China's youth flock to murder role-playing to escape everyday life

PHOTO: Pixabay

On one Saturday (Oct 2) afternoon, Shenzhen resident Liu Jie encountered a murderer in a green military uniform. He didn't see the body itself, but in the dim lighting, he saw the bags it came in.

Three hours later, he had completely shifted his view of the murderer. Through a series of puzzles he and his teammates solved, he discovered the murderer had a backstory. He wanted to find a magic spell that could revive the dead, in order to save his older sister, who had raised him. "It was a complicated feeling yet they portrayed it vividly, and I was touched," Liu said.

Liu had "paid 100 yuan (S$21) for a piece of a life", a popular way to describe the fashionable Chinese game known as "script-killing". The game sometimes played on a tabletop, and sometimes involves role-playing and escape rooms, has become increasingly popular in recent years.

In one much-discussed case, one of the confirmed Covid-19 cases in the northeastern city of Harbin last month had played a script-killing game at a local shop for three days in a row, public epidemiological investigation records show.

The main reason the game attracts young people so much is that it offers a first-hand experience of a different life.

Shenzhen's Liu said when he gets stressed from work, he chooses to kill time with the game.

There are two types of script-killing; one is a tabletop game where people sit in a circle reading different scripts and solve mysteries, and the second, and more popular form combines role-playing and escape rooms.

Everybody is assigned a different role and costume, then, they each receive part of the script, where they follow through and solve all the problems while interacting with staff and other players. In the end, all the players work together to find the plot and reveal the final ending.

"If you strictly follow the plot, you can fit into your character and witness what their final destiny will be like, and the destiny will alter slightly according to your choices," Liu said. "You really fill your character's shoes, experience his life."

It especially has appealed to young people, even as young as high school students.

Sisi Tang, 20, is a college student based in the northern city of Taiyuan, Shanxi province. She is a big fan of the script-killing game and has been playing it regularly for the last year, once or twice a week for four to six hours at a time, usually with her classmates, four to 10 people in total.

"The main attraction for me is the reasoning type of script murder, which gives you a sense of accomplishment during the restoring and puzzle-solving through your own efforts. Many script murder games also reflect social reality, taking on sexual assault, domestic violence, school bullying and other topics, which I feel can promote people's thinking via entertaining," she said.

Mei Lin quit her job at a gaming company two years ago to launch a script-killing shop in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality. She had enjoyed the game and played numerous scripts, so when the time felt right, she wanted to open one herself.

It was no easy task, although a business chain had formed. She begins by browsing "script conventions", where she meets writers, reads scripts she believes has a hit and purchases them. Then she sits down with her own team to edit the script, talk about feasibility in acting out, prepares costumes and decorates her shop.

When players come over to her shop, she needs to talk with them in advance to get an idea of their interests, in order to recommend the best scripts for them.

"I also vet my customers, such as telling pregnant women not to play the horror stories," she said.

She said it's attractive, especially for young people, because of the social element.

"You are forced to communicate and co-operate in this, to solve puzzles; sometimes you become friends and add each other on WeChat after you play a set together," she said.

Advertisements for script-killing are prominent in China. After searching for the keyword often enough, the Post received an advertisement on WeChat that declares "learn how to write scripts, earn big bucks at home!" with a price range of 4,000 yuan (US$620) to 10,000 yuan (US$1,550) per set.

A post sent by the advertiser shows popular "murder techniques" in the scripts, including faking your own suicide to create an alibi, using a slingshot or a gun to kill someone long-distance, then having a dog or a monkey retrieve your murder weapon, or setting up a trap beforehand and having the victim trigger their own murder.

"This is a new emerging business, nobody is a professional … but with these systematic methods, anyone can create a commercially valuable script!" the post exclaimed.

The fact that it is a new industry is precisely the problem in the eyes of the authorities.

Since the Covid-19 case that brought "script-killing" to national attention, the game has been getting mainstream traction, inviting official concerns and possible future regulations.

In the past few weeks, multiple media outlets have criticised the game. Banyuetan, a magazine under state news agency Xinhua, said script-killing was "a fresh, emerging industry that had hidden potential risks due to lack of supervision".

A reporter from Banyuetan visited a popular shop, where high-school students sat in a dimly lit shop, next to two coffins and a black-and-white picture of a deceased old man, reading a script about a ghost capturing people in a remote village. Other rooms in the shop were decorated like a graveyard or were scattered with bodies.

"There need to be correct values in the plots of the scripts … if the content is too scary and players lack the ability to differentiate plot and reality, they'll have psychological issues," the report said.

At the moment, the industry's future looks bright, but it's the long-run that business owners are interested in.

"I see new shops pop up every few months or so ... but if you think it has a low bar and don't put in thoughts and efforts, they will shut down in no time," Mei said.

SINGAPORE HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
  • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

This article was first published in South China Morning Post