Mystic Messenger is a game about talking to attractive people. Developed by Cheritz, a South Korean game studio founded in 2012, Mystic Messenger is the third game they’ve developed and was released Stateside in August of 2016. Compatible with both Android and IOS, this mobile game specifically targets a female audience, is free to play, and offers a visual novel experience centered around the relationships built with in-game characters. It’s quietly developed a wide fanbase beyond South Korea, finding support in the States and even as widespread as South America and Europe.
Spread over an eleven day cycle, the player uses timed chatrooms to interact with the characters and to earn ‘hearts’ that are color coded to each. Once the game locks into the character with the most ‘hearts’ at Day Four, the narrative branches and follows the player as they build a romantic relationship with that character. There are five romance options: Zen, an actor looking to make a big break; Yoosung, a college student who loves the MMO LOLOL; Jumin, the corporate heir; 707, the fun-loving hacker; and Jaehee, Jumin’s assistant and the lone female romance option.
Mystic Messenger has a range of things that make it interesting, and a range of things that have made players put it aside. We’re going to take a look at both. WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Chertiz is a company that has devoted itself to making games for a female audience. Their two previous titles, Dandelion ~ Wishes Brought to You and Nameless, both followed a similar, romantic structure, but relied more heavily on the mechanics of a visual novel, rather than a mobile game application. Mystic Messenger falls into the same romance game category with their previous titles, clearly marketed at a female audience and providing a variation on mobile games we see in the western markets. Focused more on building relationships than combat and/or competition, the game offers new options to players who want something different from the usual offerings on the mobile platform.
The game mechanics are also unique, relying on a combination of visual novel aspects, phone calls, texts, and timed chat rooms. The chat rooms only appear at certain points throughout the day, and are only accessible for a handful of hours at a time, making it important that players are aware of their notifications and check in regularly. Phone calls usually follow these chatr ooms, and cannot be made up if missed. However, the player can chose to expend five hourglasses (a form of in-game time currency) to make calls to the characters if they choose. The timed interactions are a unique mechanic, and they do allow for some leeway, so that if the player misses one or two chat rooms or calls in a day, it doesn’t greatly impact the narrative. Miss a majority of chat rooms, however, and your narrative can quickly take a nosedive and land the player in a bad ending, usually resulting in the player’s perceived kidnapping and/or death. This mechanic encourages investment from the player, especially as the player gets to know the characters and interact with them in a more serious manner as the game progresses.
Centered on a core plot line, but driven by character interactions, the narrative feels very akin to an anime at times, complete with unexpected stakes and cartoonish expressions in the form of chat room emojis. The circumstances in which the game takes place are highly unrealistic, but the tenor of the narrative makes it easy enough to suspend disbelief and run with the plot points. As the narrative progresses, the player is wrapped up in planning a charity party, inviting guests suggested by the members of the RFA–the organization the player inadvertently joins when they try to return a cellphone to an address provided by user “Unknown”. The RFA members make up the colorful cast as the stakes grow higher, and the future of the organization and the parties come into question. The player even has their own life put in danger, faced with a bomb and a religious organization that wishes to use them to get at the RFA. Each romance arc reveals different perspectives on the same story, and the After Ending add ons provide even more context as to the outcome of the events that occur in game. These events leave the player wanting more throughout the gameplay, as chat rooms and their corresponding visual novels leave the player anticipating what may come next. There is also the additional impetus of the gameplay that reinforces these narrative points, given that the player can fail out as early as the prologue should they resist the narrative direction.
Jaehee in particular is worth noting, as Cheritz’s previous titles have lacked female romance options. South Korea’s LGBTQA+ community faces regular discrimination and the majority of their society has only recently become more open and accepting of various gender identities and sexual orientations. Many Korean residents chose not to come out to friends and family because of this, and much of their media depicts heterosexual relationships. Jaehee’s inclusion as a romance option in Mystic Messenger is huge, as it allows for a lesbian relationship to occur in game. The relationship itself is downplayed as a strong friendship, but it is very clear to the player that there is a romantic connection in Jaehee’s route, and doubly so in her After Game supplemental visual novel. Though the lack of an overt lesbian relationship is frustrating, many fans are ecstatic that Jaehee was included as an option, and have made a point to play specifically for her route in the Casual Story.
There is also the difference between the Casual Story and the Deep Story (which can only be unlocked after the Casual Story is completed at least once, with eighty hourglasses), and the breadth of the narrative revealed as the player plays through each. Each romantic route has its variations, but there is much more depth to the Deep Story as it answers some lingering questions the player may have from their first run in Casual. This, combined with the fact that two of the romantic routes are locked in the Deep Story, gives the game replay-value, as there is more information about the story to be discovered through multiple play throughs.
