Will you become the monster?
The Executioner – a harrowing and macabre roleplaying game that launches on Steam today – came about from a simple question: “How do people whose job is to inflict pain on others actually live?”
It’s a question that the game’s writer, Elena Sivakova, mulled over for some time. She dove into research – history; tradition; a series of what Elena describes as “magnificent books – among them The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch and Master by Henry Lion Oldie.” She read cover-to-cover the memoirs of of English executioner Albert Pierrepoint, who drew the striking conclusion that the death penalty does not deter other people from committing crimes. “But I also read about Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, a present-day executioner from Saudi Arabia, who claims that he has long dreamed of this work and sleeps well at night,” she says. “And, of course, the Milgram experiments.”
The Milgram experiments were a series of early-’60s social psychology studies by Yale University researcher Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants, who believed they were assisting researchers with an unrelated experiment, were instructed to administer electric shocks to other human beings. The shocks were fake, of course, but the participants didn’t know that – and the amount of electricity they believed they were administering would have been fatal were it real.
“When Milgram published his research proving that you don’t have to be ‘evil’ to commit unspeakable acts, people around the world were horrified,” says Elena. “They thought: ‘am I capable of this’?”
This, then, is a central question posed in The Executioner. Set in a time when the King’s executioner often served the role of interrogator, judge and jury as well, the game asks players to navigate their conscience, and determine then deliver the fate of a range of purported criminals.
Surviving in this world means adapting to being a ruthless torturer and killer. You’ll need to take measures to preserve your sanity in order to do that. But The Executioner also gives you a choice. Do you try to justify your actions, safe in the knowledge that you yourself might be put to death if you don’t? Or do you quietly begin to start a revolution behind the ruling elites’ backs?
Indeed, you can try to start that resistance. But perhaps it’s easier to go the other way? “You can support efforts to methodically destroy the resistance forces. Or you can drive needles under nails, cauterising the flesh with a hot iron, reeling up on a winch inside of a person when she is still alive,” says Elena, “just using pain to get a confession and get paid at evening, a few coins that will allow you to live another day. And this is slowly, inexorably leaves its mark on the mind.”
It’s a dark concept, for sure, but The Executioner isn’t grizzly and gruesome for shock value alone. It’s a thoughtful and considered story-driven roleplaying experience, played out via a selection of diary entries, skills tries, maps and more. And that story aims to be nuanced as well as provocative, playing into the interactive nature of games.
“We sometimes admire villains from books and movies,” says Elena – “bold, determined and ready to do anything for their goal. Great evil fascinates us in a strange way – it’s not governed by regular moral rules. A villain who destroyed millions with a flick of his finger seems to be a noble madman with a high purpose. But there are small evils as well. Ordinary, almost imperceptible, inexpressibly cruel, ugly. The judge signs death sentences because it’s his job, which he doesn’t want to lose. The soldier raises his gun and shoots prisoners, because it is his pledged service, and he has an order. In the life of an ordinary person, there is rarely a black-and-white choice to become a horrible monster or to remain human. It’s a series of situations, smaller choices and decisions, that lead to monstrous acts in real life. Everyone has an excuse. Everyone has circumstances.”
The Executioner is out now via Steam.