Dating sim Mystic Messenger is blowing up, simulating the too-real experience of falling in love with mysterious people online. It's a relatable otome ("maiden") game in which, brilliantly, anime boys -- and one girl -- interact with you over a fake chatroom and text messages.
Your character stumbles upon the fictional Mystic Messenger app under strange circumstances, and, over the course of 11 days, gets to know potential paramours online and offline. Mystic Messenger is brilliant, and there's a lot to unpack about how its fake interface best shows each character's flaws and charms.
I wrote about how Mystic Messenger's main mechanic was emotional labour, flattering the boys in the particular ways they require flattery. However, Kotaku writer Heather Alexandra has spent the last few weeks on her own Mystic Messenger quest. She's come out of it with a unique take that, today, we explored in a chat together.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Let's get started!
Heather Alexandra: Perhaps let's begin with how we heard about the game, what drew us to it?
Cecilia D'Anastasio: All the otome fans in my feeds were raving about Mystic Messenger for weeks, but mostly about the boys. That's not a big hook for me into a game.... however, I was curious about what made Mystic Messenger so sensational when a lot of otome games are pretty niche.
You had a similar experience hearing about it, right?
Heather Alexandra: I'd played VNs before. Long Live the Queen was a favourite and I really enjoyed the romantic games from Choice of Games but never played an otome game before. When I first visited New York, a friend showed the game to me at a bar. The notion of fake text messages and chats drew me in. It's really clever!
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Oh, dang! You're a pro.
Haha, that's good -- so I have the anime angle into this and you've got the VN history. Let's dig in.
How'd the interface/gameplay differ from other games like this you'd played?
Heather Alexandra: It's integrated into the device itself. VNs end up in a more abstract space, managing stats as you read through story and hit decision points. Here, the game acted on its own accord. My phone would ring at night and I'd check to see who the hell was texting me and it turned out to be some guest for the game's climactic party. I'd never had something like that happen with a game.
It makes me think of Dream Phone, which is this old board game from the 90's. This is basically the digital version of that!
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Holy shit, can we review that?? Hahaha.
But for real, the game's fake interface was stunning. I'm always blown away by creative techniques for player immersion. There's VR, and then there's actually designing a game with gameplay that 100% mirrors the plot. Mystic Messenger is about finding a smartphone app called Mystic Messenger. Your player interacts with the boys through the virtual smartphone app. You, in real-life, found the real-life smartphone app Mystic Messenger, and that's how you interact with the virtual boys. Simple, but brilliant.
Heather Alexandra: They trust you very quickly! "Oh, I guess you found this app. You can be the head of our secret charity organisation!"
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Hahaha.
I know, there were so many plot holes…. The character 707 is the best hacker in Korea. Why couldn't he figure out who gave you access to the app HE DESIGNED?
Conveniently, he is very busy with his job.
Heather Alexandra: Well, that stuff gets really intense! With a secret cult and a lot of personal history! This game really goes places that you don't expect. It's both this really simple concept of a messenger app and a really intense thriller. I wasn't expecting that at all.
These are dangerous boys involved in dangerous escapades!
Cecilia D'Anastasio: So aside from the gameplay, the fake interface and the plot hooks….
Who was your favourite boy?
Or, rather, which was your favourite route?
Heather Alexandra: I was initially taken in by Zen! An actor with a promising career? Sign me up. However, I'm running 707's route now and I've sort of fallen for him. Ironically, the best route of the game (for me) doesn't involve a boy. It's Jaehee, the wonderful business gal!
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Is Jaehee's route romantic? This is a Korean game, and I'd be surprised if a queer romantic route was a possibility.
Heather Alexandra: It opts for a hetero best friends path but might as well be queer. You ditch the boys and settle down in the good end. They never outright approach it from a queer angle, which is disappointing. Still, it felt so in all but admittance.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: That's so sweet, though! Frankly, I found her to be ….. a little annoying.
I'm ashamed! I'm sorry!
She just would call and text and text and complain…. and of COURSE she was being exploited and HELL YEAH her boss was an arsehole to her.
I just… didn't feel like she cared about me :x
Heather Alexandra: It's ok! She's very alpha, particularly if you get close to Zen. Her route is all about finding a better job and getting away from such an intense lifestyle. It was nice.
Because Jumin Han.
Gosh. He is not a good person at all. In his own route, he basically locks you in his apartment. It made me really uncomfortable and actually a little scared!
