Welcome back to Mystic Messenger Trash, a column wherein I chronicle playing Mystic Messenger for the first time. The following contains spoilers for the Rika Behind Story DLC, along with mentions of her portrayal in other routes more broadly. Content warning for mentions of sexual assault and parental abuse, and a brief discussion of suicidal ideations and depression.
Well folks, it’s been an age since I brought you another spicy take here at Mystic Messenger Trash—an age in which we’ve started to wear face masks on the daily and where capitalism has finally begun to fall apart, ish. Maybe. Not actually. What does that have to do with Mystic Messenger? Well, originally, the pandemic meant I could play V’s route at long last, and then I did, and realized that in order to talk about V, I needed to talk about Rika first. (Note: I will discuss what we learn of V in Behind Story in the piece on his route, as it puts said route into context.)
Throughout the game, the player learns some key details about Rika: Yoosung’s aunt and uncle adopted her, she had a dog, she was active in a church community, she was drawn to V’s portrayal of the sun, and she believes she’s saving/helping people through Mint Eye. To elaborate on her character, Cheritz released a series of DLC called Rika Behind Story. Purchasable by hourglasses, each of the eight episodes chronicles a part of Rika’s backstory, narrated by Rika while she’s in therapy during her engagement to V. As I played through, I was surprised to find myself rooting for a character I previously have found a shallow, stigmatized portrayal of what it means to have depression… though I still have concerns on that front. The following is an out-of-order summary of what we learn in Rika Behind Story.
Rika Behind Story: The Story
Rika Behind Story opens with an adult Rika narrating the story of Mina (Rika herself), age 3, talking to Mika, age 6. They are not in an orphanage yet, but rather, in some sort of intermediary location; Mika was supposed to be sent to an orphanage due to her age, but is good with the babies and wants to be adopted with Mina as sisters. However, Mina is—against her will—adopted by a Bible-thumping woman instead, despite Mika’s intuition that the woman will be a bad parent.
Ten or more years pass to reveal a miserable Mina, renamed “Serena” by her adoptive parents. (While this appears to be a name and identity given to her unwillingly, the narrative and Rika herself use “Serena” throughout this section.) Her mother believes Serena is influenced by Satan and sends her to a pastor for “cleansing.” Serena tries to convince her mother that the pastor is sexually abusing her, but her mother doesn’t believe her and instead insists it’s a ritual to condemn Satan. (Adult Rika sees this as the moment when her “devil” was sowed inside her, particularly as everyone, from her classmates to her parents, finds her “creepy.”) Serena tries to interrupt a sermon to expose the pastor’s abuse and the hypocrisy of a fire-and-brimstone god; he casts her out, proclaiming her possessed, and Serena’s mother denounces her as bad since they’re not blood-related. Serena decides to protect herself by embracing her inner devil. Claiming Satan is speaking to her, Serena uses her mother’s faith against her to get her way, including keeping Sally, the stray dog she finds; she later reflects that keeping her devil close and purposefully reinforcing her mother’s fears was how she could make sure her needs were met.
Interspersed in these events, Serena is reunited with Mika when the former’s father is in the hospital; she learns there that Mika has incurable eye cancer. Despite calling each other sisters, Serena realizes the two can never be fully honest with each other about how bad their lives are—with Mika dying, and with Serena’s abuse. Instead, Serena reflects how grownups forsake things they don’t like, and vows to not forsake even a piece of trash.
Serena changes her name to Rika and begins to volunteer at a church separate from the one her mom attends. She becomes drawn to people who need her help (such as Saeyoung) but is repulsed by those who do not (like Yoosung). Two years into this, she sees one of V’s exhibits for the first time, and reflects, “My devotion [to others] is an unhealthy attachment derived from darkness [of not being loved by her parents].” Eventually, the two meet and, after entering a somewhat turbulent relationship, become engaged. (I’ll discuss the details we learn in the piece on V’s route.)
Although Rika is happy for a while, she worries that the devil protecting her inner child will “melt and perish” while with V. She moves into her own apartment, where Mika, still inexplicably alive, lives. Mika distrusts V and plans to keep Rika’s devil safe by using Saeran to steal RFA information instead of protecting him. She convinces Rika that love is fickle, and only strength can protect someone—strength in the form of her plan to create Mint Eye, and have Rika lead it in her stead. Rika tells herself, “I’m abnormal. I know Mika is abnormal. But devils cannot forsake each other.”
