If you’ve ever woken with a pounding headache and blackspots in your memory, if you’ve ever made an insincere promise to never touch alcohol again, then you know a fraction of how Disco Elysium’s protagonist, a detective, feels at the opening of the game. Almost a week ago, he travelled to the impoverished coastal region of the city of Revachol to investigate a potential lynching. He’s spent the entire time getting unfathomably drunk, scaring citizens by wielding his firearm and screaming about how funny it would be if he blew his brains out. He’s so catastrophically hungover that the man has forgotten everything – name included. Turning on the lights in his trashed hotel room is enough of a shock to kill him outright. All through this, the corpse has been rotting in the courtyard where it was discovered. Kids with nothing better to do waste away their childhood throwing rocks at it.
Disco Elysium is a 2019 non-traditional roleplaying game from Estonian company ZA/UM. Written and designed by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz, with help from author and entrepreneur Kaur Kender, it’s set in their ‘Elysium’ world. Originally the setting for a 2013 novel, Sacred and Terrible Air, which sold only a thousand copies, the pair decided to explore their creation in the form of a video game after struggling with depression and alcoholism. The world is sometimes fantastical, sometimes allegorical, but it always – somehow – manages to feel like home. Its mistakes are the mistakes of our own world. Its fictional geopolitics are the same as our own. Revachol’s mix of accents, from English to American to French, destabilise the setting, whilst also making it uncannily welcoming. The player, in the role of the detective, and his partner Kim Kitsuragi, are tasked with solving the lynching which is entangled in a labour dispute between the city’s Union and a corporation owned by a form of world government.
One of the biggest talking points when it comes to Disco Elysium is the politics. Kurvitz, hailing from a former Soviet state, is a communist. He keeps a bronze statue of Lenin by his writing desk. The creators of the game thanked Marx and Engels in their speech at the 2019 Game Awards. Disco Elysium is cynical at points, downbeat at others, but it’s a mistake to pin the game as an argument for Marxism. If anything, it’s a lament for Marxism. One of the biggest figures in the game is Evrart Claire, the Union boss, and it’s impossible to know whether he’s telling the truth at any given moment. He uses left-wing rhetoric insofar as it glorifies himself, and his true feelings towards making “every worker a member of the board” matter less than what he does publicly. Realpolitik made manifest. He’s the type of guy who – in reality – might earnestly hold leftist views, but utilises them solely to seem cool at parties and seduce women. His opposite number is Joyce Messier, a spokesperson for the Wild Pines company at odds with the Union. She, like the detective, longs for the days of disco. A time where pure love, for the music and for each other, felt like enough to keep the human race on the straight and narrow. Lose yourself in disco music and you might, for a short while, forget how terrible the world is. Messier, as what the game calls an ‘ultraliberal’, finds solace in that message because it shirks responsibility for the impoverishment of Revachol away from herself. ‘Peace and love’ has never been a replacement for political ideology, but the one Joyce finds herself believing in hasn’t made things any better.
Myself and Kitsuragi, the player companion, should have been at odds much of the time. His ideology is Moralism, a detached way of looking at the world in which the most enlightened political act is to do nothing. Nothing, aside from the most heinous examples of human evil, is worth condemning. Evrart is a liar who might believe in good ideas, and Messier is a rube clearly ignoring her own culpability. There are fascists, but the game is clear that those people are wrong and evil in such a banal way that they’re not worth considering. More than anyone else in the game, Kim’s worldview was to blame for everything. However, he was my rock – whenever I worried that I’d messed up a conversation or part of the investigation, Kim Kitsuragi was there with enough competence and composure for all three of us.
What I found notable about the game was a sense of longing. The longing for the truth behind the crime is obvious. The protagonist has a litany of regrets, both forgotten and recent, based in backstory and player-driven. The detective pines for the days of disco because, quite simply, he wasn’t a washed-up alcoholic back then. Or maybe he was, but everyone in that scene was. The player themselves may have regrets – the moment I did Evrart Claire’s bidding in exchange for information, and his nasally voice snorted back the most insincere thanks I’ve ever heard, I deeply regretted doing so.
There’s the longing for a future that never arrived. For a future that was so close, just half a century ago, during the Revolution, but a future that now haunts the still-bombed ruins of the former Capital of the World; Revachol was once a seat of empire and colonial wealth. Then, briefly, it was a communist city state, before the revolution was wiped away and the city placed under the thumb of the Coalition, a conglomerate of nations and interests, protecting the free market above all else. A common part of the soundtrack is a single protracted, tinny horn motif, as if playing from decaying speakers, calling out to long-dead revolutionaries. One sub-quest simply involves the detective performing a song at karaoke, “The Smallest Church in Saint-Saëns”, from which one lyric goes “I have been so glad here, looking forward to the past here”. Coming from an Estonian team which then spread itself across half of the world during development, from England to China, this sense of longing for once-assured lost futures is imbued in every word of the game.
The detective, whose real name is revealed to be Harry Du Bois, is a sad man in a sad world. The Ancient Reptilian Brain, one of his inner voices, chastises Harry in one of the first dream sequences of the game – ‘7 billion people in the world and you failed all of them’. It’s the inherent contradiction typical of self-loathing. How can someone be the greatest monster alive, and yet absolutely insignificant? Depression and drug abuse are common notes for ‘bleak’ media to hit, but it’s often performed in such a hackneyed way that it betrays that the creative team have no clue what they’re talking about. I didn’t get that from Disco Elysium.
In an inspired design choice, not all of the RPG skills are created equal. As the Thinker archetype, I was stuck with an incredibly low starting Volition, meaning even the slightest embarrassment or insult was enough to destroy the detective’s psyche – a non-standard game over – outright. It was a tense opening, especially after Evrart lorded himself over Harry and ended up ‘killing’ him multiple times. Electrochemistry, furthermore, rarely opened up an opportunity that didn’t amount to getting high or drunk. I had the choice of rejecting those thoughts of relapse outright. Harry probably wouldn’t have fared so well without my guidance. He’d have these skills under control, and be proficient in most of them, if he weren’t such a sad wreck of a person. I can see, in another playthrough, how those self-destructive, self-loathing, even suicidal, dialogue and skill choices would have appealed to the protagonist and the player. The world sucks, there are so many loose threads related to your goals, and there’s an ever-present sense of loss and failure in all you see and do – so screw it, right? Buy more booze, turn the music up and sing along to the same sad song until your voice gives out, all in the hope that you don’t wake up tomorrow. But I made day one of the investigation also the first day of Harry’s recovery. It’s easy to commit to getting better when all that’s required is to press the NO option, but I know how hard it was for Harry to be making that choice.
As I said earlier, Revachol manages to feel like home. One of the biggest problems facing progressives today tends to be despondency. Even the most mainstream attempts to gain left-wing power – Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – falter and die in the dust. All the while, “evil child-murdering billionaires still rule the world with a sh*t-eating grin”. What Disco Elysium wants to say, in a million or so total words, is that giving up is ugly. You’re one of seven billion, the total product of the entirety of human history thus far. What gives you the right to throw that away and pick up a bottle? Disco’s long dead and there’s no bringing it back. Feel sad that the past is gone and the present isn’t in your favour. The future can always be home, is always a chance to begin again. Disco’s just Latin for ‘I learn’. The game serves as a reminder; I had been so glad there, looking forward to the past there.