We’re pairing 8-bit music thematically, rather than based entirely on series. You can find this track and more Tater-Tot Tunes on YouTube! Stop by and jam to some great tunes.
Normal Happenings is proud to present The Characters That Define Us, a year long collaboration of 52+ incredible bloggers!
Pete from MoeGamer is one of the hardest working bloggers we’ve ever seen. From taking care of patrons, to enlightening readers about little-know pieces of fiction, Pete does it all. When we invited him to take part in The Characters That Define Us, we were honored when he accepted. We had no idea we’d be getting a 5000+ word opus on this blogger’s most important video game character.
I’m going to give a shoutout to his Patreon because each day, like clockwork, supporters receive a personalized blog post in their inbox. Now that’s dedication!
Thank you for your hard work on this article, Pete. Take it away!
Editor’s note: This article confronts a large number of debated issues, especially regarding mental health disorders and the sexualization of video game characters. While it’s all handled with tact, Pete’s piece might not be for all readers.
In order to understand Nepgear’s importance to me, it’s necessary to go on a bit of a long-term personal journey. She may have only become a Character That Defines Me relatively late in my life… but she is the culmination of a lot of factors that help to make me… me.
And thus I present you with the story of how I found Nepgear, and how she came to define me. Strap in, there’s quite the ride ahead!
Like most gamers of a certain age, I grew up with gaming and watched this formerly niche-interest pastime for antisocial nerds (like me!) explode into the all-encompassing cultural monster it is today. In the early days, I played anything I could because it’s all we had; as time went on and libraries expanded considerably, however, I started to develop certain tastes — initially tentatively and casually, but more and more seriously as time went on and I felt better “defined” as a person.
It began with Final Fantasy VII. “It’s the first video game that I’ve ever seen make someone cry,” said my brother, ten years my senior, on one occasion when he had come home from his job in the games press to visit me and my parents. I knew I had to try it. I don’t know why the idea of deliberately seeking out something that might make you cry appealed to me, but it did.
I played it. I cried. And I knew there was something special about this game that I had just experienced… and that, I suspected, at least part of that was down to the fact that it came from a culture other than my own.
I knew about anime. On one of my brother’s previous visits, he had brought back several huge cardboard boxes filled with promotional, prerelease VHS cassettes from Manga Video, who were just starting to bring a lot of localised Japanese popular media to the UK.
He’d acquired the videos because PC Zone, the publication that he was working on at the time, had published a feature about anime and the PC games aimed specifically at adults inspired by it — what we now know as eroge, which were just starting to be localised at this point by companies like Otaku Publishing in Europe and JAST USA in the States — but, living in a pokey London flat at the time, he didn’t have space for 50 or more VHS cassettes of stuff he probably wasn’t going to get around to watching.
One day when my parents were out, I decided to raid these boxes of VHS tapes. I deliberately chose one of the 18-rated ones; I was under 18 at the time, and under normal circumstances my parents were very strict about not allowing me to watch things outside of my age rating, so there was an illicit thrill to it all. I had no idea what I was getting into, so I just grabbed one that sounded cool and decided to watch it.
The anime I picked was Urotsukidouji: Legend of the Overfiend, which any longstanding anime fans will almost certainly tell you is about as far from a gentle introduction to the medium as you can get. Filled with explicit sexual violence and other horrifying scenes, Urotsukidouji is seriously hard going. And yet, despite my revulsion at some of the things I was witnessing… I found something compelling about the experience.
Here, I thought, was an interesting blend of things. We had animation of the ilk I was used to seeing on television for children’s programmes, but depicting absolutely heinous, horrifying acts. We had dramatic action in which the stakes were incredibly high — and in which, unlike those children’s cartoons, you absolutely could not guarantee everyone would make it out of the other side unscathed or even alive. We had something that was very much “for grown ups”, but which used something other than live action. Cartoons, as the cliché goes, were not just for kids any more.
Between my experiences with Final Fantasy VII and Urotsukidouji, I found myself well and truly enamoured with what Japanese popular media had to offer, and I continued to explore it casually over the following years. During the original PlayStation era in particular, I devoured a lot of now-classic role-playing games of Japanese origin and had a great time; I became so predictable in my purchasing habits that my friends could tell if I was going to pick something up from our friendly local software store — now long gone, sadly — purely by its box art.
The Overlooked and Underappreciated
After leaving home to attend university, I found that my tastes tended to gravitate more towards high-profile, critically acclaimed games, primarily thanks to my relationship with my school friends, with whom I kept in regular contact. These were the games I felt like I “should” be playing; the ones that the critics were saying were amazing; the ones that wowed everyone with how far we’d come since Space Invaders and Pac-Man.
