At first, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out with Yoosung.
Sure, he was sweet and attentive, but he was also jealous, defensive, and hopelessly naïve. When he texted me, “Don’t text with Zen anymore. Only text me” I wanted to reply, “I’m a grown-ass woman and I’ll text who the hell I want!” Unfortunately, that was not one of the programmed responses, and, honestly, that response? Probably not one that would help me win the game.
The game, of course, being Mystic Messenger, an RPG for girls that I recently discovered and learned is called an “otome.” Here is the tenuous set up for the game’s story: you (and your character) download an app on your phone. You find yourself in a chatroom with a mysterious stranger, who, on the pretext of trying to get this phone he found back to its rightful owner, lures you into an apartment. Once you are inside the apartment, the stranger disappears, along with the log of your conversation, and the chatroom is then filled with no less than four pretty, single men (and one cute, overworked woman) These pretty, single men need something from you. They need it desperately. They need you to throw a fundraising party for their organization. And you’re like, well. I guess I have nothing better to do.
You invite guests to the party. You chat with these characters. The things you say in these chats and invitations affect the course of the game, and your responses dictate which character’s affections you attract, and which guests decide to come to the party. In addition to chatting, you are also texting, and receiving phone calls from the characters and getting emails from potential guests. It’s through these communications that the story develops, and this development depends on the choices you make in responding.
This is how all role-playing games work, both tabletop and electronic. The thing that I find unique about Mystic Messenger is the fact that it draws on these now-familiar modes of disembodied communication (email, chatrooms, text messaging) to create the interactions. The result is sort of a mindfuck (in more ways than one). We are accustomed to using these new modes as a way of communicating with other actual people, but if there’s no real human on the other side, it hardly matters to our mind. We know intellectually that we’re talking to robots, but the game capitalizes on the fact that we’re not continuously accessing this part of our consciousness, but rather reflexively responding emotionally based on the bulk of our experiences—experiences in which our texts and emails go to thinking, feeling humans, and they respond in kind. The game also happens, to an extent, in real time, which mimics the urgency of real life digital interactions. The majority of the story unravels through texts and chats, but as you get deeper into the plot, the game also provides what they refer to as “Visual Novels” which are a bit like a color manga that you click through frame by frame, that are sort of semi-animated. It’s multi-modal storytelling in the truest sense, and at the risk of sounding like some kind of old-timer, I have to admit that if this game had been described to me even three or four years ago, I would have had difficulty conceiving of it. I had to think carefully about my description of the “Visual Novel” because it’s something I’ve never seen before. Whatever else Mystic Messenger is, it’s innovative as hell.
The other thing about the game that may not be unique, but is mind-blowingly novel to me, is that it is pitched to girls and young women. I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games since I was around 11, when my much older brother first invited me to his Dungeons and Dragons game. I like these kinds of games for the same reasons I like shonen anime and other types of fantasy genres, namely because they offer stories of adventure. But these genres also consistently pander to male audiences in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And whatever, it’s fine, it’s fantasy, it’s shonen, it’s made for a male audience, I know this. But it was nice, and even a little shocking, to find a roleplaying adventure in which I was being pandered to, and absolutely shamelessly so. I think Cheritz, the developers of the game may have done their marketing research by pilfering the space between girls’ mattresses and box springs, converging the data gleaned from a massive sample of diaries with unicorns on the covers into some kind algorithm.
And the whole time I write this Sherry Turkle is sitting on my shoulder clicking her tongue. If you don’t know Turkle, she’s the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. The name pretty much says it all. Turkle argues that technology has distanced us from each other, encouraging us to seek comfort from machines, while we persist in treating people like objects. According to Turkle, we seek comfort from robots (that is, from games like Mystic Messenger), while dating apps like Tinder reduce flesh-and-blood humans to static profiles, subject to keeping or discarding based on only the most superficial information. Even though Mystic Messenger didn’t exist when Turkle wrote her book, I imagine the game would trouble her deeply. The game works, as I described, by using familiar modes of technology to mess with your emotional register. The game simulates human interaction, but it is only a collection of algorithms–that is, it cannot feel in response to the feelings of the person playing. Turkle might say that people, especially young people, should not give in to that, but rather learn to deal with real relationships with real humans in all of their messy and painful complexity.
And I think she’s right in that regard. But I also think that, as I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, fantasizing is a way of learning. And while I certainly don’t qualify as a young woman, I do know a few of them, and by and large, they are not the gullible little twits that we so often assume they are. They are not abandoning friendships or romantic interests for a game, and I doubt they could possibly harbor expectations that a human being would ever behave in the same way as a simulated boyfriend. They also wouldn’t, as Turkle insinuates, PREFER the robot over a real boy. Girls and young women, in short, are smarter and more savvy than we give them credit for.
But this game is good because it DOES give girls credit. They must have found in their unicorn journal market research that girls are intelligent, that they enjoy strategy, that they are engaged by emotional consequences, and that they have a sense of humor. In pandering to a woman’s sensibility, the game has done more than set forth a smorgasbord of beautiful boy-bots to pine over—it has created an imaginative story told in an innovative form, with plenty of self-referential humor. Because of this, I think the game and the makers of the game will continue to meet with success.
And, if you were wondering, things did work out with Yoosung. I can’t tell you what happened, because that will spoil things, and I’m supposed to write some blogs that don’t have spoilers. If you’re curious, though, play a game, and if you already have, talk to me! I’d love to hear what other people think.