While game news is light and we’re reminiscing on a gaming year gone by, I thought I’d take take a leaf from Mark's book and reflect on a game that made an impression on me in 2011. As Mark has written previously, the games we're discussing aren't necessarily considered to be classics, the best, or even the worst. Today I am going to round off the series with my own piece about a rather unusual game: Hyperdimension Neptunia. Here’s a sensation: embarrassment. Of all the times I’ve held a controller in my hand I’ve experienced exhilaration, excitement, shock, fear, boredom and tedium — I’ve boldly played incredibly violent and saccharinely sweet games in front of friends and family — but this was the first time I was constantly looking over my shoulder through fear that someone would walk in on me playing. If my television screen had been more reflective, I would have seen that my face was probably the colour of a cranberry. I was playing Hyperdimension Neptunia and, good lord, I was embarrassed.
The premise of the game showed so much promise: four goddesses, each the embodiment of a console (Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, Sega Neptune) are at war with each other over the land of Gameindustri. Cute, eh? It would be, if the writers had more of a clue as to what they were doing instead of figuratively stroking each other in a boardroom over how clever they thought they were being.
Quirky as Hyperdimension Neptunia may be, it lacks direction, it lacks purpose, and it lacks good game design. With such an amazing theme to explore, the writers have chosen to rely on game industry references to drive the humour and to poke fun at genre conventions for amusement. One such example is when a character by the name of Green Heart — the Goddess embodiment of the Xbox — declares: “Breast are symbolic for both my maturity and fertility. The size of my bust equates to my aptitude as a goddess!” She is indeed a busty goddess, and I am left wondering how anyone showing so much under-boob would keep them so perky. I conclude that there are puppet strings attached to them.
The game relies too heavily on the player’s existing knowledge of the games industry to provide entertainment — there is simply no substance: no engaging story line, no clever or meaningful interactions between characters, no levels or maps worth exploring, and no interesting or even novel mechanic. I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth the developers had been thinking to take a concept with so much potential and churn out a piece of entertainment so disengaging. Here they were handed a gorgeous piece of stretched canvas, ready for magic to happen, and rather than consider how they could make a game out of it they decided to throw up a bunch of industry lols all over the pristine surface.
With no worlds or towns to explore I was left to wander through uninteresting dungeon after uninteresting dungeon, fighting repetitive battles that I often skipped through. I kept forgetting what my character was meant to achieve or where the story was even going. I had no idea why I had to keep running around in dungeons. There was so little consistency that it was unclear what was guiding the game's direction. The game industry theme could only take the game so far. At one point I had to mute the game because so awful was the music that I was certain that everyone within a mile of me was judging me on my taste in video game music.
I am used to being judged on my taste in music (I hear it is horrible), and I don’t mind people seeing me play a poorly-made game. I was not embarrassed about either of these things. What often made me shift uncomfortably, hoping that no one would see me playing this on a screen, was the way the female characters were represented. The problem wasn’t so much that they were scantily-clad, it was that they looked like children. They looked like overly sexualised 11-year-olds. Portrayed as ditzy tweens with frivolous concerns and ample bosom, I felt that something was amiss. Here was a brilliant concept that could have been clever, irreverent, with fascinating level design and mechanics and all I was seeing was female characters sounding like whiny, vacuous children who had phenomenal levels of ditziness to boot. Case in point: “Compa”, the character who represents Compile Heart, introduced herself by saying: “Hello. I enjoy arts and crafts, and I am good at math. I know I don’t look it, but it’s something I’m quite proud of.” Huh. Maybe they could have tried to make the characters more interesting. Every console is different and as consumers we all perceive them differently — maybe they could have made the Xbox goddess a massive body builder with buns of steel, or perhaps the Wii goddess could have been a white chipmunk. Or maybe that wouldn’t sell. Hey, I tried.
I found this representation of female characters as stupid and shallowly offensive, and the level of fan service made me want to cover up my television screen more than once. Almost every cut-scene involved an image still of a girl in a compromising position — the camera would then slowly move to and zoom into the part of the screen that features her crotch. It would then hold it there for a few seconds. In an early scene when Neptune was being bandaged by Compa, the bandages somehow managed to only cover the most private of her body parts, leaving everything else on display. In the background, we hear her squealing. Every time Compa falls over, the camera also ensures we get to see what colour her knickers are (white).
I wasn’t sure what to think of the game. I understood it was adhering to certain anime conventions, but did that make it OK? I tried to argue that perhaps the fascinating world and interesting storyline made up for the lack of game design, but then I remembered that there wasn’t much of a world or a story. Was this all a joke? If so, was it meant to be funny? Because rather than take a meta approach and be intelligently self-reflective, the game had a strong undertone of “Hurr… video games... durr” and what felt like an inappropriate way to represent characters. It could have been funny, but it wasn’t. It was tacky and kind of gross. I was embarrassed about playing the game and I would have glowed a terrifying shade of red had someone caught me in the middle of a cut-scene.
Hyperdimension Neptunia was an interesting idea, but it was executed in such a poor way that it fell flat on its white knicker-covered arse and stayed there, waiting for the camera to zoom in.