A few weeks ago, Jesse Venbrux, creator of the previously-discussed Karoshi games, released a short interactive piece called “Execution.” Not really a game, “Execution” is a quick subversion of what video games typically are and a subtle comment on the thing that the form is currently obsessed with: killing.
The impact of the game will be stronger if you play it at least twice before clicking through to the rest of the discussion. It should take you about five minutes. I’ll wait.
Done? All right. In case you just skipped ahead, here’s a quick summary: a man is tied to a pole in a dim room, with tumbleweeds blowing by. You see him through the scope of a gun. You are instructed that you have a choice. If you press ESCAPE to quit, you’re informed that you have won. If you shoot the man, he dies, and you are informed that you have lost.
And if you restart the game, the man is still dead.
As Anthony Burch points out, “we as gamers know that our second chance, our extra try, is but a single quickload away.” If I want to find out what happens if I kill a Little Sister in Bioshock, I save my game, choose “kill” instead of “rescue,” and then restore my save once the cutscene is over. The choice has no permanent consequences. Even Rogue-likes, which maintain a “bones file” recording player death stats and don’t allow the restoration of a saved game after PC death, don’t really change in a fundamental way in response to player actions.
But “Execution,” a piece with only one choice, records that choice in the registry, an arcane and frightening place that is a mystery to most of its players. And so your choices in your very first playthrough can change the game forever.
In most video games, player agency extends only to one linear path through the game. The player’s choices only affect the game world if you choose to let them. There exist multiplayer “persistent world” games, but I don’t know of one that lets a player enact major change, presumably to avoid one player “ruining” another’s experience. However, in “Execution,” the player not only has the agency to affect her current playthrough, but every subsequent playthrough of the game. It’s unclear whether the player character is the same from one playthrough to the next — the piece is too simple to tell — but the fact that each playthrough definitively ends but affects the next is very unusual.
The central choice is also interesting. It’s never told who the man tied to the post is, or why the player is aiming in his direction. From the title “Execution,” one can assume that he is being punished for something, but it is not obvious whether that punishment is unjust. From the fact that the player loses if she shoots the man, we can assume that the man’s execution is, at the very least, out of proportion with his supposed crimes. And that is an implied message of the game, as well: that death is a serious and permanent consequence of killing, and that the man’s death is a loss to his executioner.
I’m sure I’ve complained in the past that our games are fixated on killing. An overwhelming majority of video games either revolve around killing large numbers of entities or revolve around a poorly-masked substitute for killing (what do you think happens to Goombas when you step on them, and how do Robotnik’s robots feel about the animals inside being freed?). The most striking thing about these deaths, beyond their prevalence, is their triviality. None of these deaths matter. They, for the most part, are either interchangeable cannon fodder or horrible evil bosses. Even in the games that offer a more ethically gray killing experience, one press of the “quickload” key will resurrect the dead.
But in “Execution,” there is only one person to kill. He is defenseless. And once you pull the trigger, he will never come back.