Cyberdimension Neptunia: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

One of the interesting things about the Neptunia series as a whole is that it doesn’t really have an overarching “big plot” as such, but nonetheless sees each of its characters getting plenty of development.

Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online is an especially intriguing case in that, although it is a spinoff title from the main series, previous examples of which have been regarded as non-canonical, it feels like one of the most significant instances of each member of its main cast “advancing” in their overall development and growth.

In fact, in many ways, the fact Cyberdimension Neptunia does not feature a prominent note that it is a non-canonical installment can lead us to believe that it is a quasi-sequel to Megadimension Neptunia V-II and its predecessor Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory/Re;Birth3, particularly given the presence of characters who were introduced in those games, such as Plutia and Peashy (Victory/Re;Birth3) and Uzume (V-II). And in that context it’s actually a very significant installment in the series from a narrative perspective.

Another reason it’s significant is the fact that it features a narrative that doesn’t focus exclusively on the core cast of goddesses and a problem they have to solve in the world at large. Rather, it begins as a simple case of them doing something enjoyable together as the group of friends they have become by this point in the series. By making this the setup, it allows the game as a whole to explore some broader context in the Neptunia universe as a whole, most notably with regard to some things we’ve only previously seen mentioned in passing, never directly depicted on screen.

The most important aspect of Cyberdimension Neptunia in this regard is the fact that it is set entirely within the latest version of 4 Goddesses Online, a series of massively multiplayer online games that Vert has been depicted as enjoying for most of the rest of the series. The version we get to play in Cyberdimension Neptunia is not the same one Vert has always been talking about, however; it’s a sequel which the girls are participating in a beta test of, allowing everyone (including Vert) to start from scratch on a level playing field.

Right away this highlights an important core theme of the overall narrative: the joy it’s possible to derive from sharing something that you enjoy with your closest friends, and likewise the joy one can take from accepting your friends’ passions, perhaps discovering some of your own in the process.

This idea is most readily apparent in the enthusiasm Vert shows about the new game when everyone first logs in. This mirrors the way real people tend to act when they finally convince friends to join them in a game they are a veteran of; the temptation is to want to show them everything all at once, to demonstrate your knowledge at every opportunity, to feel like you’re an “expert” — but hopefully without scaring them off.

We also see this idea explored in a few other areas, too, most notably with regard to Noire. In previous games, we’ve had plenty of unsubtle hints that Noire is a cosplay enthusiast and closet otaku, often dressing up in the outfits of her favourite characters and taking photographs. (In Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection, you even had the opportunity to leverage this aspect of her personality to improve her commercial appeal; hearing her recording an audio CD in which she awkwardly calls her listeners “onii-chan” is truly something wonderful to behold.)

Early in Cyberdimension Neptunia, several characters catch Noire taking screenshots of her avatar (which, like everyone else, she has made to resemble herself) from numerous angles, admiring her Black Knight outfit and pondering the practicality of putting together a cosplay outfit for it. Immediately embarrassed at the prospect of being “exposed” by the arrival of her friends, Noire initially attempts to deny what is going on in true tsundere fashion, but Blanc calmly explains “there really isn’t any point in trying to hide this any more; everyone already knows,” with the implication that there’s nothing she should be ashamed of… though there might be a little light-hearted teasing along the way.

The concept of acceptance and understanding is pretty much personified by the new character Bouquet, who is an AI character included as part of the new 4 Goddesses Online experience. Intended to be a recurring NPC for the main questline who directs the players in the appropriate direction of where their epic quest should take them next, Vert immediately latches on to Bouquet as yet another candidate for her harem of “little sisters” and causes the fledgling AI to become rather flustered, particularly as she is enveloped without warning by Vert’s all-consuming, perfectly recreated in-game bosom. Bouncy bouncy.

Since Bouquet is essentially a “newborn” AI at the outset of Cyberdimension Neptunia, she spends a lot of time taking the opportunity to learn what she can about interacting with people and what the player base might want from a character like her. Vert isn’t necessarily the best person to set an example for an impressionable young AI, but she nonetheless makes quite an impact.

The other characters all get a bit of time to help Bouquet learn, too, however, though many of them don’t know it at the time; it eventually becomes clear that the “nun” character in the game’s main hub town is actually Bouquet in disguise, and that her “confession” booth has been set up for no other reason than for her to gather data about player behaviour, interests and what they like to talk about.

