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Whenever there's a villain involved, they're oftentimes the highlight of the story. The stakes are high, the motivations are high, and the dynamic between the villain and protagonist is captivating - these are the tools that build a good climax.
This isn't to say, however, that a villain can't be relatable. There are surely ways to write a compelling antagonist while also making them appear more human than the usual lot.
The problem is when the writer tries to connect with their audience through something that they themselves don't really understand.
That brings me to Rika, our surprise antagonist of the popular visual novel Mystic Messenger, which I reviewed a couple months ago on this site. I decided to keep the review spoiler-free, which meant not bringing up Rika without making myself sound like I don't know what I'm talking about. It was challenging, I must say.
But today, I am rampaging full force into spoiler territory for the character—though not the full narrative—so if you're interested in checking out the VN I strongly recommend tuning back in at a later time.
To start, let's recap why she's the villain in the first place. It turns out that she and V actually broke up before the events of the game due to their polarizing ideals. Having dealt with mental illness and misfortune for most of her life, she leaves the RFA and wishes to "save" people by starting up a cult called Mint Eye where she tortures members—including the RFA—to salvation.
After his unsuccessful attempt at trying to bring her back, V lies to the RFA about Rika's whereabouts in order to keep them safe from the cult. Meanwhile, he tries to put a stop to it on his own; needless to say, the RFA does eventually get involved.
Those of you who read my review will recall me mentioning a secret character and a heartbreaking decision Seven had to make early on in life. Well, that would have to do with his twin brother, Saeran (codenamed Ray). After getting them away from their dysfunctional family, the two brothers were separated by V and Rika since Seven's position as a secret agent doesn't allow him to have personal attachments to anybody. What V didn't count on was Rika manipulating Saeran into believing that Seven purposely abandoned him, and recruiting him to be her right-hand man in Mint Eye's operations. So not only do we have a villain to catch, but also a damaged soul to save.
Though here, the focus will be on Rika and how her villainy holds up in writing.
Unfortunately, the bulk of her characterization has to do with how she relates to mental illness. I must make it extremely clear that this character is in no way, shape, or form an accurate (or at least, an all-encompassing) representation of people suffering from mental illness. I don't want to make assumptions about the MM's developers' intentions while conceptualising Rika, but the message the game seems to push with this idea is that mentally-ill individuals are necessarily malicious and destructive, which is simply untrue. No two people are always going to be alike, mentally sane or otherwise, and to portray the opposite in media is frankly nothing more than a harmful stigma that nobody should be perpetuating. Especially not people who aren't experts that can effectively speak to mental illness.
With all that in mind, let's discuss Rika's motivations as a villain.
And then, all that could be heard was the stridulating of crickets.
See, a large part of being a strong villain is to be consistently motivated by something in line with your personality and current interests, or as a result of a unique backstory that ties in sensibly with said motivation. Not only does Rika's motivation not stem logically from any root, it is also constantly oscillating between one and another. In other words, she has no real motivation to speak of.
We find out that she was bullied as a child and supposedly abused by Yoosung's uncle and aunt, her adoptive parents. But if she knew that such behaviour was unacceptable, why would she wish it upon others? Additionally, I refuse to believe that her parents actually mistreated her. Adoption is a complicated, expensive, and thorough process, and definitely not something done lightly. Social workers also get involved to ensure that the family dynamic is a healthy one. At most, I can imagine the parents being frustrated with and disciplining her, but nothing to the point of abuse. People can say terrible things out of impulse, but I personally think Rika misinterpreted conversations with her parents, especially her mother. I actually want to come back to this thought when we get to her relationship with V, but for now, let's assume she isn't lying about her home life.
Another thing I want to point out is how she keeps calling her mental illness her "darkness," something horrible and undesirable. Once again, I take serious issue with this. Just because she's saying this about herself doesn't automatically make it okay when there are many people in the world who experience mental illness and aren't necessarily bad people.
What makes it worse is when she uses it to justify her actions; in actuality, it makes her look weak, because she's blaming her own "shortcomings" rather than an actual flaw she sees in the system. A good example of someone who fought for a cause greater than himself albeit through unorthodox means was Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. He overcame his personal frustrations and realised the Jedi Council wasn't entirely just, and while Sheev Palpatine may have exacerbated his beliefs, his descent to the dark side came from him wanting peace in a way that wasn't pretending to be anything other than what it was. It showed a gradation in morality and made audiences question political ethics.
Rika's plight doesn't make you question your own morals at all. Not to mention, she doesn't really even accomplish anything. Let's go back to Mint Eye for a moment. She coerced people into joining her cult, but did she honestly create any sort of change, like Anakin did in the prequels—and later, in the original trilogy as Darth Vader? Not from what I can tell. All she really does afterwards is make for annoying, repetitive "metaphorical" dialogue that I could swear was copied and pasted throughout V's route.
She does nothing to change her situation or the lives of her members, nor does she do anything diabolical to our heroes. The entire time everyone just humours her, and it infuriated me to no end. Is she here to knock us out of the park, or to be our punching bag?
It is here where I'll illustrate her flightiness in motivation by using her relationship with V as a major factor. Throughout the route, she shifts between wanting to save lives and wanting to destroy them. Similarly, she shifts between wanting to be with V, and wanting to kill him. You'll remember earlier when I claimed she may not have understood what mother would tell her. I strongly believe the same thing applies here. She never seems to understand V and talks through him all the time—which leads me to suspect she actually has receptive aphasia, and that this is the disability causing all the problems according to the narrative.
Even more alarming is when she suddenly becomes bisexual (yes, she randomly falls in love with the MC sometimes to spite V, I guess) and wears more sensual clothing the second she reveals her true colours. I don't appreciate the trivialization and misleading demonization of sexuality and sexual orientation in any environment, let alone fiction, and all of this tells me that Rika is in it for the thrill rather than genuinely embracing these aspects of her character. Even when she and V had that strange photography session, it really just seemed like Rika was seeking outlets that she felt would suit her because she's a "bad girl." Once more, this has negative implications for how such interests are perceived in the real world.
I just don't really know what this girl wants or who she is, and that's the fundamental problem here. If nothing else, I think we can chalk it up to Cheritz having a lack of knowledge and being lazy in their research when establishing Rika's character.