“No one, not even Elizabeth 3rd, could change me,” Jumin Han wrote to me in a chat room. Elizabeth 3rd is his cat. “But you magically could. And that’s because now I have nothing but the desire to make you happy.”
“Perhaps…this is called love," his message popped up in a box shaped like a heart, with roses tied in a nice ribbon hanging off the side. With that, I knew I had won. I had been playing the otome (a dating sim geared towards women) Mystic Messenger for the last week and a half, and all of my hard work (not that hard) and tough choices (not that tough) had come to fruition. Jumin Han, heir to the giant corporation C&R International, had finally fallen in love with me.
Dating sims are games that allow you "date" fictional characters—the more attention you pay someone, the more points you rack up and the more they "like you." It's all your guilty pleasures in one neat role-playing game—a choose-your-own adventure with melodramatic soap opera plotlines and a bunch of dudes who fawn over how beautiful and perfect you are. And just when you get used to playing the game mindlessly, you realize that you do get a little excited IRL when the character you’ve been trying to seduce suddenly pays you some hard-earned attention.
But unlike regular dating sims that are almost entirely visual novels limited by their medium—your involvement in the dialogue and the plot still feels like a game—Mystic Messenger emulates a social media platform like Facebook or Whatsapp and lets you interact with the characters like you would with actual people online. Why not capitalize on the fact that people digitally talk to strangers in pursuit of love every day?
In the story, a mysterious character “Unknown” guides you into the apartment of a dead woman (don’t ask) where somehow you log onto a mysterious chatroom for RFA, a insanely secretive philanthropic organization that hosts fundraisers. Technically, for most of the game your character is hanging out in this dead lady's apartment, which no one else has access to and has been deemed unsafe to leave. Definitely creepy, but that's the kind of plot development that happens in dating sims and you sort of forget that as you play.
The members of the organization—and therefore your menu of dating suitors—are businessman Jumin Han, his loyal and overworked (female) assistant Jaehee Kang, up-and-coming model/actor Zen, innocent student and lover of video games Yoosung, and sketchy hacker 707. You interact with the five different characters in the main chatroom and individually through text messages. If they call, you can hear a voice actor saying the Korean dialogue. Oh, and sometimes they send you selfies.
Aside from falling in love with one of the characters, you have been assigned the task of handling the guest list for an upcoming fundraiser, meaning you exchange emails with other randos including a familiarly loudmouthed chef extraordinaire named Chef RamG, internet-famous cat Long Cat, and a pretty racist depiction of a Middle Eastern oil tycoon. You must gather as many guests as you can, and try to seduce one of the suitors in 11 days—in real time.
The questions you must answer in the emails range from trivia about cherries to more emotionally deep questions about how to properly communicate with a significant other. And the first time I played the game, I got very stressed out IRL after my response to an email inadvertently offended the sender and he angrily declined to attend the party. I didn't mean to hurt the completely fictional character's feelings!
The world within the app never stops, whether or not you’re playing it. Normally once you close a dating sim app, the game will automatically pause and (hopefully) save your progress. But with Mystic Messenger, a day’s worth of chatroom conversations occurs in real time whether or not you’re there, meaning when you log back in, you can only look at archived conversations that occurred between the other characters without you—talk about FOMO. You can pay to go back and take part in the conversations, or to unlock the next day’s chatroom convos, but you can’t technically pause time.
People—okay, almost entirely young women—have been going nuts over this app over the last couple weeks. According to Korean otome developer Chertiz's website, the game was released in early July, but the first version seems to have made it to the iTunes store in mid-August, inspiring mini-memes and tons of fan art.
As revolutionary as this game is when it comes to dating sims, there are some moments that are not quite as progressive. For example, while you can technically pursue the sole female character of the game, you can't actually romance her.
I know this because I tried. For 11 days, I put all my efforts into listening to Jaehee Kang complain about her horrible dead-end job, about how a superstar like Zen could never notice someone like her, and her tragic backstory of how she was orphaned at a young age and managed to overcome adversity to put herself through university and get a job. I rooted for her. I stood up for her. I became a pillar in her life who empowered her, and just when I thought she was going to be my girlfriend…I got female friendzoned. And straightsplained.
That last image on the right is the epilogue to Jaehee's story—we become partners, as in business partners, and open a coffee shop together. The girl to the right is supposed to be me, the supportive friend who will always be just that. And apparently I was not the only one who was frustrated by not being allowed to date Jaehee.
Interestingly enough, when I started over and pursued Jumin Han his initially ambiguous sexuality was apparently a minor story arc, and the butt of plenty of jokes among the rest of the characters (see the hashtag #DoesJuminHanIsGay on Twitter). Also, if someone knows what color a gay aura is, please let me know. (In South Korea, while it's not illegal to be homosexual, there is no legal recognition of gay marriage or relationships, and LGBT issues continue to be considered taboo.)
Mystic Messenger made me think about the way I sometimes use Tinder. A good chunk of the time, I wasn’t actively trying to date people—sometimes I would just swipe to see what my "high score" could be and see how hot of a dude I could match with. Even sending messages seemed like an intricate game—as a pretty judgmental person, I can jump to conclusions based on hardly any material (not into that GIF shit).
Mystic Messenger isn’t trying to emulate a dating app specifically, but with this game sims have finally tapped into the grey area of digital dating in a meaningful way. While the characters are depicted in a cartoonish style, the focus is on the nuances of their online interactions. Their images are just another thumbnail, and it’s easier to believe that there’s more of real person behind the profile. The game capitalizes on how we judge each other online just by the way we type. Characters make typos when they’re flustered (and sometimes when they’re not), and the others call them out on it. You can win affection points from a character just by using an emoticon instead of words because that’s what makes you cool and savvy to him. I can't say that I don't at least take into consideration how people use emojis and emoticons :}.
Of course, the game accurately portrayed some of the downsides to falling in love. My character went to Jumin's apartment to stay with him through a stressful time, and as he fell in love with me, he realized that not only was he a little too obsessed with his cat, but he needed me. For two or three days (about a fourth of the game!), he wouldn't let me leave. I was stuck in his apartment for my own safety alongside Elizabeth 3rd, who was stuck in a cage for her own safety—essentially being held hostage to his paranoia of losing us both. But underlying this mess—and the rest of the ridiculous dating sim drama that Mystic Messenger promises its players—is a commentary on love in the digital age that's more sophisticated than you might expect.