My phone's constantly abuzz with activity. Texts from friends, emails about freelance work, Twitter notifications, alerts from games I play… but in-between all of them is a unique little application. It buzzes as I'm about to go to sleep to tell me someone's opened a new chat. It's Yoosung, a Korean college student who is addicted to online gaming, and someone going under the name Seven. Seven's a self-proclaimed hacker genius who made this strange application, and he's something of a prankster as well—right now, he's trying to convince a sleep-deprived Yoosung that he's going to collapse after drinking too much coffee. As I watch the two converse, I wonder if I should play along with Seven's dumb joke or tell sweet, naive Yoosung that he's being pranked.
This is my life in the world of Mystic Messenger, a iOS and Android app that's been taking internet fandom by storm.
The "otome" genre is one that's not particularly well-known among mainstream game. The word "otome" is Japanese for "maiden," and that's precisely who these games target: women. Typically, otome games are text-driven visual novel adventures with a strong romantic component: the men you interact with are young and attractive, and through your choices, you can (hopefully) woo one of them into a virtual relationship. Branching paths and multiple decision points mean that you can replay the story multiple times and see different endings, good and bad, while pursuing different relationships. There's an element of role-playing as well as reading (virtual) emotions: what would the guy I'm looking to smooch want to hear from me in the current situation?
The genre has long thrived in Japan, and recently has made some inroads abroad, with several otome titles releasing on platforms like Steam and the oft-neglected PlayStation Vita. Companies like Voltage and NTT Solmare have been localizing Japanese otome game apps for phones for a while now, where they've found a good degree of niche success.
Mystic Messenger, however, is something of an anomaly. It's the first mobile app from small South Korean developer Cheritz, which previously released some otome games on Steam. Unlike more traditionally styled otome games, which tend to follow the text-and-exposition-heavy visual novel format, you interact with potential virtual paramours via a chat app designed to look like WhatsApp or LINE.
The in-game fiction is that a mysterious app has appeared on your device, where a strange person gives you directions to a hidden (in-game) apartment. Suddenly, you find yourself thrust into the chats of a private fundraising group—the place you've been led was the apartment of their former organizer, who died under mysterious circumstances. You find yourself thrust into the position of taking her place, helping to organize lavish galas to connect people and aid the needy. But underneath the organization's beneficial veneer lies many secrets and conflicts among its members.
The game itself is free-to-play, and plays out in real time: at certain points over the course of eleven days, you'll get texts, chats, emails, and even phone calls from the characters, where you'll be able to respond and interact with them through multiple-choice responses. How you interact with each character can earn you affection and determines which direction both the story and your romance life takes. If you miss the window for a conversation—or if you're impatient and want to speed the story ahead—you can use the game's premium currency (hourglasses) to rewind or hasten time.
"The sharable nature of punchy chatlogs lead to a lot of the the viral spread of the game's screenshots."
It's these interactions that have propelled Mystic Messenger to amazing success. Cheritz recently announced that the game had been downloaded over a million times—an incredible number for a game in a niche genre from a small developer. A brief search around the web will turn up Mystic Messenger fan pages and communities of all stripes, featuring art, cosplay, stories, and weird little anecdotes about the game's characters.
"[Mystic Messenger's success] is due to how immersive it is," says Elly, a blogger who focuses on otome games. "While, yes, it does [have] choices to select as responses rather than entering your own, the replies are believable due to how the characters are portrayed. The interactions that the characters have with each other and with respect to what you select make this seem very, very real."
AM Cosmos, another well-known writer about the otome game genre, attributes Mystic Messenger's success to its viral nature. "The sharable nature of punchy chatlogs lead to a lot of the the viral spread of the game's screenshots, which got more people interested in the game. Also, it being free to download meant more people could try it out after becoming aware of it."
There's a lot of variety in the stories that play out across the game. Yoosung has to come to terms with the death of his beloved cousin. Jumin is an aloof businessman and cat fanatic whose public presence and womanizing father have skewed his ideas about romance into something strange. Jaehee is a young career woman working under Jumin who comes to realize she might not be happy where she is. And there's Zen, an up-and-coming model and actor who, like many Asian pop stars, is contractually forbidden from romantic relationships.
There are a few issues with the game's English presentation, such as typos and similar-word localization mistakes (i.e. "androgynous" instead of "asexual") and some Korean cultural stuff that doesn't quite carry over well. But for the most part, the game's charm makes all of that easy enough to ignore. If anything, having a few odd typos or bizarre word choices somehow makes the characters feel more human.
The endearing cast, unique format, and ease of accessibility have made Mystic Messenger perhaps the most internationally successful otome game yet. I asked AM Cosmos if she's seen anything else that even matched Mystic Messenger's success "I can only really think of [pigeon dating sim] Hatoful Boyfriend's success across demographics that weren't already familiar with dating sims and otome games," she replies. "Games that have an interesting gimmick but surprising depth get a lot more writeups and stick around in popular discourse."
Cosmos is hopeful that Mystic Messenger will open the doors for new formats and more public attention for the otome genre. "I'm curious to see if future developers break out of what's expected of these games and try new things."