In this new video, we will analyze how “Disco Elysium” reinvents the CRPG genre, how it uses role-playing games as a tool to reflect on our identity, how our identity relates to our ideology and the role of labor exploitation in a capitalist world. Controversies! Quotes to intellectuals! Strange digressions!
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“Disco Elysium” is a role-playing video game that puts us in the shoes of an alcoholic, amnesiac detective who must solve a murder case in a fictional city still recovering from a civil war. The game is characterized by its skill-based dialogue system, branching narrative and multiple role-playing options. But beyond being a fun and original game, “Disco Elysium” is also a deep reflection on politics, identity and morality. In this video essay we will explore how the game invites us to question our own beliefs and values through its mechanics, characters and setting.
FOREWORD: WHAT IS A CRPG?
We call CRPGs specifically those role-playing games designed for computers. This difference may be arbitrary, but if we understand that “Dragon Quest” was a transposition of the early style of CRPG to video consoles, an adaptation that omitted the main obstacles to make it more accessible and enjoyable for a new audience and thus gave rise to what we know today as JRPG, it could be said that CRPG has some important distinctions.
The popular opinion is that CRPG encompasses everything the name implies: games inspired by role-playing boards and originally designed to be played on a personal computer. “The CRPG Book”, edited by Felipe Pepe and available as a free PDF, lists over 300 games ranging from dungeon crawlers to roguelikes to adventure games, immersive sims, strategy games, first person shooters, or games as unique as “Princess Maker 2”.
There does not seem to be a basic consistency among them beyond the emphasis on statistics and, in general, fantasy settings.
And yet, we understand well a difference with Action RPG or Tactical RPG. While the former hide their systems and rules from the player to focus on coordinating immediate responses based on their own skill, the latter do so to focus on a leisurely dance of unit positioning.
On the other hand, there are a number of RPGs that have sought to offer something like the complete package: combat, strategy, accessibility and, the least considered, the use of statistics as part of the narrative.
Perhaps one of the most paradigmatic examples of this narrative dependence on our stats is the use of Intelligence in “Fallout”. If we have decided, during character creation, to relocate our basic intelligence points to other skills in order to survive the Wasteland, conversations become somewhat different: our responses are barely guttural, and the reactions of NPCs go from feeling sorry for us or hating us to the point of confrontation, without the possibility of argument. Playing with an unintelligent character changes the gameplay experience.
It seems that, by focusing the design philosophy on a mechanic, we can comfortably talk about a genre, or, at least, a subgenre or a style. Just as we have mentioned on other occasions how the point of view influences our way of interacting with the medium, it is appropriate to talk about the isometric perspective.
The isometric perspective does not define a specific genre: action, strategy or driving games can incorporate it naturally, but it does serve to emphasize that we are in a position of control, on a diorama of which we have a particular range of vision on the stage that, rather than letting us inhabit the character, allows us to “control” him, putting a distance between him and the player, like a piece on a board.
This is partly for technical reasons when using pre-rendered scenery, but also because it provides an overview of the scene that encourages interaction with it, similar to the way adventure games do with their stall view. There is an important element in also making this experience somewhat less solitary, where battle companions are not mere pawns with a particular aesthetic that we throw in to die, but individuals with their own backstories and story arcs.
The antecedents are too many to name them all, but it can be said that the isometric CRPG began with “Baldur’s Gate”.
“Baldur’s Gate” was only BioWare’s second game after a moderate success with the tactical mecha game “Shattered Steel”. Although here the inspiration was the freedom to approach the same problem with different methods that “Wasteland” had done, just as its closest predecessor “Fallout” had done. But while the post-apocalyptic game devoted everything to a far-from-ideal turn-based combat, “Baldur’s Gate” executed a whole series of decisions and statistics without interrupting the action, unless the player pressed the space bar and paused to reorganize his strategy.
Both “Fallout” and “Baldur’s Gate” placed a lot of importance on how we defined ourselves in the story, what kind of character we would end up being was determined by the actions and decisions we made, and a general sense that the NPCs and our environment reacted to our changing attitudes and judged us based on their own moral systems.
The surprising success of “Baldur’s Gate” led to further use of the engine they had created specifically for this game: Infinity Engine. It saw an expansion for “Baldur’s Gate”, a sequel, an expansion of the sequel, another new series called “Icewind Dale”, with its corresponding expansion and sequel and, most importantly, “Planescape: Torment”.
We would wake up as a dried corpse in a morgue operated by strange priests and assisted by zombies. There is a talking skull. We soon discover that we are dead and, at the same time, immortal, in a city that floats between worlds, the crossroads of every portal to every multiverse. There is the familiarity of other Infinity Engine games here, but intentionally removed from any sword and sorcery clichés.
Inspired by none other than “Final Fantasy VII”, one can imagine the city of Sigil as Midgard and our protagonist as the same confused and amnesiac Cloud, not quite sure if he’s himself or a fragment of a larger creature, puppet of his will. It’s all very meta, but always within the subtext. There’s something very funny about our first guide and companion being not so unlike the skull Murray of the “Monkey Island” saga and the inevitable feeling of recognizing the game’s mechanics but feeling completely alienated by the setting.
With its amnesiac protagonist, “Planescape: Torment” allowed more exploration of its character’s psyche than, say, his physical strength or skill with magic. Our mission is not so much to defeat a great villain and become a hero as it is to discover who we really are. And, when we do so bit by bit, to deal with the consequences of our actions in life. It’s a brighter starting point than it sounds: not only do we receive immediate feedback on our actions during play time, but these actions inform the kind of person we have been and thus also modify our backstory. As if we can’t run away from our past… a past we just created in our present.
The game was developed this time by Black Isle Studios, fresh from “Fallout 2” and their philosophy implied the idea that the game could not only be completed in different ways but that each way had to be interesting in its own right. You can complete “Planescape: Torment” by just talking to characters and collecting and delivering items, or you can jump into combat and kill everything in sight. There’s no preference for one method or the other, but the 800,000 words of text that make up the game speaks to the titanic task of making a work so focused on its more narrative aspect.
It doesn’t matter whether our immortal protagonist is a man in search of redemption or a complete asshole who destroys everything in his path: the story, above all else, is riveting.
In 2002, Bioware would retire the Infinity Engine for a brand new 3D engine: the Aurora Engine. Although it originally served for the ambitious “Neverwinter Nights” saga, with the idea of creating a future where these games would have a complex system of mods and multiplayer that would give them a new life, soon the engine began to evolve in a similar and coherent direction, but very different from what Infinity had given.
The first “The Witcher” would be a remarkable game made with Aurora Engine, just as later more advanced engines would emerge that would give us “Knights of the Old Republic” or “Jade Empire”. The highlight would be “Dragon Age: Origins”, adapted for both PC and consoles, where it saw renewed success. Thus, the CRPG ended up being another console game, bolstered by the success of “Mass Effect”, but, with it, losing some of the narrative depth to focus on direct relationships (usually romantic) with our companions and more action and management elements.
There is no doubt that, by the time “Disco Elysium” began its development, CRPGs were experiencing a nostalgic renaissance with works such as “Shadowrun Returns”, “Divinity: Original Sin”, “Wasteland 2” or “Lords of Xulima”, entrenched in the subsequent releases of “Pillars of Eternity”, “Tyranny” and, more relevant to the type of game they were looking for, “Torment: Tides of Numenera”.
