Video games have been historically written off when it comes to the quality of writing. Sure, having an interesting idea is one thing, but how many games are able to pull it off with dialogue that can double as a literary masterpiece? I am personally guilty of turning away from games when I want a good (read: well-written) story. I’d rather pick up a book or watch a movie, for I am almost certain that prose is rarely going to be a video game’s strong suit.
Disco Elysium brings something to games rarely seen in this medium – literary credibility. With its sprawling dialogue that is indulgent, captivating and occasionally hilarious, I would go so far as to call it a landmark step towards cementing games as an art form. In this sense, it was more than a pleasant surprise; it was a revitalizing of my faith in games as a medium to tell moving, gripping stories.
But enough about the quality of writing. What I wanted to talk about in this piece were the broad themes of Disco Elysium that make it the work of genius that it is. Spoilers follow.
TW: mentions of suicide
A Sense of Melancholy
Disco Elysium is steeped in pensive sadness. Harry Du Bois is a suicidal addict, and his life has been steadily going downhill for a long time, finally kicked into overdrive after a painful separation six years ago. In the time since, nothing has changed for the better. He finds himself in Revachol – a city quite literally torn apart in a communist uprising against the monarchy, which in turn was crushed by intervening foreign powers (the Coalition). With its drab, grey streets, and omnipresent monuments to the war – a crater beside a street, walls marked with Revolution-era bullet holes – Revachol too stands defeated; stuck in limbo, rife with corruption and poverty.
It is no coincidence then that a broken man finds himself in a broken city. Everyone in Revachol longs for the past. René recalls with a misguided sense of glory the times of the fascist monarchy, spewing bile at the state of governance in the present. Then there is The Deserter, who is quite literally a symbol of the past – stuck in a different era, looking in from the outside. And Harry – spiraling downwards for the past 6 years after the end of his relationship with Dora. All these men would much rather go back to times long gone than live in the present.
The beauty of Disco Elysium comes from the simple concept of choice.
The Power of Choice
With its blend of point-and-click adventure and interactive fiction, Disco Elysium presents one of the perfect scenarios to integrate branching dialogue. And it does that exceedingly well.
As promised in the game’s tagline, you have the choice to be a law-abiding moralist or a depraved fascist. Based on the scenarios, your dialogue choices can range from hating on immigrants to confronting racists – and those choices change you. Elysium uses your own political compass in a unique way to project your beliefs onto this blank slate of a character that you’re presented with at the start of the game. The Final Cut also introduces politically themed ‘vision quests.’ Based on the leanings you display in the game, you can end up with a moralist, communist or even a fascist-based quest.
Ultimately, this guides the way you complete your tasks in the course of the investigation, the alliances you form, and the people you trust (or don’t). An understated implication of free will is the power to mould yourself into a better person. Harry Du Bois may be depressed and of a particularly bleak outlook on life, but he can also go out of his way to help a working-class woman find her missing husband – if you choose to do so.
This persistent choice between being stuck in the past and moving on in the world, seeing the beauty in the little moments and connections we form with others plays out a perfect parallel for real life. Disco Elysium for me is more than just tragedy, or the heartwrenching moments of despair – it’s the midnight walk to the edge of the sea with Lilienne, the magical moment you come across the Insulindian Phasmid, and the desperate shout to save Kim’s life.
Harry’s battle to be better is highlighted by his internal struggle – a never-ending barrage of opinions and verdicts delivered by 24 facets of his personality. This internal monologue both guides and obstructs Harry’s investigation, depending on the points you’ve sunk into that particular attribute. I found myself projecting my own personality onto the character, and as a result my decisions were also inevitably tinged with my ideologies. Disco Elysium gently nudges you into doing this – and pulls the rug out from under your feet with its political critique.
No matter what side speaks more to you – ultraliberal, moralist, communist or fascist (I sincerely hope not) – the point Elysium labours at making is highlighted by its scathing critique of each. During my playthrough, a socialist workers’ union striking against a multinational corporation felt like the ‘right’ side to support in theory – until I discovered the sickening corruption at the top, and the totalitarian control it exerted over the district through its personal brand of vigilantism. This game makes you realize the just-as-likely darker sides to your preferred ideology.
Disco Elysium is no fast-paced shooter or an edge-of-your-seat thriller. It is akin to a novel, and rewards patience over instant gratification. The soundtrack is downright haunting and couldn’t fit the setting any better. Inhabit its world of memorable characters, riveting politics, and a gripping murder-mystery (which, apologies, hardly got a mention in this piece) – and chances are you’ll come out a different person at the other end. And that is not something I can say about many games.
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