So, like about 2 million other people (a significant proportion of which, admittedly, seem to be teenage girls), I’m currently obsessed with Mystic Messenger.
And, for the record, this has proven the gateway drug or, alternatively, the exception to the rule for some friends who don’t normally play computer games. So you might either want to stick with me or run away now, defending on your preference.
So Mystic Messenger is, to a large extent, free, available on Android or iDevice … aaaand it’s an otome game, which I feel potentially makes it a natural fit for romance readers. I’ve written a little bit about otome games before when I did my games-for-romance-readers series over at Heroes and Heartbreakers (in case you missed it, it’s in three parts: here’s part one, here’s part two, here’s part three).
Anyway, otome games (which I think literally means something like ‘maiden game’ tee hee) are generally characterised as being targeted at the female market – but to put it in a less-gendered way, I would say they’re targeted at gamers who want to play a game where the main focus is on developing a romantic relationship rather than, say, shooting people in the head or moving coloured blocks into position. And, while you can get same-sex oriented games of this nature, for the most part the emphasis on opposite sex relationships: so otome games will appeal to people who are interested in playing a game where you take the role of a female character and navigate her relationships with various attractive menz.
Usually these sort of games take the form of a visual novel: images and text, sometimes with music, voice acting and/or sound effects, interspersed with decision points, which change the course of the narrative for better or for worse. Some of them have additional mechanics (like juggling character stats or even fighting monsters) but mostly they revolve around selecting from a range of protagonist responses. I personally like to see this as playing emotional detective: essentially if the characterisation and the writing are strong enough, and you’re paying attention, you can figure out the ‘right’ thing to say or do to appeal to particular characters.
ANYWAY: the basic premise of Mystic Messenger is that ‘you’ install a mysterious app on your phone, which throws into you into a chatroom with five strangers. And … here’s where it gets clever … you see the app is … like the game … so you’re like playing the game but playing the game is using the app … which you installed on your phone. Oh do you see. It turns out the app you’ve stumbled upon is actually an all-purpose communication tool for a fund-raising agency called the RFA. And, since their organiser, Rika, passed away a few years backs they ask you—yes, you, a complete random who stumbled into their chatroom—to organise their next event.
And, okay, this isn’t the most plausible premise in the world but it doesn’t really matter because it’s really all about getting you involved in the lives of the five characters: ZEN, a beautiful, aspiring actor, 707, a zany hacker, Yoosung, an adorable college student, Jumin, a cold-hearted businessman, and his overworked assistant Jaehee. As you play the game you get to know them, you organise a fundraising party, you uncover bits of the backstory and you encounter the threatening ‘Unknown’ who—for mysterious reasons of their own—wants to bring an end to the RFA. And, of course, you get the opportunity to fall in wuv or mess up people’s lives horrendously. So that’s fun.
It’s not perfect: there’s some translation oddities, for example, and it’s occasionally glancingly gender essentialist (I think it’s only on one or two conversations but I remember being slightly off-put by characters making sweeping statements what What Women And Men Are Like Because Biology, and not really being able to challenge it without upsetting the characters). And while one of the routes involves developing a … well … they say it’s a friendship but it definitely has romantic undertones too with another female character, one of the characters is canonically bisexual, and another (a side-character) appears to be non-binary, it’s not always as sensitive as it could be on LGBTQ+ type issues. There’s also at least one pointlessly racist throwaway. And I’m pretty ambivalent about both one romance plot and the game’s handling of mental illness, both of which I can’t really get into without massive spoilers and may address in a separate post.
But, all of this said (and I mention it largely so you can make informed decisions about what you’re getting into): Mystic Messenger is still the best otome game I’ve ever played and probably one of the best visual-novel type games. The characters are delightful, the characterisation is amazing, the artwork is beautiful, the writing is really strong and the localisation pretty decent (although, if you’re not familiar with Korean cultural norms, you might spend a lot of the game wondering why everyone is obsessed with whether you’ve eaten), the voice acting perfect, and it’s genuinely just charming, surprising and … unexpectedly moving. I might have shed legit tears at various points.
