Eating Air: Beat another pandemic in an immersive game on St John's Island

ST journalist Venessa Lee (left) and ZB journalist Gwen Lee look for clues at St John’s Island on Feb 7, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Participants look for checkpoints and clues as they play the game, Escape from St John’s Island on Feb 7, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - So many pandemics, so little time. My three teammates and I are in a race against time - it always is - to find the cure for a new pandemic that kills 40 per cent of its victims.

A vanished scientist and a journal with missing pages indicate that the solution is found on unlikely St John's Island, one of the few virus-free spots in the world, together with Sentosa (don't play play).

This immersive game, called Escape From St John's Island, may be a little on the nose in a time of Covid-19 fatigue, but it is tantalisingly linked to local history.

Did you know that St John's Island was a world-class quarantine centre more than 100 years ago? Why does the publicity material include a mention of former president Devan Nair? Do the flora and fauna on the island have anything in common with the monkeys, civets and bats associated with pandemics past and present?

I have other burning questions.

Can I rent any of the existing old-school chalets on the island for my own pandemic staycation? Nineteenth-century cholera vibes aside, they have the look of a Changi holiday bungalow in splendid isolation.

With an agreeable frisson from memories of schoolgirl camping and ghost stories, it would be nice to fire up some chicken wings at an abandoned barbecue pit.

This futuristic pandemic unlocks a thirst to know more about an underappreciated chapter of Singapore's history, even as we delve into St John's racy past - drugs, colonialism, war!

The game is the latest by tour operator Tribe, which has other mystery-solving games that hint darkly at local crime and intrigue, such as Chinatown Murders and Jewel Heist, the latter of which takes place at Singapore's airport.

We have to solve puzzles at each stage of Escape From St John's Island. I hate to brag, but my long winning streak at Wordle, the viral five-word game, is an advantage here. Never mind that my teammates fill in the blanks of the missing letters faster than me - I was too shy to shout out the answers, I reckon.

We toggle between a tablet, our smartphones, a map, island signboards and a spiral-bound journal to figure out the answers. There is even a Telegram chat where the game master lurks online, ready to supply more clues if we get stuck.

This mix of high and low tech involves too much multi-tasking for me. If one can embed a QR code, why did the blasted scientist not just upload all his pandemic-solving research to the cloud? Time to move on to note-taking apps, bro.

Participants on their way to the start point of the game, Escape from St John’s Island, on Feb 7, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Journalists Venessa Lee (left) and Gwen Lee look for clues as they play the game Escape from ST John’s Island, on Feb 7, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Puzzles are a throwback to childhood cognitive tests, where I thought I would be admitted to Mensa or at least the Gifted Education Programme. It turned out that I could not tell whether two triangles were followed by a square or by a rectangle.

No time to sulk, however, as the clues come fast and furious. My favourite bits are reassuringly physical, such as tracing the steps on a pirate's map where X marks the spot that reveals the next clue.

Luckily for my ego, other game participants are as flummoxed as I am. We cluck like flustered chickens, circling a landmark where a clue is hidden in plain sight, until a genius among us puts us out of our misery.

Venessa Lee (left) and Gwen Lee look for clues as they play the game, Escape from St John’s Island on Feb 7, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

I retreat battered but not bowed, as the serenity of St John's Island offers its own balm.

It has empty beaches, gently undulating slopes and limpid waters with the Singapore Flyer in the distance.

The 20-minute ferry ride back to the mainland, with the sea breeze on my face, is escape enough in our current pandemic.

The jetty at St John’s Island. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Book it: Escape from St John's Island

Info: Tribe Tours' website
Cost: $450 for a group of five

  • Eating Air is an occasional series on local tours. For more stories on exploring Singapore, go to str.sg/sg-go-where.

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