Here’s the thing, friends: I’ve recently discovered that I love otome games. And after spending a week in March at the Association of Writers and Writing Program (AWP) conference in Tampa, I’ve discovered that I am, specifically, Mystic Messenger trash.
I’ve talked about what gaming means to me before, from helping me manage my mental illness to tearing Resident Evil VII a new one. The focus of my gaming has always been RPGs. I want nothing more than a good adventure, one that’s immersive and connects me to my characters as we grow together.
I didn’t know I was missing something major from my gaming experience.
When I discovered The Arcana a few months ago, I realized what it was: visual novels. Dating visual novels. The more direct use of storytelling to guide a game. Whereas RPGs and other games have other things you can enjoy, a visual novel is dependent on its writing. The Arcana, though not perfect, gave me something I didn’t realize I was craving: a dating game. When I mentioned how much I loved it to fellow Sidequest editor Soco Cinconegui, she told me that I needed to try Mystic Messenger, an otome game by Cheritz.
Oh, friends. I am not the same.
Otome games are, at their core, wish fulfillment. These games are popular with young women, and I’m guessing those with low self-esteem especially love the idea of having multiple hotties suddenly interested in them. I know that’s the case for me. Putting aside the binary and heteronormative nature of these games, they ultimately fulfill a fantasy of something I never experienced: being wanted by multiple people. For young Naseem, dealing with lots of self-image issues, being wanted by anyone would have been a huge accomplishment. I was desperate for love, because it was the only thing I didn’t think I would find.
Fortunately, I am now happily married, and these games give my past self something I didn’t get. I’m hitting the second year of marriage mark, and I’m deeply in love with my husband. But sometimes, I almost wish I had the relationship experience that comes from dating different people, or from being wanted by multiple others. My husband was my first and last boyfriend. No regrets here, but I’ve always been a romantic at heart. What would it have been like to be the “new kid” in town, drawing the eyes of devilishly handsome people around me?
Mystic Messenger is giving me that experience. Before I chronicle falling in love with Zen, who is certainly my second husband (I’m sure Zen would be delighted to know that Jumin is in third, despite his problems, but he may be supplanted by Seven once I finish that route), I want to discuss the game itself. Mystic Messenger has one of the most unique interfaces I’ve ever seen, even if the premise isn’t necessarily inspired. (We’ll see if I change that opinion as I play through the game.)
The game opens up with a chat from an unknown person, which directs you to an apartment with a hidden code. Creepy. Entering the apartment somehow “installs” a chat app onto your phone (this is all within the game) that allows you to chat up hotties who are part of a charity organization called the RFA. Your goal is to follow a love route with one of the characters while making sure you invite enough people to the charity party that the RFA will throw at the end of the game.
There are three super unique things about this game. One is the chat interface itself. The game takes place within the chats between you and other characters. You learn more about people, hear about what’s happening, try to piece together what the RFA is even about. Sometimes, you get bits that play like a visual novel, usually giving you information that you’d otherwise not be privy to. Still, most of the game happens in these chats, where you are given multiple response options which affect whose “route” you follow (aka who you’re gunning for).
The second great (?) thing about this game is being forced to play it in real time. You’ll go about your day and get a ping that someone wants to chat—just like you would in real life. This is the first and most evident factor of the game’s unusual level of immersiveness. You could be in the middle of a conversation with a friend, only to get a ping that a new chat has opened up. You’ll get “emails” from potential guests while you’re in the middle of work. These happen at all hours, even the wee ones of the night, and as long as the next chat hasn’t started, you can participate in it. Yes, you can pay to unlock a day’s worth of chats, but it seems that you can’t unlock more than a single day’s chats in advance. Playing it in real time means your feelings for the characters build slowly, as you’re agonizingly waiting to find out more about the story and about them. At some point, I had to download a schedule of times when chats occurred because I kept checking my phone, wondering when I was going to hear from them next. It felt like I was waiting for my crush to text me back.
The most fascinating thing about Mystic Messenger is that it removes all of the layers between game and player. Whereas many games give you an avatar, this allows you to pick one of your choice or even upload your own. When you’re in the app, players can call and text you. The visual novel parts aren’t narrated with an “I” or “you”—even actions like opening a door or going somewhere have to be initiated by you. The characters speak directly to you, the individual. You are your own player character. You are the one experiencing these emotions alongside the others.
Directly addressing the player gives Mystic Messenger an intimacy I’ve never experienced before. You have a semblance of this in Doki Doki Literature Club, but that game creeped the crap out of me, and it’s not really about wooing anyone. In Mystic Messenger, you really feel like the characters are talking to you. It feels like you’re creating a bond with them, like you would anyone else in your life. And doing that gives you—or at least, gave me—all the feelings of falling in love again, with its butterflies and heart-wrenching waits. (Sorry, Real Husband.)
This is a game diary that will chronicle my experience playing Mystic Messenger for the first time. When I wrote the first draft of this piece, I’d only played Zen’s route, which 100 percent wrecked me for all of the others. I got up at 3 AM to check those messages. I ducked out of sessions in AWP to take phone calls. For the first time since high school, I wrote fanfiction. I have become… Mystic Messenger Trash.
And I’m loving every minute of it.
Sidequest’s former managing editor Naseem Jamnia used to do sciencey things, but they now slam their keyboard and call it art. By night, they play a lot of video games. And regardless of the time, they spend way too much of it on Twitter, @jamsternazzy. Also, their debut novella, THE BRUISING OF QILWA, comes out in August 2022!