The latter sought to recreate the same feeling of waking up from a dream and trying to remember who we are that had made Planescape: Torment a cult game among narrative designers. While a laudable game, it was also somewhat more impenetrable and obtuse than usual. Coffee for very coffee drinkers.
So it was up to a small group of inexperienced Estonian developers to make the defining CRPG of the current era. And this is the story of how “Disco Elysium” was born.
PART I: THE DEVELOPMENT
At the age of 21, Robert Kurvitz, composer and singer of the Estonian progressive rock band Ultramelanhool, had an idea. The band was having trouble finding someone to release their album and their finances weren’t going too well. Drunk while listening to Dutch DJ Tiësto, the group, which included Argo Tuulik and Martin Liuga, came up with several ideas for a fictional world that perfectly reflected their mood at the time: a time and place where every avenue of escape seemed exhausted, surrounded by the ruins of the old Soviet Union while lacking any way to progress in this new world.
The spark that created this new fictional world, a perfect container for the kind of stories they wanted to tell and emotions to convey, invoked the idea of creating a role-playing system. To do so, they took as a reference a Finnish pirate copy based on Middle Earth, included in the group artists such as Aleksander Rostov.
Kurvitz would meet the controversial writer Kaur Kender during this period. Kender had risen to fame with her 2014 short novel “Untitled 12,” which chronicled the descent into madness of an anonymous member of Estonia’s elite as he fell prey to a spiral of sexual fantasies that kept increasing his desires. The anonymous protagonist was creating all kinds of perverse situations of sexual violence that were increasing in level, always able to evade responsibility thanks to his wealth.
Kender was put on trial, accused of creating child p**raphy, which spread the case through the media causing a national debate about the limits of fiction.
Although Kender was eventually acquitted of the charges, he had become a symbol of a radical and dangerous type of artist.
In that context, when Kender meets Kurvitz, Kurvitz encourages him to write a novel that would use that same setting that had been fermenting for years in amateur role-playing games. “Sacred and Terrible Air” would be published in 2013, selling only a thousand copies.
The novel is… interesting. In its English translation it is a very evocative piece, with a rich vocabulary that, however, depends on a significant level of knowledge of the particular world in which it is set, plus the added difficulty of incorporating unreliable narrators or hallucinatory sequences that do not help to clarify a somewhat weak plot.
It is the story of three friends who, 20 years after the disappearance of four girls from their school, find a clue that can help them clear up the mystery. Making use of a machine to read thoughts and dodging bureaucracy and police institutions, only to, little by little, find a bunch of contradictory information that reveals a much more sinister truth: perhaps their obsession with the missing girls is causing the end of the world.
I won’t go into more detail, but I found it a curious read. While it doesn’t reach the same quotas, one can see parallels here to Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace in the combination of fanciful elements, impossible names, and twisted verbal constructions that focus more on sonority and texture than on the story being told. And yet the story is more reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, “The Virgin Suicides,” or rather, as if John Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and the Strugatsky brothers’ “Roadside Picnic” were, in effect, the same picnic. In the novel, the disappearance of a group of four sisters causes an enormous impact on the young people who secretly loved them, creating a spiral of decadence that, as adults, leads them to contemplate the world as a haunting: as fascinating as it is dangerous, a nihilistic trap in a short summer dress. A mystery whose only possible solution is that reality and memory, both in continuous fluctuation, are playing a great cosmic joke on them.
Although the failure of the novel was a severe blow, Kurvitz managed to leave behind his growing alcoholism and helped his mentor Kender to do the same. Sober, Kender now proposed to Kurvitz that he try again to transfer the world he had created with his group to a more suitable format: the video game. Specifically, the isometric role-playing games of the Infinity Engine. Kurvitz started working on a proposal that would mix the detective shows of the 70’s with “Planescape: Torment”.
Under the provisional title “No Truce with the Furies”, Kurvitz and his team founded ZA/UM, an artistic collective from which to manage and promote the collective work of a group of anarchists through the same blog, among whose members was a very young Helen Hindpere, future co-writer of the game.
The proposal aroused the interest of some investors, especially Estonian businessman Margus Linnamäe, a multimillionaire involved in all kinds of businesses, from pharmaceuticals to beer, newspapers, metallurgy and actions as surprising as banning the purchase of popcorn in the country’s cinemas.
Kender sold his 17% stake to a new investor, Ilmar Kompus. Kompus had been a partner of Tonis Haavel, another businessman convicted of investment fraud who, upon Kompus’ incorporation, became listed as the game’s “executive producer.”
The investment agreement meant that, while these shareholders were to finance the development of the game, once the work was completed and launched, and in the event that it was economically profitable, the company’s shares would be distributed among the employees. This meant that Kurvitz, Rostov and Kender would regain power over this intellectual property.
During development, working with the Sea Power music band, Kurvitz considered moving the ZA/UM team from Estonia to London, with other international collaborators working remotely. From there, a subsidiary would be created with greater global operating capacity than from Estonia.
With a team of 30 people and a web of companies that was starting to get confusing, development took place between 2016 and 2019 using the Unity engine, with a few stumbles along the way given the team’s inexperience.
We’ll come back later in this same video to some of the facts of the development and subsequent release, but it’s worth moving on to talk about the game itself before we get lost in all the labor drama. For the moment, let’s just say that the conditions led to a long period of crunch with many internal tensions that initially called into question the management of Robert Kurvitz and would end up serving as a distraction for Kompus to take over the rights to the game… and the subsequent life of the game.
When the game was finally released, it became one of the biggest hits of the year. If not, of the decade. A mere glance at the artwork speaks for itself that it captivated so many gamers.
PART II: THE GAMEPLAY
“Disco Elysium” takes place in a city called Revachol, which was the scene of a communist revolution, crushed by an international coalition of neoliberal powers. The city is divided between different factions and social groups fighting for power, justice or survival.
We take the controls of a man who wakes up after the worst binge of his life, sore, bruised, remorseful enough to have forgotten his job, his mission, his purpose, his name or even his face. Shame permeates everything.
By the time we manage to pull ourselves together and leave our room, we soon realize where we stand: we are a detective tasked with investigating the public lynching of a man in the harbor area. A few more staggering steps and we meet our new partner assigned after our drunken disappearance: the stuffy but disbelieving Kim Kitsuragi.
What follows is less a police investigation and more a way to pick up the pieces of the person we were. As if it were “Apropos of Harry,” our temporary amnesia allows us to distance ourselves from the life we led so far and be able to see to what extent we can correct it or continue to pay for our sins.
The murder is less interesting than the world it reveals around it. A world full of crossed interests, fighting for the crumbs of scorched earth, conquered and dominated by economic elites who are not even aware of what is going on in the margins.
The main mechanics, as is obvious in an RPG, depend on dice rolls when making decisions that require us to meet a scale in our special skills.
Anyone who has played RPGs in person knows that one of the great pleasures is the actual act of rolling the dice. The best of plans can go awry in seconds:
In the early days of the medium, the transposition of board role-playing models to video games seemed to provide an opportunity to dispense with dice. Calculations were done by the machine itself, which instead returned statistics. Even those Infinity Engine CRPGs allow a sort of ticker-tape of the rolls we are making, which becomes a background noise before a real-time combat system but with pause mode that precisely sought to avoid the most mechanical aspect of role-playing games in favor of immersion.
Without the dice, the tendency to statistical values of our games tend to offer us rewards in the form of increasingly large numbers, which ends up leading to the worst vices of the genre, with excessive loot, strategies to maximize damage per second and other ways to turn a game into a struggle to break the systems of the machine and get the maximum advantage.
