an otome romance route taught me something therapy couldn’t
as bizarre as it seems because this is about a visual novel where you date anime boys for your phone, actual serious content warning for discussion of abuse. ALSO mystic messenger spoilers ahead, including for super new content.
I have played maybe four visual novels (including Hatoful Boyfriend, a masterpiece) so I’m not an expert in the field, but I absolutely love Mystic Messenger. Partly for its format (it’s delivered like an app on your phone complete with e-mail, chatrooms that appear in real time, calls and text messages from the members of the chatroom). I also love that all of the characters feel like, if not real people, super individual in their personalities. It can seem a little one-dimensional (as opposed to two-dimensional, ha ha ha. ha) at first, but once you start to get to know them better there’s a ton of history underpinning pretty much all of them.
One thing that has really struck me about Mystic Messenger is that the way to get the “Good Ending” on most routes is to pursue the healthy relationship options as opposed to the unhealthy ones that feed into the characters’ insecurities. One character, Yoosung, is really young and struggles to get work done instead of playing video games. You can choose to enable his bullshit and step in as a surrogate mom - but that results in a bad ending. Another character, Jumin, who has problems expressing himself emotionally, gets very clingy very fast. You can choose to dive headfirst into a codependent relationship with him - but that, too, gets you the bad ending. Taking your time and being respectful of people’s boundaries and empathetic are the best way to “win” Mystic Messenger.
So I was super psyched when the newest route for the mysterious head of the RFA, V, was released this month. I knew V’s backstory was a clearly unhealthy & codependent relationship with another character in the series (Rika). I didn’t realize that watching them communicate in real time would knock me on my back the way it did. I’m writing this to deal with the fact that I got enraptured by the anime boy messenger program for a few days, but also to advocate for what I think was a nuanced & powerful representation of codependence and abuse in relationships.
I have (like many of us) a history of abusive relationships that have damaged my ability to connect with others in a lot of ways. Luckily, I’ve had a great support system backing me up and some really great mental health professionals who have helped me get through a lot of it. But some stuff still stings.
V and Rika’s backstory, in a nutshell: V was a famous photographer who met Rika when she was looking at one of his photos at an exhibition. When she talked about his paintings he felt like she understood him and they got involved. The way they talk about their relationship is really burdened with metaphor - him being her “sun” and promising to love every part of her, even the parts that are “darkness.” As Rika’s mental health deteriorated the “darkness” kept coming out more and more. V tried to continue to be the “sun” to her darkness but this just resulted in Rika feeling more and more suffocated because it felt like his obsession with trying to fix her was rejecting the parts of her that weren’t perfect.
We get cutscenes interspersed throughout the story that show us times that Rika and V spent together where they were happy, the deterioration of their relationship, and Rika in the present day.
When things started going downhill.
Eventually, Rika’s mental health deteriorated completely and after attacking V and doing damage to his eyes that could result in him going blind, she disappeared and formed a cult where she tries to “save” people by letting the darkness inside them out instead of focusing on the “light” (yes, this is where the anime cheese truly emerges). Her feelings in the present-day of the game toward V span the entire spectrum of grief - she goes from raging about how she wants to hurt him, to begging him to save her again, to telling him he means nothing to her and she’s just using him.
What makes Mystic Messenger particularly remarkable - and painful - is that because of its format, you get to not only watch their dialogue in real-time, but participate in it. You’re there whenever V tells her that what they had wasn’t love, but obsession:
And you’re there whenever V starts to lose it and think that he’s worthless unless he goes back to her:
Whenever the two come face-to-face in the chatroom, you’re there to plea in what felt like the most futile and devastating scene for me, where you try to beg V not to go back to Rika as he’s talking to her:
And maybe most disturbingly (for me, because it rings a little too true to past events), you’re there whenever Rika admits that she’s fully aware of how manipulative and abusive their relationship is:
While the rest of Mystic Messenger had some rough emotional moments, watching the dying throes of an abusive relationship being played out in front of me (including the character who I was growing emotionally attached to in this route of the game) drove me to put my phone down and have a glass of wine. Several times.
What made this route particularly tough for me was that it followed the rest of Mystic Messenger in that the only way to get the “Good Ending” (and I did get the Good Ending) is to give the healthy, empathetic answers. I caught myself making the same mistakes I’ve made in the real-life past in the game too. Whenever Rika said something particularly spiteful, I wanted to tell her that she was evil and beyond help. Whenever V was hurting, I wanted to beg him to run to me instead of her. But either of these choices will result in a bad ending, so I had to bite my tongue (and in several cases, rewind and restart a chatroom so I didn’t tank my game).
As I progressed it started getting easier. There are several checkpoints along routes in Mystic Messenger where you can fail and get a bad ending in different ways, so if you continuously choose the “good” answers the characters will respond differently to you. As I forced myself to understand more about Rika and what she was going through, it became easier to not respond with kneejerk disgust and to instead say “You’re not evil, you need help.” And whenever V was vulnerable, instead of trying to force my way in, I could say “You need to learn to love yourself - you’re precious beyond what you offer to others.” In retrospect, there are some situations from my past in which I deeply wish I’d made those choices instead. Eventually, if you do it right, V tells Rika goodbye once and for all… and watching her begging him one more time to take her back is one of the most painful conversations to sit through.
Playing through V’s story was profoundly difficult for me, and when it was over I breathed a sigh of relief. The “Good Ending” isn’t V running into your arms, it’s a 2 year lapse after which he comes to you and says he thinks he’s ready to start again. My one complaint is that we don’t see what happens to Rika (although I expect that’ll be in some post-game content that’s slated to be coming soon). I’m left here feeling absolutely silly that a game where you message anime boys on your phone could do such a number on me (believe me, you can’t laugh at me any harder than I already am).
There is, however, a really dangerous lesson that I’m trying not to take away from this route. The nature of the visual novel’s structure runs the risk of encouraging the idea that your choices matter in other people’s abusive situations. Here’s what therapy HAS successfully taught me: sometimes there’s no right thing to say, and even if you approach someone in the healthiest way possible it won’t keep them from making self-destructive decisions. In the real world, even if I said all the right things to V, he may have still decided to go back to Rika because he couldn’t manage to love himself enough to leave. Maybe you’ve heard the statistic that it takes a woman on average 7 attempts to leave an abusive relationship. You can’t just fix people by selecting the right option on the chat wheel - you can only tell them that you believe they deserve to be happy. You can’t make them believe it too.
I do understand, however, that telling that story would make for a pretty heartbreaking video game (especially in a phone app where you date anime boys). So if you wanna get your heart put through a wringer you have both my recommendation and my warning. I think that if I’d gotten a bad ending I may have just put my phone down and taken the week off to lie in bed. But I do feel like I’m better off for playing it.