When education meets entertainment: How 2 university students developed a Total Defence murder mystery game

Upon receiving positive public responses for their murder mystery game, Caleb and Jiankai were presented a chance to turn their initiative into a video series.

Chloe Tham

Chooses to watch the same three movies in rotation instead of catching a new one.

Published: 25 August 2023, 2:25 PM

What initially started as a shared interest in current affairs and crime fiction for university students Caleb Tan and Sheng Jiankai turned into an opportunity to produce a broadcast video series.

The university students are the brains behind the Total Defence Murder Mystery Role-Playing Game (MMRPG) titled Melody of Waves. The 22-year-olds first got involved in the project when they received an email indicating that their idea for the game was shortlisted.

This came seven months after applying for the Total Defence (TD) Sandbox campaign in February 2022, which they stumbled upon while listening to the radio.

The TD Sandbox campaign was launched by the Ministry of Defence’s (MINDEF) Nexus last year to encourage youths to start and co-create ground-up initiatives for Total Defence.

According to MINDEF, the TD Sandbox initiatives were chosen based on community impact, innovativeness, and alignment to Total Defence values. Out of 77 applicants, Caleb and Jiankai’s idea was one of the four that were eventually selected.

With no formal education in game design, the pair drew inspiration from multiple forms of media that they consumed to create their card game. This includes the South Korean television series Crime Scene, and the Chinese variety show Who’s The Murderer.

Its gameplay involves five to seven players roleplaying as detectives and suspects, deducing the murderer who is lying among them. Climate change and terrorism are the two main themes that the game revolves around.


The game was influenced by their interests in crime fiction books and murder mystery games. PHOTO CREDIT: MINDEF


The public got to try their hand at the role-playing game during a trial run hosted at the Singapore Discovery Centre in February this year, held in conjunction with Total Defence Day.

After receiving positive responses from players, Caleb and Jiankai decided to halt public game sessions. They then channelled their energies into creating the YouTube video series, illustrating the gameplay.

“We filmed it as a show because it’s actually a very plot-driven kind of game, so there’s low replayability,” said Caleb, when explaining the thought process behind their decision.

“The relationship between the game and the video series is that the game is more of a piloting test for whether or not the video series is viable,” explained Jiankai.

Their three-part video series was produced with the help of media company So Drama! Entertainment. Local celebrities like radio DJs Mister Young and Colin Tan from Power 98, Jimmy Koh from 88.3JIA and actor Tosh Zhang were featured as characters.


Caleb and Jiankai will also make surprise cameos throughout the video series. PHOTO CREDIT: SO DRAMA! ENTERTAINMENT


It follows a fictional narrative plot, while demonstrating the gameplay and incorporation of the six pillars of Total Defence – Military, Civil, Economic, Social, Digital and Psychological.

Despite the dense subject matter of the game, the research process behind creating the game went rather smoothly.

Even though there was a great deal of information to fact-check, they found it easier due to MINDEF and SGSecure’s assistance. They were provided with updated facts that were required for the game content.

“If you watch the show, you can find a few easter eggs and little nuggets of information. We took time to research (these) and I hope that the viewers enjoy it,” said Caleb.

Besides conducting research, the pair was heavily involved in scriptwriting for the video series. Their roles included curating the plot, storyline and character backstories. When filming commenced, they were also present to provide support behind the scenes.


The pair was present during filming to assist in the gameplay and ensure the storyline remained consistent. PHOTO CREDIT: SO DRAMA! ENTERTAINMENT


However, with every endeavour comes a set of challenges. While they were in the planning stage, a main concern for the video series was to determine its runtime to better suit Singaporean audiences.

Their original sources of inspiration came from television shows, with episodes lasting up to one or two hours. On the contrary, they had observed social media trends with users engaging more with short-form content.

Caleb and Jiankai were therefore grappling with the dilemma of trying not to make each episode of the series too short or too long. They felt that longer content would not hold enough attention, while shorter content would not adequately educate their intended audiences about Total Defence.

After multiple discussions with various partners and stakeholders, the pair had ultimately settled on medium-length content that would best accommodate YouTube’s algorithm – three 20-minute videos.

Caleb shared that when the idea finally saw its fruition, both of their childhood dreams were fulfilled to some degree. Since their secondary school days, Caleb had longed to be the director of a variety show while Jiankai had always dreamt of being a host.

“I guess that even though (Caleb) is not really a director in this series and I’m not really a host, at least our dream for being involved in such a variety show and (its) production did come true to a certain extent through this project,” said Jiankai.

“It definitely gives us more experiences and more hope that we can do something even further in future,” he added.


Melody of Waves is the second game the pair has worked on, following a pet project titled ‘Laboratory of Death’. PHOTO CREDIT: CALEB TAN


In the meantime, the pair has floated a couple of new ideas with each other and have expressed their interest in working on similar projects.

From this experience, they have learned the importance of working together with their stakeholders and other contributors to achieve this project. As they had lacked certain video production skills, they had to liaise with their partners to meet their vision.

Engaging with like-minded people who shared the same interests and goals also brought them a step closer to the completion of the project.

When asked what they hope others will take away from the video series, Jiankai mentions the term “edutainment” – a portmanteau between the words “education” and “entertainment”.

Together with watching local celebrities rack their brains, viewers can expect to recognise the importance of climate change and terrorism and identify ways to protect Singapore from these issues.

“We hope to entertain (viewers), making sure that they have fun and enjoy this entire process of watching a murder mystery kind of show,” explained Jiankai.

“At the same time, education is also very important. So through (the) process (of) witnessing our character backstories and this entire game story plot, we hope to highlight our key messages.”

The first and second episode of the video series are now available to watch via YouTube.

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