It would be worth rethinking whether the condition would not be the opposite. The break in the narrative of setting up a dice roll increases the tension by making our progress dependent on chance itself. It is a way of making clear to the player his lack of agency. An emphatic device.
One of my favorite examples is the use of coin rolls in the relentless “Fear & Hunger”, where any mistake becomes catastrophic, but who has best implemented the ideas presented here in “Disco Elysium” (with a touch of “Dicey Dungeons”) has been “Citizen Sleeper” by taking a step further in that direction: yes, dice rolls are out of your control, but they can also become a resource to manage in an elegant narrative design decision.
And the best thing is that those rolls allow you to fail. Not being able to resolve a situation because of a bad roll doesn’t mean that situation has been vetoed for us, but that we have opened up other ways to approach it. Sometimes, simply by adding a different dialogue at the end of a mistake, it stops looking like a problem and starts to look more like the flow of a narrative and its obstacles. And that is a great triumph because too many role-playing games are formulated with a single way of playing, but there is nothing more grateful than a dungeon master who knows how to improvise and adapt, who contemplates other possibilities of expression.
From the beginning of our adventure, Kim’s company becomes indispensable. If we only managed the detective, we would find ourselves free of any kind of pressure to solve the case. Our attitude as players tends to be experimental, we seek to see how we can find the limits of our area of play to accept as soon as possible that it belongs to the range of the possible and, from there, continue. If the game allowed us to be a constant failure without consequences, it would be presenting an idea completely opposite to its intentions.
Kim is our companion, but he is also our babysitter: he is there not only to get results but to oversee our actions, to the point that the game concludes in an epilogue where much of the decisions made in the adventure are questioned.
This makes him an authority figure, yes, but a fairly flexible one. Kim wants to do his job well, but being a cop on the beat means he’s dealt with enough injustice to put a dent in his centrist ideology: if this hungover sidekick can get results and even be a positive influence, we’ll be earning some of his respect and, by the time we want to realize it, his complicity… and a fandom obsessed with them kissing for once.
Pleasing Kim becomes an organic goal of the player, who wants to keep this Doctor Watson, this unperturbed Officer Spock happy without the game explicitly asking for it. Simply by pointing out a gesture of disapproval or acquiescence in the text, the player is subjected to the idea that, whatever he does, will have a reaction in Kim.
As conversations such as the ones we have with Evrart Claire and Joyce Messier show, we will encounter roll requirements that are much more demanding than we could originally achieve or dialogue options that only exist to indicate our protagonist’s lack of responses. These events are designed to make us fail, but in Kim’s company, they also mean disappointing him. In this way, even the most helpful of players will encounter some friction with Kim throughout the game.
But, even though these elements are pre-programmed, they never feel like we are being deprived of freedom. While developing the script for this video, I found myself playing “Baldur’s Gate 3.” At the beginning of the game, we are given the opportunity to either take advantage of the unconscious state of a companion, Shadowheart, to steal a mysterious gadget from her or wake her up. I chose the former with the suspicion that this was not what the game wanted me to do. Immediately, our companion awakens and prevents us from having obtained new information. It doesn’t matter whether we choose to wake her up normally or take advantage of the moment to wander through her belongings: the result is pretty much the same except that she will be more suspicious.
Shadowheart does not work as Kim at this point because she does not meet any parameters by which offending her would be a problem for us. We’ve just met her, we’ve literally saved her life, and our first conversations with her are distant and awkward, as if she wants to hide who she is. While the mystery is a good hook to get me interested in the plot, I don’t know this character yet and if the idea is that my bad actions only affect whether or not the character is open to a romance with me, then the damage of my actions only carries weight based on that particular conquest interest on my part.
Further on, we encounter a Mindflayer, the species that has kidnapped us and implanted a parasite to turn us into one of their own. He is badly wounded and it seems that the game is going to give us the option to be merciful. Since I personally think the long-standing “Dungeons & Dragons” idea that there are inherently evil species is completely stupid and has slowly become a thing of the past, I thought they would offer at least a chance for mercy. It turns out that any empathy we feel for him rebels as a trick to control our minds and enslave us. We have to resist this attack with a couple of dice rolls. The first time, I did so and, having seen his intentions, decided to finish him off quickly rather than leave him to a slow and painful death.
For reasons that are beside the point, I died very early and without having saved progress until just before the Mindflayer encounter. This time, my dice roll resulted in a complete failure. None, immediately my character went on to finish off the Mindflayer with the same animation. If there is a consequence to do it one way or another, the game never tells me.
This does not mean that “Baldur’s Gate 3” seems to me a bad game at all. It is exactly what the title announces: a very late sequel to games whose focus was on offering the definitive “Dungeons & Dragons” experience, understood as a certain freedom within their systems, but always somewhat complacent with the player, through a point of view on the genre that, by the arrival of “Planescape: Torment”, already seemed a thing of the past. “Baldur’s Gate 3” offers a huge amount of great material and the best gaming experience with the Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, but the question is whether we should demand more humble but more fine-tuned and non-transferable systems.
Meanwhile, the bad results in “Disco Elysium” are not penalties, nor punishments. Far from it, they are inconsequential: they are other narrative possibilities to explore that involve encountering new obstacles. You don’t need to get it right every time, you just need the consequences to be interesting enough to get you back on your feet and keep struggling with what you’ve learned.
Kurvitz calls this “micro-reactivity”: small decisions whose consequences, without needing to be spectacular or complex, are reflected throughout the work. The pseudonym you have chosen at the beginning has its own development, the clothes you wear will produce reactions in the characters you investigate.
Unlike other CRPGs, which usually placed the text at the bottom of the screen, “Disco Elysium” is closer to “Shadowrun Returns” by placing it on the right, also emulating the way operating systems usually have the clock or notifications at that point to draw our attention when they pop up without distracting us from the main activity.
It should also come as no surprise that the scrolling design of the text, while supporting a newspaper column or microfilm aesthetic, is intentionally inspired by Twitter and its refresh system, seeking to make long reading less cumbersome by working through short paragraphs, each functional in terms of conveying an idea or a feeling or a joke, as if they were individual tweets.
And our timeline is filled with a multitude of voices complaining about everything, telling us what to do with our lives, harassing and abusing us. We are ourselves.
Our thoughts operate as abilities, but also as companions: their voices interrupt the action to direct the player towards one interpretation or another of events. They are an internalized extension of Kim: just as we need external validation of our work and our mission, pleasing our partner, we also need to learn to love ourselves. We cannot accept the love of others until we admit that we deserve that love.
These skills can be increased, but, unlike in other RPGs, that doesn’t give much chance to maximize their effects. Instead, the game establishes a much more efficient design convention than, say, making progress laughable as soulsborne tends to do. Each of our inner voices, if it reaches the maximum level, will also become a sort of penalty. For example, “Inland Empire” (not to be confused with the David Lynch movie) makes it easier for us to have an awakened imagination that can help us to better understand certain situations, but if it reaches its maximum level we will soon find ourselves talking to objects.
In and of itself the skill system is particularly unique but it’s still an update on systems that, by now, are part of the very essence of the genre. Not so with the Thought Cabinet.
Thoughts arise spontaneously during conversations and can be investigated by the player. As time goes on, those thoughts mature and, little by little, give rise to an ideology that either opens up new dialogues or completely takes over the narrative.
