Choice and Consequence: The meta-game of Execution

I’ve just played Execution, a self-described “short experimental game”. Download it now and then come back, otherwise I’m going to spoil it all for you. Trust me, it really is short, you’ll be back here within ten minutes.

So, Execution is a game where you have a choice – indeed, just one choice. And the consequence is permanent. Shoot the guy and he remains dead when you start a new game. Hit ESC without shooting him and you “win”. At least, that’s how it seems.

In fact, there’s only a consequence for killing him. Quit the game without shooting then restart and he’s still alive, tied to the pole. You could leave him unexecuted for eternity – there’s no reprieve for this guy, no pardoning; no possibility of escape. Perhaps it would be best to put him out of his misery.

So you “win” by refusing to play the game. It’s interesting how the designer plays with your expectations by framing the game at the outset as something you can win or lose. I figured a so-called “experimental” would be a little quirky, and so my approach was to think counter-intuitively. I decided not to shoot him. After shooting the wall, the tumbleweed, the ground, I pressed a few obvious keys and “won”.

Now I’m wondering did I decide not to shoot him because the idea of killing this guy was repugnant – after all, he’s tied to a post, immobile and unable to defend himself, and I have no idea as to why he’s in that position. Or did I decide not to shoot him because I wanted to win the game?

I think it’s the latter. Despite what is presumably meant to be a game of morality, my instinct was simply to beat the game. “Oh, you think you’re so smart, Mr Game Designer, but I’m onto you!”

What if the game had told you up-front that you could either shoot him and lose or hit ESC and win? Or what if you won by killing him and lost for cowardly quitting out? How would that change your approach? Remember, kill him once and you can’t undo your action, you’ve got to live with the consequence.

A friend of mine I showed the game to said he felt cheated in some way. To quote him:

“The entire game is setup to give you the impression that the goal is execution. Your choice is contextualised by the name, the setting, the mechanics, by your understanding of what an execution is – so it seems a little disingenuous for the designer to go, ‘Oh, but it’s all about free choice and consequences!’ To me, it’s as though you’ve been taken to a bowling alley, given a ball, and then – after you get a strike – you get told that the goal was to get a gutter ball. I thought [there may have been a trick to it], but I figured it might have something to do with the way you shoot him, or with how long you take, or something like that. It didn’t occur to me that quitting the game was the way to win it. That’s a bit of a ruse, really.”

We tend to take things at face value when playing a game. We’re conditioned to accept things almost without question. We’re used to having content designed for us and solutions prescribed to us. It’s funny how a “short experimental game” such as Execution can in just a few minutes say much of what BioShock wanted to say over the course of hours.

Explore posts in the same categories: Thoughts

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