The nice thing about the portrayal of Rika’s childhood is that, finally, we have a full story of what happened to this traumatized young woman who decided to become a cult leader and drug people to secure their happiness. Learning about her background of abuse makes Rika a sympathetic person, as it gives context to her decisions that were previously lacking. As I mentioned earlier, as I played, I found myself wishing Rika would find the happiness she deserves, one without toxic or unreliable people, one where she feels safe to have days in which nothing feels okay. I wanted Rika to find a space where she could heal from all that has happened to her and figure out what kind of life she wants to lead.
But what happens is that in redeeming Rika, we’ve now demonized another young woman—Mika—in the same way. (For the sake of clarity, in the rest of this section, I’ll only refer to Rika by this name.) Although as a child, Mika is protective of Rika, she’s also jealous of how potential parents are more interested in the younger child, trying to get the woman who would adopt Rika to instead adopt her. While in the hospital, Mika claims she tried to do so to protect Rika, sensing her mother would be abusive, but she also admits her jealousy of Rika’s family and educational opportunities, as Mika was never adopted. By the time we return to Mika in the final episode, we see a woman who manipulates her sole friend to keep her close: worried V would “ruin” Rika because she’s “weak,” it is Mika who convinces Rika to pull away from V; Mint Eye is Mika’s creation, and it is her idea to use Saeran against the RFA to gather information and build their “kingdom.”
Thus, the characteristics we know of Rika from other routes—her being secretive, manipulative, and jealous of others—we see originate in another. Mika is bitter, angry, and resentful at her treatment, not from Rika, but from the world at large and the adults who did not care for her. While we know Rika’s traumas, we don’t have Mika’s full story; we only know that the Rika we see as Mint Eye’s leader has adopted not only Mika’s beliefs of a cruel world, where love can only grow out of fear, but even her mannerisms. Even if Mint Eye Rika now makes sense, it’s only because another character was introduced on whom we can blame Rika’s “worst” behaviors. In reality, the same issues remain with Mika as with Rika: a young woman with mental health struggles is demonized for them by the narrative.
Part of the problem is the conflation of mental illness with a “devil.” The commentary is, perhaps, on the world at large and its cruelty toward those who are not what society expects of them, but what does it mean that the only two portrayals of psychiatric disabilities are in these two women? What does it mean that Rika views both herself and Mika as “abnormal,” and is told by a doctor that she’s a burden to those around her? (As I mentioned before partway through Rika Behind Story, we learn Rika is narrating while in therapy. Although she is medicated, she is told to return because “the longer your illness stays with you, the harder things are for the people around you.” Rika reflects that what she calls her mental illness might be rooted in childhood trauma, but does not unpack these thoughts further.)
Narratives of psychiatric disabilities often have this thread, the fear that we are a burden to the people in our lives. During the worst days of my depression, my suicidal ideations were laced with the idea that if I no longer existed, then I would no longer put my problems on those I loved. How horrible it would have been to hear from my therapist or psychiatrist that yes, indeed, by having depression, I strained those around me. I have already criticized the way in which mental health is dealt with in Yoosung’s route, and it is no better here, where Rika feels isolated and demonized because of something outside her control. Even when she seeks help—something that is unclear in the other routes—this idea is reinforced, rather than actually seeking to help her unpack and understand her defense mechanism in the form of a “devil.”
For players to know Rika will go on to build a cult and actively harm people in the name of keeping them safe sends a message that people with psychiatric disabilities are dangerous, or can become so, specifically because of those disabilities. In a game world that is supposed to reflect our own, or at least, resemble it, this message disturbs me.
Does this reflect a cultural difference in dealing with psychiatric disabilities? Perhaps. That does not excuse this half-sympathetic, half-vilifying view of depression, a disability that affects millions of people in the US alone, not to mention South Korea and other countries which have access to this game. I once again am reminded of its popularity: Mystic Messenger has millions of downloads, and Mystic Messenger Trash remains one of the most popular columns here on Sidequest. (Not to say everyone agrees with my takes, but people have feelings about this game.) A lot of people see Mystic Messenger’s messages about mental illness, purposeful or incidental. Even if Cheritz is not trying to purposefully make links between, say, Satan and psychiatric disabilities, those links are still there. For Rika to harbor a devil her mother believes is Satan tells players that Rika lives in a world or society that not only does not understand her or try to, but actively and literally demonizes her. For players to know Rika will go on to build a cult and actively harm people in the name of keeping them safe sends a message that people with psychiatric disabilities are dangerous, or can become so, specifically because of those disabilities. In a game world that is supposed to reflect our own, or at least, resemble it, this message disturbs me.
To be clear, Mystic Messenger is a game I deeply love, even with its problems. I recommend it to many, and I call myself MM trash for a reason. But that does not absolve Cheritz or any developer of the responsibility to portray psychiatric disorders with care and compassion, rather than with an undertone of distrust and danger.
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!