How to (not) save your boyfriend: examining gender roles in Mystic Messenger
[Big fat warning: this article discusses Mystic Messenger’s main storyline and is therefore full of spoilers, especially regarding 707, Jumin and Jaehee’s routes. Proceed with caution.]
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Mystic Messenger is the story of a female heroine who downloads an app on her phone, attracted by the premise of “chatting with hot guys”, only to discover said app is actually the private chat client of a peculiar group.
At the same time, Mystic Messenger is also the story of you, the player, downloading a silly otome game only to discover a story about hackers, secret organizations, a brain-washing cult and people bombing your house.
Mystic Messenger can often feel as melodramatic as the worse Korean dramas, but it’s also a savage critique of the toxic rules and expectations that govern heteronormative romances. It hides its depth under a coat of glitters and jokes, in the same way its characters hide secrets from each other.
The game’s characters are all members of an organization called RFA, a secret group in charge of organizing fundraising events. Since the founder’s death there haven’t been more parties, but your appearance rekindles enthusiasm. The boys begin to plan another event, and it’s your job to help them by answering mails and persuading high-profile hosts to join the fun. The app plays in real time, with messages and chat rooms popping up at set hours over the course of eleven days.
The game’s structure will be familiar enough to otome game lovers: meet the cast, focus on the pretty boy of your choice, follow his storyline, smooch. After a day or two of playing, though, it becomes clear that those pretty boys are all desperately single because they’re Walking Human Disasters.
College student Yoosung is chronically depressed and gaming-addicted; Jumin, rich and perpetually busy, has trouble dealing with emotions; the happy-go-lucky hacker 707 is dealing with a dangerous job and a tragic past; Zen is an actor struggling to get recognition; Jaehee is stuck in a job that doesn’t make her happy (more on her later — let’s focus on the boys for now).
The courtship is first of all a journey of healing: the character that catches your fancy will slowly open up to you, and with your help will be able to solve his long-term issues… In more or less a week.
But why do the boys open so suddenly on you, a stranger, instead of relying on their friends? Maybe it’s because you’re not simply a new friend, but a girl friend?
We teach boys to not cry. We teach them that aggressiveness is the only emotion they’re allowed to show; that they must be strong for the ladies, protect them, be responsible. Show some balls. We teach them to not talk about their problems, because emotions are girly.
As a consequence, girlfriends often find themselves to fulfill two different roles: that of life companion, and of emotional caretaker.
You can talk about squishy feelings with your girlfriend, because she won’t laugh at you. She’ll take you seriously. She might even be able to give you some advice; she’s used to Feelings.
She will understand.
The dual nature of the classical heterosexual relationship — strong man, emotional woman — is an ever-present concept in most cultures. It’s probably one of the reasons this Korean game resonated with so many people from all over the world.
The more you play, the more you realize all the issues in the plot stems from the characters’ inability to communicate. V, the mysterious founder of the group, is the most blatant example — a ghostly figure that rarely appear during chats, and that constantly withholds crucial information from the group (like the aforementioned bomb, a self-defense mechanism that got hacked and became a peril). But each character is a bearer of mysteries, often unwillingly. They’d like to vent, but don’t know how.
The boys clearly care about each other, but their reciprocal attempts at giving advice are buried under jokes, relentless mocking and sneers; the digital equivalent of a friendly punch on the shoulder. Lacking the ability to communicate, they vomit their problems all over you as soon as they flag you as Potential Girlfriend — because being a girl, you will understand.
In lieu of all of this, even this incredibly rude joke gets a perverse significance:
When you introduce yourself to the group, you get the opportunity to say you’re not a woman. If you do so, though, everyone will mock you, and then decide that you’re a woman anyway. It’s hurtful and disrespecting, especially if you’re a trans/nonbinary person, but it makes a point: the game’s narrative simply wouldn’t work without a female-identifying main character.
Romantic relationships between men are another thing entirely. This is a game about boys and girls, the specific way society often molds their interactions in a toxic way.
707, the prankster of the group, is the prime example of How A Men Should Act according to society. His work is secretive and risky; upon realizing falling for the main character might put her in danger, his reaction is “we can’t stay together, it’s too dangerous”.
He doesn’t ask for your opinion. He doesn’t leave have a choice. He’s doing what he thinks it’s best, because he’s Dangerous Man living a Dangerous Life and he has to protect you. The only way to get his good ending is to force him to confront his emotions and admit that yes, he kinda fancies you, and it would be sensible to discuss the situation together.
The secret story you unlock after his ending sees him reconcile with his estranged brother — and he does so by mimicking the same approach you used with him.
His brother is a wall of silence and anger. He is patience, gentle words, and unrelenting stubbornness.
In the end, they manage to talk.
The circle is complete. A girl teaches a boy how to communicate, and the boy later uses this skill to connect with another boy.
This is Mystic Messenger: a game that has nothing mystical going on, but that threats the power of communication as a special kind of magic. A power of feminine origin, but that ought to be taught and shared.
Why is everybody relying on you, though? The RFA had another female member before your arrival, after all: Jumin’s secretary, Jaehee.
Although Jaehee is a woman, nobody considers her to be one. Her, role, appearance and demeanor is overtly masculine, rigid and serious. She’s a girl in a men’s world, forced to hide her true self to survive her daily job in a big corporation.
