Finding meaning amid the muck, decay and studio drama
When you first start up Disco Elysium, it’s difficult not to feel as if you’re crawling out of an open grave. The game begins on a black screen as the vibrating voice assigned to your ‘Ancient Reptilian Brain’ croaks out the opening lines: “There is nothing, only warm primordial blackness.”
After a few more lines describing the absolute abyss you have found yourself in, the “primordial blackness” recedes and you find your player character face-down in a trashed hotel room. You are delirious, amnesiac and in desperate need of your other shoe (or any piece of clothing for that matter). The cassette player is shredded, ripped to pieces in a drunken rage, and your ‘Horrific Necktie’ hangs limp from the ceiling fan, soon to be granted its own sentient voice inside your head.
You move into the bathroom, stumbling toward the vanity, and peer into the grimy, cracked mirror above. What greets you is ‘The Expression’ – a shit-eating, yet plastered-on grin that pervades your character’s scraggly beard, failing to fully reach his eyes.In an article for The Gamer, Kee Hoon Chan described The Expression as the look “of a man who wants to die” despite the puckered cheeks and artificial joy. You can attempt to pass an Electrochemistry check to wipe The Expression off your face but, if you succeed, the sadness and despair does not fade: “Just like that it’s over—the running gag that your life had become. A sad old man looks back at you.”
With your heart in your throat and an overwhelming tide of existential shame washing over you, you direct your character out into the world. He wears a crinkled suit, a soiled shirt, that ‘Horrific Necktie’ and one, unmatched snakeskin shoe. This is how the game begins.
It’s hard to fully quantify the mental, emotional and metaphysical state that Disco Elysium endeavours to mire the player in. Formed from Robert Kurvitz’s Sacred and Terrible Air, the game thrusts you into a world that seems to walk a perpetual tightrope between anarchy and annihilation.
Despite your amnesia, you find yourself in Martinaise, a district of the disgraced city Revachol that is currently under the looming cloud of an ever worsening labour strike. The city itself is in a state of malaise, caught between the machinations of manipulative union bosses, a shipping company unprepared to yield and an angry, unstable group of hired mercenaries whose beloved captain now hangs limp and rotting in the courtyard behind your lodgings. Martinaise, at any given moment, might implode, explode or simply melt into the insula from the corrosive hostility that has bleed into the soil.
Your player character, Harrier DuBois, is a policeman, a member of the Revachol Citizens Militia (RCM), but few people in this city truly respect you after you’ve left a body hanging in a courtyard for days since you arrived. (Let’s pretend that’s the only crime or immoral thing you’ve done since you arrived…)
Conflict, no matter how severe, is a natural piece of turbulence in every real human relationship. Disco Elysium knows this better than any other game. Perhaps a little…too well because it seems that everyone and everything is in conflict with you from the moment you step into Martinaise. Garte, the manager at the Whirling-In-Rags, treats you with a sarcasm I can only really describe as unamused after you threatened customers with a gun, ripped a taxidermy bird off the wall and traumatised a staff member so severely she has had to take time off work. The Hardie Boys, a group of semi-autonomous vigilantes that provide muscle for the Dockworker’s Union, openly despise you and attempt to cover up the reality of the murdered man’s fate. Even your new partner, the ever-patient Kim Kitsuragi, seems continually at a disadvantage due to your neverending incompetence over the last few days, having to muddle together excuses for your lapses in memory and failure to comprehend almost anything about the world you’ve supposedly already been living in.
Every time I start the game from this disastrous point, I find it hard not to laugh. It becomes all too apparent all too quickly that the grave I had found myself in upon starting up the game was undoubtedly dug by my own player character. I had to take the reins where Harry, our flawed, brittle and alcoholic detective, decided to jump ship from the misery of it all.
The game’s interpersonal hostilities are somehow both sharp and draining at the same time. The slow monotony of the everyday sludge sits heavy on your chest as you drag Harry through the Doomed Commercial District where businesses inevitably wither, the dingey fishing village that will soon be gentrified by the corporate union and a sluggish worker’s protest gathered outside the gates to the docks. You walk in a city with cracked cobblestones and graffitied walls, a mixture of wartime damage and active decay weighing the entire city down into the docks. This pressure, the drenched atmosphere, is not quite enough for Disco Elysium – it demands more existential considerations from the player.
