Beyond the whodunnits of scripted murder games

"As scripted murder games continue to develop, some aim to evoke strong emotional responses, some focus on tactical gameplay, and others maintain a traditional murder-solving approach," Wang Zhen, a 34-year-old scripted murder fan, explained.


Wang Wanyuan (second from right) and Wang Zheng (far right) played a scripted murder game, Other World of the Ghost, based on the ancient Chinese ghost story collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, on April 16, 2023 in Beijing. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

December 14, 2023

BEIJING – “Many scripted murder scenarios don’t even include murders anymore. Most of the time, players experience and unveil stories,” said Wang Wanyuan, a 26-year-old enthusiast of these immersive games.

Referred to as jubensha in Chinese, scripted murder games are undergoing a captivating evolution, transforming from simple mystery-solving games to immersive live-action role-playing experiences.

Wang Zheng, a 34-year-old scripted murder fan, classifies this genre as part of the live-action role-playing (LARP) gaming category. His introduction to this concept dates back to a board game convention in 2016, where a translated murder mystery game was showcased.

Scripted murder is like a platform for me to embrace my sentimental side and engage in immersive storytelling.

Zhang Baosong, 27, a scripted murder enthusiast

“As scripted murder games continue to develop, some aim to evoke strong emotional responses, some focus on tactical gameplay, and others maintain a traditional murder-solving approach,” he explained. “The player count for each game typically ranges from six to eight.”

For 27-year-old Zhang Baosong, who ventured into scripted murder in late 2021, the appeal lies in the opportunity to articulate emotions through role-playing.

“I’ve always been a sentimental person. I might even cry when I’m listening to music or reading a book at home,” Zhang said. “Scripted murder is like a platform for me to embrace my sentimental side and engage in immersive storytelling.”

Considering the varied preferences within the scripted murder community, Wang Wanyuan observes that different personalities gravitate toward different types of games.

“Those who enjoy making strategies and plotting are often competitive, driven by a strong desire for victory. Those who like solving mysteries and deducing the culprit typically possess sharp logical minds. As for players like myself, who love experiencing emotional narratives, it’s easy for us to empathize with and fully immerse ourselves in the roles we play,” she said.

Peng Zhicai, 23, serves as both a player and a Dungeon Master (DM) — a term drawn from the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons — whose role is to organize and ensure the smooth progress of the game.

For Peng, the two roles have different charms. “Life is challenging as it is. In my role as a player, I view games as an outlet to vent my emotions, and good stories can provide high-quality emotional release,” he said.

In his role as a DM, Peng feels like he acts as a “dream maker”, shaping intricate narrative universes and guiding players through their experiences. “Within this dream, we have the power to add, subtract, and modify every element. Players are experiencing the life of someone else, and the richness of their experience depends on the dedication and skills of the DM who weaves these dreams.”

New world “murders”

Top scripted murders of 2023, such as Zhaixing Shuyuan (Zhaixing Academy), Nighttime Ghost Tower, and Yi Hua Yi Shi Jie (To See a World in a Flower), are on Wang Wanyuan’s favorite list.

Unlike scripted murders that provide visual enjoyment, Zhaixing Academy evokes emotional sensitivity and provides a strong immersive experience for her.

Within this dream, we have the power to add, subtract, and modify every element. Players are experiencing the life of someone else, and the richness of their experience depends on the dedication and skills of the DM who weaves these dreams.

Peng Zhicai, 23, a scripted murder Dungeon Master

“I totally empathize with the main character in the script, as if what has happened to her is happening to me,” she said. “Zhaixing Academy is like a virtual home to me. I miss the characters from that world and even want to revisit these ‘old friends’ from time to time.”

Wang Zheng also acknowledges Zhaixing Academy among his favorites, but for different reasons: the game has a unique design that involves multiple DMs and non-player characters (NPCs). The players are divided into four groups, and each group interacts with a specific NPC.

“It ensures that everyone forges a strong bond with their matching NPC and immerses better in their character,” he said.

He also added that this script was written differently. “Most scripted murders tend to stir up the players’ emotions by providing lots of details, but Zhaixing Academy manages to convey a compelling narrative through its overarching storyline.”

