Role play and solve a murder mystery with friends

New escape room game Shanghai 1943 takes murder mystery role-playing up a notch by making the culprit one of your own

It is 1943, the golden age of Shanghai jazz, and the Paramount nightclub's star singer Red Rose has just been found dead in her dressing room.

Everyone there that night is a suspect: the young marshal who was Red Rose's lover; the ingenue singer she slapped earlier during a rehearsal; her wealthy but unscrupulous boss; her long-suffering maidservant; and the reporter interviewing her for a profile.

It sounds like the plot of a Shanghai noir film, but this elaborate mystery is, in fact, a new role-playing game by escape room company Xcape Singapore, for those who fancy solving crime while clad in cheongsam or changpao (traditional Chinese outfits).

Solving murder mysteries has been growing in popularity in the last two years among Singapore's escape room community, which has seen games such as Lockdown.sg's Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) and The Escape Hunt Experience Singapore's The Whitechapel Murderer springing up.

Shanghai 1943 takes it to a new level, however, by making the murderer one of your number. It is the first murder mystery role-playing game of its kind in Singapore.

In the game, players take on the roles of the suspects. Each character has his secrets, which he must hide from the others while trying to work out who among them is the murderer.

The game, which opened less than a month ago, unfolds on the third storey of a Bugis Village shophouse, decked out to look like a glamorous Shanghai nightclub from the 1940s - down to the tiniest details such as a vintage film camera for the reporter or the powder puffs and rouge sticks on the singers' dressing room tables. There is even a mannequin dolled up as the deceased Red Rose, though many players shy away from touching it.

  • BOOK IT / XCAPE RPG: SHANGHAI 1943

  • WHERE: Level 3 Bugis Village, 154B Rochor Road

    WHEN: Available timings on site

    ADMISSION: $48 a person, recommended for six to eight players aged 16 and older

    INFO: Call 6337-4905 or go to www.xcape.sg

  • LOCKDOWN.SG CSI: A GOOD NIGHT TO DIE

    WHERE: 02-33 Clarke Quay Central, 6 Eu Tong Sen Street

    WHEN: 11am to 10pm daily

    ADMISSION: $19 a person (weekdays before 7pm), $22 a person (weekdays after 7pm, weekends and public holidays) with a surcharge of $150 as the game requires a dedicated facilitator. Suitable for three to eight players. E-mail contactus@lockdown.sg for bookings

    INFO: Call 6222-6100 or go to lockdown.sg

  • THE ESCAPE HUNT EXPERIENCE SINGAPORE: THE WHITECHAPEL MURDERER

    WHERE: 02-43 Concorde Hotel and Shopping Mall, 100 Orchard Road

    WHEN: Available timings on site

    ADMISSION: $76 a game for up to six players; bookings at singapore.escapehunt.com

    INFO: Call 6100-0828 or e-mail singapore@escapehunt.com

Game-master Jodi Choo, who supervises each of the games, estimates that Xcape spent $100,000 on the vintage decor, as well as more than 200 costumes and accessories, including military uniforms, faux fur stoles and servant garb.

Ms Choo, 23, says: "The novelty of the game is that, unlike other escape games, the murderer is one of the group. The elaborate set-up makes it very immersive as these are not costumes people get to wear in their daily lives."

The game is inspired by variety shows such as Crime Scene from South Korea and its Chinese spin-off Who's The Murderer, in which players role-play as suspects and search a mock murder scene for clues.

Ms Choo has hosted 15 to 20 groups so far, about half of whom have managed to guess the murderer.

The 150-minute game can be played by five to 10 people, with five players taking on the roles of the suspects and the rest playing detectives who are not suspects.

Each suspect is given a script that contains details of his backstory and the secrets he must try to conceal from the others. While he can try to deflect questions or prevaricate, only the murderer is allowed to lie.

"Sometimes the murderer lies so well, even I am shocked," says Ms Choo, adding that the game is best played among friends.

"People can get very agitated during the interrogations and especially after the big reveal, so you should play with people you are not afraid of offending."

Escape room fans who have played the game say they like its immersive quality.

Civil servant Charisia Ong, 26, who played the maid, says: "You have to put yourself in the suspect's shoes and really play that role and, on top of that, observe everyone else to weave together the story."

Engineer Kenny Phua, 28, who played the marshal, was impressed by the game's complexity. "It's not easy to come up with a game where there's no ambiguity involved. They balanced it very well and made sure each role is suspicious.

"I think it would be good to have more of this kind of role-playing room. There are a good number of people in Singapore who like Sherlock Holmes and detective stories and this would appeal to them."

The "Sherlock Holmes" appeal is the foundation behind older murder mystery games such as those by Escape Hunt, which launched The Whitechapel Murderer, a 60minute game, a year ago. In it, players stumble upon the lair of Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper and must solve the clues to his real identity and escape before he returns.

Clarke Quay-based company Lockdown.sg started its CSI: A Good Night To Die room in 2015, after the success of I Know Who Killed You This Halloween, a one-off event it had organised for 1,000 people the year before that involved creating five crime scenes set around a hotel.

The CSI game is also set in a hotel room, where a guest has been found dead in the bathtub, although there is no actual corpse onsite.

Players are crime-scene investigators who must search the room for clues and work out which of the eight suspects did it within the hour. They can take photos of "evidence" and send it back to "police headquarters" for forensic analysis via a specially designed iPad app.

Lockdown.sg director Zoltan Jakab, 33, estimates about 100 teams of four to five people have played the game since it started, even though it cannot be booked online, unlike their usual escape games, and has to be requested by special appointment.

"There is definitely a growing interest in this kind of game in Singapore because people want to step out of their daily lives and experience the thrill of solving a mystery," he says. "It's a new generation of game for sure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 10, 2017, with the headline 'Solve a murder mystery'. Print Edition | Subscribe