When Hyperdimension Neptunia first made its way West from Japan in 2011, folks weren't too happy with it. "Worthless" and "sexist" and "stereotypical" were the sentiments thrown around, because we were seeing cute anime girls being silly and wearing short skirts. But the stated purpose of the series is to make fun of the games industry, and when I look deeper it seems evident that Neptunia is also lampooning the very pervasive sexist culture and tropes it's been accused of perpetuating. This so-called "sexist" franchise is actually, ahem, anti-sexist.
There are four Neptunia games thus far. The most recent one -- called Producing Perfection, or PP for short -- hit Vita in June and dropped pretty much any pretense of being anything other than a joke at the expense of the business. Instead of being a talky JRPG with so-so mechanics like the others, this one is a visual novel "idol sim" -- an exclusively Japanese simulation subgenre about managing the career of a pop singer/performer.
But it's a very stripped down experience (check out a more traditional rundown of the Japanese version of the game here), removing most of what we think of as gameplay, leaving only a nominal game structure in which you manage the day-to-day life of an up-and-coming idol. This is a positive change, as it gets us straight into the good stuff: dialogue and jokes. This is not a game about challenge or skill or any of that other Ken Levine stuff.
The above screenshot is where the game begins. That's Neptune, the title character, talking to you, the main character. The producer (that's you) is charged with helping the four leads -- who are serious lady gamers who almost certainly game more than you do -- become popular singers and performers. When you meet them, Neptune calls you a "cut-and-paste stereotype." You're just a creepy otaku weirdo for playing this game, probably. But, Neptune's tone is light and silly, so she's not throwing out that kind of biting insult. Right?
Let's go a little further into the way this game isn't limited by four walls.
See? Neptune does not give a shit about walls, and she doesn't give a shit about adhering to the established genre and formula of the Neptunia series. After three games of epic adventures in the universe of Gamindustri (yes, that's what the game world is called), now it's time to mess around and try to broaden the franchise's appeal by making a new kind of game.
This game is just a shameless attempt at bringing in new fans by creating a half-assed spinoff game, see? Don't take it too seriously!
Oh, and here's a cool sexy shower scene.
You're a perv for playing this, remember.
Here we go. The screenshot above just about sums up this entire franchise. It's showing you a cute anime girl, naked in the shower, naughty bits obscured by bubbles and dialogue text. It's a sitcom moment; you decide to take a shower, but Neptune is already in there. Wah wah.
And Neptune takes this opportunity to crack some jokes about how this sort of thing is something game devs do to draw in the pervy dudes. But, of course, they can't be explicit because this is a T-rated game, ya doofus.
When I described the premise of this post to Kotaku bossman Stephen Totilo with some of these screens (see, I can break the fourth wall, too), he said, "So it's having its cheesecake and eating it too?" and that's basically it. And this meta-commentary is making its points loud and clear, so long as you can look past that relaxed tone and see what it's saying.
PP doesn't limit its commentary to veiled jokes, though. Sometimes it has the player express some, ah, uneasiness with what's going on. (Pofai is what I named my character, by the way.)
There's more. Neptunia features some "lol video games" jokes and some "golly gee maybe we should tone this back" jokes, and those are great. But just as this game is not limited to four walls, it's also not limited to those types of jokes.
Sometimes it trots out commentary that really hurts. Jokes that really tear into the souls of its targets. Like this one.
I saw this joke for the first time more than a month ago, and I'm still laughing at it. This is a hardcore yet still totally charming stab at misogynist bros of all sorts. That it came in the middle of a game that's allegedly intended for creepy loser otaku dudes is just magical, and that joke is one of the key reminders that the Neptunia franchise was created and is still run by a woman. But in case you don't quite understand it, I'll do a quick walkthrough.
The four leads in Neptunia, goddesses who represent game consoles, each have two forms: the regular, cute anime girl look and the "HDD" form, seen in the above image. Vert/Green Heart, as she says, was playing a sexy, scantily-clad warrior character in a game. Finding that she couldn't relate to that character the way she looked normally, she transformed. This one goes out to the type of male internet denizens who object to having a female video game lead because he can't relate to that. Vert takes that ridiculous idea to its logical extreme -- bros, if you wanna relate to Marcus Fenix you need to 'roid up and work out all the time, because your weakling arse clearly cannot grant you the empathy powers necessary to be able to relate with him.
And that's why I play these games. Up top I described Neptunia as "anti-sexist," and that might be more accurate a description than to straight up call it feminist. Either way, it's strange that so many have missed that aspect of a series that carries the stated purpose of lampooning the games industry. It's not only taking aim at misogyny, but the business as a whole and the quirks of the individual consoles and their fanbases. On top of all that, it just has a pile of silly nothings.
These regular jokes are disarming and might serve to soften the blow when something legit comes along like the empathy joke, and that's the genius of it. You don't see it coming, and you might even miss that realness when it hits you. Perhaps the creepers are even comforted by some of the jokes they don't realise are at their expense, like the ones about Vert's boobs.
That's for real how she introduces herself, and this makes the game feel right off the bat like maybe it's going to be one of those games. But like everything in Neptunia, the jokes about Vert's boobs go over the top enough to be something more than just "fan service."
But Vert's boobs are not all about fun and games. Neptunia may be 99 per cent jokes, but occasionally it gets a little bit serious, as it does when you barge in on Vert in the shower. She's, uh, pretty sad about it.
Vert tends to deadpan, and that's peak Vert deadpan right there. It's... painful. I only showed you this as a primer for the one part of the game that does feel like a solid gutpunch: the viewer.
Outside of the main story is the viewer feature, which allows you to look at any of the game characters (they're all ladies), dress them up, and so on. You can turn them around, but it's not a from-any-angle deal -- there's no option to look straight up anybody's skirt, for instance.
Interactions in this mode are limited; aside from turning the girls around, all you can do is, well, poke them. And if you do poke them, you'll see some really depressing expressions. Like this one:
Vert's sad face in those last two pics is in jarring contrast to the happy nature of the Neptunia experience. It's the harsh blow that sells the game's message.
Maybe you could take some of these individual things and declare this is why Hyperdimension Neptunia is just another game about oversexualized anime girls. In reality, as I've repeated over and over, it's poking fun at that trope and many others.
I say "poking fun" because it doesn't want to be mean-spirited about it, and that's why those downer bits are extremely unusual. You're supposed to have a good time with Neptunia, so even the total zingers like the empathy joke aren't exactly gut-wrenching. It wants to have a positive effect, both in social terms and on your mood. And that's a good thing! Blunt editorials are great, and this subtle indoctrination is a great complement to that more obviously forceful approach.
The downside of this soft approach, though, is that a lot of folks are just gonna miss the point. The scope of things Neptunia games mock is so broad, and that mockery is sandwiched between so many silly, pointless jokes, that Poe's Law will come into effect for some players.
Still, even a terrible cut-and-paste stereotype creeper dude might be able to unconsciously soak in a positive message when it comes in the midst of completely nonsensical and charming jokes like the one below. And that's not insignificant.
Phil Owen is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and critic who exists to disagree with you about everything. Follow him on Twitter at @philrowen, and send hate mail to [email protected]