If you’ve followed me for at least a year, you’ve seen how excited I was for the Mystic Messenger release early this summer. Due to technological issues caused by both my outdated phone and cumbersome bugs in the app, it took me until now – October 2016 – to complete all five good endings and both secret endings. In that time, I saw the game grow in popularity and I am so happy to see Cheritz hitting mass appeal (even if it means giving up the mythology built in Dandelion and Nameless).
Cheritz is a company based in South Korea that advertises “sweet solutions for female gamers”. So far, each of their titles showcase romantic routes that encourage personal growth. According to their page on the visual novel database, Mystic Messenger has only been localized from Korean to English, where Dandelion was also released in China and Nameless in Japan during the initial release. Cheritz is one of very few otome game developers that releases their games in English for the west, while others outsource translation and localization, or are adapted by fans (Nitro+Chiral, I’m looking at you). As a result I can only assume that westerners make up quite a bit of their market, which cannot be ignored when you look at their motivations when constructing Mystic Messenger.
Instead of a review this time, I’m going to go through many of the events, themes and characters of Mystic Messenger and assess where the appeals are stacked. Is this for Western audiences in the Americas and the UK? Is it for Korean audiences in Cheritz’s home field? Or is it something indicative of the romance/Dating sim genre? I’ hope this may explain why certain elements in the game didn’t appeal to me or you, and why that is.
Please be aware that this post contains potential spoilers for all endings and routes. Read at your own risk.
Zen’s appeal is that he’s a minor celebrity, and his route navigates his problems of being involved in the the Korean entertainment industry. While I imagine that a lot of people reading this post are friends and fujoshi like myself, your average westerner might not know much about the limits on dating when you’re a celebrity in Korea. Jaehee’s warnings about causing a scandal could be a real problem for Zen in his career.
So imagine, if you will, a harlequin romance novel about falling for a beautiful up-and-coming off-broadway star. Zen’s story is typical to the genre, with clearly set eastern roots.
Don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten about Echo Girl. I’ll talk about that stuff a little later.
Yoosung also counts as a genre/east combo. It’s not unusal for otome games to have a childlike romantic option, so in a game about adults, a college student is a good choice. In previous Cheritz games, we had Jieun and Yeonho. Yoosung is quite a bit more mature than both of them.
Yoosung runs from his problems by playing a lot of his favorite MMORPG, LOLOL. I think a lot of westerners can relate to immersing yourself in a game rather than conquering your problems, but no one knows this better than South Korea. On several occasions, the characters talk about getting official involvement to conquer Yoosung’s addiction. Jaehee also remarks in 707’s route that unless Yoosung wants to play competitively, he shouldn’t play so much. While game addiction has a worldwide concern, it is not on the same level in the west as it is in South Korea. His inspiration to conquer that may be an emotional subject.
I am going to spend a little extra time talking about Jaehee.
I have seen a lot of discussion about whether or not her route is romantic. I believe it is. South Korea has little in regards to gay rights. I’ll leave you to read the wikipedia article for details, but homosexuality is largely invisible there.
I had a friend refer to the Jaehee route as “gal pals”, which has been the best term for the relationship that I could imagine. Jaehee’s route may not be as explicit in relationship development as the others, but the intimacy and love between them is clear. I believe Jaehee’s route was written in order to give yuri-loving fans what they wanted, but was subtle enough to give Cheritz plausible deniability for people who weren’t interested. I think this is expressed from the developer to the reader with 707’s comment where he says he’s surprised you chose to date Jaehee. He correct himself to say ‘friends’, but it’s too late. I see you Cheritz. I see what you’re doing.
Now that we’ve established that, Jaehee’s route is 100% written with love for the Western audience. Cheritz has an english tumblr and I’m certain they have been paying attention to the western celebration of couples like Garnet and Korra/Asami. In Nameless, Soi and Shinbi became popular on their own, their relationship with each other being very shippable. Cheritz saw what we wanted, and they gave us Jaehee. I don’t know why they may have held back, but I’m sure they have their reasons.
Before we move on to the Deep Routes, let’s discuss some other important things.
Villainous Female Characters
I’m referring to the common trope in romance where other women are threats to the protagonists’ object of affection. This happens several times in Mystic Messenger. You have three major female characters (Jaehee, Rika, and the protagonist) and there are three other female characters that are antagonistic caricatures (Echo Girl, Glam Choi, Sarah.) Mystic Messenger performs this damaging trope in Zen and Jumin’s routes, and Jaehee is critical of your relationship with Zen in both his route and her own.
