Cyberdimension Neptunia: Art Imitates Life

The Neptunia series has always, at least in part, been about taking a sidelong glance at elements of popular culture, particularly those related to video games, and Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online is no exception.

Through its overall aesthetic — particularly its art and music — it both pays homage to and parodies a variety of influences in both the online and offline role-playing game spheres, but in doing so it manages to retain a strong enough sense of its own identity to still be clearly recognisable as a Neptunia game.

In fact, through the combination of Tsunako’s distinctive character designs, their energetic scripts and their light-hearted, inclusive nature that draws the player in to the experience, there’s a strong argument for Neptunia games being some of the most immediately recognisable Japanese games on the market today. And I’m all for that.

We’ve already talked somewhat about how Cyberdimension Neptunia reflects modern MMO culture through both its gameplay and its narrative, but it’s worth delving a little further into how aspects of its presentation enhance that feeling, too. In particular, a number of its incidental scenes — especially those accompanied by event images — are strongly evocative of things that people naturally end up doing in real-life MMOs, for better or worse, with one of the most commonly seen examples being reflected in the explicitly fanservicey image seen here.

In terms of the game’s narrative, this scene represents Neptune experimenting with 4 Goddesses Online’s camera control and using it to peek up the skirts of her friends’ avatars, something that most people have probably done in an MMO while queueing for a dungeon or during other periods of downtime. By this point in the story, we’ve already seen Neptune’s trademark striped shimapan undies so, she figures, it’s only fair that she gets to look at what her comrades are wearing too. Noire is shown to be wearing lacy black panties that match her elaborate, frilly Black Knight outfit, Blanc is sporting some appropriately tidy and understated white undies, while Vert describes her own character’s leotard as “underwear that it is acceptable to show” and, unlike her compatriots, is completely unashamed by the whole situation.

In the course of this scene, we not only get a fun bit of fanservice, we also get some commentary on how important fashion (or “glamour” as it’s called in titles such as Final Fantasy XIV) is to players of online games. Players in these games often consider their in-game avatars to be extensions of themselves, whether or not they’ve designed them to resemble their real-life selves as the Neptunia girls have in this instance, and thus many take great care to carefully design and coordinate their outfits — right down to the underwear in many cases, where such an option exists.

There’s some similar work at play in this particular shot here — another fanservicey one in which we see Nep’s pantsu yet again. This scene is part of an ongoing series of optional sub-events that involve a pool of water in the game’s main hub town that many have come to believe grants wishes under certain circumstances. In this particular scene, Neptune comes to the alarming discovery that 4 Goddesses Online features clothing and armour that reacts to getting wet, in the case of her white skirt… well, see for yourself.

It’s hard to know the specific examples the Neptunia team had in mind when coming up with these scenes, but speaking from personal experience I can certainly remember when Final Fantasy XIV added the ability for clothes to get wet to its engine. Indeed, so pleasing was the visual effect to some people that they would deliberately jump into bodies of water to make their clothes and armour all “shiny”, and some players I knew while I was an active player even hoped for the ability to make their glamours “perpetually wet” for stylistic purposes.

It’s interesting to consider Final Fantasy XIV in this context, because at the time of writing it is by far the most successful example of a Japanese-developed MMO, and indeed one of the most successful ongoing, premium, subscription-based MMOs. As such, it’s hard not to find yourself wondering if indeed aspects such as this are specific references to that game, or more general commentary.

Indeed, there are certain aspects of the game’s overall aesthetic that are strongly reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIV, be it the tendency for “visible lingerie” such as garters and stockings in the outfits, seen clearly on Blanc here, but also some of the in-game unlockable costumes are rather Final Fantasy-inspired, too; Blanc, as a healer, for example, gets a red and white robe that is very obviously a White Mage outfit.