There’s also a couple of other factors (outside of its general quality which is exceptional) that I think distinguish it from other similar-type games and also make it a really good entry-point or even one-off experience for people who might not normally go for this kind of thing.
Essentially, there are two ‘currencies’ in the game, gold hearts (which you get by saying things characters like and also by random chance) and hourglasses. You can buy hourglasses with actual money or convert gold hearts into them, and it’s the hourglasses that allow you to do extra things like replay missed chats, call the characters (yes, you will get in-game calls, and this is super charming), and unlock some content. I did, in the end, splash out on some hourglasses because I wanted access to the other story routes and because I’m a financially privileged person and it therefore feels appropriate to support stuff I like.
But the game is pretty generous with hearts and you can play the routes of ZEN, Yoosung and Jaehee without spending a penny. Which means that if you’re curious but not sure if Mystic Messenger is going to be your thing, you can jump right in and get for a feel for it without having to do anything except make space for it on your phone.
The way the game works is that chats unlock at various times of day (sometimes even at 3am—which means I have, occasionally, been stirred out of slumber because a fictional Korean actor was feeling lonely. And such is my fondness of this game that I genuinely wanted to be there for him. Yes, yes, I know, I’ve lost it) and take between one and five minutes. These chats will stay ‘open’ until the next chat is due and then close. You can still see closed chats but your character won’t participate in them. Or you can pay five hourglasses to unlock them and participate as if they’re open. If you miss too many chats you can bring the game crashing to a premature end but it’s pretty reasonable on that score and I’ve slipped through okay with daily completion at about the 60% mark. But basically I tend to want to unlock all chats because they’re really fun to read and engage in. And, obviously this isn’t going to be a format that works well for people with either normal sleeping habits or a job that won’t let them pause every now and again. Not one for forklift truck drivers or trapeze artists is what I’m saying.
But, for me, this serialised story-telling is absolutely perfect. The game does let you pay hourglasses to unlock all the chats over a twenty-four period but it’s quite expensive and I can’t really see the advantage of it. I mean, unless you were a truck driver or trapeze artist. But one of my problems with visual novels on mobile phones (and *cough* I’ve played quite a few) is that it doesn’t seem a genre that is naturally suited to the sort of things you want to do when fiddling with your phone. VNs by their nature require you to be comfortable and time-rich enough to be able to read a hefty block of text. If both of those criteria are met (I’m cosy and have time), I’ll probably want to do something that is not on my phone. I mean, my phone is great but it’s less good in terms of entertainment opportunities offered than, say, my computer. Or a book. Or the television. Or talking to another human. I do, of course, play games on my phone fairly regularly but they’re “oh I’m stuck waiting for ten minutes” type games.
So a VN that is delivered to me in five minutes chunks across the day? Yes please.
It feels kinda real…
Because of the way it’s serialised, the game unfolds in real time over the course of eleven days. And while, admittedly I probably wouldn’t fall in love with someone in eleven days (but who knows, I might?), it does feel more like you’re getting to know someone than, say, reading a story about them. Most VNs I play in a single session which doesn’t really give much space for emotional development on my side. But Mystic Messenger makes the characters a very natural part of your life which I guess founds faintly creepy but … I liked it? I felt as if I was really getting to know them. That I had spent actual time with them. And my attitudes to them fluctuated and changed as I grew more familiar with who they were and where they’d come from, much as I respond to well, real people.
