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Consequence in Games: Execution

Posted by Nick Dinicola on December 26, 2008

I discovered this game on Destructoid while browsing through a series of articles called Indie Nation by Anthony Burch. I’m going to repeat his instructions here:

1. Download the game at it’s official download page, and DO NOT READ ANY OTHER COMMENTS. It’s a very small game and should only take a few seconds to download.

2. Play the game at least twice. It’s short, so don’t worry about spending too much time with it.

Anthony does a great job breaking down the game and analyzing its theme of consequence, and some of the comments on the article bring up some interesting points as well. Click “Read the rest of this entry” for my take on it.

Execution represents the goal many modern games are striving for (Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Mass Effect are the three that immediately come to mind), in that it gives our actions real consequences, permanent consequences, consequences we can’t undo by reloading a saved game. I first played it about a month ago and even now, as I start it again, the man I shot is still dead. I only had one chance to “do the right thing” and I failed. Granted, I tried shooting other things first: The tumble weed, the wall, the grass, but the game didn’t react to any of it. So I, wanting to progress through the game, did what any gamer who has played multiple FPS’s does when a virtual gun is put in their virtual hands: I shot the person in front of me. And I lost.

Anthony goes on to talk about how our actions taken in the game may reflect our state of mind as gamers. After all, we’ve been raised by generations of games to believe that when we’re given a gun in a game we’ should use it. I don’t want to repeat what’s already been written, so I’m going to go in a different direction. Execution is unique in that the only way to win it is to not play it. When we start the game and we’re faced with the prisoner, we win by pressing the escape key and exiting the game. I haven’t done this myself obviously, but Anthony describes it:

Basically, if you press escape while the prisoner is still alive, then the sniper scope fades to a screen saying “YOU WIN” and the game exits. If you go back into the game, the victim will still be there, tied to the post.

As long as we keep making the right decision, the game continues endlessly. We can potentially win over and over again, but that also means we can potentially lose over and over again. In my mind, the game only ends when we kill the prisoner; if we keep him alive then the game doesn’t end despite the fact that we won. This is because if we keep the prisoner alive and then come back to the game a month later, he’ll still be alive and we’ll be faced with the same choice we had a month ago; we’ll be playing through a second time. But if we kill the prisoner, then when we come back to it a month later (like I did), he’ll still be dead, we won’t be faced with the same choice, we’ll still have lost. What this means is that there is a finite number of times a person can play Execution.

If a game gives us a lot of choices and each choice has a permanent consequence, then as long as we keep playing the game, as long as we keep making those choices, eventually we’ll exhaust all possible choices the game offers us, and the next time we start the game up it’ll be unplayable because we’ll be faced with a virtual world void of choice. That’s what it’s like “playing” Execution again after shooting the prisoner. I’ve made the only choice there is to make in the game, and since the consequences are permanent there are no more choices left for me to make. Essentially, there is no more game. This is fine for an indie game like Execution, in fact I think it’s admirable. But for retail games trying to appeal to a wide audience, it’s simply not a viable option to make a game playable only once.  As fascinating as it would be to play through Fallout 3 knowing that every action I take is the only action I can ever take, that I can’t undo a mistake by reloading a saved game, by starting a new game, or even (since all systems have some kind of internal memory) by buying a new copy of the game, it would also be incredibly frustrating. While permanent consequence is a goal many games aspire to, I think the ability to replay events differently is one of the most important traits video games have over other mediums.

For example, depending on a choice we make at the end of Grand theft Auto 4, we’ll get one of two endings. Once ending focuses on the dangers of mobster life, while the other ending focuses on the dangers of capitalism. If we could only see one ending of Grand Theft Auto 4, then half of the game would be thematically unresolved. By relying on its inherent replay value as a video game, Grand Theft Auto 4 is able to make two very different points with its endings.

I think a sweet spot has yet to be found between the mass market and art house appeal of consequence in games. I think the ability to replay events differently gives video games a thematic versatility that other mediums can never reach. But I think there’s an important place in gaming history for the first game that can take the permanent consequences of Execution and expand them into a much larger game. Plenty of games have already been made that allow us to redo events differently, but no game (save Execution…that I know of) has been made that can be played only once. For that reason alone, if only to expand the scope of the possibilities of video games, that game needs to be made.

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