But there was something at the back of my mind that was dissatisfied; the role-playing games and anime-inspired experiences I’d enjoyed in the PlayStation era seemed to be less common, and they didn’t appear to get talked about all that much. Since these were the days before widespread broadband Internet access, too, most of my information still came from magazines — and they simply weren’t covering these games any more.
As “always-on” Internet, as it was referred to in the early days, became more widespread, communities started to develop, and one that I latched on to early on was 1up.com, an online-only spinoff of Ziff-Davis’ Electronic Gaming Monthly that my brother had helped to launch.
1up.com was revolutionary at the time, offering its users the opportunity to create a profile, host their own blog and build their own subcommunities on the site. It allowed its users to contribute content to the website almost as if they were a staff member — though, naturally, they only paid their actual staffers. But the novelty of having your stuff on that platform was enough; the knowledge that anyone could stumble across your in-depth musings on a favourite game and start a conversation about it.
1up also offered a number of forums, one of which, known as the “Radio” board, was intended primarily for listeners of 1up.com’s podcast, 1up Yours.
On one particular episode of 1up Yours, the participants — who, at the time, included my brother — decided that they would attempt to tackle their “Pile of Shame”. This was defined as the games that they had, for one reason or another, bought, but had never played or finished. The podcast crew’s attempts to get through Tim Schafer’s seminal Psychonauts in the space of a week to discuss it “book club”-style on the following episode eventually came to nothing, sadly, but a number of us on the Radio boards liked the concept very much — so we took over their mission, this time as a forum thread rather than a podcast discussion.
Our group, which became known as “The Squadron of Shame”, developed something of a reputation for championing overlooked and underappreciated games: the ones that you might have picked up once because they looked interesting, but for one reason or another never got around to playing. Over our time on the 1up boards, we tackled games as diverse as the aforementioned Psychonauts, horror classics Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero) and System Shock 2, and legendary space sim Freespace 2.
Once 1up.com’s community collapsed following the site’s buyout by IGN, we decided to set up our own podcast, sporadically convening for lengthy “book club”-style discussions of these many varied weird and wonderful games that each of us, with our own unique tastes and experiences, could bring to the table.
Over the course of our adventures, we had many, many good times with a variety of different games ranging from adventure game The Shivah to the beautifully bizarre cult classic Deadly Premonition via parody RPG (and unofficial Space Jam sequel) Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden – Chapter One of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.
Through our discussions, we all developed our appreciation for games a little off the beaten track; games that did things a little differently. Speaking personally, it helped me to train my analytical eye; it taught me never to write a game off based on a first impression, but to give it a chance, explore it fully and perhaps end up finding a new favourite — or at least something that was fun to talk about — in the process. And, in the process, it helped to further define my personal tastes.
There was one game that, sadly, put an end to these happy times. That game was Katawa Shoujo, an ambitious worldwide project that aimed to expand some sketches by Japanese doujinshi artist RAITA into a full-on game.
Katawa Shoujo, if you’re unfamiliar, literally translates from Japanese to the offensive phrase “cripple girls”, but the intention was never to offend; it was to get people’s attention. And it most certainly did. RAITA’s original art depicted a number of different girls who each had some sort of physical disability, but the images did not mock, dehumanise or fetishise them.
They were a stark contrast to how manga and anime characters, in our experience, were usually presented as images of absolute, idealised perfection, but they were still beautiful girls. They caused you to question yourself, and think about the way you responded to people. And the game project that developed from these original sketches aimed to tell their stories in greater detail.
We knew that this was ideal fodder for the Squad to tackle, so a number of us set about acquiring the game — which you can still get for free to this day — and diving into it. What those of us who engaged with it found was a series of compelling, personal and deeply emotional stories about very human characters — ones who did not let their physical disabilities define them. Each of us found ourselves relating to one of the characters in particular on a very profound level, and all of us came out of the experience feeling like better people. Several of us even commented that we found ourselves better able to express ourselves to our loved ones after our experiences.
I say “all of us”; two of our number who had been part of the group since the very beginning objected violently to our coverage of the game on the grounds that it featured explicit sexual content, and they were not comfortable with even the concept of that, and did not wish to be associated with it in any way.
It was sad to see them go, but in retrospect it was unsurprising; around this period — early 2012 — we were starting to see much deeper rifts forming between various parts of the gaming community than we had ever seen before in the bad old days of playground “console wars”… and perhaps more significantly, significant discord was brewing between the professional, commercially focused gaming press and the gamers they served. Especially as it was, by this point, easier than ever for everyone to have a “voice” online thanks to the rise of freely available blogging software and web hosting — and, of course, the beginnings of social media as we know it today.