Mystic Messenger's Jumin Han
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Some people are into that. No shame. Jumin was my favourite from the start, but my interest in him atrophied as it became clear that he was perhaps the most selfish and cruel. At times, I found difficult to actually move my finger onto options to praise him. He was just so… cutting.
Heather Alexandra: I found that I like Jumin more as a side character in other routes. He starts off selfish in Zen's route but the two end up bonding in a very relatable way. My least favourite character as actually Yoosung. I just couldn't get deal with him. All the gaming and the fact that he's so young. I understand that the latter can be endearing but I didn't really want to time jump back to my college dating years, y'know?
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Totally!
Yeah, a lot of otome fans who read my initial article on Mystic Messenger were angry that I called him a crybaby. But so many of his emotes are of him actually crying!
Heather Alexandra: I think he's a very honest character with a lot of heart. Emotional and sweet but just a little to naive. Zen's route was a sweeping romance. 707's is basically an intense spy thriller. I can't conceive of what Yoosung's route is like. An intervention to get him to stop playing "LOLOL"?
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Hahaha, yes!
Wait, I want to talk about 707 more. 707 was my favourite. I'm so obsessed with Mystic Messenger's interface and I feel like his path really took advantage of it.
Heather Alexandra: Let's!
He's a sweet boy who needs love!
Cecilia D'Anastasio: F yeah. So one of the most compelling parts about Mystic Messenger is that it simulates the incredibly modern, relatable and -- frankly -- sexy idea of falling in love with somebody online. Who people are on the internet is often who they want to be every day. MM totally gets at that, giving these boys excuses to be caricatures of themselves in a way that (even though it's inspired by shoujo manga) would feel less… authentic…. if it didn't take place in chat rooms. 707's route totally takes that to the next level.
Online, he's a trickster, a happy, go-lucky hacker. He's the fun guy.
Offline, he's going through some shit. And you have to calibrate yourself to his seriousness when you meet him in real-life.
Heather Alexandra: Dual identities are a big facets of online interactions and relationships. I met someone online and while they weren't a super serious hacker or anything, the reality was very different. Seven's route hits upon that in a more dynamic way. It's also one of the routes where the most personal baggage comes up. People are out to get Seven. You only see glimpses of it in other routes but it's on full display here.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Absolutely.
What's crazy is that he turns on you when you finally have the chance to be in the same room as him. He pushes you away.
But you're still talking over Mystic Messenger when he's in the same apartment as you! That's the thread that gives you hope that things could work out, memories of who he was online.
Heather Alexandra: The way he loses confidence as he realises there's something he cares for and how it affects his life and work were surprisingly human. Because chat room interactions with Seven can feel very superficial. A lot of jokes and capers but not as much intimate discussion as Zen or even Jumin. At least at first.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: How did you feel about having to pay money to experience Jumin's and 707's paths?
Heather Alexandra: I'm something of a sucker with FTP mobile games. I've tossed down more money than I'd ever care to admit. Once I saw how the game was structured, I went for it. Unlocking those routes and even having a stockpile of the in game currency to unlock entire days of chat conversations so I could marathon the game. I don't know if I like locking story content. Particularly content that helps recontexualize a lot of the game but I took the plunge and never looked back.
Which, we should mention: the monetisation strategy of this game is incredibly smart.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Yeah? Say more.
Heather Alexandra: FTP monetisation is often about accelerating progress. Being able to purchase materials, energy, or even to buy items. Mystic Messenger, to an extent, is about reclaiming lost progress. If you miss a conversation, you can go back and unlock it. In a game that's so demanding, particularly if you have a busy schedule, that's really smart. It also feels less predatory than dangling shiny weapons or relics. You spend money to get a chance at more thorough intimacy and expression.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: It's so brilliant because it's actually peddling content you want.
Like, I felt so teased that I couldn't pursue Jumin or 707 upon download.
Heather Alexandra: God, yes! I want to talk to all the handsome boys.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: Hahaha.
Any last thoughts?
Heather Alexandra: You mentioned it in your piece but there are times when the game boxes you into being someone you are not. It's my one major complaint. There's some stumbling points in how this game talks about homosexuality or even transvestism. Like people speculating if Jumin is gay or talking about the gender of Seven's maid. And you are sometimes party to it because you have no other choices in the dialog. That was a bummer. But overall? I enjoyed this game. I'm going to finish Seven's route tonight and hopefully move on to a different otome game. Maybe readers will have suggestions!
Cecilia D'Anastasio: I hope they do!