Seo-la, a character wrapped in Kim Seol-hyun’s likeness, orders a drink from the protagonist on their first day at work: they promptly and mistakenly scribble ‘Soulla’ on her cup, then monologue “how do you spell that?” — a great indicator for the writing quality in Angel Wings and how much respect it has for the culture it steals from without even a hint of shame.
At this point, the visual novel/dating sim has not communicated much of what is going on, and it will not elaborate on its setting at any point in play: you are in “New Elvis City” and have been taken in by a young woman named Kei after your apartment suddenly burned down and left you penniless. You had been living on your uncle’s inheritance, but it ran out. Conveniently, Kei also got you a job nearby, hence serving coffee to strangers.
Misfortune, here, seems to present oneself with opportunities to get ahead in life, become more independent and meet new people in an unfamiliar environment. This is how Angel Wings interprets wish fulfilment; rags to riches. Then, the setting’s peculiarities start appearing: all the people you meet in “New Elvis City” are Korean. What is Korean about “New Elvis City”? Is it located on the Korean peninsula or is it home to a prominent enclave of the Korean diaspora somewhere else? If so, why is the protagonist unable to spell a common Korean name? If this is set on the peninsula, why would they not use the Korean alphabet? If not, did they lose touch with their native language? Are they white? Is this racist ‘koreaboo’ fantasy land? Angel Wings will go to great lengths to avoid answering these questions, lest it might deprive itself of plausible deniability.
What matters is that all the women you meet are young and “conventionally attractive”, and that everything is okay! Or it will be, once you have made your home in their lives by telling them whatever they want to hear.
While you are able to choose “male” or “female” at the beginning of this visual novel, it is clearly written for the former: when characters describe you as “some kind of strange pervert who sneaks into a house full of girls late at night”, it is apparent that the protagonist is assumed to be “male”. Though at times the dialogue may acknowledge your choice to play as a woman, often by remarking that you do not look like one, it all seems a bit like an afterthought.
Angel Wings is a new “dating sim by developer virusek20 and publisher RumR Design. It enjoyed a coveted spot on the ‘New and Trending’ list on the Steam frontpage right when it released in January, which might be due to Angel Wings being completely free to play , but perusing the game’s store page quickly made it obvious that the real appeal lies elsewhere.
Anyone familiar with Korean popular music will immediately come across some familiar faces perusing the screenshots for this game. It turns out, the character artwork is not entirely original: the artist did not merely “take inspiration” from real people, but directly copied the faces, bodies and outfits of several celebrities for most Angel Wings’ characters. Even the way characters are posed is sometimes “borrowed” from famous photographs, stills from music videos or behind the scenes footage. Some of the facial expressions are downright uncanny. Aspects of their personalities, at least those associated with their public personas, are built into their storylines as “easter eggs” for players to find.
Angel Wings is a ‘dating sim’- style visual novel without notable diversions from the formula. This means that the characters the player/protagonist will meet throughout the story, are also coded as the ‘objectives’ of the game: the goal is to make the correct decisions, say the correct things, etc. to achieve a “good” ending on one romantic option’s “route”, usually culminating in a romantic relationship.
None of the real people whose likenesses feature prominently in the game were consulted about this decision. When alerted to this fact on the forums, the developer refers to this part of the legal disclaimer on the store page:
This story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. Angel Wings is strictly a non-commercial work of fiction that has never been, nor is intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.
But intention cannot be the measure of harm: our actions have consequences regardless of intentions. The legal disclaimer crumbles immediately when we examine the art, not in detail or “upon closer inspection”, but with some knowledge of who is being copied; it will be apparent at first glance that the art was made with the intention of copying the likenesses of several idols.
These are intentional choices. Here is an example:
The focus of the fancam is Hwang Ye-ji, who debuted as a member of ITZY on February 12, 2019. She was 19 years old at the time of this performance, but had already achieved a degree of fame prior to her official debut by appearing on a competition show when she was still a trainee. ITZY was an immediate success, in no small part because the group is a product of JYP Entertainment, one of “the big three” K-pop labels/companies —if you follow idol music, it is likely you have heard of this group.
Jei, as many observers have already pointed out in the forums for Angel Wings, is clearly “based on” the likeness of Hwang Ye-ji. Though “based on” is still an understatement. To grasp how blatant and shameless her likeness was copied by this dating sim, let’s recall the look of the fancam above: there is the long twin tails hairstyle, check! Black, sleeveless mesh, check! White top with red lining, check! Chain around the hip, check! Baggy black pants, check! Two silver armband accessories, check!
So, how does Jei look like in the game?
Even the outfits that can be unlocked for every character at several points in the story progression, are direct copies of costumes worn by idols during different promotional periods, memorable stage performances or music videos, and are even labelled as such: Jei has one called ‘Wannabe’, named after one of ITZY’s breakthrough hits. The only original outfit concept common to all the characters is a bikini. To call this ‘distasteful’ would be a grievous understatement; these are intentional choices.