There’s another key influence at play, however, as it’s a phenomenon impossible to ignore when dealing with any kind of Japanese popular media concerning online games: Sword Art Online. References to this range from the subtle — the image above features Vert carrying Blanc in a “bridal carry” rather similar to what it’s possible for Kirito to do to any of the romanceable heroines in the Sword Art Online games from Bandai Namco — to the… rather more obvious.

Kiria (right) is the most obvious reference to Sword Art Online, what with how seriously she takes her role as knight-protector, but in something of a twist the girl she is attached to is not an Asuna clone, but instead she is † Black Cat Princess †, a distinctly Gothic-looking young woman that is more than likely a reference to Kuroyukihime (“Black Snow Princess”), the heroine of Sword Art Online’s rival and contemporary series, Accel World.

Instead, the Asuna clone that is in the game (“Asuka”) is relegated to supporting bit-part status, though her ongoing attempts to attract Kiria’s attention, her incompetence at typing and her general inability to play the game in any way proficiently is extremely endearing, and it would have been nice to see more of her throughout the narrative.

There are some more meta references to Sword Art Online and its influence over popular culture, too; an optional conversation partway through the game sees the cast passing comment on trends in usernames, and how there seem to be an awful lot of people with “Kiri” in their names at present. Reference is also made to female characters with “ri”, “ru” or “fi”  as part of their names, which is supposedly an indicator that their players are not actually the same gender as their avatars — likely a convention in Japanese online gaming.

The idea of representing yourself in a virtual world is one that is explored quite a bit throughout Cyberdimension Neptunia, primarily through its optional events. We never see the main antagonist of the second act’s real face, for example, but we see their avatar in the game — how they choose to represent themselves. There is also a rather wonderful scene involving Blanc where she guiltily confesses to Bouquet that she made her breasts slightly bigger than reality during character creation — a reflection of games like this giving us the opportunity to play as an idealised version of ourselves, of the person we’d like to be, and the fact that this can actually lead to a bit of disconnect between self and avatar in some instances.

We also see popular newer character and Dreamcast personification Uzume Tennoboushi as a supporting character; she has her own series of side events in which she attempts to clear the game as a solo player. This reflects how she was depicted throughout Megadimension — a young woman who had grown to be strong and independent, largely through necessity in that instance, but also stubborn to a fault at times, and rather prone to lapsing into delightfully girlish flights of fancy at inopportune moments. Uzume is clearly attempting to play 4 Goddesses Online the way she attempts to live her real life, and it takes her some time to understand that this may not be entirely practical in much the same way that people playing their first MMO are sometimes hesitant to interact or play with others.

There’s a strong sense of the idea of the online sphere as a sort of “global village” throughout, which is a nice reflection of reality. While there are billions of people on the planet, many of whom are connected to the Internet, there are times when the online world can feel like a surprisingly small place.

Shared experiences can bring people closer together — in the case of 4 Goddesses Online, most people in the game are familiar with the breakdown and failure of the game’s prior big rival World Break Online, for example — and the idea of “missed connections” reuniting with one another under unexpected circumstances is also explored through an interesting little minor subplot with Noire and Blanc. It’s a nice, subtly handled exploration of how, for all the criticism we can throw at the Internet and social media for causing tribalism, petty arguments and stupidity, it is, on the whole, probably a good thing for humanity as a whole. Nepgear even states this outright in the obligatory hot springs scene.

Ultimately, like most of the rest of the series, a lot of Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online is what you choose to make of it. If you want to play it purely as a straightforward, fun hack and slash game without worrying too much about the story, you can. But if you take the time to engage with the characters and the world, consider it in the context of the whole Neptunia series and perhaps even think about how it uses its narrative, themes and characterisation to reflect reality, you can appreciate it on a much deeper level if you choose to. (Guess where I fall on this spectrum?)

In short, it’s a prime example of the Neptunia series doing what it’s always done best: providing an experience that works on multiple levels, for a variety of different types of player and for all sorts of different people, regardless of how deep down the Japanese popular culture rabbit hole they’ve fallen.


More about Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online

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