flashy as the festive cedarebrum, but equally enigmatic and appealing in his own right, a slimy blue eating machine that morphs out of the soil itself. When you drop in on this handsome devil, he'll ask you to bring him back a specific set of randomly selected food items, and will divulge either the location or date that the Brain Tree is looking for. You'll need to feed him twice to complete the whole quest, then it's back to the psychonifer (get these while they're fresh, guys!) for a random prize that's usually worth significantly less than anything you just fed to a ground monster. Oh, virtual economies.

   We're never offered any clue as to why the tree just gathers the same statistics about dead people, nor how the Esophagor always already knows the very answers the tree is looking for at any given moment, but when a rotten log with a giant brain requests obituary data from an all-consuming compost heap, you don't question the motive.

   Though the newer banner-style images are fairly wicked, I will say I miss the old-school Esophagor graphics, if only for the one where he's actually happy. I miss when you were happy, Esophagor.

   Brain Tree's artwork has more or less only been updated on the Haunted Woods map itself, with wavier branches, an even bulkier brain and a more rotten-looking mouth. All in all pretty killer, except I much prefer the original's sadder, more mournful eyes.

   Brainy also harbors one wonderful, if only barely canonical secret; back in the day, when the Haunted Woods were first revealed, a graphic of my precious, long lost mutant chia could be seen hanging out behind the woody intellectual, and a cute tagline on the world map warned us to "Beware the Beast That Lurks Behind the Tree!"

   As the Haunted Woods was updated, my little buddy disappeared, but nobody remembered to update the map's tagline. The warning remains to this day, and eventually, the staff wrote a whole short story around it, in which we learn that a taloned, red-eyed something leaves claw marks every night on the Brain Tree's back. Something unseen and imprisoned by the surrounding woods, explained by the Brain Tree only as "his pain to bear".

  So, not only do we have a tree with a giant brain who collects macabre trivia, but a tree with a giant brain who keeps some kind of Arkham-caliber horror in containment. A horror we can reasonably assume looks a lot like the darling little slimeball I once had for a virtual pet. It's all too fitting that a character design they swept under the rug would evolve just quasi-canonically, from a certain perspective, into some sort of secret, primeval bogeyman.

   Brain Tree, you are just about the biggest justification for Neopets to still be a thing, and I wish you luck with your scrapbook of dead Usuls, or whatever the hell you've been working on for all these years. If you really want my advice, though, just let the beast back out. Those furry little bastards need to stay on their toes.