Of course, there is the mystery to investigate. Although there is an unequivocal culprit in pulling the trigger, the game lets it slip that it has been a sum of circumstances and coincidences. A phenomenological metaphor about the impossibility of knowing the truth. It is not the first mystery story that seeks to establish that conclusion of a chaotic world where the real danger is our instinct to see patterns in isolated phenomena, but the game constantly questions our narrator, our experiences as hallucinatory. The resolution of the mystery is less central to this story than the synesthesia of events. Even if it had all happened in the detective’s head, in conversations with those chaotic voices, it wouldn’t matter, because the emotions he is subjected to are entirely real.
The game progresses regardless of our successes or failures. That light-hearted state in solving the murder has a more direct response in the game “Paradise Killer”. There we can accuse any of the suspects from the beginning of the adventure, regardless of whether they are guilty or not.
The protagonist suffers no consequences for being wrong, but the player, who suddenly enjoys this freedom of judgment, would not be satisfied if he did not unravel the real mystery himself. The game tells us that it is not necessary for us to complete the objective ideally, but us? We would not be satisfied that way. We want to be part of a satisfying story.
“What kind of detective are you?” advertised the game’s promotion at launch. But it’s less a question about our methodology, about whether we’re thorough or insightful, or a brute force of nature… and more about our values, our expressiveness, and what place we want to occupy in this narrative.
In other words: “Disco Elysium” is the game that has best embraced the primary function of role-playing games: to take on a role as one’s own.
PART III: ROLE PLAYING
Due to the technical limitations of the first computer role-playing games, the role of role-playing was much more relegated than that of survival and combat. Faithfully recreating a conversation is much more complex than simply adding more damage points per enemy. This is also a consequence that early role-playing board games inherited from their predecessors, miniatures wargames, which in turn inherited turn-based combat strategy, with specialized pieces identified by their position, from chess.
While there is a sizable portion of the role-playing audience specifically interested in combat, rules and stat tables, most people enter the medium as a sort of theatrical improv group. Building your own character is part of the charm.
But if our path is prefixed by a Dungeon Master or a group of developers, who have already laid out before us the campaign path, who have laid out the specific story they want to tell, what room is there for self-exploration?
In a board game, the Dungeon Master can simply improvise and leave some freedom to the players to construct oblique narratives that might not otherwise have been planned. But video games have no such possibility, even though emergent narrative is a term we have been using more frequently in recent years. Making up our own story from what we interpret from a mechanic in a game is not the same as having a real conversation where we react and receive another reaction in return from another human being.
“Disco Elysium” sidesteps this problem by offering us the idea of a small port district of the city. Not even the whole city. No big trips to remote regions: from day one, you can talk to a large number of characters, get to know them, discover their problems, help or annoy them, or get drunk, or sing karaoke, or fondle a mailbox. “Disco Elysium” asks you to do your job as a detective, but at the same time, it trusts that, like the protagonist, we are quite lost and don’t know what to do, so our instinct is to experiment.
Because the true nature of video gaming is one of guided freedom. Not to say that there aren’t video games that don’t adhere to this principle, but, as in any conversation, as much as we crave to express our thoughts and feelings to others, we also crave the small furor of being surprised by our interlocutor, to find the little nuances, the voice of our own, that makes a person feel like someone special. Someone with whom interacting becomes a pleasure.
Likewise, these predefined stories have always tried to put a huge focus on combat. It’s why the different editions of Dungeon and Dragons have their particularities regarding combat and rewards. Fighting and fighting can be avoided in the most symptomatic cases, but even when we ignore it, everything revolves around its presence.
A detective game is the most sensible option. In general, because detective work begins when the violence is over and they have to deal with the aftermath. The detective’s job is not only to prevent violence, but to mitigate hostile situations and bring to light that which causes fear among his fellow citizens.
In fact, in the only instant in the game where we can taste the violence up close it is presented as a complete disaster. The situation depends a lot on whether or not you’ve managed to retrieve the gun, but regardless of the outcome, the game continues and the feeling that you’ve reached the only real combat situation in the game is a failure. It was something we tried to avoid, but now that the game makes it unavoidable, we understand better why. In combat we offer a utilitarian perception of events, with the concrete goal of surviving or even winning; there’s not much more room for expression there. Our hands are being forced. We pull the trigger because the game asks us to. The decisions we do not make (that we cannot make) are part of the narrative expressiveness of the game.
“Disco Elysium” places enormous importance on dragging the consequences of our most minuscule decisions: from the pseudonym we choose for ourselves when we’re not yet able to remember our name to the clothes we wear. Most RPGs put the onus on our equipment to boost our characteristics, and anyone who has spent enough time in one of them has reached a point where they keep a garment for its aesthetic condition rather than for modifications to stats. Here, there is no discrimination possible: yes, many garments have that boosting function, but it is such a minimal and incidental boost, that we can keep them in our inventory and only wear them for a specific situation. To compensate, the game makes the aesthetics we decide on also part of the game even if we ignore our power-ups, through dialogue and how others see us and, consequently, how we see ourselves.
It’s as if, inevitably, playing a purer role means dealing with our identity.
PART IV: THE IDENTITY
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Doctor Watson is our narrator of the wanderings of Sherlock Holmes. The reason is that Watson, an able physician and war veteran, is closer to the reader despite his excellent talents. Holmes, an eccentric cocaine addict, always has a rigorous method of investigation, but part of the appeal of the story is that this is kept hidden from us until, finally, Holmes brings Watson up to speed with his deductions. Although the main issue of the story is usually to solve the present case, the reader’s fascination lies in the figure of the detective and his dalliances: Do they have any purpose that will bring us closer to the truth or are they mere noise of our ignorance of the character? For Watson may be Holmes’ best friend, but he cannot get to know him completely. Only the way he presents himself to society.
Kim Kitsuragi does not act so much as Doctor Watson, being the support or contrast of deductions. Nor is he our point of view. He is, in fact, a rather clear and sensible person, an outsider observer. It is not surprising that his political ideology is situated in a comfortable centrism, more out of laziness and lack of confidence than true belief. Kim is the exemplar of normalcy in the face of our eccentricities. Normality not as an aspirational concept, but as a non-identity in which his seriousness contrasts with our disastrous behavior.
The fear of disappointing him ends up influencing us, but there is also another element throughout our adventure together: discovering something Kim who smiles, who is passionate about things, who dances and who accepts to send all police rules to hell for a moment. Complicity and friendship, yes, but also the possibility of getting to know the person under the impassive mask of his identity.
In “Disco Elysium” we can have different identities in each game, but the facts are always the same. It is an elegant way to reverse the ideas of many role-playing games, where our identity as the savior of the world always seeks to maximize the consequences. Here, there is little we can do to change the situation. There is no way to save this world from apocalypse. Instead, we can choose what graffiti we do on a wall. We are prisoners of circumstances but, within them, we choose how to behave and the kind of person we want to be.
In recent years, debates about identity as politics have multiplied, almost always in a self-serving way. While some identities are denied, others are created in opposition to those same identities, in groups whose affinity, paradoxically, is to oppose an Otherness that they perceive as a threat. This is intrinsic to certain tribal thinking and has been fed to fulfill interests of disenfranchisement and monetization of hate speeches. In the absence of common goals and proposals for the future, it is imperative to claim our plot and engage in that struggle as the ultimate method of activism.
And it is not that a healthy identity is not an essential part of our lives. Often, reactionary groups, even within the so-called political left, consider such positions to be individualistic, distractions from the collective struggle. It is, in fact, part of the collective struggle to find spaces for diversity, representation and tolerance. It is transversal.