And the fact that the game unfolds in chats and text message and phone calls makes it incredibly familiar to anyone with close online friends and strong online communities. My Mystic Messenger notifications would pop up throughout the day alongside my texts from my partner, my Fb notifications, and messages from my friends. Obviously the characters in Mystic Messenger are fictional (I do know this!) but the mechanisms by which the game delivers its interactions to you are the ones we use every day to keep in contact with our real friends and loved ones. This makes using it almost second nature (you don’t have to set aside time, any more than you would set aside time to reply to an IM or pick up a call so, weirdly, it doesn’t actually feel like playing a game so much as engaging in your normal interactions) and unbelievably immersive.
I know I’ve already banged on about the excellence of the writing but it also deserves mention here because I’m so impressed by the depth and detail has gone into every character. I’m, uh, kind of obsessed with voice (as a writer and a reader) and I … I could study this game forever. Everyone you talk to has their own distinct voice, distinct daily routine, even distinct typing patterns: Yoosung tends to be prone to typos, especially when he gets emotional, 707 types faster than anyone else, Jumin is slower and favours full sentences and declarative statements. And, unlike a lot of visual novels where the responses of protagonist are quite limited and usually only come down to key decisions, here you get to say things and express yourself in every chat, which makes the whole experience more engaging. You’re not going to change the whole course of the game by telling Yoosung whether you had breakfast or not, but it feels like you’re having a conversation. Not just picking options in a game.
It gave me all the feels
The way all these various factors come together—the art, the voice acting, the writing, the immersion, the serialisation, the sense of ‘myself’ as a genuine participant—made this game hit me real hard in the feels. I laughed, I cried, I winced, I worried, I woke up at 3am, I kind of honestly fell in love a bit. And I’m a little bit at a loss to know what to do myself now I’ve pretty much played every route and discovered every secret. I mean, except play my favourite route over again. Because that’s how much I loved this game. Oh, and write a lengthy blog post about it, of course. In the hope of dragging the rest of you into my obsession.
If you’re still reading at this point … um, thanks for sticking with me. I’m going to wrap up with a few non-spoilery tips for the game to get you going, since otome games have their quirks (and so does Mystic Messenger) that might not be obvious the first time you pick one up
Getting The Most Out Of Mystic Messenger
- It’s not really about you. In general, I’ve found doing or saying what I would do or say in otome games generally ends up with my character dead or alone. So basically accept that “you” are someone who would be naturally interested in and compatible with a particular character, and focus your attention in getting a good sense of who they are, which will help you choose what to say to them. You’re not really you-the-player, you’re you-the-protagonist and who the protagonist is becomes defined by the sort of person she would end up in a romantic relationship with. Which is obviously icky in one way but not in another, since essentially we tend to end up with people who, to some extent, reflect ourselves. In real life, I’m dating an enormous nerd, for example. And clearly that says something about me. And also the enormous nerd I’m dating.
- Pick your person and go all-out. You can’t really hedge your bets in otome games. Each of the characters in MM is colour-coded for your convenience: grey hearts mean you’ve said something ZEN likes, green for Yoosung, yellow for Jaehee, blue for Jumin, and red for 707. A black heartbreaks means you upset someone. My recommended playing route is: ZEN, Yoosung, Jumin, Jaehee, 707. You can definitely skip anyone who doesn’t appeal to you, and I would recommend skipping Jumin if you have issues with alpha bildom behaviour, but if you want to understand the whole backstory about Rika and the RFA then 707’s route is a must.
- What someone likes is not necessarily what is good for them: black heartbreaks are always bad, but you will get hearts with the characters even if you’re encouraging them in unhealthy or damaging behaviours. For example, Jaehee will react positively if you encourage her to work super hard … but bear in mind that she’s already massively overworked and feels like a robot in a corporate machine. Similarly, Yoosung will initially really like it if you encourage him to basically think of you as Rika … but there is no way that can lead to a healthy relationship.
