Review: Disco Elysium

This post contains spoilers for the 2019 video game Disco Elysium.

And we drink / ever notice how drinking’s like war / cup o’ troops o’er the gums / to the end of our health, a campaign ‘gainst myself / armed with bourbons and scotches and rums

— Moxy Früvous, The Drinking Song

It was the spring of 2003, and two days before graduating from college I decided to try booze. I’d had cider and beer before, but wasn’t much of a drinker; this would be my first foray into the hard stuff, and I wanted to make it count.

I logged onto the Something Awful forums in search of advice. After consulting the sages I decided on the following lineup:

  1. Gin and tonic 
  2. Rum and coke
  3. Bushmills whiskey
  4. Jägermeister

I hit up the just-off-campus liquor store and brought the haul back to the Japan house dorm. I took pictures for the SA thread, and got started. 

I discovered that of the four the Bushmills was my favorite, and passed the next several hours in pleasant stages of online inebriation. About two-thirds through the bottle, it decided sleep was happening and I fell into bed.

I woke up at 3:30 AM, staggered to the bathroom, and mostly made it to the toilet before my insides were outside.

Two days later I walked across the graduation stage, still hung over, and received an empty diploma case. I had too many incompletes; it wouldn’t be until the end of the summer that I actually graduated.

I had to have the diploma mailed to me, since by that time I’d already started teaching English in Japan.

Disco Elysium is a game about violence.

It’s about the violence that a man does to himself, to his friends, to strangers, to his lover, to society.

It’s about the violence that they do to him.

It’s about the violence of systems. It’s about the sparks that fly when they clash, and the collateral damage that comes when ideas with guns explode against each other.

It’s about imperialism, and capitalism, and nihilism, and sexism, and racism.

It’s about the end of the world.

It’s about getting fucking wasted, and what happens after.

Hung (over)

In Disco Elysium you take the role of an amnesiac police detective. We’ll call him Harry.

As Harry you’re tasked with two primary objectives: solving the murder of a mercenary caught between two sides of a trade union dispute, and reconstructing your shattered psyche in the aftermath of an apocalyptic bender.

You take the figurative role of a mech pilot sitting inside Harry’s head, tugging at the levers of his conflicting impulses as you try to pull together the facts of what happened in the lead up to a morning of dull, aching sobriety.

Harry’s a real piece of work, it turns out. Somewhere on the far side of middle age, strung out on any number of substances, stewing in a compounded mess of his own making that you’ll sift through to see if there’s anything left to save.

The fact that this man could do anything but lay down and die after the amount of violence he’s endured is nothing short of miraculous.

And yet, here you are.

The privilege of being Harry

This question echoes over the course of the game: why are you here? Why does Harry get a second chance, when so many others don’t? After committing sin upon sin, why is Harry allowed to persist?

As you roam the town asking intrusive questions and scrounging in rubbish bins, looking for clues and pieces of your past, a pattern starts to emerge.

Harry’s not alive through skill or luck, though he’s good enough at his job and has better fortune than most. No, our Harry has squandered every advantage he has, coasted on raw skill well past the breaking point, deliberately running out his luck many times over.

No, the game tells us; this one’s no mystery. It turns out you can be a pretty colossal fuckup — that you can get away with an awful lot when you’re a cop.

Harry’s bizarre behavior is explained away as the madness of an idiot savant. “A genius detective works in strange ways,” people say, as you turn over their dressers looking for loose change.

The privilege of Harry’s office saved his life, and is in passive effect every second of the game. The freedom you enjoy as an erratic, possibly insane detective is built on the reputation of your badge, and the inevitable power of state-sanctioned violence that lurks behind it.

Inherent in the system

The amnesia of a bad hangover does more than just make Harry an ignorant audience proxy, or a blank slate for you to customize. Disco Elysium lets you ask some far more fundamental questions.

“What is money, anyway?” you can ask, upon learning that you’re deep in debt for trashing the hotel where you’ve been staying. And you won’t like the answer. The game’s economy is viscerally meager, and only becomes less so if you’re willing to abuse your cop status to shake people down.

If you don’t abuse that power, the first few in-game days become dominated by the constant need to find enough money to afford a place to sleep. You’ll have to scrounge for bottles to recycle if you want to buy anything, and to get debt-free, you have to sell yourself higher up the food chain.

As an officer of the citizen’s militia you’re placed between vying political factions, and are asked to both witness and enact violence in their name. You’ll see who ends up getting their hands dirty in the process, and spoilers: it’s never the bosses.

The real devil of it all is that the bosses make a pretty good case for themselves. The smart, savvy, impeccably liberal corporate rep; the pragmatic, conniving, deal-making union boss. Both charismatic examples of meritocracy in their own way; both, ultimately, masking the violence of their ideologies.

Which master will you choose, and how loyal will you be? You have some time to think, but the choice is inevitable.

Slowing down

Time in Disco Elysium is a funny thing. In the game’s retro-futuristic setting most communication is verbal and face to face; an aging world for an aging man. And the action is equally slow; deliberate; sequential.

A conceit of the game is that time isn’t measured by space; it’s measured by interaction. You can walk across the map without a second passing; you can stop anywhere safely and just be without worrying that you’ll miss something.

Conversely, interacting with the world inexorably moves the clock forward. Every moment spent with others is precious, ephemeral, representative of a choice made and a path deliberately taken. 

The game knows this, and is forgiving; failure is soft and inevitable, and flows forward in a cadence alongside success that invites the player to experience it without reloading.

Like a good drug, Disco Elysium extends an invitation: a doorway to another frame of reference, another experienced possibility space. A slower reality, where actions and their consequences occur in sequence and must be processed in real time, not overlaid in a frenetic synaptic cascade of sensation.

The cleverness is that both you the player — and Harry the avatar — can experience this, depending on your choices. Sobriety is a hell of a trip.

Think; feel

And as it progresses, also like a good drug, the story of Disco Elysium invites you to loosen. To unclench the tight knot of feelings in your core, feelings that you can’t articulate and have metastasized over time under that same onslaught of new information. Just slow down. Take things one by one. Process. Feel. Let it out.

In this, the game feels present, intentional.

You can’t save the world. You can’t offer others more than a reprieve from their suffering. You can’t, arguably, save yourself.

Violence defines your relations in stark, sober ways. But you can choose how to orient yourself within it.

You can’t bring revolution alone; no one can. You can’t bring salvation.

You’re not ready to love. Not yet.

But you can start planting the seeds.

The end?

The story of Disco Elysium contains only a handful of physical conflicts; and yet, it might be the most violent video game I’ve ever played.

The violence is enacted at the most intimate scale as Harry confronts his own inner demons — literally and metaphorically — bargaining with his body and brain and organ systems, confronting the damage he’s done to himself through drug and alcohol abuse.

The violence is emotional, in lies and love and hurt, the rough textures of interacting lives.

The violence is everyday, inescapable, systemic.

Racial violence; class-based violence; gendered violence. Implicit and explicit biases, hatreds and fears, power imbalances and struggles of ideology and material control.

All set against the backdrop of a war-scarred city where life somehow survives.

All at a slow, deliberate pace that confronts you and asks you to choose every step of the way. 

The violence of age; the violence of time.

The conflict of a man against himself in a flawed world.

And yet a world where hope springs through the cracks, where a vision for a better world is possible.

And where urgent mysteries threaten to make everything — the whole scope and scale of history — completely trivial in the face of the end.

So yeah, that’s Disco Elysium.

You should probably play it, if you haven’t yet.