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.