Disco Elysium’s History Is Its Only Certainty
Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
I don’t think it’s rocket science to suggest that Disco Elysium, a text-focused, choice-rich RPG soars or sinks on its writing.
The gameplay loop is essentially a point and click adventure with huge, deep dialogue trees in-between walking around.
These dialogue trees are literary, with a capital L. From debates about radical race theory to the nature of reality itself, Disco offers a wide span of topics. Some are goofy, dumb discussions — one in which you must contend with a seemingly brain-dead rocker named Egghead comes to mind — others approach Lacan in their needling examination of society.
The nature of these topics mean some conversations consist of paragraph after paragraph of musings, with the only options in dialogue amounting to “tell me more” or “I’m done with this conversation.”
Depending on where you’ve focused your skillpoints and progression, invisible checks will succeed and reward you with unique insights or options. Your skills and insights speak to you as voices in your head. It’s extremely cool — sometimes they argue with each other, disagree, or even mislead you.
The game is at its best when these checks fire off in combination and lead to small, beautiful moments that feel somehow organic, improvised.
This is one of my favourites, which I took a picture of and texted to a friend.
This is a very strange moment in any other game — you are effectively doing nothing. Literally sitting, waiting for ice to melt.
It’s not particularly “fun” to sit around and wait for the ice to melt, but it’s beautiful none-the-less.
Because Disco doesn’t have a “gameplay” mechanic exactly. Any information about the world is delivered via written text. There’s no “lore” tab in the pause menu. You can invest in encyclopedia, a skill that allows your character to recall, in vivid clarity, facts about the world which you inhabit. This often manifests in long blocks of text detailing historical events — it’s really cool when a character mentions a person or place, and you can learn all about it and proceed in the conversation, armed with this knowledge.
Or you can focus on savoir faire and use your charm to have characters explain the world to you.
Regardless, the world is eventually revealed to you if you care to learn about it. Disco’s world is full of jaded, crest-fallen leftists and arm-chair fascists — in the wake of a failed revolution, even ideologies and zealots feel half-hearted, broken.
The past glitters through the objective recollection provided by the Encyclopedia skill — these facts, the things you learn about the world, though sometimes grizzly, feel firm and certain. This contrasts delicately with the game’s story and central mystery, which feels like trying to build a house on quicksand.
Trying to piece together Revachol’s history and how it relates to Harry and Kim feels like assembling an ever-expanding puzzle. The edges grow further away, and seemingly the more the game reveals, the less certain it feels that everything “will be okay” in the end.
Because Disco’s world is not a pleasant one.
Harry is not a nice guy. One moment highlighted my own willingness to feed into Harry’s selfishness. The sticky, clamouring bitterness of the world got to me.
On a dock by a depressing fishing village stands a single pay phone.
You can drop in some coins and dial a random phone number.
What ensued was a bizarre conversation where I spoke to a man and accidentally told him I was sleeping with his wife.
I called back a few more times and watched in morbid curiosity as Harry continued to make things worse and worse. It was a surreal series of interactions that made me feel sick.
Even the competent sidekick isn’t crushing it.
Kim has had a hard life. He can’t see for crap, people are really racist toward him.
Capitalism has gutted the world of any goodwill it once had in a violent, almost predictive cycle that is so close to reality that it can feel uncomfortable in places.
Yet for all its melancholy and anguish, everyone carries on.
You still have a job to do. People still need to go to their jobs, and they drink and eat and sing karaoke. They buy silly clothes.
In a state of permanent heartbreak, things plod along, littered with moments of spontaneous beauty.
The ending of Disco, which I won’t spoil here, speaks to the existential truism articulated well in the final season of Bojack Horseman: life sucks, and then sometimes you keep living.
The quiet oblivion of Disco Elysium is less a place to escape to, and more a reminder that even when we are not okay, we will eventually be something else, because the only constant is change.