I had never played an ‘Animal Crossing’ game before. I thought I was about to have a fun, relaxing holiday. I was wrong.
When I decided to join the game that was making about as many headlines as the global pandemic, I knew very little about it. But I needed something fun and creative to do with the sudden abundance of free time, so I figured it was an ideal time to try it out.
I found myself in an airport, talking with two little creatures who seemed unreasonably excited about signing me up to their island getaway package. Something was off about them – the way they talked, not quite in unison, the way they asked so many probing questions. No one should be that enthusiastic about their job.
What had I let myself in for?
Something felt…not quite right about it. What exactly was the deal with this island?
There were a lot of decisions to make at the beginning – my head was spinning. Were they trying to throw me off? Was all this some kind of misdirection?
My suspicions were only further heightened when I was taken to meet their ‘fearless leader’. That’s when the penny dropped.
This wasn’t a luxury island getaway. This was a cult.
Sure enough, instead of being taken to a fabulous hotel or even a cute little rustic cabin, I was given a tent. This is absolutely the way they grind down the spirits of new cult members, by making them experience unnecessary hardships until they are too weak to resist, and even the smallest of good things begins to feel like a luxury.
Is that the aim of the game? To escape from Tommy Nooka’s cult?
I set about choosing the best location for my tent. I figured I’d want some privacy – after all, I couldn’t work on an escape plan with a bunch of mad cultists breathing down my neck. But too far away from everyone would look suspicious. Next, I was tasked with some mindless grunt-work – I ploughed through it, reasoning that it might earn the trust of my fellow cult members and allow them to think I was totally okay with the situation. Even though Nooka’s sudden talk of “surviving on a desolate island” was making the game sound more like a horror movie than a fun time, I stuck with it, even joining in the whole ‘name the island’ competition.
I made the suggestion ‘NotACult Island’. They went with it. Completely innocent. Totally legit. Nothing to worry about here, right? The others celebrated the naming with a totally non-cultish party, during which a lion with no trousers on played a tambourine while Tommy Nooka gazed into a ceremonial fire.
Eventually, night fell, and I was encouraged to turn in. I completed a perimeter check to scout the location, pocketing a few stones and sticks just in case I needed some protection during the night. I went by the dock – the plane was still there, but some investigation proved that it wasn’t an escape option just yet…
Inside my tent, I had the option to stay awake or rest. I felt paranoid, but decided I’d need my energy the following day. We hadn’t been offered any food, just some orange juice, so I hadn’t eaten during any of that tiring island work and needed to recharge.
My dreams were plagued with visions of an eerie naked dogman, spotlit in an otherwise empty void. I should have been terrified, but something about this wise beatnik dog told me he might be the only person I could trust.
My ‘rest’ ended up being a full night’s sleep; I pretended I was happy about having been unconscious for hours. I assumed it was only one night, but I had no way of knowing for sure. I was called to talk with our Fearless Leader, and there I was hit with the reality of the cult itself. If I wanted to have any more than the bare minimum when it came to housing and supplies, I would have to work for Nooka and his mini-me followers, selling them the products of my labour for two different and completely made-up currencies unique to the island. Nooka enjoyed telling me that being a happier cultist – sorry, islander – would earn me more privileges.
I was also told that “Island time will now match the flow of time in the real world.” WHAT HAD IT BEEN DOING UNTIL THEN? HOW LONG HAD I BEEN ON THIS ISLAND???
I couldn’t panic. I had to blend in, so as not to let Tommy Nooka or the others know I was on to them. I set about completing the tasks I’d been set, making sure to check in with the other two new recruits to find out if they were okay. They didn’t seem the least bit suspicious about anything – either that or, like me, they were trying not to give anything away. One of them, Agnes, told me she’d arrived without any money and was also having to sell the things she found around the island to Nooka. She and the lion seemed to spend most of their time wandering around the island in a daze. Not a good sign.
After another long day of repeatedly harvesting materials to sell, there had been no major signs of imminent trouble, but I vowed to remain vigilant. I was more worried for the other two – they seemed to have no clue at all what was happening. But I knew.
The following morning brought an announcement from our Fearless Leader. There was to be a daily ritual broadcast. He wasn’t even trying to hide it anymore, throwing around words like ‘ritual’. But then, what could I do about it? There was no clear way off the island yet. I would have to persevere.
We were told about the arrival of the mysterious ‘Blathers’, who apparently was very interested in local fauna. From then on, we were all tasked with collecting as many wild animals from around the island as we could.
“I sincerely hope everyone lends him their co-operation,” Nooka announced.
I’ve read ‘The Island Of Doctor Moreau’. I knew where this was heading.
Still, I was entrusted with a variety of tools – an axe, a shovel, a pole suitable for vaulting over the narrow streams that intersected the island. Was I being tested, or where they genuinely unaware they were giving me the tools to plot my escape?
Tired of my spartan living arrangements, I spoke to Nooka about what else was available. I had the option of a house, if I was prepared to take out a mortgage. Which meant that I would be further indebted to our Fearless Leader, of course. But what would happen if I turned it down? Would he see through me? Did I have any choice other than to sign up to his offer and bind myself to him once again?
At some point during the third night, my tent was replaced with a house. I remained undisturbed as this construction work was carried out and my sleeping body was removed and then placed inside this new dwelling. Was I drugged? What was in those oranges I’d been eating?
With apparently no other option than to try to blend in for the time being, I committed myself to going through the motions of island life – fishing, catching bugs, completing the various tasks assigned to me by Nooka and the others. All the while, strange things continued to appear around the island. The mysterious Blathers somehow turned a tent into a cavernous multi-storey museum, with spaces not just for the animal specimens I’d collected but also, it seemed, for the islanders themselves?
Eventually, I was deemed trustworthy enough to go island-hopping to search for more supplies, but the places I was taken to were tiny and sparse in comparison to NotACult Island. It was as if Nooka and the pilots were trying to convince me that NotACult was truly the best option. Worse still, each of those islands contained one poor lonely soul wandering around with no homes or even tents of their own. Talking to them, I found that they had all heard of Nooka. How far and how deep was his reach?
They talked to me about how much they wanted to relocate. I considered trying to help them escape their island prisons, but they were all somehow eager to come to NotACult.
Had I been sent to recruit them?
Dear god, what had I become?
I returned to NotACult, to the house that had been built for me while I slept. I looked at the items I’d acquired, the things that I had built. I asked myself why, each day, I continued to go through the motions of harvesting and collecting and building and completing tasks, when I could have just taken my shovel, knocked out Nooka, and threatened the dodo pilot with my axe to take me home.
Why was I still going through all this? Why did I return, day after day, to participate?
Was I becoming like them?
And then it hit me; I had been one of them all along.
I paid my money, allowed myself to be taken to this strange island, willingly agreed to complete repetitive tasks in return for material possessions, ground down until even the smallest reward – a new T-shirt, a slightly better axe – seemed like a luxury. I was trapped – there was no escape from NotACult.
And still, I kept coming back for more.
You can follow my continuing adventures on NotACult Island by following me on Twitter! Have you been sucked into the cult of Tommy Nooka? Feel free to share your stories in the comments below!