While browsing the app store I noticed a new and seemingly incredibly popular release called BTS World. I'd seen the initialism BTS around, but didn't really know what it was, and so a quick google clued me into the Korean sensation also known as the Bangtan Boys. Long story short, they're a big pop band. Seven dishy Korean lads. And one of the more notable aspects about them is that, as well as writing most of their own material, part of the BTS 'experience' is an alternative reality vibe, which is exactly what BTS World tunes into.
The concept is that the player, whisked back in time to 2012 (i.e. before the band was famous), ends up in the position of managing them. In a somewhat inspired touch, the player is the only one in this 'world' who knows what BTS will become and their career to date. As soon as it started serving up steamy photographs of these young hunks, I was hooked.
BTS is a seriously big group. Their latest album, Map of the Soul: Persona, is the best-selling album in Korean history. And this game has production values which reflect that, and also functions as an extension of the band-stroke-brand itself.
This is an app, yes, but in a more direct sense it's a piece of sophisticated music merchandise. It helps that BTS has the 'parallel universe' aspect as part of their appeal already, sure, but as you see how this thing works it's clear that (a) the developers knew exactly what they were doing and (b) any future band of this nature will probably have something just like this on mobile.
BTS World is in some respects more like a visual novel than a game, but it also takes inspiration from contemporaries like Mystic Messenger, a dating game about texting that was Korean-developed and a huge hit. You gradually meet the individual members of the band and engage in various simple tasks.
The most involved it gets is a card game which is a bit like Top Trumps: you acquire band member cards with four different stats, and each task requires different stats to complete. Needless to say, whatever you're doing, various BTS songs or instrumentals play in the background.
Then again, 'visual novel' almost undersells what's gone into this. Each stage features multiple video vignettes of the group acting out certain scenes and horsing around: when you move them into a new dorm in chapter two, for example, there's a genuinely amusing scene where the boys sit around thinking about who gets the beds and who gets the sofas, Peep Show interior monologue style, which is settled by a game of rock-paper-scissors.
At other points you'll receive calls from individual members, in which pre-recorded conversations between them and your text bubble play out.
Perhaps what most surprised me about BTS World is the sense of humour that permeates it. This is on the one hand a super-slick licensed product laser-targeted at the group's young and (I'm going to take a wild guess) predominately female fanbase.
To that end, a big part of the appeal is in your engagements with the members, and various mini-games around them (for example, you can win accessories on the card stages, then dress up the group in a sub-menu). There's even a whole suite of 'side-campaigns' where you learn about each individual member's backstory – well, the official backstory at least.
Even on that level, this is an ingenious product: this is part-game, part-tribute, part-official biography, and part-flirting simulator. This is obviously not a game where the manager is supposed to be, like me, a bloke in his mid-thirties.
But I came to appreciate just how well-written and well-constructed this miniature fantasy is. It would have been easy for BTS World to be straight hagiography, and of course in the macro sense it is. But it has an irreverent sense of humour and is willing to undercut itself at any given moment.
Take for example when you first get the lads together, and tell them they're going to be called the Bangtan Boys (the group goes by both monikers now, but began with that). Roughly half of them love it, and half of them hate it - and I mean really hate it.
They argue, one starts accusing you of forcing it on them, then after the meeting you get all these hacked-off texts about how rubbish the name is. I can't even quite remember how that got resolved, but I loved how my character announced the name with all the benefit of hindsight and world tours, and then everything descended into squabbling.
Similarly with the texts. Some of the members lack confidence, so you build them up. Others are forward with ideas and demands. With each you thread a thin line which, in a winning touch, always includes somewhat 'flirty' responses which usually result in some innocent confusion from the recipient.
I really respect how finely-balanced BTS World's tone is in that respect: it's always flirting with flirting, but that never tips over into anything salacious. It won't surprise you to hear that as a young man I wasn't into boy bands myself, but my younger sister was a Take That nutter. She had all the albums, singles, magazines, annuals, t-shirts, her bedroom walls were covered in posters... you name it.
Her favourite was Mark Owen and to this day I could probably reel off more biographical facts about Mark Owen than Paul McCartney (what can I say, she loved talking about Mark.) My point is that, 25 years or so down the road, all of the above accoutrements of a pop sensation are in this app. If Take That was in its heyday now, this would be Take That World, because the principles behind all of that merch is the same.
You could summarise it as 'bringing fans closer to the band.' But it's never been done quite so intimately as this before. If I was a teenage BTS fan, I might well think this was the best app ever made. Some of the stuff in here is so smartly integrated, like rehearsing the band, looking back through the photobooks, the various social media conversations and promotions you get involved in.
As an old fart, I don't think this is the best app ever made. From another angle though, one can see that this is the future for a certain kind of band. It's not like having a backstory is unique to BTS.
Any pop sensations would be foolish to pass over the kind of fan engagement this represents, and even then does it have to be contemporary or new bands? If BTS World is catnip for certain of the younger generation, then all you'd need to do is apply the same structure and create Beatles World to have boomers falling over themselves in a froth.
There are a few things that are not-so-great about BTS World. Firstly, it gives you an unnecessary legal warning every time you take a screenshot: utterly foolish, in a game where you surely want people sharing their experiences.
Secondly it is free-to-play, and that means everything you expect: energy meter, two premium currencies, blah blah blah. I never hit a wall in this, but I was both lucky enough to get a 5-star card in a free draw and probably don't play as much as the intended audience will. I imagine that if you want to collect fancy holograms of all the boys, it would be wallet-busting.
Let's face it: I'm probably not the manager BTS dreamed of. But these guys gave me their all, some of their tunes are incredibly catchy, and I was there for them too: when they needed a shoulder to cry on, when they needed better digs, when they needed help coping with sudden fame.
The amount of interaction in parts of this experience is minimal. But what BTS World does with that, to my surprise, is live up to the title. Beyond seeing the name a few times, I had no idea who BTS was before this. But now I know all their 'world'. I know a hell of a lot. After all, I made them famous.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.