Spoilers for Disco Elysium (computer game) and The Sexy Brutale (computer game).
Let me prefix everything that I am about to write with this: I really enjoyed Disco Elysium (henceforth DE) and was glued to it for a week over Christmas, thanks to the generosity of a friend who gave it to me as a gift. The script was engrossing and scintillating where it mattered, the occasional tedious expo-dump and lies/lays confusion notwithstanding, and the creators had clearly worked hard to ensure that even personal failure can be turned into narrative success. The slightly snarky political commentary was fun, too, and even if the creators’ political allegiances were clear, they had not entirely spared their own convictions from the game’s treatment.
But we are not here to talk about all that: we are here to examine the dense, detailed, highly developed world-building, and discover why it is actually bad for the story.
The game starts with a powerful spin on what could otherwise be a pair of hackneyed framing devices: the character creation system and the opening scene. The former involves allocating points to aspects of the PC’s self, but nothing so humdrum as STRENGTH and CHARISMA or GUILE or whatever, but Logic, Rhetoric, Physical Instrument, Inland Empire, and so on, effectively creating a cabinet of psychodrama, a team of invisible NPCs, facets of the PC’s self, with which he has extended dialogues throughout the game. The second framing device is PC amnesia, which forces us to do some digging to find out about the world, and what a lot to unearth there is! Tyrannies and revolutions and drugs and disco and the encroaching annihilation of the universe.
The game delights in keeping the player uncertain for as long as possible, implying (and letting the character assert repeatedly) that what is experienced is not real. The typical world-building device of using real-world cultures to inspire fictional ones runs rampant through DE. That, combined with thinly veiled pastiches to real-world people, like Karl Marx, and references to real-world phenomena like communism and disco music, plants the firm idea into the player’s head that the game is essentially allegorical, not only from where the player sits, but also from where the PC sits. After all, his perception of reality is explicitly warped as a result of some combination of psychological trauma, physical trauma, and substance abuse.
The feeling I got from DE was very much like that of The Sexy Brutale (TSB), in that I felt that I was being set up for an earth-shattering revelation at the end of the game which would force me to reinterpret (and replay!) the entire thing in order to understand it all in a new light. It simply could not be the case, I reasoned, that I would be asked to play a game about a fictional universe which just so happened to have experienced communist revolutions, failed international super-states, and disco.
Thus, with the universe being, explicitly, a different take on our own, and the protagonist’s own take on reality being expressly different from those around him, how can the player fail to prepare for a twist of some kind, whether it be all a dream, a dying man’s flashback, a drug-and-madness-induced perceptual filter of some kind, or the like? The encroaching Pale and the regular restatement of the same, or similar, sets of numbers (72% is both the probability of the shot coming from the roof outside Klaasje’s window and the financial growth for which Joyce is responsible, for example), the references to real-world pop songs and David Lynch films, they all reinforce the PC’s intense desire to see patterns and links everywhere, whilst straining the player’s ability to believe that this is all “real” from the characters’ perspective. Thus, given that the writing is so good, the only other option is to assume that the game world is not real from the PC’s perspective, that he in fact inhabits “our world” instead.
Alas, where I underestimated TSB, I overestimated DE. Although it is incredibly well presented, re-presenting 19th and 20th Century history, just with all the names changed, is not good world-building. Good story-telling, yes; original world, not so much. That said, consideration of a different scientific paradigm is handled more compellingly (the Pale, other energy sources, different shape for the world), as is – and I remain pleasantly surprised by this fact – the take on explicitly non-theistic religion, clearly inspired by the Cult of Reason.
DE would, in my opinion, have been better served by going the whole hog and eagerly embracing the extent of its artistic pretensions, because it was those which engaged me in the first place. Without them, we are left with a rather hum-drum whodunnit, which – as is always the case – we cannot reasonably be expected to solve because the game world actively conspires to prevent us from accessing the areas and characters we require until we have jumped through the mandatory failures given to us by the story, a perennial problem of crime fiction. Thus, when I got to the island, I was oblivious to the fact that I was actually in the game’s climactic stage. I interviewed a character I had never before met, read through his deep (but copious and expo-dumpy) dialogue trees, encountered a mythical insect, and thought to myself right, now it’s time to go back the mainland, and uncover the final twist in the tale that will allow me to make sense of all this, but that never happened. The culprit is removed from the story at the same moment that he is introduced. His motives and actions all make perfect sense in terms of the story, but his character simply does not have the time or space on the story’s stage to have any impact. It all made sense, but it was not satisfying. His apprehension did not feel as though it was significant, because the game’s story had been stressing the importance of the PC’s psychic turmoil, for which the investigation was only a backdrop.