Given the Neptunia series’ typical use of satire, this is more than likely a sly dig at the increasing amounts of data that online services like to pry from us, preferably without us thinking about it, but it also provides plenty of opportunity for each of the main cast to have a moment in the spotlight and extoll the virtues of their favourite things while Sister Bouquet accepts them all unconditionally. An ultimately positive message to draw from it all.

Acceptance is everywhere in Cyberdimension Neptunia. The strongly implied relationship between Nepgear and Uni, for example, is made more explicit than it’s ever been when the former sends the latter a coded message that, when translated, is a gushing message of appreciation practically overflowing with genuine love and affection. While Neptune teases the pair with talk of “lily flowers blooming” — a reference to both the previous games’ “Lily Rank” relationship system as well as a literal translation of the word yuri — there’s a strong feeling of warmth and acceptance to how the rest of the cast look on the couple.

While both Nepgear and Uni are far too shy to ever make any truly public displays of affection towards one another — and no-one (except Neptune) draws attention to them out of respect for this — it’s hard not to feel like everyone else would either applaud or go “awww” should they decide to hold hands, hug or lock lips with one another. One day it’ll happen somewhere other than fanart.

Even we, the audience, are encouraged to jump aboard the acceptance train, too. We’re led to believe that only people who truly understand and accept Blanc’s sister Rom are able to hear her vocalising her emotions at the end of her sentences. The Japanese audio track for Rom has always featured her using Japanese onomatopoeia such as “waku waku” (excitement) and “doki doki” (heart racing), but Cyberdimension Neptunia not only makes this more explicit by directly referencing it in the subtitles, it also suggests that we, the players, are in a uniquely privileged position by being able to hear these utterances. It’s a nice little touch, and a more subtle means of breaking the fourth wall and drawing the player in than Neptune addressing the player directly. Don’t worry, though, the latter still happens.

Speaking more broadly, Cyberdimension Neptunia’s overall narrative has several main “layers” to it. Firstly, there’s the in-game storyline that Neptune and her friends are following, which is a typical “the Demon King is rising, you will need these four Sacred Treasures that are inconveniently scattered around the world’s dungeons” affair. While about as bog-standard an RPG plot as you can get, the whole thing is given a rather different feel to a game that plays itself straight by the fact that the “main characters” are thoroughly aware of the fact that they’re playing a game.

In representing the plot of 4 Goddesses Online in this way, Cyberdimension Neptunia highlights the fact that there’s often something of a disconnect between the narrative and mechanical components of your average massively multiplayer game. Different games get around this in different ways; some don’t even attempt to address it at all. Aside from joining the most hardcore of hardcore roleplaying groups and refusing all contact with anyone who speaks “out of character”, however, it’s a fact that the moment you jump online, no amount of well-crafted story will maintain your immersion the moment you’re confronted by someone with a stupid name who takes the “game” side of things a little too seriously.

In Cyberdimension Neptunia, this function is fulfilled by the duo of Kiria and † Black Cat Princess † [sic], the first of whom is a very obvious parody of Kirito from Sword Art Online (despite later being revealed to be female, a fact that isn’t immediately obvious from her rather boyish appearance and voice) and the latter of whom is an amalgamation of two common player stereotypes in MMOs: the e-girl looking to gain advantages (and/or cybersex) by playing up her femininity and flirtatiousness to an obnoxiously excessive degree; and the teenage edgelords who think dressing their character all in black, putting punctuation in their usernames and giving themselves a title like “Princess” makes them better than everyone else.

Kiria and Princess (as we shall refer to her hereafter for the sake of me not having to remember what the Alt code for a dagger is) are initially presented simply as rivals to the Neptunia girls; despite Vert’s initial protestations to the contrary, the group finds itself leading the way in terms of clearing the main story content, though Kiria and Princess are constantly keeping pace with them. Princess’ frustration at the situation and desire to be adored as “the best” is eventually used against her, however; a mysterious black-clad figure who had previously approached all of the goddesses (and been rebuffed by each of them) convinces her and Kiria to make use of a “cheat tool”, which, as you might expect, has a certain degree of nefarious intention behind it, and subsequently brings about the second main layer of narrative in the game.

