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The mobile visual novels blowing up across Tumblr

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Dominating the charts even among more “traditional” games, these visual novels have found a passionate fanbase

Pixelberry/Nix Hydra/Cheritz

Tumblr released its annual Year in Review lists for video games. These chart or 2018’s most popular games on the platform, based on likes, posts and reposts, separates mobile games from console games. To those who don’t enthusiastically follow the Fandom blog’s weekly updates, this may indicate that the mobile games don’t measure up to console and handheld titles, even on a place as diverse as Tumblr. But don’t be fooled: Fandom’s typical updates don’t distinguish between mobile and console titles. And there, the most popular mobile games regularly break the Top 5, besting out many other, more widely known titles.

Out of 2018’s top five biggest mobile games, three are not attached to big-name franchises. The two that are have a lot of recognition behind them: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery and Fire Emblem Heroes. But Choices: Stories You Play, Mystic Messenger and The Arcana: A Story of Mystery and Romance — which land on the mobile list at two, three and five, respectively — all come from smaller game studios. They’re also, more surprisingly, all choose-your-own-adventure visual novels.

The console games list boosts titles that are familiar outside of Tumblr — Overwatch, Kingdom Hearts and Splatoon, for instance. But these three top-charting, free-to-play visual novels on the mobile list might raise eyebrows from those who aren’t familiar with their fandoms. Naysayers shouldn’t judge, however. Choices, Mystic Messenger, and The Arcana are each as engrossing as any of 2018’s other Tumblr-beloved games, no matter the platform.

What exactly are these visual novels?

While there’s differences in the overall storylines and specific gameplay mechanics, each game shares the same essential setup: They’re free-to-play visual novels with branching choices, but in order to unlock bonus content — like extra scenes, cool clothes and steamy romance moment — you have to use in-game currency.

They’re also primarily geared toward women. That’s not to say that men don’t play them; but in the video game space, where having a default female main character is still not common, Choices, The Arcana and Mystic Messenger stand out for their feminine perspectives. Both The Arcana and Mystic Messenger market themselves as otome games, story-based visual novels meant for women. While Choices isn’t labeled as such, it still garners a largely female fanbase, primarily because most of the default main characters are women. The demographic of people who play these mobile visual novels are young women, who enthusiastically post about these games, create fan art based on original and favorite characters, and write fanfiction.

All three games also predate 2018. They each initially launched in some capacity back in 2016 and are currently available on the App Store and the Google Play store.

Mystic Messenger is the closest of the trio to the typical visual novel genre, which originated in Japan. The game is developed by Korean developer Cheritz and keeps the anime-style art commonly associated with the genre. The main storyline plot follows a main character who downloads a mysterious messaging app and meets seven strangers, all part of a mysterious fundraising organization and all romance options for the player character.

In addition to the traditional visual novel storyline, Mystic Messenger also makes use of a unique texting, chat room and call system, where the in-game love interests will contact the main character in real time. Though the storyline for this game is complete, fans still love to replay and post about their favorite moments and characters.

The famous messaging screen from Mystic Messenger
Cheritz via Palmer Haasch

Mystic Messenger made a big splash when it was first released, as it was one of the first otome dating sims that really broke through in the Western market. The genre is big in Japan, and has certainly been gaining a lot of traction with Westerners via Steam and mobile spaces. But Mystic Messenger wasn’t just popular among otome fans; it was popular with lots of different players, and that popularity still proliferates the fandom space today.

Choices comes from Pixelberry Studios, the game development company behind mobile games High School Story and Hollywood U. While those games did contain story quests and limited choices, they were more management- and simulation-focused. Choices, however, promised exactly what its title indicated — the ability to choose. Unlike Pixelberry’s two other games, Choices boasts multiple stories to chose from, each receiving a new chapter once a week.

When it launched in 2016, Choices only had three episodic books, each a different genre: romance, mystery and fantasy. Over the past two years, however, the library has expanded to include over 20 different series of books, with most having multiple books per series. These belong to more diverse genres now too, like science fiction, horror, mystery and historical fiction. Most books have some sort of character customization, while others have you play as pre-established protagonists and characters. Some have a mix: You play as your original main character, but also as their defined family members and friends in certain scenes.

Just a small sampling of the available Choices books
Pixelberry via Petrana Radulovic/Polygon

The Arcana started as a Kickstarter project by a few developers from mobile game company Nix Hydra, eventually earning enough traction to launch on its own. The game updates about once a month, with new chapters released for each of the three main storytelling routes. The Arcana takes place in the fantasy world of Vesuvia, and the player, an apprentice of magic, is tasked to solve the murder of the late count. There’s a heavy focus on tarot and, thus far, three main character routes to follow, depending on whom players choose to romance after the prologue. There are plans for three more routes to be released sometime after the main storyline completes.

The main story menu on the Arcana
Nix Hydra via Petrana Radulovic/Polygon

What’s unique to the Arcana fandom is the focus on character creation; while playing as a customizable main character is shared among all three games, there’s greater creative freedom in this one. There’s no in-game depiction of the main character in The Arcana; the pronouns are customizable and the backstory is a near blank slate. As such, fans have taken to creating their own “Fan Apprentices” and enthusiastically showing off their original characters, creating art and fanfiction for them.

What makes these games popular across the Tumblr sphere is not just the ability to choose their own storyline and romance options. It’s also the engaging storylines, the customizable main characters and experiences, and characters that are more diverse than the run-of-the-mill, AAA game. There’s also the fact that these games are unapologetically focused on their female fans. These fandom spaces have discourse, of course, as is the case with all online communities, but at the end of the day, they are passionate fans, who are excited to share their gameplay screenshots, their fan art and fan fictions, and to continue to play their favorite games.