Disco Elysium: Slipping Into Annihilation

Games Mar 23, 2020

Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.

Detective Harry Du Bois is a man in desperate, clawing pursuit of meaning. He’s described as the human can-opener: a man who, despite his unusual methods, gets result like no one else — but at a cost.

As I rounded out my playthrough of Disco I started to question what it was, precisely, that drives Harry’s need to investigate.

Because investigation it is not a desire for Harry.

He needs to get to the bottom of the case, he needs to get to the heart of the citizens of Revachol, to uncover the meaning behind their actions and quirks, and he cracks them all open, one by one.

That things in Disco have meaning and depth is somewhat the point of the game, and forms a natural fulcrum where Harry and the player’s desires intersect.

Destruction and creation are intrinsically linked in Revachol. Harry’s memory is obliterated during the investigation of the end of a life, giving way to the creation of a partnership with Kim, the reclamation of confidence — and in the end, stumbling across spontaneous meaning from the primordial ooze of unconnected events.

Even the deterioration of the union’s relationship with its workers finds itself creating opportunity for money to be made, relationships to be forged. All ultimately doomed to end in blood, of course.

I’m reminded of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the initial four novels at least. King’s opus is an exploration of a world where things have moved on. The world has already ended, it seems, and yet the characters in our story must go on. They must continue their lives. They must continue their journey. They must forge new friendships. They must all in love. They must continue.

And while comparable in world count to King’s novels, Disco approaches these themes less directly.

Waking up with no memory and a world-ending hangover, the initial work of Disco is to piece together the world and yourself — to understand what is happening, to whom, and why.

Gradually, as Harry talks to people and forms relationships, he colours in the details and things reveal themselves. The complex web of politics between Claire’s union and the scabs and the mercenaries becomes the minefield you must navigate.

As the game grows in complexity, so too does the detailing of Revachol and Maritnaise.

This is a town where everything is already finished.The revolution is over. Seemingly trade and commerce have crumbled to a standstill. The world, the heartbeat of the city — the thing Harry can feel in his bones — is decayed, failed. And yet so is Harry.

This is why I find Shivers is the most interesting part of Disco. Harry feels at one with Revachol — that a living, breathing man can empathise with a place living in the twilight after the end — that it helps Harry to feel the city in his bones, is perhaps the point of Disco’s ambiguity and setting.

Harry is in search of meaning. A late game dream sequence speaks to this in detail. Just after a violent shootout, Harry travels to the island, the only place where a lead on the case remains. Still rattled from the violence, he lays down for a quick sleep.

Then he wakes, and walks out onto the water. There he finds something akin to the sidewalk outside of an airport departure lounge or a train station. What follows is an agonising discussion between Harry and his ex — a woman who lives as a literal deity in his mind’s eye.

If you’ve had those very difficult conversations at the end of relationships, you’ll recognise this dream for its authentic awkward tempo. Almost every dialogue option you have is stilted or uncomfortable. Harry can’t seem to say the right thing. There is no way to talk your way into understanding what is happening. No matter how hard Harry tries, he gets nothing. No insight. No deep understanding of why this is happening. There is no great machination at play, no hidden depth, no buried truth — she is leaving, that is all.

And suddenly Harry’s drive to grapple the world into submission comes into focus. Harry has spent the rest of the game digging his hands into the people of Revachol. One way or another, Harry peels away lies and obscurity to reveal the deep humanism within the people around him. He seeks to understand not just what they have done, but why. Everything must have an explanation. At his core, Harry seeks to fill the empty place — the heart of him, the secret place where he has not accepted that some things do not have answers. Not everything can be solved.

To this point, there is a door on a beach. A door on a beach Harry cannot open. It is a door to a bunker, and it cannot be opened.

No matter how hard you try, this door does not give in to Harry. Trying to open the door provides you a thought to internalise.


God dammit, it cannot be. A disgrace! That door on the coast… you remember the one, right? The one that leads to the abandoned supply depot? Why, in the name of all that’s holy, does it not open? *Why*?! There *has* to be a way to get through that unopenable door. By gods, you’re the police — all doors are supposed to open before you. What will the others at the precinct think if you can’t open a goddamn door? There must be a way.

After thinking on it, the thought crystallises into a realisation: not all doors open.


There is no way to open the supply depot door. Accept it. You cannot open *all the doors*. You have to integrate this into your character. Some doors will forever remain closed. Even if every single other door will open at one time or another, maybe to a key, or maybe to some sort of tool meant for opening doors… But this one will never accede to such commands. A realization crucial to personal growth. Crucial.

Crucial to personal growth — pivotal, for Harry. He cannot reason his ex into staying no more than he can open every door, and relinquishing control is the key, the thing, and the key is always the thing.

So it’s small wonder that Harry encounters something beyond comprehension on the island.

The Cryptid is, after all, the ultimate door that cannot be opened. It is inexplicable, unobtainable, and preternaturally out of Harry’s grasp.

Yes, he can seek to understand it. Speak with it about the nature of life and reality, but where Harry can crack people wide open, there is nothing to reveal with the Crytpid — it does not adhere to time and logic in the ways Harry and people do. The cryptid simply is, standing amongst the reeds in direct opposite to Harry’s beliefs about reality.

Harry can bring to bear the many tools of his mind to understand the world, but ultimately the one thing he cannot accept is that it is his mind, in his control. No amount of substance can bleach this truth from Harry.

To accept this truth is to accept there is nothing he could have done to keep his ex, and nothing he can do to change the way people think. It is, in a way, relinquishing the foundation of what makes him good at his job.

To exchange happiness for productivity — to exchange happiness for purpose, this is the rub.

Maybe this is the end Harry senses. Not the end of the world, but the end of his reality, some rift in his perception, of the foundation of his personhood.

Disco Elyisum is about an awful lot of things, and I could (and probably will) be writing about it for the foreseeable future. But this slow end — for Harry, for the world, for reality — is the canvas on which the story is painted.

The truth of Harry is the lie at the heart of his unique mind, and the very same thing that threatens to kill him, one bottle at a time.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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