Cyberdimension Neptunia resists the temptation to go for the usual angle works set within an “MMO gone wrong” tend to take; as we’ve previously seen in the aforementioned Sword Art Online and its spiritual precursor .hack, the idea of an online game somehow killing people is a well-worn trope, and thankfully eschewed by this particular title. Rather, Cyberdimension Neptunia explores the idea of a disgruntled and jealous developer attempting to bring down a rival product from within — a plausible concept that is dealt with in some interesting ways throughout the second act of the game.

Ultimately, you’re always conscious of the fact that 4 Goddesses Online is “just a game” and that there’s no actual physical threat or risk to anyone involved, even as increasingly strange things start to happen. You’re tasked by one of 4 Goddesses Online’s Game Masters with some rather unconventional things to do around this point, the most notable of which is exploring an entire dungeon themed around Unreal Engine 4 (which the game runs on) that makes use of so many fancy graphical effects on its scenery it appears to deliberately make your PlayStation run hot and fire up its fans into overdrive. Or perhaps I just need to dust.

Throughout this whole narrative sequence, the game highlights how important players consider their online avatars and achievements in games like this by treating the whole incident with a high degree of “seriousness”; the climax of the game’s second act is treated with the same level of drama as your typical JRPG finale, even though all that is really at stake is a bunch of data on some servers that is presumably backed up somewhere. No-one will actually get hurt if everything were to go wrong; no-one in the real world, anyway. But that doesn’t matter in the moment; by this point, you know, for example, Vert will be absolutely inconsolable should Bouquet-chan find herself corrupted or deleted as part of the process, and whatever will Noire do without her frilly outfits? The stakes may be all-digital, but they’re stakes nonetheless.

What’s fun about all this is that while it would have made a suitably dramatic finale to end the game as a whole on — and indeed once you resolve the situation you get an “ending” complete with credits roll — it’s hard not to be conscious throughout the whole thing that you never did get around to finishing the actual main story of 4 Goddesses Online itself. So naturally once everything is back to “normal”, you get to go back and do just that, as well as engaging in its endgame quests, and continuing to play until you decide you’re satisfied and don’t need to play any more, just like a real MMO.

In this third and final act, there are a number of optional events you can trigger that detail the background of the aforementioned disgruntled employee, what happened to World Break Online and why the events that transpired in the middle of the overall narrative unfolded as they did. You don’t have to explore these if you don’t feel the need to, since they have no impact whatsoever on the girls continuing on their in-game quest to revive the titular Goddesses and defeat the Demon King, but if you do so you’re rewarded with some enjoyable background story that helps feel the whole narrative feel considerably more fleshed-out and comprehensive.

In fact, despite the fact that Cyberdimension Neptunia unfolds entirely within the 4 Goddesses Online game itself, it feels like one of the most well-realised Neptunia games to date in terms of narrative and setting. Its main storyline is complemented by a variety of optional sub-events that provide us with some enjoyable side-stories such as Uzume’s attempts to solo the whole game, IF and Compa clearly being totally gay for one another (as we’ve always known) but unable to quite express it properly and Arfoire and Warechu attempting to corner the market in eggplant farming, much as some players of games like Final Fantasy XIV attempt to make as much in-game money as possible through anything other than battle content.

And through the combination of all this supporting content with its intertwining main narrative threads, the game as a whole provides us with the opportunity to understand a very specific part of the series’ world, and to explore a phenomenon that has been consistently popular for almost as long as we have known the main cast.

Along the way, it provides enjoyable and light-hearted commentary on how people behave differently online to how they would in reality, how some people take the opportunity to “experiment” with things outside of their normal comfort zone behind the veil of online anonymity, and how getting a little too invested in a game can lead to unfortunate consequences.

It’s a delightfully different angle from which to explore the main cast, who are extremely well-established by this point in the series, and has a markedly different feel from the mainline installments without feeling like it’s completely divorced from the main timeline.

In short, Neptunia fans will find it an absolute delight. Newcomers will probably find it helpful to get a few of the previous games under their belt before tackling this one — at least from a narrative perspective — but grizzled Neptunia vets like me will be in heaven for the story’s relatively short but sweet 30-hour duration.


More about Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online

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4 thoughts on “Cyberdimension Neptunia: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation”

  1. This series looks like have a lot of games…what is the best order?I think that I have the 3 remakes is best to start with the main series?

    Like

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