Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
I’ll start with this. You’re sitting on a swing set with your partner from a rival precinct, Lieutenant Kitsuragi. You’re swathed in a dark, aquaphobic cloak, layered over a threadbare pullover, a garish, multi-coloured tie weighs your neck like a noose. Wind pools in from the east, sweeping down the hill into the salt-crusted glacier below you. The glacier’s sanctuary is unmade by the modernite chassis of a motor carriage, half submerged, half-frozen.
The swing shifts beneath you. The unspeakable relief of being cradled by gravity cools your mind. Lieutenant Kitsuragi whistles a tune. Melancholy. Perfect. You join him and harmonise. Two birds on a wire, whistling by the seaside. Looking at the water. And a sunken car.
Pat, this is a letter to convince you to play Disco Elysium. Describing Disco Elysium is at odds with the artwork itself: the game is an isometric 2.5D conversation role-play game. You play as Detective Harrier Du Bois, a man so tortured by loss than he has lost his memory while on the case to solve a murder. But that very description is the antithesis of the very thing Diso Elysium becomes. Disco Elysium is ineffable.
So, instead, like the impact of a great loss or tremendous cavity, I will describe the edges of the thing for you.
Disco Elysium is underpinned by its stats system, where you invest skill points to level up various attributes. Rather than statistical bonuses in combat or additional abilities, skills in Disco Elysium empower the voices in Harry’s head. Invisible checks occur in the background of every conversation, presenting themselves on success by talking back to you. Need to work out the size of a boot print in the ground? No problem, visual calculus has you covered. Want to know if someone’s lying? Empathy’s your man.
This time I rolled a Harry Du Bois so intune with emotions and feeling that it burned a purple chasm within him, feeling all so deep that the trueness of his emotions rended his mind from reality. My Harry sensed the coming apocalypse and knew it was real. Felt the dreams in the waking, mind swimming with toxins of The Pale and The Inland Empire. He was so intune with his feelings he lost touch with the world.
My first playthrough, I was a logic machine, capable of reciting endless facts and owning losers with logic. However you play Harry, the work of the game is to think through the murder at hand. You, the player, are doing the detecting. The problem solving. The theory-crafting. And the game lets you test these theories by interrogating folks, connecting random thoughts.
The game’s structure finds you wandering the streets of this crumbling town by the seaside. Searching for clues: of course. Hoping to stumble onto a lead: certainly. It can be boring, sometimes, but that’s… sort of the thing. When you reach a dead end in your investigation you have to bumble around, talking to random people, offering to help with random tasks, and eventually you’ll stumble back into the investigation.
Every lead feels hard-won because you’re overcoming genuine adversity to do so. Whether that’s winning back someone’s favour after drunk Harry fucked up their hotel room or convincing a traumatised woman to talk about what happened to her. There are no easy wins in Disco. Sometimes bulling through to obtain a lead is a bad idea: forcing someone to tell you where their friend is can break them, turn them against you. Convincing an aloof socialite to help you can draw a divide between yourself and the union boss you’re relying on for intel.
I should say too, that Disco is richly political. Marx is present in every frame, grappling with the push and pull of capitalism and society. Revachol experienced a failed revolution sometime ago, impossibly distant but recent. You stand among silent motor carriages, lining the streets like an accident in a graveyard, a testament to the stagnation and the progress. Talking to folks about the revolution is insightful and tragic. No one won in the end. Even those who didn’t support the revolution are destitute, living in the ruined city they can’t afford to repair. Living quite literally under the eye of the decaying ideology of the revolution.
More than the police work and brilliant implementation of skills, the magic of Disco is its sincerity. Writing cynical games is easy: nihilism is popular for obvious reasons. When most of us grew into games, they were unpopular. There was nothing sexy or cool about piling into your friends downstairs room with three Xbox consoles and ten friends to play Team Slayer on Blood Gulch. So games, for a while, became snarky. Mean spirited. Capturing the teen angst of so many and converting it into one liners and badarses who don’t look at explosions and talk like Mal Reynolds from Firefly.
But Disco aims for something loftier: it’s real, Pat. It gets the miasmic interconnected web of strangeness that erupts from trauma. It gets that embarrassment can, and will, literally kill you if you let it. It gets that the voices in your head aren’t always right and disagree with each other. The honest, raw simplicity of Harry’s problems are stretched wide over the city of Revachol like a bank of grey, pregnant clouds. Threatening to storm and soak the streets, but never quite managing to rain, not really.
Good art deserves consumption. You should play this video game. You should wait until dusk has settled and the last of the sun trickles through the blinds. Pour a beer, dim the lamps, and delve into the salvietic war torn streets of a forgotten city at the end of things where time forever circles the drain. The end is forever close, the great blackening when all will dissolve into its most basic elements, you need only look beyond the Pale.