At one point in development, Angel Wings seems to have been a visual novel primarily centered around the members of now mostly inactive idol team AOA (Ace of Angels), which imploded last year due to a case of severe bullying. The title of the game alone is a clear enough reference, but there are numerous visual easter eggs scattered throughout the game that point to this group being the initial impetus and primary subject — there is a prominent framed picture at Kei’s place, for instance. Oh, and “New Elvis City” is named after “Elvis”, which, of course, is the official name for the AOA fandom.
The likenesses of Park Cho-ah, Seo Yu-na, Shin Hye-jeong, Kim Seol-hyun, Kim Chan-mi, all members of the group at one point or another, were taken for characters that form the majority of the romance options in the game. Hwang Ye-ji of ITZY, Moon Hyun-a, a former member of 9MUSES, Lee Ga-hyeon of DREAMCATCHER being the other three. Other idols appear as well: Heo Sol-ji of EXID makes an appearance as a music teacher, Kim Ji-ho of Oh My Girl is a member of the basketball team, Seo Yu-ri of Berrygood, etc.
What about the original work? Angel Wings does tell an original story, though it does not feel its own in the slightest. At the very least, the personalities of the different characters are not written to resemble the people whose likeness they come packaged with. For instance, Jei is an exact copy of Hwang Ye-ji when it comes to appearance, but their personalities are nothing alike: Jei is a rough-talking bartender and not shy to point out how much she dislikes you. She is ready to bicker, tease and fight at every opportunity. She is quick to anger, too. If any of this seems familiar, you’ve probably got a good idea of what type of character she is written to be.
Jei wants to be an idol, so she feels stuck at her job as a bartender. When a stage act cancels an event at the bar she works at, she gets to take to the stage and perform. This, too, is a familiar narrative punching at easy relatability: there is a sense that “greatness”, whether that means fame or artistic expression, is just out of reach. It often appears as if we have been condemned to mundanity for the rest of our lives. The city’s neon lights are beautiful, sometimes profoundly so, but you want something — anything — to change.
This type of story, of course, is not unique, nor does it necessarily have to be. If you‘ve never concerned yourself with ‘fan fiction’, it might come as a surprise that platforms like the Archive of Our Own (AO3) play host to thousands of fans writing fiction in which the principal characters are real people. Whether their subjects are living or dead ‘idols’/‘celebrities’, ‘politicians’, the Real-Person Fic (RPP) has flourished in an era where idols are manufactured to be more approachable than ever. So, to model a character in a story after Hwang Ye-ji — as a tough bartender with a mellow heart of gold, for instance — would not be uncommon in the realm of real-person fan fiction.
The ‘tough love’-fantasy that doesn’t seem to center the protagonist/player construct might even appear to be subversive at first glance, if it wouldn’t be so entrenched in fan culture already. As it is, it merely presents us with another approach to wish fulfilment that encourages questionable behavior: in this case, the player trying to ‘win’ Jei’s route must violate her personal boundaries, all in the “noble” effort of trying to “crack the hard shell”.
Jei’s storyline revolves around her affection for a male idol loosely modeled after a Korean “rapper”. He presents her with an opportunity to break from the mundanity of “normal” life. This is where Angel Wings attempts to write a commentary on the idol system/industry, but its analysis and conclusion are severely lacking.
The “rapper”, of course, is merely taking advantage of Jei’s talent for producing music without pay or attribution. Jei’s route culminates in getting to beat up some sleazy entertainment company CEOs for another surface-level bit of wish fulfilment. Jei does not even land any punches! But it is the way that players gain Jei’s affection throughout the narrative that turns out to be an exercise in “bickering”, meant to be sweet, teasing and light, devolving into the emotional manipulation of “negging”. Over the course of Jei’s route, the decision to lean into your own jealousy and possessive-ness turns out to be correct and good. Doing so, it mirrors precisely the acts of grooming and commodification so frequently found within the entertainment sector, or how capital interfaces with youth in general.
Nevertheless, Angel Wings’ decision to steal the likenesses of idols to model wish fulfilment fantasies for fans feels like the logical conclusion of the trajectory the idol industry has taken in recent years. It does not successfully re-frame itself as an insightful commentary on the ways in which the world is fundamentally and irrevocably broken. One might even be tempted to ask why idol labels/companies have not yet taken the initiative and developed dating sims centered around the idols they manage, further commodifying them.