We began this video by trying to concretize a definition for CRPG, without much success. A genre cannot be determined by the platform, but by its content, mechanics and the emotions it conveys. Despite this, some recent statements by Yoshi-P about the term JRPG, which he considers derogatory appealing that it is perceived as a minor genre and full of clichés but is linked to the nationality of its developers and not by its design decisions. It goes without saying all the problems that come with identifying by nationality or ethnicity, but that said: can we talk about slavcore?
It is another of those memetic ideas that bring together the different cultures of Eastern Europe around the creation not only of a particular aesthetic (facilitated by common cultural links or the geographical landscape itself) but also by a somber and melancholic perception of their way of understanding art.
This popularization is fostered by separating itself from what is commonly known as “eurojank”, a more general term for those videogames created in Europe that, while they may have ambition, originality and risk, have budgets far removed from AAA, and tend to be less technically polished.
Although “eurojank” is a more generalist concept that, inevitably, includes games from Western Europe as in the cases of Spain or France, it has become more and more focused on Eastern Europe partly thanks to the popularity of Russian developers Ice-Pick Lodge, and their manifesto entitled “The Deep Game”.
Published on March 18, 2001, the manifesto exposed the need to make a qualitative leap in the conception of videogames by accepting their artistic condition. For the people at Ice-Pick Lodge, that condition had to arise through exigency: both in the difficulty of the games and in creating an uncomfortable environment.
In addition to Ice-Pick Lodge games such as “The Void” or “Pathologic”, Russia has works such as “Milk inside a bag of milk inside a bag of milk”, “The friends of Ringo Ishikawa”, or, recently, the more controversial and grandiloquent “Atomic Heart”.
Ukraine takes the cake with such popular sagas as “Metro” and “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.”.
Poland has the popular CD Projekt, authors of “The Witcher” or “Cyberpunk 2077”, but also 11 Bit Studios, with very stimulating moral strategy titles such as “This War of Mine” or “Frostpunk” or Acid Wizard Studios with its brilliant “Darkwood”.
Finland’s most popular developer is the arch-famous Remedy Entertainment, whose stories always tend to show the bleakest side of existence even if they maintain the appearance of more commercial products. But it’s also the land of “Ultrakill” and “Cruelty Squad.”
There is reason to dispute the idea of there being an “imagined community” in the terms with which historian Benedict Anderson discussed modern nationalism. By targeting a global market and focusing on the tastes of a noisy English-speaking percentage, they can hardly be seen in terms of cultural rootedness, beyond the occasional folklore. But, even as a market product, they define themselves in terms of being games that explore a certain despair of the human spirit and the crushing influence of a lost past. They are stories built on ruins, in a present of misery, but, despite their aesthetic inclinations, unexpectedly hopeful: their bitterness and obstacles can be overcome step by step, with small victories based on persistence, and in that act of survival there is an unusual beauty, which many classic power fantasies of the genre completely ignore.
They weigh down a common history in which the first thing we see in the rear-view mirror is the fall of the Soviet Union. In a way, there is a transversality between the different nationalist expressions of Eastern Europe that goes beyond a common past, but we cannot escape from the historical conditions that impose their worldview on our culture. What we can do is learn from them and, in living together, we soon realize that identity is equally conditioned, and part of our identity is, of course, our ideology.
PART V: THE POLITICS
Revachol is the former capital of the “Disco Elysium” world. A nerve center that spent decades as a constitutional monarchy. After centuries of decline in the mental and physical health of the rulers, among which abounded a long cocaine addiction, it was followed by a viral pandemic that completely wiped out the hopes of the people.
The historian and sociologist Kraz Mazov would instigate some popular rebellions through his ideas of scientific communism, collaborating in a revolution that would spread throughout the various kingdoms.
By the time the revolution reaches Revachol, through royal abdication and assassination of the successor, a Commune is quickly established. Although success is not immediate and a Civil War breaks out, the success of the revolution seems assured.
However, on the other side of the world, a Coalition of countries of moralistic, i.e. centrist, ideology viewed the revolution with fear. Together they decide to get involved with Operation Coup de Grace, a massive bombing of Revachol.
The Coalition divides the territory into 21 districts and creates a Zone of Control for the island. Although neoliberal measures and militias succeed in bringing some order and peace leading to a decade of economic boom, soon the consequences of these policies turn into an eternal recession.
Twenty years after the events of “Disco Elysium”, Revachol will be destroyed by an atomic explosion.
The city speaks to us. The city breathes and accompanies us. The weight of its history conditions us, forcing us to move cautiously among the different opposing ideologies that coexist in a ruinous landscape.
That means that, as a detective, we navigate between the different ideologies of all the characters we meet. The simplest stance would be that of the most basic moralism, represented by Kim Kitsuragi: something like the official stance of the paramilitary occupation that rules the territory. A kindly vision of citizens respectful of order and law, but also subjugated to not complain, not protest and not make use of their rights.
The history of the city is revealed to us in different pictures, because each corner is a representation of some of the eras that existed previously. A palimpsest of regimes and cultures collapsing in on themselves, in the streets where children play and adults despair.
In one instance, bullets in a wall reveal a firing squad.
Now, imagine Prague in 1942. A group of Czech paratroopers have managed to successfully assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, top SS officer in charge of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moldavia and one of the main architects of the Holocaust.
The paratroopers take shelter in St. Cyril’s Orthodox Church, but are betrayed by a comrade and soon 800 Nazi soldiers surround the small church. A long firefight ensued. Although the Nazis needed to capture someone alive to give them exemplary punishment in their propaganda machine, they decided they were not going to continue the siege and perpetuate a firefight, and sought to flood the church.
But the paratroopers saved the last bullets for themselves.
Today, bullet holes remain in the walls of the church. I was in that same church, specifically, on November 13, 2015. I do not remember the date because I have a good memory, but because it was the same day as the attack on the Bataclan theater in France. On that day, Prague was filled with armed soldiers in the streets almost as fast as it was filled with candles and flowers in tribute to the victims.
This overlapping of events is a sample of how we face the history of humanity in terms of violent conflicts, and the wound they leave in the cities. Spaces that can later be rehabilitated but do not abandon their ghosts.
When our protagonist crosses paths with a communist Deserter at the end of the adventure, an idea floats in the atmosphere:
“The bourgeois are not human.”
The quote in question speaks not so much of the dehumanization of the rival as of understanding that what makes us human in the first place is empathy. The underlying issue with Revachol is that she is a prisoner, under military occupation.
True, the Communist Revolution was fragmentary and fragile, but (at least in theory) driven by class solidarity. The response of the moralists is even more aggressive than that of the monarchists: people cease to be seen as such and begin to be little more than a resource, a cipher. And that is what is terrifying in the politics of the world of “Disco Elysium”, this invisible imperialism of the market that oppresses as much as a mad king but also executes it without romanticism, with the calculating coldness of a machine.
The activist Stokely Carmichael put it very eloquently when he said:
“for nonviolence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience. The United States has no conscience.
It is no secret that the authors of “Disco Elysium” feel favoritism for communist ideas. While there is equal validity to whatever political leanings we choose for our character, and neither is free of satirical moments, there is a yearning for a just system hopelessly doomed by the corruption of the human soul.
In the Capside apartments, the detective may encounter two communist students. Specifically, with two self-styled infra-materialist intellectuals. The discussion with them exposes that the Mazovian theory has fragmented into a dozen different sub-ideologies which, far from thinking of solutions to end the abuses of the Coalition, find themselves debating which of these sub-groups is more or less right under rather esoteric conditions.