Just beyond the horizon and looming above Revachol in the title screen lies ‘The Pale’, our ever-present existential threat that you could be forgiven for forgetting throughout the game’s runtime.
Nothing quite captures this sense of “heat death”, as Kurvitz articulates it, like The Pale. Described as an “interisolary mass” that covers “72%” of Elysium’s world, the Pale is an “achromatic, odourless, featureless” disc that one day threatens to swallow the entirety of Elysium whole. It is “expanding at an unknown rate” and is seemingly the product of our own “human pollution”, a swirling mass of our own “over-radiated” past that only grows bigger as we continue to exist on the continent. The Insulindian Phasmid, a creature yet unknown to Elysium scientists, eventually tells the protagonist that this “human pollution” is “going to destroy us all.”
Though I see where Kurvitz is coming from with the Soviet sci-fi links, I can’t help but feel the lineage of ecofiction within the construction of The Pale. Ecofiction is a genre, both in literature and in digital media, that centres on the role that the environment plays within human lives and conflicts. Often, this style of fiction is centred on the human desire to dominate and control nature, an unruly component in our everyday existence. Literary scholar Simon Estok argues that this fear of nature – which he describes as ‘ecophobia’ – is a central component in our justifications for exploiting natural resources for our own personal gain. For many eco-fiction writers, the environment is the Other: the world beyond human morality, consideration or fear.
In Kurvitz’s world, however, the environment is a victim of human pollution. Not the literal kind but the metaphysical – all anxiety surrounding the Pale feeds into its creation, with our regrets and ponderings on the past looming overhead in an odourless cloud. The impossible solution to the pending climate crisis of our world is one thing, but how do you stop weight of the human past bearing down on us, irradiating the air with our doubts and fears? How do you combat the human obsession with moments long past us, with regret and shame and loss?
Harry, your player character, can’t even begin to manage his own past, leaving little hope for the rest of Elysium. He is a mini-Pale all on his own, a swirling tidal wave of regret, rejection, loneliness and rage. In the final moments of the game, you may confront the visage of Harry’s lost love, who he imagines as the seemingly divine figure, Dolores Dei. “Other people get sad too,” she says to Harry, “but not like you, you stay down for too long.” Depending on your choices throughout the game, the woman lists different reasons for Harry’s innate and irrecoverable sadness: he gives personality to his thoughts and possessions; he asks incessant and non-stop questions; he dissolves into encyclopaedic trivia; he gets violent, beating people and things in his past.
How can a man like this truly move on? How can a population of people like Harry, so broken and alone, ever stop worrying about the past to the point it forms an irradiated cloud above their heads? Annihilation, according to Disco Elysium, is inevitable, an inescapable part of the human condition. And yet, we still persist.
Disco Elysium is a game about losing everything and still, somehow, managing to go on. I cannot help but find solace in that message, both at a personal level and for the very creators of Elysium’s world. Since 2021, ZA/UM has been in somewhat of an uproar behind the scenes: three key figures in the game’s development – lead writer Robert Kurvitz, art director Alexander Rostov and fellow writer Helen Hindepere – were fired from the company they helped create.
People Make Games conducteda thorough and well-researched investigation of the whole scandal and very much deserves the credit for laying out the landscape of this debacle much more thoroughly than I can. However, I’m not here to rehash the gory details of what is, essentially, the video game industry equivalent of a monstrously bad break-up.
Instead, I simply want to bring attention to the terribly apt authorial message Kurvitz and his team moulded into their game. Disco Elysium is a game about losing everything but it is most certainly not a game about sinking into obscurity. From whatever comes next, whether that be reconciliation or oblivion, that message alone is worth holding onto. We cannot always hold onto our first love, our life’s work or the careers we sank our life’s blood into but we can, however imperfectly, hold on to the hold that something new will crash onto our shores.