I’m uncomfortable with Echo Girl’s fake rape allegations upon Zen because I am, by default, inclined to side against men. Similarly, Glam Choi and Sarah’s motivations in Jumin’s route come from a hideous sexist stereotype that is dangerous these days with the MRA movements so strong. If you’re going to use female characters like this, please give them more three dimensional motivations.
In Nameless the main character has two close female friends (the aforementioned Soi and Shinbi)- one who gets involved in a love triangle with the MC – and everyone was very realistic and sympathetic. Cheritz can do better than this. I’ve seen it before. Sweet solutions for female gamers doesn’t have to turn us against other women.
There’s not a lot of this stuff but when it’s there it’s so egregiously terrible that it’s clear zero thought went into it at all. I’m surprised no one I know has been yelling about this. We’d all rather have fun and pretend it never happened.
If you know me, you know I’ve studied religion. I casually studied Korean religions in particular one summer, out of curiosity. I was still shocked when this came into play as such a strong element in Mystic Messenger.
I don’t want to talk about this too much because I could make a whole separate blog post about it, but I think they selected this theme for the way that it brings west and east together. Korea is very Christian, almost 30% of the population adhering to some form of Christianity. 10% of that is Catholic, appearing to be more of a niche group. The conversation above highlights with something a professor told me in school: “If you say you’re Christian and they find out you’re Catholic, they’ll call you a liar.”
I’ve never read 50 Shades of Grey, but the more I look at the wikipedia synopsis, the more I believe that Jumin was created to appeal to fans of that book. He’s handsome, rich and loves his family, but he’s a bad communicator who has no idea how to handle his budding relationship. If you like, he can put you in a cage for you to be his sex slave, but Cheritz was certain to give him the emotional depth to allow the reader to love him. I’m not sure how well 50 shades did in Korea, so I can only assume that Jumin is for the west.
Edit: This is the most debated statement in this post, and I can’t really stand up for it. Wealth is a big appeal in romance stories the world over. Women want to be spoiled, and for our financial woes to disappear. However, the trope of the aloof, possessive, rich guy is just something I’ve seen countless times in western romantic work, and I don’t find it to be as ubiquitous in dating sims.
In other words, I might be wrong on this one.
I can’t actually say about 707. He has been such a hit for western readers, but I’m not sure if he has any direct pandering appeal. I think he’s just that wonderful.
I can’t believe this character didn’t get more screentime.
I believe that Vanderwood is also a love letter to the west. We are first introduced to them in passing as 707’s maid, Mary Vanderwood, but they never appear onscreen until 707’s route for us to parse the truth. Vanderwood sounds like a man, but 707 refers to them as “she” to Vanderwood’s face every single time, and Vanderwood does nothing to correct him. Later, Zen notes that he was surprised to discover that Vanderwood was a man, but we don’t hear Vanderwood’s response to that, either.
I believe that the confusion about Vanderwood’s gender was intentional. I won’t say that 707 is a good ally (since how he treats Jumin’s rumor of being gay) but he is canonically bisexual (it’s in the VIP guidebook). It’s impossible to know what he knows about Vanderwood, but he is the closest character to them. I think that, like Jaehee, this piece of information was left here intentionally for the western audience to project a non-binary gender identity onto, but is deniable without explicit admission.
I find Rika difficult to place in this criteria. Rika is mentally ill, but hides it behind an exterior of happiness and charisma. I have met this person many times in my life. Rika’s precise diagnosis is foggy – she was probably never diagnosed – but when it is revealed that Rika was ill, everyone treats it as though it was a symptom – like a tumor – that ended up killing her. I found that perspective both surprising and refreshing even though it appears that mental illness tends to be disregarded in Korea.
Rika’s plot isn’t going to win any awards for representation, but everything would have been fine if V didn’t screw up her route and get the bad end.
I find V to be one of the most fascinating characters because the results of his actions have caused him to end up on Rika’s bad end route, as if he were an otome game protagonist himself. V is therefore a creature of his genre: a Cheritz game. All Cheritz good endings involve often taking the choices that lead to the character getting what they need rather than what they want. In the secret ending, we see that V gave Rika what she wanted rather than what she needed. I feel like you only need to see the bad endings in Mystic Messenger to fully appreciate what happens to V.
To wrap up I have to admit I loved Mystic Messenger. There were also a lot of things I hated in Mystic Messenger. Cheritz took on a huge project by trying hard to appeal to so many groups at the same time, and I think they failed as much as they succeeded. Please keep this in mind when you play and discuss the game with your friends, that if certain aspects didn’t appeal to you, then maybe they weren’t for you at all. Covering all of these bases is a huge task for a company like this, and it might not have been the best choice, but Cheritz will never get better if they stop making games. Each one is a gamble, and I will support them every time.