The visual novels included in game also lend themselves to establishing an empathetic narrative, as well as enhancing the story with beautiful visuals that bring key points to life. The further into the game the player progresses, the more visual novels they encounter, usually featuring their romance option and themselves, manifested as a young woman with long, brown hair. These visual novel moments are beautifully illustrated, expressing emotions and further encouraging investment from the player as they watch both themselves and their romance option connect and interact. The visual builds a connection between the player and the characters, making the plot points more accessible and encouraging an emotional response.
The overall application and visual design is also clever, and easy to navigate. Once the player navigates past the title screens, the game is set up like an application within itself: each character has a social media page of their own that is updated with new images and captions as the game progresses, there are tabs to monitor in-game emails, guests, and images collected. Each button is clearly labeled and laid out, and additional pieces–like in app purchases–are clearly marked and explained. The visual design is also clear and well done, working with a gold and black color scheme, and using bright markers to indicate what has been updated, what is accessible, and what is not. The UI is highly streamlined and well done in a market that often has confusing, cramped interfaces.
There are a lot of positives to Mystic Messenger, from its player-friendly interface to its strong narrative hits. The visual novels add an additional layer of character interaction and empathy, and the characters feel lifelike when the player receives their calls and texts. Even though the narrative draws from a number of ideas and themes found in anime, it is still engaging, and the various perspectives keep the core story from becoming stale through each play through.
Though highly entertaining and enjoyable, Mystic Messenger does fall into some stereotypical tropes in both its character writing and design structure. Many of the interactions between characters feel cliche, and even the players interactions feel too linear at times, making the game’s goal of romance obvious. These moments can be jarring, especially when there’s only one clear way to interact with a character that is positive, yet also feels out of place for conversations leading up to that point. The timed mechanic also poses a problem, even though it adds a unique aspect and encourages investment in the narrative. Many players who have full time jobs, and/or regular commitments miss a large number of chat rooms (the majority appear between 9am and 6pm), preventing them from progressing far in game and providing players with bad endings. Combined with the random texts and phone calls that occur in game, it becomes very easy for players to fall behind, and leaves them feeling frustrated.
The timed nature of the chat rooms can be a boon for those who work from home, or have a flexible work schedule or office space, but can also be highly frustrating for those who cannot check their phones at work, or have functions to attend that keep them from responding to notifications. A number of players have expressed complaints at the rigidity of this mechanic, and how they wished the gameplay was more forgiving given their busy schedules. Many players have up and quit the game over this issue, finding it too difficult to get into and not worth the effort when they cannot progress.
Combined with characters that feel stereotypical out the gate, many also find the game play slow and the story hard to invest in. Many of the characters ascribe to traditional, anime-associated tropes: Zen is the narcissistic pretty boy, Yoosung is the cute one who’s addicted to gaming, Jumin is the trust-fund kid who cannot empathize with others, Seven is the mysterious nerd with a dark past, and Jaehee is the hardass secretary who’s really a huge fangirl of Zen’s. The prologue keeps the characters firmly in these tropes, and does not break them until after Day Four, when the romance is locked in. This makes it difficult to invest in any one particular character, as most of them feel two dimensional throughout the first four days of game play. After Day Four, things improve depending on the route, but many of the interactions sometimes feel stilted and ham-fisted. Add in that the game takes eleven days to complete, and some players become bored, or are unable to commit to such a lengthy game. Additionally, the player becomes pigeonholed into the ‘Damsel in Distress’ role in all five routes as the hacker, “Unknown,” targets them and the apartment in which the player resides. The player is unable to do anything about their position, and their romance option has to come and protect them in four of the five routes (oddly enough, Jaehee’s route is the only one that doesn’t involve her coming to the player’s rescue).
Another problem with Mystic Messenger is the assumptions regarding what a female gaming audience wants. The game is clearly biased to a cis-gendered, heterosexual player, even though it has one lesbian romance option which is downplayed as a friendship in game. Cheritz assumes that romance is the goal of a female player, and puts the focus on building relationships rather than providing other narrative options. This raises some questions regarding the gaming market in South Korea and the assumptions around what female-identifying gamers want and what they look for as a demographic. Additionally, the lack of romance options of various genders and sexual orientations is telling regarding South Korean culture, and leaves western players wanting more in an industry that has begun to push for and provide a wider variety of options.
Ultimately, Mystic Messenger is an entertaining dating simulator, if the player has time to invest and is patient with the narrative. The characters are unique after the player locks in their romance route, and the narrative is engaging, even though it does place the player in a situation where they need to be saved. It’s also a sign that South Korean game developers are thinking about more than just their heterosexual audience, and may come to help better represent LGBTQA+ gamers in their local market should they chose to continue to provide more varied romance options in their games. If you’ve got the flexibility and enjoy romance games, I’d recommend giving it a try and seeing where your route takes you. If you’re busy, this may not be a game for you.
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