Wang also highlighted another of his favorites this year, Shangyang, a game based on a historical figure from China’s Warring States Period (475-221 BC), but with extensive “adaptations”.

“If only judged by the script’s quality, Shangyang wouldn’t even make it to my top 20 for 2023,” he said. “What struck me deeply were the unfiltered and powerful verbal and emotional expressions of my fellow players, capturing genuine reactions in the moment rather than relying on elaborate performances.”

Regardless of the story type, Wang consistently finds delight in scripted murders that involve extensive player interactions.

“While most players prefer the company and interactions with NPCs, for me, it’s the dynamics among players that truly matter. Even when I’m not at the center of the action, I often find pleasure in observing and being a passive participant.”

Wang acknowledged the criticisms Shangyang has faced regarding historical inaccuracies. “I approach these games with the understanding that the script may not be 100 percent faithful to history,” he said. “Instead, stories rooted in true history would often trigger my interest, leading me to look it up and learn more after the game.”

Whether set in fictional or historical dynasties, scripted murder games typically equip players with hanfu, traditional Chinese costumes, to enhance the immersive experience. “I’ve even met players who bring their own hanfu to the games,” Wang said.

However, in most cases, participants were previously unfamiliar with hanfu but developed an interest in this traditional outfit after playing scripted murder games. “I genuinely hope that enthusiasts and experts in hanfu culture can step in and promote its rich heritage,” he said.

Fan friendships

Both Wang Wanyuan and Zhang have noted an increase in their participation in scripted murder games this year compared to the previous one. “Last year, I delved into scripted murder for the first time in April, playing about a dozen times in total,” Wang said. “But this year, it’s about once a week, and I usually play with the same group of people.”

Wang highlighted that her connections with fellow scripted murder enthusiasts aren’t confined to the game setting. “We also share meals, attend movies, and occasionally enjoy a drink or two,” she said. “While our conversations primarily revolve around scripted murder, we also exchange aspects of our personal lives.”

Zhang also observed a change in his social network. “Every time I added a new player on my WeChat, I discovered that we have several mutual friends. It feels like I’ve entered the inner circle of enthusiasts.”

However, Wang Zheng and Peng have observed a different trend. “After the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my friends have redirected their interests away from scripted murder games toward other hobbies such as traveling, attending concerts, and participating in outdoor sports,” Wang Zheng noted.

They both pointed out that the increase in average gaming time plays a significant role in this transition.

According to Wang, the gaming duration has expanded from four to five hours to six to eight hours over the past few years.

“Previously, many players I knew would engage in scripted murder games on weekday nights. However, now most prefer daytime slots and are even hesitant about weekend nighttime sessions.”

Peng, providing insights from both the DM and the store’s perspective, explained that scripted murder games can be categorized into three distribution types: general, limited, and exclusive. “General” refers to any scripted murder game available for purchase and is the most affordable option. “Limited” indicates that only three to five stores in a city can acquire it as a publisher’s selection. However, in cities like Beijing, where the number of stores is saturated, this figure has risen to the 20s in many cases. The same trend is observed with “exclusive” games.

“‘Limited’ used to serve as a benchmark for quality, reflecting the DM’s skill level and the challenge posed. For many players today, however, it only means prolonged game time and higher prices,” Peng said. “In comparison, ‘general’ games like Love Actually have sparked popularity and praise this year.”

Peng also noted the difficulties in crafting and structuring scripted murders, identifying a bottleneck in content creation and a shortened publishing cycle. While occasionally encountering ingeniously designed scripts, the overall content quality often falls short, requiring extensive adjustments by both stores and DMs before presentation. “To enhance the gaming experience, I’ve been focusing on sensory elements like lighting, scent, and music,” he said.

Expressing a longing for a more sustainable content production cycle, Peng emphasized the need for patience in script development.

“Inspiration cannot be summoned at will. It requires time and refinement to craft a good script. To foster a more balanced industry, I hope that authors and publishers can approach each script with the patience and sincerity it deserves.”

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