- Don’t be psycho. I’ve played quite a few otome games where you’ve had to be a spineless nonentity or a basket case but, for the most part, Mystic Messenger wants you to be sensible. Yes, be concerned about your safety but don’t be selfish about it. Yes, be flirty but don’t be obsessive. Yes, be supportive but don’t be clingy. While I occasionally said and did things I wouldn’t in a million years have said or done myself, I mostly navigated the game by being reasonable. I challenged people when their behaviour seemed dodgy, I was playful when the mood was light, I was assertive but not reckless. And it seemed to work out. Yay.
- The structure of Mystic Messenger is: the first four days will be the same regardless of who you romance (although they are different in casual and deep mode). Days five to eleven will change depending on whose romance route you’re on. Once you’re on a certain route, you can’t change. In casual story mode you can only romance ZEN, Yoosung, or Jaehee. Jumin and 707 will be present in the game but you won’t be able to romance them. Unlocking the romance route for Jumin and 707 is a onetime payment of 80 hourglasses. When in deep story mode you can only romance Jumin or 707. ZEN, Yoosung, and Jaehee will still be there, but non-romanceable.
- There are multiple endings in Mystic Messenger: a generic bad ending which you get if you either aren’t in the chatroom enough or you don’t get enough hearts with any one character to get onto their romance route, a normal ending when you do the romance right but don’t invite enough party guests, a good ending when you do the romance right and invite enough party guests, and then various bad endings for the characters if you goof up romancing them. Some of these are hardcore sad and I confess I haven’t been able to do any of them because I can’t bear the thought of anything bad happening to any of the characters.
- The hosting a party part of the game is essentially a mini-game within the game. You will get various emails from potential guests and you have to reply correctly in order to get them to attend. If you reply correctly to three emails they will definitely come, if you reply correctly to two, they’ll probably come, if you reply correctly to one there’s a small chance they’ll come. If you don’t reply to their emails or fuck up your first reply they won’t come at all. If you get ten guests or more and have done the romance correctly, you’ll get a good ending. Otherwise you’ll get a normal ending. To me, as a gamer, what you might call the party mini-game doesn’t fit with the rest of Mystic Messenger quite as neatly as it could: there are a lot of potential party guests but the answers are quite random and occasionally non-obvious and while I’m okay to get a bad ending because I accidentally drove Jaehee to a nervous breakdown or fucked with the head of a grieving college kid so badly he thought I was his dead cousin … I’m less okay with doing everything right on the romance route, but still getting a less good ending because I didn’t correctly invite a cat to a party. Your mileage may vary but I would recommend using a walkthrough for the party if you get to about day seven and it looks like you’ve pissed off half of Korea.
- When to buy or spend hourglasses: so, as a reminder, 100 golden hearts can be converted to one hourglass, and you get the golden hearts from any heart received in chat or by clicking the little spaceship that bobs around the bottom of the screen when it lights up gold by landing on the honey Buddha chips. You also get 1 hourglass per correctly invited guest on the first occasion only. You can get those by reading the guest’s story at the end of the game under ‘Extras.’ In general I spend my hourglasses (5 per time) to unlock missed chats and to phone people back (5 again) if I’ve missed their call. I sometimes ring people (again 5 hourglasses) spontaneously if they seem to be going through a major event … but if you ring people they sometimes won’t answer because they’re at work or in class or just too emo or whatever. The phone calls are always lovely but, again, your mileage may vary on what’s ‘worth it’ to you. I also unlocked deep mode and each of the extra endings, which are unlocked when you do someone’s romance route correctly. This is essentially a mini-epilogue that shows you your future life together. Gawww. I never unlocked 24 hours’ worth of chats in a bundle because I didn’t see the point – even when I was desperate to know what happened. Again YMMV.
- If at all possible, play with a friend or friends. I mean, not literally play with as in share a phone. But play while other people you know are also playing. It’s the sort of game you will want to talk about and over-invest in, and this is always way more fun in company.
- Yoosung is my favourite. That’s not a tip. But it’s important.