The left fighting over which of them has purer leftism is, paradoxically, the best proof of the authors’ left-wing thinking.
But where the game definitely shows its cards is, as it could not be otherwise, in the conclusion of the mysterious murder.
At the end of our adventure, we set course for a small island in front of the motel where the victim’s death took place. A shot from the shore would have been the cause. Arriving there, we find an abandoned bunker. Or almost, because this is where The Deserter resides.
At only 16 years old, The Deserter experienced the Coalition bombings in the front row. Although the Deserter was a firm believer in scientific communism, the cruelty of the bombing permeated his morale, driving him into a state of primal fear. In a move that he himself defines as “reactionary,” he abandons his comrades and hides on the island.
With all his comrades dead, The Deserter believes that he is the only one left to face the wave of hyper-capitalism that has flooded his land. And there he stays, on the island, firing at random with his rifle at anything he sees as a threat. Ashamed of not having lived up to his ideals, he has dedicated himself to doing penance as the last soldier standing, fighting ghosts.
The Claire brothers, owners of the port union, discovered his presence in the following years and used his anonymity and hiding place to use him as a political assassin, under the promise that they would use the union to start a new revolution. The Deserter, content to shoot his enemies again and have a mission, agreed to collaborate.
But what no one could foresee was that El Desertor would fall in love with a young girl, Klaasje, who was in Martinaise having sex in a motel room with an anti-union mercenary. The Deserter pulled the trigger, driven as much by hatred of his political rival as by jealousy, and that is the corpse we have been investigating.
Many may find this explanation a bit far-fetched. Even the fact that The Deserter is not in the geographical sector we have explored for the vast majority of the game seems to be there to prevent us from finding him sooner. But it is thematically very relevant: like Revachol, this murder is the consequence of different people, with different ideologies, meeting at the least opportune moment, in the worst possible place. The result of chaos and chance and the distance between those involved.
When I first came to this ending, a story that has always struck me came to mind. Not unlike that of the Deserter, and perhaps inspired by the same real events: the Japanese soldiers who continued to fight alone after the end of World War II. And that story I knew from.
“Detective Bogey” is a Spanish animated series aired in 1994 that transposed some of the clichés of 1940s detective films, included elements of slapstick, screwball comedy and other details that, while going over the heads of its child audience, showed an adult interest in the material they were dealing with.
In one episode, Detective Bogey investigates an island in the Pacific where there is supposedly treasure hidden in a secret graveyard somewhere in its jungle.
Guarding the treasure is a Japanese soldier who doesn’t understand that World War II is over and fiercely defends his position. When the villain of the story gets hold of the treasure, the soldier begins to lose all his strength, defeated.
And the treasure? Of course, the flag of Japan. The two deserters are motivated to stay alive by their ideology, without it, they have nothing to fight for.
The soldier, already dying, tearfully embraces the flag and asks to finally rest with his battalion mates. In an unexpected dramatic twist in the series, Bogey tries to comfort the soldier with this scene:
“Before the big trip, I’d like to know how the war is going.”
“Grandpa, the war isn’t going any way because…the war ended a long time ago.”
“And who won it?”
“Yours, it was won by yours.”
“I knew it.”
The argument behind this scene is that the economic boom Japan had experienced meant that, as the story unfolded, the country had gained new respect in the globalized world of the neoliberal market, but what they didn’t know when they wrote this scene in 1994 is that the Japanese economy had just entered a recession from which, to this day, it has not emerged. This is known as The Lost Decades.
The death of both defectors is not so much their attachment to the world of the past as an elegy for ideologies. For the political act is an act of changing things and planning for a better future, but when there is no more hope and the whole culture is uniform and complacent… What is left of politics except the mere act of personal resistance?
We can see our detective’s acts as part of that resistance. In contrast to Kim’s righteousness, our methods in the game are always extreme. We can try to emulate the extremocentrism of the moralists, but the very mechanics of the game discourage it: non-decision has no place in a role-playing game, because if living in a political context proves anything, it is that if you don’t make policy, others will make policy against you.
The way in which “Disco Elysium” characterizes the different ideologies through the mechanics has been widely commented, so much so that “The Final Cut” introduced specific side missions to develop them:
Fascism, for example, appears in the game world as an ego survival mechanism in the face of fear of sexual competition, the result of insecurities rooted in the concept of a genetic predisposition to failure. Leaning our character towards fascism increases the damage we receive, as it presents the ideology as a kind of self-harm.
The ultra-liberal current gives us money for every advocacy we make of the free market and the elimination of taxes and regulations. Throughout this progress we can become an art intermediary between the anarcho-communist graffiti artist and a man so rich that space and light bend in his presence. In return we only get a few shares, which translate into a number on our interface, completely useless as if it were “Cruelty Squad”. In other words: the only reward we get is for trying to spread the ideology, but when we finally do some real business, there is nothing for us but a pat on the back and a lot of promises. It’s almost as if the ideology itself is a pyramid scheme, where you convince someone to act like a con man so that he doesn’t realize that he himself is the person being conned.
Developing thoughts on moralism, or extreme centrism, leads us to gain morality every time we propagate the center between extremes as a virtue. If fascism was the negation of a present that has modernized the world, moralism is the celebration of that present as a utopia already fulfilled. Nothing can change and nothing will. In a way, it is another kind of negation, a negation projected into the future. In fact, the mission linked to moralism requires that you have tried to develop the fascist ideology previously. The game contrasts the idea of how moralism perceives itself (as a progressive and reformist but slow plan for the benefit of humanity) and how it actually acts: as a system of self-preservation (hence it cures our morality) that works on the basis of inaction and control. A society put on pause.
Finally, communism is not far behind. In the history of the world of “Disco Elysium”, communism has the advantage of being seen as a momentary reaction that was crushed in less than six years, without the weight of decades of dictatorships. It is posed as a change of perspective based on scientific thinking, so the game rewards our communist thoughts with more experience. And while communism is presented as a blind faith in a better future, we are also presented with its failure to operate in the present to change things. By defining it as both science and secular faith, communism is reduced to an intellectual exercise, as narcissistic as previous ideologies, paralyzed to operate primarily guided by distrust of other communist comrades.
That almost childish attitude of rebellion and disaster, of frightened raccoon that every political vision of the game proposes, cannot help but remind me of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. One need only look at him to see that he could well be a character from the world of “Disco Elysium”.
In fact, it was through Zizek that I first heard a famous post-communist joke: “Everything the party told us about communism was a lie. Unfortunately, everything they told us about capitalism was true.”
Zizek tells jokes, eats ice cream, marries a supermodel and leaves us with the best line in the history of discussions about politics: “Where are the Marxists?”.
He is also a tremendous transphobe, xenophobe and what’s worse: he criticizes movies he hasn’t seen. Even those who argue for separating the work from the author have to accept that this is a good case where author and work merge. Zizek is as much a person as he is a character. His work is performative: his image is what has brought his texts to the fore, the same texts that put, black on white, his way of thinking, his reaction to injustices, his own moral compass without intermediaries. His work is his word, his word: his honor.
Whatever our conditions, our lives have been tied to the Protestant concept of finding motivation to live at work, while working conditions have been worsening and becoming more precarious in recent decades, with the inevitable fear that we will be on the verge of an equivalent of the Industrial Revolution.
Cultural critic Mark Fisher expresses well how the shock of the post-Soviet republics clearly shows the goals of the very neoliberal Coalition under which we ourselves are subjects.