In some ways, these divisions can be looked at as a good thing, as they were an indication that gaming had grown sufficiently to be able to spawn distinct subcultures rather than simply being an amorphous, ill-defined mass. On the other hand, though, as our experiences with Katawa Shoujo showed, these divisions weren’t just differences of opinion; they were, in many cases, deep, seemingly uncrossable chasms that tore friendships apart.
By this point, I had planted my feet very firmly on one side of one of these chasms, thanks to my experiences with Katawa Shoujo. I was “home”, and I was damned if anyone was going to drag me out of this place I had found where I finally felt like I belonged… even if that meant former friends slowly drifted off into the dark mists as the rifts grew ever wider.
Oh, My Goddess
“What’s that game?” I asked my friend Cillah on Google+ one day — see, people really did use it. She’d posted a photo of a recent haul of PlayStation 3 games that she’d picked up, most of which had colourful anime-style art on the cover.
“Hyperdimension Neptunia,” she said. “I think you might like it. I really enjoyed it.”
I was intrigued by the anime-style artwork; I hadn’t seen a game quite so obviously anime-inspired for quite some time, so I took a chance. I bought a cheap second-hand copy of the game without looking at any information about it. I didn’t look at the Metacritic score, I didn’t read any reviews; I wanted to go in completely blind.
What I discovered was a very dated-looking PlayStation 3 game with a poor frame rate, muddy visuals, a needlessly complicated battle system and one of the most bizarre item usage mechanics I’ve ever seen. What I also discovered were some of the most likeable, delightful characters I’d ever spent time with in any game throughout my entire life… and, for me, that was more than enough to be able to overlook all of the game’s shortcomings.
For the unfamiliar, Hyperdimension Neptunia is a tale that unfolds in the fictional world of Gamindustri, which is in turn split into four lands: Planeptune, ruled by the goddess Purple Heart (personification of a failed Sega project known as the Neptune); Lastation, governed by Black Heart (aka Noire, representing PlayStation); Leanbox, overseen by Green Heart (also known as Vert, whose stereotypical blonde-haired, blue-eyed “foreigner” appearance makes her the perfect incarnation of the Xbox brand as perceived from Japan); and Lowee, where White Heart (also known as Blanc, representing Nintendo, specifically the Wii) is in charge. The game opens with all four of these goddesses battling one another in an allegorical representation of the “console wars”; the fight concludes with the latter three all ganging up on Purple Heart, causing her to fall from the heavenly realm of Celestia to the ground below, losing her memories in the process.
From here, the tale concerns Purple Heart’s scatterbrained human incarnation Neptune as she attempts to regain her memories and, ultimately, unite her rival goddesses against their common enemy Arfoire — a personification of the concept of software piracy, named after the notorious R4 unit that could be used to pirate Nintendo DS games.
The whole thing is as joyfully ridiculous as it sounds, and despite its technical shortcomings, it’s filled with heart, soul and genuine affection for the characters; it’s hard not to get drawn in if you allow yourself to be. And it has something with substance to say, too; among other things, the personification of the various video game consoles as literal goddesses highlights the absurdity of the quasi-religious fervour some fanboys get themselves into if you dare diss their gaming platform of choice… or favour a particular one of your own!
Out of curiosity, after burying myself 60 or so hours deep into this game’s delightful nonsense, I finally looked up some reviews. Predictably, they all carried very low scores; more worryingly, however, I noticed that as well as criticising the technical aspects, they were also placing an inordinate emphasis on aspects of the game that were a minor part of the whole experience — most notably the sexualisation of the female characters.
While Hyperdimension Neptunia features a number of moments of cheeky fanservice, there’s nothing truly offensive in there worthy of censure; in fact, the game is more progressive than most in that it features an exclusively female cast of characters, all of whom are written with a great deal of character and personality about them, and who show themselves to be extremely confident in who they are and what they represent.
Something felt off with these reviews, and I suspected strongly that what I had encountered here was confirmation, once and for all, that Metacritic scores and critical consensus were no longer of any use to me whatsoever. That chasm was widening further, but I was still very comfortable on the chunk of land on which I’d found myself; I was still home.
I was having an absolute blast with Hyperdimension Neptunia; so much so that I picked up its sequel Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 — once again without reading any reviews — while I was still in the middle of the first game. I knew at this point that I’d want to move straight on and spend more time with these wonderful characters.
