Welcome back to Mystic Messenger Trash, a game diary where I chronicle my experiences of playing Mystic Messenger for the first time! The following post will contain spoilers for Zen’s good route of the game. Content note for discussions of sexual harassment and emotional abuse.
As I mentioned last time, the big reason I became Mystic Messenger trash is because I followed Zen’s route first. And Zen’s route, at least, is wish fulfillment after wish fulfillment. From sitting out on his rooftop staring at the sky to being rescued from a near-kidnapping, Zen’s route is everything teenage Naseem would have wanted.
But. There are a ton of problematic things within it.
At the beginning of his route, Zen gets cast in a role with Echo Girl, South Korea’s singing sweetheart. Zen is a musical actor who so far has only done relatively small theatre productions; being in a show with Echo Girl will change his career. However, while working out aggressively due to being pissed off at Jumin (yeah, people ship these two a lot; it’s basically puppyshipping all over again), he sprains/mysteriously damages his foot—which takes him out of commission for his role. Zen spirals into a depression which, you, aka me, can take him out of (or encourage, I guess, leading to a Bad Ending)—but then, Echo Girl comes to visit him! And she will do what she can to make sure he can act with her, because she is His Fan. Cue furious cat hisses and jealous stomping.
Zen, ever the gentleman, thinks nothing of this, of course, but is excited at the potential. Except when Echo Girl visits him in the middle of the night, discussing her large breasts (“I have natural D cups” is a LITERAL line) in order to seduce Zen, he turns her down. And… her reaction is to start a rumor that he sexually harassed her.
In the latter part of Zen’s route, you comfort him and tell him his career isn’t ruined (if you want the Good Ending), as well as to encourage the other characters to dig up as much dirt on Echo Girl as possible. The route ends with Zen holding a press conference where he denies the allegations and says, “Well, I couldn’t have done it anyway, because I have a girlfriend! Look, meet Naseem!” Or something like that.
I think it’s pretty obvious that this plot is deeply problematic, but let’s dive a bit into it.
The idea that it’s “only a game” is harmful if we consider that that excuse has been used over and over again across mediums to reinforce problematic beliefs instead of addressing them.
In the past few months, allegations of sexual harassment and assault have flooded popular attention. The advent of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements waves a flag at the problems that have long been present but ignored in media, with focuses specifically on Hollywood. The book world has also been discussing this issue, with both a list of alleged incidents and many women coming forth about big names like Jay Asher, Sherman Alexie, and Junot Diaz.
A common thread in discussions about sexual harassment and assault is the inflation of statistics—that is to say, people think it’s not possible that one in four women will be assaulted in their lifetime. Many believe that sexual harassment/assault is over-reported, which is why the slogan “Believe women” took off. But the incidents of false reporting are very low and inconsistent; studies show that only between 2 and 10 percent of cases are “false,” and even that “false” designation isn’t entirely accurate.
Still, it’s deeply troubling that so many people think women would make up being harassed or assaulted for attention. It harkens back to the idea of “hysteria” at the turn of the nineteenth century: the belief that women have always been too emotional to be rational, and it’s easier to cry wolf than confront the systematic issues that allow for this belief to permeate.
A plot that revolves around a false allegation of sexual harassment is therefore deeply troubling, adding to the narrative that women make these things up for attention or revenge. Though it’s only a phone game, Mystic Messenger has been downloaded over one million times—and that’s just on the Google Play store. That’s one million people who are being exposed to this idea again. The idea that it’s “only a game” is harmful if we consider that that excuse has been used over and over again across mediums to reinforce problematic beliefs instead of addressing them.
The other problems with Zen’s route are his own insecurities, which create toxic tendencies towards the main character, aka me. (I’m not letting this go; I love him.) Any relationship guru will tell you that too much jealousy in a relationship is not healthy; Zen is the extreme version of this. In one phone call, you have the option to tell him to be jealous, and he says you’re not allowed to speak to anyone else and that others need his permission to talk to you. Right before the party, he tells you that your low-cut dress means you need to stick next to him because he doesn’t want other guys looking at you.
Clearly, this is deep wish fulfillment that teenaged Naseem (and yes, even adult Naseem) would have loved—a relationship in which the partner loves you so much, they can’t bear to share you with anyone else. But adult Naseem has something on teenaged Naseem: not only am I now in a great marriage, but I have the experience of having been in an abusive relationship for five years.
I was in the fortunate (?) position of actually being in a “faux-relationship,” where we weren’t actually dating but were basically dating—fortunate because we were never discussing a future together that would involve finances or a family, something that often keeps people trapped in abusive relationships. And though he never outright told me I couldn’t be with other people, I slowly became more and more isolated as the years went on. In my third year, I briefly dated someone, and he told me basically every day that we’d break up. When I found out that said person I was dating was actually using me to cheat on his girlfriend, my abuser told me “I told you so.” He was secure in our relationship because I was the jealous one—the one who was so scared of him leaving and what that would mean that I would burn up inside whenever he spent time with anyone that wasn’t me. I knew this was unhealthy, and worked on it over the years.
Not him, though. When I finally started seeing someone for the first time, he was furious. I was changing, abandoning our friends. He didn’t know me anymore. I was lying to him. All of this was his words, not my own, and it was why I finally left. It taught me valuable lessons in boundaries and trust. So thanks for that and the PTSD, I guess.
Anyway. The behaviors that Zen exhibits—mainly, his possessiveness of you and jealousy—is straight from the toxic masculinity and abusive behaviors handbook. It’s the type of love you think you want when you’re young, because you don’t know any better. You don’t know that you’ll wake up from a nightmare of your abuser chasing you. You don’t know that your friends from college will stop speaking to you when you come forward with your story. You don’t know that seeing his super-common name will trigger you over and over again. Instead, you think that jealousy is a sign of true love, that the way he treats you is what you deserve, that you will never find someone to love you the way he does.
To be clear, Zen’s only controlling behavior appears when you wear something supposedly revealing—when he’s being jealous. He doesn’t tell you not to have a life outside of him. He doesn’t tell you not to have friends. But that’s the danger of romanticizing things that are toxic: we normalize them.
If it’s not abundantly clear, I love Zen. He’s everything teenaged Naseem wanted. (Hell, he’s almost everything adult Naseem wants, too.) But teenaged Naseem didn’t need the possessiveness, and I can’t help but wonder if other teenagers are internalizing the behaviors that could ultimately hurt them. Yes, I am trash for this game, and especially for Zen—but I hesitate to recommend this to younger players who don’t have the life experience to understand how these jealousy, possession, and controlling behaviors are dangerous. As an adult, I’m able to logically say that Zen’s behavior is not okay while still deeply loving Mystic Messenger, and loving Zen, and it’s because I feel so strongly about this game that I am critical of it. In the end, yes, Zen is my Second Husband, and he still displays behaviors that make me wince.
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!