These companies already engage in a highly visible form of commodification: they prey on young people and elevate them to positions of power, where they may enjoy their share of fame and wealth. For a time. Convention stipulates that idols are generally forbidden from dating for the first years of their contracts, but even if they were allowed to, it is generally frowned upon by idol fans. Thus, the demand for the fantasy is high, and the cost in social capital seems low. These companies routinely dehumanize and dispose of trainees and idols once they have fulfilled their purpose of generating profit, or else give them a rare opportunity to enter the ranks of the upper class. But perhaps some marketing department has done the math and realized it might generate more controversy than it is worth. Bad optics.
Before the plot begins, Angel Wings asks you to fill out a questionnaire about the type of character you want to play. These questions will configure which of the girls you get to meet over the course of the story. This means that the romantic options also differ. What they have in common, however, is that each playthrough is usually occupied by at least five principle characters, where pairs of two are going to share a closer relationship to each other. Instead of allowing relationships between women to follow an arc and reach a conclusion, however, the “other women”, the ones you do not romantically pursue, will quickly get written out of the story once you are locked into a particular route. Jei’s friend, who is somewhat of a mentor figure for you at work, immediately switches career paths once you have expressed romantic interest in Jei; she moves to a different part of town and is never seen again.
It can get worse, though: the third act in Nuri’s story, the character that wears Lee Ga-hyeon’s likeness, works up to a particularly nasty conclusion. She is friends with a pair of siblings, one brother and one sister. She is also being harassed by an anonymous stalker. The brother, you are led to suspect, has a thing for her, and at several points in the story, it is suggested that he might be the stalker, or at least presents a form of competition that should make you jealous and spur you to confess your own affection.
Angel Wings, seemingly going for the faux shock value of a no-brainer like “women can be abusers, too”, reveals that it was the sister all along. She was the one who had harassed Nuri and eventually threatens to kill her. And only if you’ve inserted the adequate number of kindness coins will she break out of her ensuing depression to pursue a romantic relationship.
So, in the final moments of Nuri’s route, it isn’t about whether this character will recover, or how she will deal with her trauma. It is solely about whether she wants to be with you, the player and protagonist. Popular visual novels of the “dating sim”-variety and video games in general often run into this problem: the lives of all characters seem to revolve around the protagonist and their affection. Women in particular are almost never allowed to be themselves, grow independently or entertain relationships to other women. Misogyny and white supremacy are not programmed into the code of the visual novel, but “creators” frequently and unsurprisingly produce cultural artifacts that disseminate reactionary ideologies — whether knowingly or not, it matters little.
Angel Wings is an example for the myriad ways in which fan fictions that emerge out of ‘the West’ annihilate cultural specificity — and replace it with whiteness. This is true for Real-Person Fics about idols in general, but it is particularly true about this visual novel, which seems eager to provide a white, ‘Western’ audience with a design that plays into known Orientalist stereotypes of Korean women as objects for romantic conquest. Because of the likeness-theft, this case is particularly egregious. Whether it is the generic setting of “New Elvis City” or a protagonist that is unable to speak Korean but waxes “like Thoreau” about Kei’s beauty, it is a reenactment of imperialism on multiple levels: a thoroughly tainted perspective.
Zooming out, it seems that in whichever direction we turn, capital runs like a red thread through contemporary fandom, with its reflexive need to dehumanize the subjects it seeks to elevate. As a real-person fic and fandom artifact, Angel Wings embodies these tendencies and practices. The ease with which “creators” produce a culture, in which racialized “others” are reduced to empty actresses populating the desolation that is the white imaginary is as frightening as it is predictable.
This is not to say that ‘the idol’ as a profession is destined to be read as a parable on exploitation: many idols turn to exploitation themselves, become property owners, condition the next generation, participate in regressive culture, etc. There is a significant number of trainees that come out of wealthy families, who are often the only ones able to afford the prestigious dance and singing academies and after school programs, after all. The industry is cutthroat, so the advantages they confer can be crucial. I say this, because I want to make it clear that this is not about protecting idols. This is about taking down idolatry itself.
To accomplish this daunting task, those willing to do so need to become familiar with how the manufacture and maintenance of idols operates, and the ways of thinking that make it possible. If idolatry is about mystification — obfuscating imperialism, misogyny, etc. — then how can we demystify the culture of worship that clings to it? Is it even possible to sever the intricate ties between fandom and capital? Is there any chance at success or is “fandom” irrevocably lost? If so, should we not look for other forms of appreciation? What lies beyond consumption and idolatry?
Throughout history, the term ‘idol’ has been used to refer to (small) objects tied to a deity, often set on an altar, the center of ritual and worship. Modern idols are people tied to particular sets of virtues we find admirable and/or enviable, but idolatry is about the illusion of being able to take possession and being possessed in turn — a masquerade of intimacy. In a rather pathetic effort at profundity, Angel Wings repeatedly asks “what do you wish for?” without providing a solid answer. But the reply need not be difficult: what I wish for is a world without idols, in which people may flourish according to their needs — a world without empire.