What I didn’t know at the time I picked up the newer game was how it would mark a significant moment on the journey I’ve described up until this point: it would introduce me to Nepgear, the Character That Defines Me.
Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 took an interesting approach to the “sequel” concept. Rather than being a direct follow-up to the original game, it instead acted as something of a reboot. It was very clear that developer Compile Heart was aware of the challenges they had faced with the original game, and wanted a “do-over” rather than a direct follow-up. That way, those who couldn’t deal with the original game’s various clunky aspects could jump right into this one without feeling like they were missing out on anything, while established veterans could have greater appreciation thanks to a new perspective on these characters they had got to know so well.
Unusually, mk2 placed the emphasis not on the characters we had previously been led to believe were the main protagonists of the series, but rather their little sisters: a series of new characters that, much as their elder siblings represented major games consoles, personified handhelds from the various companies. Blanc’s twin sisters Rom and Ram from Lowee represented the two screens of the Nintendo DS; Noire’s sister Uni’s distinctive and stylish black-and-silver design was an homage to the PSP and Vita; and Vert didn’t have a sister because Microsoft never released an Xbox handheld.
And then there was Neptune’s sister Nepgear, representing the Sega Game Gear. Nepgear was the lead protagonist of mk2, but she was extremely uncomfortable and anxious in the role. In a piece of the series’ trademark fourth wall-breaking, she worried that people would find her “boring”, and that she would not be able to live up to the expectations her older sister had set. She suffered greatly from impostor syndrome and, even with the reassurances of her friends and her proven abilities in the field, constantly doubted herself and her capability to perform the seemingly unavoidable task that had been placed before her.
I had never before encountered a character with whom I felt such an immediate, inescapable, unbreakable bond as the one I did with Nepgear.
Everything that came out of her mouth was something I had said or thought before. I worried I was boring. I worried that I would not be able to live up to the expectations my older brother had set. I suffer greatly from impostor syndrome — though mostly in my professional life rather than when indulging my personal creativity — and, even when reassured by my friends and proving myself to be more than capable of standing up to significant challenges, I constantly doubt myself and my capability to perform unavoidable tasks that I would just, more than anything, love to be able to escape without consequence.
As I spent more time with Nepgear and got to know her better, I started to recognise more and more aspects of my own personality and the way my brain worked.
She did her best to be nice to people as much as she possibly could, much like I do.
She had an intensely passionate interest in her hobbies and the things that were important to her, just like I do.
Even with her nervousness and anxiety around others, she managed to develop close personal relationships with a select few people who were important to her, just like I do.
And, as demonstrated in the heartbreaking and gut-wrenching optional secret “Conquest” ending to mk2, she showed that when things became truly desperate and there were no other options, she was able to grit her teeth, rip off the proverbial Band-Aid and do exactly what needed to be done — however much it might hurt to do so.
Thankfully, I’ve only had to do this a couple of times in my life — and even more thankfully, I didn’t have to take as drastic measures as Nepgear is forced to take in that ending! — but even this side of her was one from which I was able to draw a strange sort of comfort; a feeling that I wasn’t alone in having to take difficult, irreversible steps that would be for the best in the long run, but which could never be undone once carried out.
Having finally come to feel like I had well and truly defined at the very least my gaming tastes, if not myself, I started to feel that it was important to express these feelings.
Shortly before discovering the Neptunia games, I had been laid off from my job at the once-great publication GamePro, which had sadly been shuttered by its parent company, leaving all of us without work.
While between jobs, I found myself running a site called Games Are Evil, which I had previously contributed to, and reimagined it as a site based on columns by specialist writers rather than a traditional news and reviews site. I took on the role of resident RPG and visual novel specialist, while other friends and colleagues looked at topics such as Minecraft, strategy games, racing games and retro classics.
My “column” format at Games are Evil worked well; in many ways, it was the precursor to the Cover Game format I follow now on my own site MoeGamer. It was about writing about the different aspects of a game analytically and enthusiastically, not about offering consumer advice. These columns were not “reviews”; they were simply articles about games. And my audience appreciated that.
Eventually, good fortune found me; I was approached by Jaz Rignall, with whom I had previously worked on GamePro. He was about to launch a new project called USgamer, which was an America-centric spinoff of the popular Eurogamer. His vision for the site was for it to have named writers who specialised in particular areas, similar to how 1up had once done things. And he wanted me on board.
Things went well for a while. I finally had a substantial platform where I could cover the games I was interested in — and where my audience appreciated the unique perspective I brought to the table. Anime-style Japanese games had reached a point where many mainstream commercial reviewers simply weren’t taking them seriously in the slightest, so my willingness to not only give them a chance but also be genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about them made a lot of people very happy.
