Dating simulators are of one the most looked-down upon video game genres out there, and indeed, when I first downloaded Mystic Messenger to my phone I felt an acute sense of shame. I felt like I was doing myself a disservice by being tempted by this strange Korean app that promised me the chance to chat with cute anime boys.
Mystic Messenger is an ‘otome’ game: a dating simulator aimed at heterosexual women. The premise is simple. What you have in your hands is a messenger app for a secret charity organisation called the RFA, which apparently only has six members: dateable anime guys numbers 1 through 4, cute anime girl you can befriend but not date (boo!) and their mysterious leader, V.
Logging in, you’re greeted with a set of options: chatroom, call, and text message. Mystic Messenger differs from other dating simulators in that it doesn’t use the traditional visual novel format. Instead, the plot takes place through the chatroom, which is updated real time throughout the day and supplemented by (fully voiced) calls and texts from the characters. The game takes eleven days to complete, though once finished you’re encouraged to go back to the start and try romancing a different character. Although the first four days are the same no matter what, at the fifth the game branches based on which character you’ve built the best relationship with. From there, the plotline is different and the storyline is focused around the character in question. Your job, no matter what, is to invite enough guests to the fundraiser party held on day eleven by correctly answering their emails.
Gathering enough guests is as important as building a good relationship with your chosen character – fail at either, and there’s a bad ending waiting.
I regret to inform you all that despite my scepticism I was immediately hooked. It was hard not to get attached when it all felt eerily real. With notifications on, your phone alerts you to a text from the game like it would for a real one. In less than 24 hours, I was better at responding to the texts from the fictional Korean college student Yoosung than I was to my own flatmates.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a certain level of cringe associated with the whole thing. Some of the dialogue is sickeningly cliché and there are one or two lines that have made me full on
shudder (“as a man it’s my duty to protect you!”) but I find myself surprisingly willing to forgive and forget.
A lot of this comes down to how compelling the plot is. By playing each character’s route one by one, you slowly uncover a larger storyline, unravelling the mystery of what happened to the woman who had the job before you, and getting involved a larger conspiracy involving a computer hacking ring.
What I’m realising from all this is that I was perhaps too quick to judge otome dating games. Mystic Messenger may be a little silly, but the plotting is on par with some visual novels I’ve played in the past, and its real-time chatroom mechanic makes it seriously addictive and genuinely good fun to play.