It was her boss’ idea to have her hair cut short, to appear less attractive and more “professional”. An imposition that could stem from Jumin’s disliking for women in general — but also, possibly, an attempt to protect her from the unwanted attentions of lascivious businessmen (including his own father).
To become part of the group, Jaehee’s femininity has to be erased. Her route is all about finding a place in the word where she can truly express herself: a storyline culminating in her decision to quit her job and let her hair grow back.
The only character that seems to escape his gender role is Jumin, trust fund kid extraordinaire. Coincidentally, he’s also the one whose masculinity gets constantly questioned.
Jumin is a young boy completely disinterested in women: he had some traumatic experiences in the past, and is hinted to be on the asexual spectrum. Over the course of the game, the other boys of the cast jokingly call him gay— but also a robot, an alien, a sexless being, and “neither male nor female”.
Jumin is a figure that often moves the plot forward, possessing both the resources and the willingness to act. Compared to his arch-enemy Zen, who is prone to lecturing the rest of the cast but never acts, Jumin is focused on Getting Shit Done.
He’s the only boy who takes direct action to help another male character, taking action when Yoosung’s addiction to games becomes too problematic. How does he help him, though? By calling Yoosung’s mother.
Because Jumin may not be a typical cishet male, but in the end, he’s still a boy.
The route focusing on Jumin it’s, of all things, a deconstruction of 50 Shades of Grey: a work that glamorizes the toxic gender roles Mystic Messenger is trying to condemn.
Like 50 Shades, we have a rich, controlling main character who isn’t good with emotions and falls in love with someone of a much lower social status. But while in 50 Shades, Ana heroically bears with her lover’s sadistic tendencies to save him with the Power of Love, in Mystic Messenger you get the good ending by calling out Jumin on his bullshit.
At one point of the game, Jumin forces you to spend your days in his apartment. It’s not really a kidnapping, and he has good reasons for keeping you there (the damned BOMB), but his reasons are part logic, part obsession.
If you encourage his controlling demeanor, you get the infamous bad ending in which your relationship evolve into a 24/7 Dom/Sub affair. Even though the situation is 100% consensual, the game frames it as a bad ending because his consent is put at doubt: he’s still very much a broken boy, and the kinky stuff is just a poor substitute for his real need to communicate.
All the bad endings are like this: they don’t punish you for your actions, but for what you encourage others to do. Mystic Messenger can often feel like a game about emotional labor, but also highlights that being in charge of someone’s emotional health is a powerful, dangerous role. And the danger goes both ways, for as always, power corrupts.
This is what happened to Rika.
Rika was the founder and emotional pillar of the RFA. She was engaged to V, but all the boys admit they had feelings for her at some point.
Rika was also mentally ill. Chronically depressed, with a luggage of trauma on her shoulders and no set purpose in life.
Her boyfriend idolized her like a deity, instead of trying to understand. He sent her to a psychologist instead of talking; told her to unleash her anger on him instead of telling her that hurting people is wrong.
Imagine years of bearing with the emotions of everyone — including the semi-incestuous attentions of your cousin. Imagine being forced to smile and be pretty because that’s your role, whilst everyone ignores the darkness growing inside you.
Rika became obsessed with the idea of saving everyone. If she was so good at it, after all, why not expand her activities? If she was so holy, why not let the whole world adore her?
What Rika made to help herself was a cult. She faked her death and brainwashed other people with prayers and drugs, told them that everything would be okay — told herself that everything would be okay. And they hailed her as a saint, and she smirked as something inside her broke even more.
Rika is what happens when the male-female balance goes bad. A melodramatic, yet chilling cautionary tale.
There is no “true ending” in Mystic Messenger where everyone lives happily ever after. While the secret ending can arguably be considered the canonical one, it kills some characters and leaves others mentally scarred for life. Rika is, arguably, the one who gets the best deal: traumatized to the point of becoming mute, she’s now being cared of by the people she used to support.
Broken, yet finally free of responsibilities. Happy.
Mystic Messenger doesn’t believe in happy endings. You can marry the pretty boy of your choice, but it’s implied the other characters will never solve their issues without you. In certain cases, like with Yoosung and his videogames obsession, seeing him get worse and worse without your support is absolutely heart-wrenching.
The fandom loves this, of course. The lingering sadness, the tragedy, the wounds-poking. And so the Reset Theory was born, because apparently this game wasn’t tragic enough already.
What if the main character is simply repeating the same story again and again, desperately looking for a way to save everyone she loves? What if some of the characters know, or at least, vaguely remember the past cycles? They all break the fourth wall at one point or another, after all. Hell, one of the bad endings involves Yoosung realizing that they’re all part of a game and completely losing his mind.
This theme of self-sacrifice, of constant repetition for the sake of loved ones, powers other powerful stories like the Evangelion Rebuild and Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
We like to think it as romantic. The concept of “saving everybody” gets thrown around a lot in the fandom.
But in the end, you can’t save everybody, simply because you shouldn’t. As a woman and a human being, you shouldn’t mindlessly destroy yourself for the sake of others, putting their personal happiness in front of yours.
Enough with the myth of the woman as a nurse, a priestess, a saint, finding her higher call in self-sacrifice. Enough with boyfriends that need to be rescued like princesses from the depths of their mental castles.
Let the boys learn to save each other. You have already suffered enough.