During my time at USgamer, I published a substantial article about “the hidden depths of otaku games”, in which I spoke with representatives from companies such as NIS America (who had localised the Neptunia series up until that point) and Xseed Games, who were about to bring us the Senran Kagura series here in the West; this series subsequently became another of my all-time favourites alongside Neptunia.
This, along with my enthusiastic coverage of a variety of niche-interest titles, helped to cement my reputation, for better or worse. While I was greatly appreciated by my audience members who were sick of the derisive coverage their favourite games got from commercial sites, I also made some enemies.
I never felt more like Nepgear than when I faced down those enemies and proudly stood up for what I believed in.
The prospect of speaking up in favour of the things I loved overrode my usual fear of confrontation; I felt like Nepgear, unwillingly thrust into the role of protagonist and terrified at the prospect, but also aware that there was a job that needed to be done, and people who had come to count on me.
I thought about my dear purple sister as I stood my ground; I was not willing to let what I had helped to build come tumbling down as a result of other people’s narrow-mindedness.
I thought about her sweet voice urging me to be true to myself rather than allowing people to bully me out of the things I loved; I was not going to give up that which had come to bring me comfort during dark times in my life just because people said I “shouldn’t” enjoy it for one reason or another.
And I thought about the help and support, intangible as it was, that she and her friends had given me ever since that fateful first encounter. Support that, as it turned out, I would come to need once again.
That’s where MoeGamer came from: a firm statement that however hard I might get knocked down, and however I might be judged for it, there was something that was important to me, that I was willing to protect. As the path behind me was gradually set ablaze by those enemies who were determined to see my downfall, I looked back over my shoulder, as Nepgear had done in the Conquest ending of mk2, and recognised that while my enemies were determined to bring me great pain, and that it was increasingly apparent there would be no way to avoid that pain, I could still do whatever I could to survive. I did not have to go quietly.
Hand in Hand
In 2017, I was diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum that typically shows itself through, among other things, various difficulties with social interactions and self-confidence, the desire to immerse yourself in the hobbies and interests that are particularly important to you, and a certain amount of clumsiness. (We do have better-than-average auditory and visual perception as a general pattern, though, so it’s not all bad news!)
The diagnosis confirmed something I’d felt for a long time; something that I’d felt was not quite right about me ever since I’d sat down next to my new classmate on our first day in secondary school and I turned around to my friend Matthew, who was sitting behind me, and said, genuinely terrified of the situation, “I can’t remember how to make friends”.
It was a relief in many ways; now there was an explanation for all the things I’d felt and done over the years. I didn’t want an excuse for past happenings, particularly those where I had been in the wrong, but I did want an explanation. And this provided one.
It helped me to understand why I had difficulty making new friends; why everyday social situations such as making telephone calls and “small talk” in the office terrified me.
It explained why I found myself ruminating on negative things, or assuming the worst would happen in an impending situation.
And it also explained why I loved to write, and how I had become so fascinated with and passionate about the games I enjoy to this day. In particular, it helped me to understand why I had come to feel so at home on that little isolated “island” that had, by this point, well and truly broken off from the “mainland” of critical consensus and popular opinion, with all its bridges burned to ash.
Not only that, it helped me to understand Nepgear a bit better. While there’s nothing canonically out there to suggest that she is fully “on the spectrum”, as it were, it didn’t really matter to me. I recognised a lot of the traits she displays as those that I exhibit on a daily basis. I recognised that these things that I perceived as “failures” in myself were actually aspects of Nepgear’s personality that made me feel closer to her and more fond of her.
I understood, through the love and appreciation I felt for this charming, anxious, obsessive, polite, nice, responsible and intensely loyal young woman, that I could learn to love and appreciate myself — and to accept the love and appreciation of others.
When times get tough and the very way my brain works threatens to overwhelm me, I think of Nepgear. I imagine her taking my trembling hand with a nervous “what the goodness?”, and breathlessly, anxiously, energetically doing her best to convince me that everything is absolutely positively definitely (probably) going to be all right, then inviting me to come and play games and build robots to take my mind off things.
We all need a friend like that. It doesn’t matter if they’re not “real”. Even if they only exist as digital data or text on a page, the feelings they instill in you most certainly are real. And as the modern world seemingly becomes more stressful and anxiety-inducing to live in on a daily basis, it’s important to draw comfort and support from whatever — or whoever — you can.
Adventure Map! *FINISHING UP!*