“Restoration capital reeks of defeat and exhaustion, like Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The Soviet system, like neoliberal capitalism now, was a gigantic Empire of Simulation in which by then no one — not even the big Other — believed. Except that, under state socialism, at least there was social housing, state-supplied energy, etc. Under late neoliberalism, even in the “richer” countries, like ours, we don’t even have that: just a cybergothic Dickensian redo… Temples of finance looming over food banks… 19th century England without the philanthropy and Promethean projects of the Victorian capitalists (imagine trying to install a sewerage and subway system in neoliberal London now: the whole West End looks like an immense construction site and a movie set, a dream land full of anxiety in which new obstacles appear every minute)… All (mis)controlled by outsourced computer systems that malfunction, impenetrable and unintelligible, like relics left by some long-gone gnostic demiurge…”
- k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016)
The video game industry, even as a hyper-capitalist and postmodern art form, also has a long and well-known history of labor abuses that are just a small sample of today’s organizational horrors, in pursuit of performance and exploitation of people and resources that are unsustainable in the long run.
Even within “Disco Elysium” itself we can find the abandoned offices once occupied by Fortress Accident, a group of radio-computer game designers. It is an inevitable reference to the team’s beginnings in a company under the name Fortress Occident before it ended up as the one we now know as ZA/UM.
We can also find our own board games, buy them and open them, read their instructions and take their tokens with us. One of them, called “suzerain” (meaning “feudal lord”) shares a title with a superb political management game due out in 2020. “Suzerain” sets out the idea of a country in transition, much like Revachol, and, as newly elected presidents in a new democratic regime, we have to determine what the ideological direction of the country will be at the end of our term. If we survive it, that is. It’s a game full of nuances and complex tradeoffs that recreates the experience of politics far better than most strategic simulators, although it doesn’t choose a militant perspective. Perhaps a perfect companion piece to “Disco Elysium,” if only by chance.
That these games are set in the area of the game known as The Condemned Business District, exposes the idea of subhuman hours and how crunch and the pursuit of perfectionism drives employees to madness and the company to ruin, is only there to reinforce that idea of the precariousness of the industry.
And who would have thought that a game that denounced this very thing out loud, would end up being a paradigm of labor abuses.
PART VI: THE LABOUR
On March 16, 2023, ZA/UM announced “collage mode”, a patch that allowed the characters in “Disco Elysium” to be used as a diorama. At first, it seemed simply another photo mode option, so extensive in other games, but the reaction of many fans was immediate revulsion.
The reason is that a few months earlier, in October 2022, Martin Liuga, one of the original co-founders of the collective, declared that ZA/UM was dead as an art project and that Kurvitz as well as Rostov and Hindpere had been forced out of the company.
Subsequent comments made it clear that Kurvitz, Rostov and Hindpere had been very reluctant, if not outright opposed, to all post-game content. This included “The Final Cut” version or the clothing line promoted by the company. That collective of young, anarchist artists had suddenly found themselves at the center of a company that exploited their property with a jocular tone of ironic detachment that detached it from its subversive value.
The People Make Games channel, created by Chris Bratt, trumpeted a documentary investigating the ZA/UM situation. Although very illustrative, it is easy to see in it some of the usual pitfalls of the video game press when dealing with sweatshop issues. By establishing a supposedly objective approach, they place themselves in an equidistance with the situation where they list the sins committed by both the shareholders and the members of the artistic team.
The testimony with the most weight is that of Argo Tuulik. As a friend of Kurvitz for over 20 years, his position is that his partner had been dishonest in taking much of the credit for the work, that much of the development time was mired by Kurvitz’s harsh criticism of the team’s work, and that months after the release, with the team returning to work to create “The Final Cut,” Kurvitz had abandoned all responsibility and did no work within the company.
Naphtali Faulkner, developer of the brilliant and contentious “Umurangi Generation” (probably the only video game more militant than “Disco Elysium”), wrote a long thread on the late Twitter about how Chris Bratt’s documentary approached the labor conflict with complete detachment, from the “centrist” position. While Kurvitz’s behavior may have been reprehensible, there is no doubt that the world of “Disco Elysium” is the project he was maturing for years. With many occasional collaborators, no doubt, but it’s not hard to see that a large part of the authorship belongs to him. That his ownership is taken away by financial shenanigans, under the excuse that he did not behave professionally, is rather more serious.
Because, at the end of the day, what we are saying is that only people with exemplary behavior deserve to keep their rights.
Obviously, Chris Bratt and his team have to deal with comments after the fact, in the midst of a legal battle to be resolved and where the role of the press is less about clarifying the truth than becoming the public relations platform of the disputing parties.
It can only pale in comparison to what is perhaps today the best documentary on the development work on a video game: “Double Fine Psychodyssey”, the 16-hour documentary, completely free on Youtube, which follows in detail the years of work on “Psychonauts 2”. The point behind this documentary is that it shows, in a very transparent way, the tension between a pragmatic and efficient part of the work and the difficulties of putting a schedule or a budget to the artistic impulses that make a product have a special mime.
Tim Schafer has received some criticism for what, by all accounts, seems to show his inability to meet deadlines and organize his team, consisting of long periods of branstorming and conceptualizing the game and demanding big changes at the end of the process.
Schafer is far from being the worst boss in the industry, because at least he seems to show not only some empathy for his employees and colleagues, or for creating games with the quality standard he considers ideal, but also someone honest enough to acknowledge his mistakes and even show them publicly in the documentary. Schafer believes that more transparency in these matters is something the industry will have to accept in order to improve their working conditions. But he has to live with a dilemma: when he is in charge, as the previous documentary, “Double Fine Adventure,” shows, deadlines are missed, funding difficulties surface and the result can be considered too lenient. When in “Psychodyssey” he decides to step aside to let an industry professional take over, his team is demotivated and dissatisfied.
It is easy to see that the leader’s charisma trap is very similar to Kurvitz’s account, although it is likely that the level of tension and stress was even greater since it did not take place in front of a camera crew.
When in his interview Tuulig, who continues to work for ZA/UM, says that the labor needs of the now hundred or so employees outweigh Kurvitz’s particular need as creator of the world, he is offering a utilitarian consideration where the big beneficiaries are not those who get to keep their jobs by sacrificing essential figures in the work, but the shareholders, like Kompus and Haavel, who have maneuvered to appropriate a project that does not belong to them.
Look, a moment for a personal anecdote. I have worked on projects with large international teams where, although my responsibility was minor, it was easy to see how the people in charge take advantage of the energy of others. They soon find ways to make people feel that such large and important projects are worth any sacrifice and that if someone does not follow the demands and requirements of the management to the letter, that person is dangerous to the project and should be isolated and boycotted. In these teams, there will always be someone who sees this as an opportunity to profit, and others who, with good intentions, decide to stay with the majority because, after all, what is the value of a single person when the project can potentially benefit a hundred or even more?
Fascism, of course. We are literally defining fascism, which I suppose, at bottom, is appropriate to talk about with a game like this.
I don’t blame the employees who have remained at ZA/UM, unhappy with Kurvitz. If anything I think should be clear from this section, it is that material needs play a central role in our lives, determining our decisions.
The question is whether the People Make Games video isn’t serving to create a self-serving narrative, where employees lend themselves to showing the more negative aspects of their bosses to distract from the fact that a group of con artists have maneuvered to steal their life’s work.
Even with my best appreciation to People Make Games for their incredible documentary work, it’s hard not to see the problem in addressing an authorship question about “Disco Elysium” that will have to occupy its section later in this video.
