Boiling the eyeballs with a branding iron is not life-threatening for the prisoner, but the psychological effect should not be underestimated. Or is it tactically wiser to shove needles under the fingernails first?
The Executioner is the debut title of the Russian indie developers from Lesser Evil Games, and the name of their studio speaks for itself. While we are already used to being confronted with difficult moral decisions from numerous other games, the hopelessness of the situations shown here seems exceptionally bitter. You take on the role of an executioner in a fictional, late-medieval city. As such, you not only have the task of carrying out executions in the name of the crown, but also of enforcing confessions in the torture cellar. While simulations about the everyday work of cleaners, bus drivers or even burglars provide harmless fun, my first day of work among the torture tools got to me. Up to now, I would have claimed that I am quite immune to media violence due to my fondness for horror movies. But while I find The Executioner’s unusual theme intriguing, I haven’t continued playing it since. “I have to be in the mood for that…” I said to myself, and have since realized that I may never be in the mood to torture people.
However, it was precisely not continuing to play which made me want to write about the experience all the more. I may be used to the much-discussed depiction of violence in video games, but what is far less often addressed is the violence that is not depicted. Do we really need to see body parts flying around to consider the brutality borderline? The Executioner only confronts you with your actions in text form. Illustrations provide a coherent atmosphere, but hold back enough that I wouldn’t accuse the whole thing of being unduly lurid. Possibly the violence hits me on a different level precisely because I have to deal with it more intensively while reading. The detailed descriptions not only immerse you deeply in the situation, but also stimulate your imagination to create your own images in your head. Without time pressure, one inevitably begins to draw parallels to reality. Because even though the setting is based on a distant past, of course I know that torture still exists today.
When I was about 10 years old, the daily news reported on the Gulf War. The last survivors of one family told about how their relatives were dragged out of the house, brutally tortured and executed. This brief inset burned itself into my mind and caused more discomfort and fear than any horror movie. The narration leaving so much to one’s imagination, combined with the certainty that these atrocities were really happening… The Executioner reminded me of the feeling from back then. Even though you’re just reading along in this torture chamber, and the English translation isn’t even particularly well done, for me it creates a more direct engagement with violence than I’ve ever experienced with a gun in my hand in a first-person shooter. And even though I’m not sure I’ll ever continue playing, I think it’s good that even such unpleasant experiments are released, as long as they offer more than mere torture porn. Video games don’t always have to be fun, but are allowed to show me limits I wasn’t really aware of before. After all, torture isn’t something that should make you feel good, and that’s convincingly conveyed here.
The Executioner was released in 2019 for the PC and in 2020 for the Nintendo Switch and earned many negative reviews on Steam due to the poor translation. It is possible that the worst mistakes have been ironed out for the Switch version. Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the amount of content after my short playtime, but different locations, abilities and a burgeoning revolution promise variety. Provided you want to get involved in this depressing gaming experience.
This post is also available in: German