Slightly More Spoilery Tips
The best way to figure out the characters is just to get to know them. But this can be a bit intimidating at first so here are some of my thoughts on each of them:
ZEN: is an aspiring actor and seems like a total narcissist at first (and, who can blame him, he’s terribly pretty) but is actually surprisingly sweet once you get past that. His relationship with his looks is actually fairly ambivalent because, while he derives validation from knowing he’s hotcakes, they’re also the only thing he knows is concretely good about himself. Which means you have to tread a careful line between admiring him but also not making it seem like his looks are all you care about. In one of the early chats, there’s a conversation about who would be someone’s perfect partner and significantly ZEN’s is “a sensible woman.” Not a mindless fan, in other words. I actually liked ZEN more in other people’s routes than his own, because he’s really protective of you and your agency, which is nice. Especially when other people, cough, do not care so much about your agency. The other thing that will help you successfully woo ZEN is recognising that he’s incredibly lonely.
Yoosung: is a nerdy college student who is completely adorable in every way. He’s a little bit naïve and a little bit immature, but he’s also incredibly loyal and sweet and emotionally generous. He also likes playing computer games a little too much so, y’know, I identify. He’s fairly straightforward to romance in the sense that you just need to be nice to him, but not in a patronising way. A large part of his arc involves him dealing with his grief over Rika’s death—basically, don’t be creepy about this. He’s the most vulnerable of all the characters, I think, and consequently—for me—the bravest. Um. I think my Yoosung bias is showing a bit.
Jaehee: This was my second favourite route after Yoosoung. I have slightly ambivalent feelings in general about whether I wish her route had been more explicitly queer (there’s a lot of talk about friendship, but 707 does say you’re dating and then corrects himself, and, in one phone call, Jaehee confesses to other feelings she would like to explore with you someday) or whether there’s actually something more subversive in the idea that you, as a character, could have four lovely men to romance and instead to decide to become really good friends with an awesome woman. In any case, it works either way. Jaehee’s story made me cry, Zen is awesome in it and it’s pretty straight forward, I think: support Jaehee and encourage her to think of her own happiness. It is so rewarding when she does. Also if you are going to play Jumin, you’ll need to do him before Jaehee because he’s kind of the antagonist of Jaehee’s route and I seriously wanted to punch him. Repeatedly.
Jumin: oh dear. Jumin. I have very complicated feelings about his route because it’s interesting and problematic and I still haven’t untangled my brain about it. I did actually conclude at one point that Jumin was to some degree probably non-neurotypical and that’s what feeds a lot of his bildom behaviour. Which, y’know, was a twist on the trope I found kind of fascinating. So, yeah, Jumin is controlling, powerful, possessive, cold and obsessed with his cat. But he’s also … not some of those things. Or those things don’t mean exactly what you think they do. Basically the key to Jumin’s route is trying to understand him because he doesn’t understand other people and he doesn’t really understand himself. There’s a lot that’s quite heartbreaking about him but he also does some totally unacceptable things. He did, however, buy me a really pretty frock and insist that I wear it – so, y’know, I guess he’s not all bad. So yeah: try to trust him and stick with him, even when he’s crossed a line (and, to be fair, he recognises he has crossed a line but is too messed up to be able to step away from doing it) and don’t go all 50 Shades of Grey and you’ll probably do okay.
707: this route is super dark and complicated because it ties into the backplot and the background stuff with RFA and Unknown. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling everything but 707 is neither the person you think he is or the person he thinks he is: the trick is just to help him see that he’s both. In the chatroom, he’s whimsical and ridiculous and hardly ever serious, so he needs someone who can keep up with him, who gets his weird jokes. But he also has a damaged and serious side, so you need to recognise when he needs you to be silly and when he needs you not to be. He’ll also do some incredibly self-destructive shit but he’ll get through it if you don’t lose faith.
So. Uh. Yeah. Mystic Messenger. I’m happy to answer any questions if I can—though I am by no means an expert. But also just to talk about the game forever. Because, yeah, still obsessed.