So it was that I returned to the mainland, was given a brief summary of my actions by some more NPCs who had been largely irrelevant in terms of the story, and was then told that there was no mystery at all. I was an eccentric and an amnesiac with a lot of unresolved emotional and chemical damage, and that was that. The intense, colourful psychodrama ended with neither a bang, nor a whisper, but a non-committal shrug and a ‘Who, me? I’m not involved in this story, matey!’ I was deeply disappointed. I felt that I had been robbed of a closing act to what had been, until that moment, a gripping narrative.
So, what can we learn from all this? Well, I have learned that it is quite hard to write a funny article about a game that revels in its own nonsense. Moreover, it might be that I am simply not sufficiently acquainted with the New Weird, on which DE appears to draw, but it seems to miss the mark, narratively speaking, at the last moment. It is, in that sense, a foil to TSB, which was undermined by gameplay oversights.
When constructing worlds and narratives, the author implicitly makes promises from the outset about certain kinds of resolutions: there can be twists and turns along the way, but the focus must remain on the ideas highlighted by the framing devices. TSB does this, because even though we only find out the truth of our actions at the end of the game, the twist feeds directly back into the narrative arc of the game itself.
In TSB, for example, we glimpse Gold Skull, a manifestation of our self-loathing, at certain moments in the game. At the end, he forces us to confront the truth at the heart of the casino: the player discovers that Gold Skull, Lucas, the King in Red, and Lafcadio Boone are all one and the same. By this point, the player has had time to explore the casino, to think about it all, and even though Lucas – like the Deserter – is only met right before the end, the player is made aware of his presence and importance from the opening scene of the game, whereas the existence of the Deserter is always obfuscated by red-herrings and in-game restrictions.
The sense of closure is thus also very different: Boone/Lucas has to come to terms with, and let go of, his self-destructive mania, whilst acknowledging that the pain and the guilt may never leave him. The closing moments of the game are comprised of him, in his casino, with the voice of his dead wife ringing in his ears . The game has been about him, and so its resolution is his resolution, cathartic and touching, no matter how many questions it might leave unanswered.
In contrast, Du Bois is simply told, ‘Yeah, this has happened before. Let’s get you back to the station and you’ll sober up’, and that’s that. All his pain and confusion, his unresolved guilt and loss, his possible mental illness, possible surreal genius, are all just shrugged off on the pier, a place with minimal symbolic value to the story, by people with minimal input to the story (our trusty lieutenant excepted). What could have been a moment of redemption/final damnation, whether physical or metaphysical, is instead swallowed up by a second, massive expo-dump, which is foisted on a player likely still reeling from the expo-dump churned out by the Deserter and the phasmid.
That is not to say that DE‘s writers were wrong to insist on this kind of materialist ending. In fact, it might be that, had I not tried to be a reasonable person, the ending would have chewed me out for trying to take refuge in madness. Perhaps it would have said, ‘We don’t all have the option to escape, Harry! This world is all that we have, and it’s time for you to remember, and accept responsibility for the here-and-now’. Perhaps the boring ending I got was the game’s final, fourth-wall-breaking ‘Well, here you go, then!’ tongue-in-cheek gift. I doubt it, though, and even if it is the case, I think it is a poor narrative decision.
The only interpretation which mitigates this for me, even if only slightly, is an understanding of the game’s story as being about the effects of social forces, especially ideology, upon people. The Deserter’s identity is unimportant, it is who he is as an expression of his ideology and the ideological forces that have worked upon him that make him important. This is, indeed, a theme which is present throughout the game’s story, but it is so subdued that as a cathartic device (rather than an intellectual one), it is useless, and as a narrative device, couched in reams and reams of sleep-inducing exposition, it is dull.
Compare these with the psychological or metaphysical themes primed for resolution in the estranged wife, the encroaching Pale (surely a canvas ripe for semiotic projection if ever there was one) or the necessity of escapism in a world gone mad, and it is easy to see how ‘angry communist shoots people from island until detective gets an unofficial psychiatric evaluation’ is somewhat underwhelming, even with the addition of the telepathic cryptid.
In summary, Disco Elysium might have a compelling sound to its narrative, and robust (if unimaginative) world-building foundations, but like its namesake, it clearly struggles with how to resolve itself, and so ends up simply repeating its mistakes as it fades out.