- Disco Elysium is familiar. An amnesiac. A middle-aged detective brought low by a woman. A murder.
- Disco Elysium is unfamiliar. A chorus in your head. A hole in the world. A conversation with your necktie.
- [Drink alcohol immediately]
- Non-committal fourth option.
Disco Elysium’s setting is fantastical, but perhaps not that fantastical. There are no magicians, no elves except for those sketched on blackboards, and the detective’s seemingly supernatural insights are probably something you could dismiss as flashes of memories or oddly intuitive hallucinations if you wanted to wring out every last drop of imagination.
The detective himself has no shortage of imagination. His head is abuzz with flavourful, characterful, absolutely terrible thoughts. Impulsively clicking everything that appears on screen, exhausting every option, will no doubt sour some first impressions because many of the options the game presents you with are, well, absolutely terrible.
In a genre where Evil characters have the terrible options of burning down homes and cackling maniacally, you can perform deeds that are different kinds of terrible, more grounded and just as arbitrary (and what else can the detective’s acts be but arbitrary, when he’s an amnesiac who claims not to remember what money is). And they can, of course, be silly too. I know of people who have died from misery and/or heart attacks while trying to retrieve clothes or kick inanimate objects. Personally, my bane was an uncomfortable chair.
If it’s not already apparent… the player character is a mess. His thoughts are often cynical, even nihilistic. And why not, when the world itself seems to mirror that? A district full of poverty and striking workers, a city still staggering on after a failed communist revolution. The detective is derided and disrespected by an ungrateful populace despite his only crime being drunkenly trashing a hotel room and finding himself sans a gun, badge, shoe and memory. He’s left with a hangover, hazy regrets, and a background cast of skills with their own takes and agendas. Your thoughts have thoughts and they will argue amongst themselves.
This is an avenue for some of Disco Elysium’s finest writing. With the possible exception of your partner, your skills are the best characters in the game. There’s a moment when one skill calls out the others and questions the result of a nominally successful roll, and it changes the dynamic forever. Is the union boss insincere? Does the corporate suit really have your back? Is the advisement that I take my pants off right now coming from a good place?
You should probably save your game first.
It’s important to keep all this in mind, the fallibility of your skills and the selfish agendas they push. The detective is effectively assailed by intrusive thoughts, by skills that want him to use them regardless of context, tact and the laws of physics. He’s floundering and at their mercy, but it’s ultimately the player pulling his strings, assuming those strings are even attached to the body parts you expect them to be.
A few people cling to the notion that “being political” requires a game character to turn to the camera and loudly endorse a real-world candidate, but everyone else will note that Disco Elysium is positively dripping with the stuff. Politics, that is. Thick, viscous, all-permeating. Liable to linger despite showering.
It’s a game where you can tally up Communism and Fascism points and if that sounds a bit glib, it occasionally is, with the odd politically-charged non-sequitur option offered up for little more reason than proving where you stand. Disco Elysium’s tongue is often in its cheek but it’s wagging the rest of the time, saying things like “social democrat” and “radical centrist” and other terms I hadn’t expected to encounter in a fantasy RPG.
The narration will notice if you’re always picking safe uncontroversial options and will, indeed, imply that you’re a liberal or a capital-M Moralist, an in-universe alliance of centre-left and centre-right parties. Moderates et al are presented as fonts of empty platitudes, people who are content with the status quo as long as they can pretend there’s some sort of justice in the world, naively ignorant of exploitation if not actively supporting it.
And it would be easy to accuse DE of being the very same type of centrist that it mocks, for presenting every ideology as a joke at best and a flimsy prelude to mass-murder at worst. A spineless neutrality that takes shots at everyone and everything in the guise of equal opportunities humour.
But as the detective could tell you, there’s method and motive behind every shot. My first impression was one of empty “everything sucks!” nihilism, but Disco Elysium is at heart a very humanist tale. People strive, survive and hope for the future, soldiering on despite being buried under a history of strife and chaos. It’s pretty great. I’m impressed.
The detective’s headspace may speak to the mangled, meme-worthy way he frames all politics: including his own, should he decide to take up a cause. When your sorry communist cop shouts slogans and hugs the working class it’s easy to see it as a reflection of the detective’s abject confusion, a filter-free exaggeration of whatever he genuinely believed beforehand. His partner is not sure how he can be both a communist and a cop, but this contradiction doesn’t seem to bother the detective in the slightest.
Is his obsession with not-Karl-Marx intended to be sympathetic or is it an attack on political purity and nostalgia? Similarly, is the corruption you see everywhere supposed to be a cynical dismissal of all ideologies, or is the point that we should remain sceptical of someone’s motives despite the labels they apply to themselves: can I really be a sorry communist cop or is that a meaningless oxymoron? Is asking a random citizen a dozen questions a sensible way of conducting your investigation?
A great deal of what happens in the detective’s mind is subject to interpretation, but by and large Disco Elysium has a lot of respect for its cast. I wouldn’t say DE is overtly sympathetic to everyone, but you meet all kinds of people and can at least understand their stances, even if the game doesn’t defend those positions. Some have outlandish ideas about everything from the supernatural to the inherent goodness of their community, and the detective can support them eagerly or dismiss them off-hand. At all times you’re made aware of the material context of the city, its troubled history, that these conditions didn’t spring from vacuum and that questionable or objectionable as they might be, everything has an underlying reason. Even if, in the detective’s case, that reason might be “I was given the option to do something and wanted to see what would happen” or an apologetic “I think I did it because I was drunk”.
Planescape: Torment comparisons are inevitable: you play as a preset character, an amnesiac, and you spend most of your time reading enormous amounts of text. Disco Elysium sidesteps the common complaints about Torment‘s combat by… having practically no combat whatsoever, barring a couple of rare skill checks. DE’s map is compact, but that’s a good thing, at least in terms of limiting how long you spend running from A to B. It’s packed with things to see and ways of humiliating yourself. It’s dense with dialogue and detail and it’s one of those games that I previously thought would’ve been an impossible sell. As has often been the case in this world of Witchers and Original Sins, I was very happy to be proven wrong.
The detective makes being wrong into an art form, unless you make him declare art to be a bourgeois distraction. Failure is baked into the narrative and into the mechanics themselves. You can save scum if you really must, you can min-max for every check by juggling your items (and as much as I usually love gearing up, that part is admittedly a little out of place), but the game embraces the “fail forward” philosophy beloved of tabletop games. When you fuck up, and you will, events can still progress in unexpected ways. Yes, you can fail at the most trivial actions and die embarrassing deaths, but you can also succeed in the face of ridiculous adversity. The weak intellectual suddenly spin-kicking the man mountain into submission. The slow-witted bruiser dismantling a suspect’s alibi. Disco Elysium is a pen-and-paper campaign writ large, literally, if you take into account that the devs used their own campaign setting as a basis, but also in the sense that the dice are king and can bring glory or disaster.
Ultimately you, the player, can juggle conflicting explanations for the various failures the city of Revachol was built upon: the revolution, the “cursed” commercial district, even the detective’s own relationships. And ultimately you, the player, may come to the realisation that having an answer is only part of the story: the real objective is to move on, and to do the best you can with what you have left. Solving the case and moving on to the next.