Welcome back to Mystic Messenger Trash, a gaming diary that chronicles my experience playing Mystic Messenger for the first time. The following contains spoilers for Jaehee’s good route of the game (and one of her bad endings).
I have feelings about Jaehee’s route, but let me first summarize it. If you were around for my take on Zen’s route, you’ll know that he hurt his ankle. That injury still happens in Jaehee’s route, just like it did in Yoosung’s. Jaehee offers to go and take care of him, despite being massively overworked as usual, much to my Zen-loving chagrin. (This route continually tried to push Zen and Jaehee together, so I was very satisfied when I read that one of the bad endings is that you go instead of Jaehee and end up with Zen.) Anyway, while she’s there, she stays up working on a project about coffee that Jumin’s dad pawned off on his department, and she totally gets into it. Except that Jumin doesn’t want her to work on that—he wants her to work on his cat hotel project, which she could not care less about. While Jaehee continues to not sleep, Seven makes the cat hotel presentation, you and Zen worry over her, and Jumin sees nothing wrong with the picture. But when Jaehee actually uses Seven’s presentation, Jumin is so pissed off that he steals one of Seven’s cars, crashes it, and then fires Jaehee. Still, she isn’t upset at that—instead, at the party, she asks you to open up a coffee shop with her.
In terms of larger plot, V and Seven go to the Mint Eye headquarters, where we learn that V knows them and was… possibly lying about Rika’s suicide? It’s not really resolved. Also, V tells Jumin that he has cancer and will die, and Jumin all but punches him in the face for lying, so like, cool. V sucks, and I secretly (not secretly) hate him.
Before I get to the elephant in the game, I actually want to say that Jaehee’s route is the least problematic out of all of them so far. Jaehee, as a person, has a lot of growth—realizing what she wants, setting boundaries, opening up to both you and Zen. (Incidentally, to no one’s surprise, I love how much of Zen we get in this plot. He’s the best.) She treats you like an independent person who has their own life, makes it clear that she enjoys talking to you and hopes that you enjoy talking to her too. Out of all the routes I’ve played, Jaehee’s is the most respectful towards the player-character. There’s no jealousy or possessiveness, no putting you on a pedestal. Jaehee sees you for who you are and doesn’t try to change who she is or make you feel the way she does, period.
Maybe these issues don’t come up because Jaehee is the only other girl in the RFA (Rika’s Fundraising Association). Women can be toxic, too, and anyone who was socialized as female will tell you that little girls are mean, but women don’t have to buy into toxic masculinity the way that many men do. (Trust me, as someone non-binary, I understand this is a very binary discussion, but bear with me.) Perhaps for Jaehee, the way she displays her feelings are healthier than the others because of how women are supposed to love—kindly, openly, understandingly. I’m not Korean, so I can’t speculate on the cultural expectations of how women are supposed to behave in relationships, but at least in both Iranian and US culture, women are still expected to be the “better halves,” the ones that take on emotional labor within the relationship, the ones that problem solve and figure out how not to rock the boat.
It could also be that the issues of the other routes don’t surface because the route is framed as friendship rather than a relationship. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t display these tendencies in a friendship—I certainly have been possessive of my friends—but the discourse around what signifies a close friendship versus a relationship are different. In friendships, we’re taught to support our friends as they explore whatever it is that makes them happy. In partnerships, we’re taught to want to keep our partners to ourselves. Relationships are meant to be the center of our lives, so of course we would feel threatened by others; friendships are supporting roles. With Jaehee as your very good friend, she doesn’t need to feel possessive or jealous, because she’s just that—a friend.
People have lambasted Cheritz for not making this route explicitly a romance. During gameplay, the others remark how close you and Jaehee have gotten—“It’s so nice that she’s found a good friend!”—which is deeply frustrating. When Jaehee didn’t kiss you at the end of her route despite the subtext in her “I’m so nervous to meet you”s and “I shouldn’t rush into this”s and “There’s something I want to say”s, I went into the Sidequest Slack and screamed to my fellow editors. She ends the route with “Will you be my partner?”, for Christ’s sake! On top of that, you FEED HER CAKE in the Valentine Day’s After Ending, and she’s totally blushing in the picture.
Anyway, when I was calm enough, Editor-in-Chief Melissa asked me whether I’d seen anything about whether Cheritz had to make this “hide your lesbians” plot because of queer politics in South Korea. And really, I think she was right. It seems that even as there have been strides in equality, South Korea is still deeply afraid of its queers, and there’s still lots of support for anti-LGBT+ organizations.
One player examined why they thought that Jaehee’s route was actually romantic, and came up with this: besides the intimate way Jaehee talks about you, Seven actually lets slip that you he’s surprised you chose Jaehee’s romantic—oops, I mean friendship—route. Another player asked their Korean friends about the translation into English and their interpretation of the route, and they agreed that the route was a hidden romance because of South Korea’s gay politics. Another Korean player also said that South Korea’s conservatism is real, but that Jaehee’s route is an option in a dating sim is a big, big deal. (Also, you can always play this adorable fan-made game where you ask Jaehee to marry you.)
Remembering the context in which this game was made is vital, and it helped me put my frustration at ease. Yes, I wanted to kiss Jaehee. I wanted to have a relationship with her that clearly stated what it was. But if this was the way to make sure queer Korean fans could get their hands on the game, then I support that, as much as I wish it were otherwise.
On the other hand, perhaps this focus on “friendship” is what allowed this route to be less troublesome than the rest. I didn’t run to my phone every time I heard it ring the Mystic Messenger bell, but it was refreshing—especially right after Jumin’s route—to be in a place of mutual respect. And Jaehee’s floundering as you become closer is super precious. As she dives into learning more about coffee, I just wanted to give her a hug and tell her to go for what makes her happy.
To be clear, it is nice to see strong friendships in stories, but queer representation—and especially female queer representation—is rare at best. Maybe this line between “are they” and “aren’t they” wouldn’t exist if there were another woman in the RFA alongside Jaehee, or if this were just a visual novel rather than a dating sim with elements of a visual novel. I hope that as Korea becomes more progressive, Cheritz allows themselves to be proud—and explicit—in their representation.
By day, Sidequest’s 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.