Look out, there’s a new dating simulator in the app store, and it’s already got 1 million users! Dating simulators, or dating sims for short, are romance role-playing games. Users typically pursue one of several eligible candidates with the goal of ending up with them, in whatever sense that may be (married, going steady, etc.). These games are usually in visual-novel format with certain mini-game elements. Overall, there are four types of dating sims: bishoujo games (pursuing girls from a male perspective), otome games (pursuing guys from a female perspective), GL games (girls pursuing girls), and lastly BL games (guys pursuing guys). MYSTIC MESSENGER, for example, is an otome game with one GL route. Some dating sims might include bisexual elements, but this is rare and typically exclusive to indie games.
With the hundreds of dating sims out there, what makes MYSTIC MESSENGER stand out? The game itself is pretty standard: there are five different people to pursue, with good, normal, and bad endings for each route. In order to understand why this game stands out among many, we have to look at the dating sims already out there, and their downsides. Here’s a hint, though: MYSTIC MESSENGER capitalizes on its platform better than its competitors.
Japanese Otome Games
Ah yes, it all comes back to Japan. If the names of the above categories weren’t enough of a hint, here it is: Japan is the center of all things dating sim. The genre is incredibly popular since it markets a fantasy that most people won’t experience in real life. How often is the average person surrounded by insanely attractive company that all conveniently want to flirt with them? Plus, dating sims center around arguably the best part of romance: falling in love. There’s no fear of breaking up with a virtual significant other because, well, they’re not real.
These games also come in a variety of genres. From thrilling dramas set in historical Japan to adventure plots set in fantasy worlds, dating sims come in all sorts of styles. Most of the time, this heightens the fantasy world aspect of the games. In some games, it’s even possible to fall in love with celebrity idols! Tell me that isn’t someone’s dream. Unfortunately, many of these quality games are only sold in Japanese and for specific consoles.
When I visited Japan, I went to the heart of otome games: Ikebukuro. Tourists and anime fans alike will find a great deal of otome games in Ikebukuro. For example, I visited a store called Stellaworth, which was jam-packed wall-to-wall with otome games for various consoles. It is quite literally the motherland of otome games. However, I also saw that most of the games Stellaworth had to offer were for the PlayStation consoles and only available in Japanese. Of course, it was a store in Japan, but nevertheless, this is the problem.
Many Japanese otome games are console-specific, as well as language-specific. There aren’t that many English-translated Japanese-made dating sims. Sure, popular English-translated game series like HARVEST MOON or FIRE EMBLEM may have dating and marriage elements to them, but their gameplay isn’t centered around pursuing a romantic relationship. So, in the end, for all their high-quality animation, voice acting, and stories, Japanese otome games aren’t generally accessible to the global population.
Indie Dating Sims
Indie sims are like a box of chocolates: there can be anything in there. Even a pigeon dating sim that actually “constantly sold out… wherever it became available for purchase” in CD-ROM form. Indie dating sims can vary an incredible amount. Lone DeviantArt creators, like Pacthesis, can singlehandedly create their own series of flash games, or teams can come together and get voice-acted pieces like SEDUCE ME THE OTOME on Steam. The best part of any indie game is that they are usually very cheap, or free! HATOFUL BOYFRIEND (the pigeon dating sim) is only $9.99, a fraction of what many professional Japanese otome games cost. All of Pacthesis’ games are free to play on DeviantArt or Newgrounds, and SEDUCE ME is available for free on Steam. The downside is that there is a limit to what indie artists and game developers can do in terms of game design and quality. As long as players don’t mind a little unprofessional art or rudimentary voice acting, indie games are definitely the way to go on a budget.
Phone App Dating Sims
Anyone up for playing the plethora of app sims out there needs one of two things: money or patience. For example, the app EPISODE lets you play a variety of stories with tickets. When a user’s tickets run out, they have to wait three hours to replenish them, or they can pay $0.99+ for more. For other games, like SHALL WE DATE?: NINJA LOVE+ by NTT Solmare Corp, users need to wait four hours for one energy or they can, again, pay for more. NTT Solmare Corp’s games also heavily push users to spend money in order to glamorize their avatar with digital outfits. There’s nothing truly significant about most of the dating sim apps, either. They tend to follow a pattern: a few handsome guys and an excuse to be with them, sometimes with an interesting plot to go with. Many users still adore these games (noted from the many 4+ star ratings as seen above), but it is very easy to lose interest after one or two.
Now, what is it about MYSTIC MESSENGER that innovates this gaming subgenre? This game was produced by Cheritz, a game company based in South Korea. Here’s a little background information on the game itself before we get into the details: Upon downloading the app, players will find themselves in a chatroom with all the game’s characters. This is only the beginning of the game’s fourth-wall breaking. All the characters point out that someone has entered their chatroom and somehow downloaded their special app. The player soon discovers that the chat is for an organization called the “RFA” or “Rika Fundraising Association.” Rika, who has recently passed away, was the founder of this company that holds parties to raise money for charity. The player is now spontaneously asked to take over Rika’s position as party coordinator and put together a splendid charity party like the old days (before Rika died). The game lasts 11 days, real-time. The end-goal is to have a successful party and a successful relationship with one of the characters.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call MYSTIC MESSENGER an augmented reality game. Between its fourth-wall breaking and unique gameplay, it’s an incredible app that capitalizes on the fact that users will play the game on their phones. Players communicate with the various love interests through texts, group messenger, and phone calls. Don’t get too excited—players can’t type anything, but as usual, they can select from a variety of answers. The game becomes a lot more interesting since it is more realistic. The characters will contact the player at various times throughout the day, every couple of hours, which is pretty exciting. The line between playing a game and chatting with others is blurred (and hey, looking like less of a lonely fangirl in public is always a plus). The fantasy is augmented by the fact that the characters acknowledge that they don’t see the player face-to-face. The app will notify you, just like any other messenger app, when someone calls or texts. Unlike other console games, there is no pretending that the player is physically with the characters on dates or at various places. That may seem like a drawback, but in this case it’s a plus since it contributes to the realism of the fantasy.
What’s even better about MYSTIC MESSENGER is that the player never actually is pressured to spend money on the game. Users can collect “hourglasses” to participate in missed conversations, unlock conversations ahead of time, and unlock special features of the game. As usual, they can also pay for the service, but the game offers a reasonable way to play without ever needing to purchase hourglasses. When players first download the game and create an account, they get 30 free hourglasses. Throughout the game, they are also awarded hourglasses for interacting with the characters. Then, after one play through they get even more hourglasses from successfully holding a party with a certain number of guests. By the end of one session (which is over 11 days), players will have enough to unlock the “Deep Route” story, which allows them to discover deeper secrets about the characters. Most other apps actually suppress players from accessing new content until they have waited enough for their extremely limited in-game currency to replenish.
Overall, MYSTIC MESSENGER wraps together all the best things about dating sims and goes a step further than the other apps that it’s competing against. The game’s structure helps users be patient, since waiting for people to message or text is a common occurrence. Sure, most people will be a little antsy when they’re waiting for a crush’s call, but instead of waiting to play the game, users are technically always playing the game. Unlike a lot of apps, users can reasonably complete MYSTIC MESSENGER without too much heartache. As stated before, there are over 1 million people playing this game right now. Social media sites, like Tumblr, have tags practically inundated with fan content already, and the game was released just this summer. It even has its own sticker pack for the LINE app for purchase! So, go out there and try it! I guarantee it’ll be a unique experience, even for veteran dating sim gamers.