The final consequence is that three of the most visible people responsible for the creation of the world of “Disco Elysium” are now banned not only from making a sequel, or even content that takes place in the same universe… it remains to be seen, as of this writing, if they will ever be able to work on a video game again.
And it’s not that the industry doesn’t abound with bad bosses who, inexplicably, remain at the helm. The cases of Bobby Kotick or David Cage are notorious, with a track record that overshadows any problems they had with Kurvitz.
Nor is it a long-term solution for those who remain at ZA/UM. The “collage mode” reception is a good indication that you can’t keep making money from a play based on inertia and just looking for complicit winks.
I guess we cannot escape from human corruption. We cannot escape from…
PART VII: THE MADNESS
“Close to Zero” is a novel whose authorship is attributed to Natan Dubovitsky, alleged pseudonym of Vladislav Surkov, a politician and businessman who is frequently linked as one of the main ideologues of the Kremlin and the concept of “sovereign democracy”.
In a similar way to Kaur Kender’s “Untitled 12”, the novel is concerned with presenting a figure of the most corrupt political elites, only in Surkov’s case it has an undeniable aroma of autobiographical confession or at least of personal fantasy: a public relations officer commissions poems to pass them off as works written by a regional governor under a pseudonym and thus present him as a learned politician. Bribes are paid to hide cases of incompetence and contradictory information to flood public opinion, through the media sold to the highest bidder, with confusion and paradoxes.
The ultimate goal is social madness: if everything is full of noise and nothing is credible, the truth ceases to exist, the factors of social problems cease to be diagnosed and, therefore, pointed out. Much less dealt with. It is to lock society in a viscous amber prison and let it crystallize.
What the KGB called “dezinformatsiya”.
Some of these campaigns are not so much focused on achieving goals as, in the words of Steve Bannon, “filling everything with bullshit”. Sometimes people like Surkov and Bannon have presented themselves in the media as propaganda geniuses, but the reality is quite different: disinformation is a wild bull and has no owner, and sometimes it can end up goring the one who unleashed it. It is a strategy without strategy, one that wants to present itself as intelligent, but that looks a lot like a troll shouting on an internet forum. Or a drunk who has lost all inhibitions.
The world of “Disco Elysium” does not exist as a normal archipelago. Between the great masses of matter that make up the islets, there extends something called The Pale: an absence of matter. When The Pale and matter converge, boundaries or portals are established. In essence, The Pale is an ocean of nihilism, a black hole that occupies two thirds of the territory. And it is expanding, devouring everything in its path.
G’mork: Fantasia has no boundaries.
Atreyu: That’s not true. You’re lying!
Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?
G’mork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.
Atreyu: What is the Nothing?
G’mork: It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.
Atreyu: But why?
G’mork: Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has control has the Power.
Although a clear metaphor for the loss of hope, the triumph of cynicism, the end of history or, in general, the absence of a tangible and univocal truth and world, the protagonist of “Disco Elysium” can refer to this phenomenon as “human pollution”, associating the phenomenon to another less abstract concept: climate change.
In general, this supports the idea of the human being as a creature doomed to have a clear understanding of its minuscule size in the order of the natural world, where the destruction of stars is routine and life is little short of a miracle.
If even the planet we inhabit is not a certainty, a stable and permanent world, then there is no way to grasp reality. Everything is questionable. The Pale swallows matter, but it also modifies our memories. The Pale is the opposition to existence, to being, and therefore to identity and to the materialistic conception of history. The Pale is “dezinformatsiya”.
Returning to the People Make Games video, Chris Bratt concludes his report with the idea that we cannot know the truth, but when he questions Kurvitz about the alleged abuses of power committed during the development of the game, and Kurvitz replies that he refuses to enter into that controversy and be equated, Bratt soon dispels any doubt of objectivity to state that he finds Kurvitz’s conduct inexcusable. Maybe he’s been robbed of his life’s work, maybe Kurvitz is a bad boss with no empathy, it’s all too muddled to elucidate a position. And that’s how “dezinformatsiya” works. Why fight for something if nothing deserves it?
If the interface of “Disco Elysium” with its discordant voices was shaped by Twitter, it is interesting to see how it generates a disintegration: the constant rule changes of its management, its rebranding and other decisions seek to erode our foundations. The Internet is dead, leaving us only small islands: bots that generate content to be consumed by other bots, providing visibility data to advertisers whose marketing is not received by human beings, systems that in search of greater capitalization end up gutting their golden eggs. Use Google and discover how content that tries to sell you something rather than inform you is promoted more. The Dead Internet Theory, which says this situation became apparent around 2016 and has been increasing, seems more alive in 2023. The Pale is slowly devouring us.
But the fact that a game presents a desolate world does not necessarily imply a pessimistic point of view. With the exception of “grimdark” worlds such as the one presented by universes like “Warhammer 40,000” (where even there they have a satirical framework with which to put some distance from the most dramatic events), the desolation of “Disco Elysium” is to punctuate the small glimmers of hope, glimpses of humanity and beauty that contrast with the prevailing darkness.
The protagonist of our game is in his situation because of a woman. Dora, the figure we never really meet except for pseudo-religious visions that cast doubt on our narrator’s credibility. Dora has left a huge wound in the detective that he tries to silence with drugs and alcohol. The distorted image of this youthful love is also the driving force of “Strange and terrible air”, the enormous weight that the beloved person can have in our lives, in our actions, and the damage she carries with her. Some passages of the game hint at the self-destructive or even suicidal tendencies of the protagonist, that’s why, in the madness of a disappearing world, finding a cryptid is a symbol that it is worth living for how life keeps surprising us every day, no matter how tired we are.
Kurvitz points to Kemper and his detox period as an inspiration for the character, and the reality of this process is secretly the umbilical cord of “Disco Elysium.”
When I first played it, I found the hangover with which the game starts was severe enough to disregard drugs throughout my entire playthrough. I managed it and it was a small moderate success, but it was no different than approaching, say, a game in pacifist mode in any other CRPG. These are things you do to test the limits of the game and how far you are capable of going in your purpose. Self-imposed challenges. I didn’t give it any more importance.
The truth is that I have been a teetotaler for a little over four years. I’m not going to cry here saying how difficult it is in social situations and the constant pressure to drink. It was my own personal decision, but now, looking back at that first departure, it allows me to see things differently. We all have our own Dora, that person who established an imprint on us in such an unrealistic way that she is nothing more than a fantasy, an aspirational icon, a redemptive figure to plead to. Sometimes those pleas are sought at the bottom of a bottle, sometimes we take refuge in using our anger against others, taking refuge in our principles, sometimes we refuse to react or try to rise above the situation by belittling others. And in any of these cases, there is no room for hope. Only your longing.
In Kurvitz’s letter to Bratt, he states that to be a writer, one must first believe in something. Artistic expression, in a world that is falling apart, is the confirmation of faith in the human spirit. The Titanic’s band. Without art, our existence would be in question, and this is what I was getting at.
PART VIII: THE ART
Aleksander Rostov’s work in the game is one of the most striking points. Between psychedelic pop art and the darkest post-expressionism, Rostov’s work is a hallmark of the game, imitated a thousand times since its release.
In his brushstrokes we find the bodies broken by the paintings of Jenny Saville or Alex Kanevsky, the interwar moral decadence of Otto Dix or his pop but grotesque reflection in the works of Chris Mars.
The influences follow one another in “Disco Elysium”.
In literary terms, we inhabit a city typical of China Miéville, in a situation not so distant from the detective works of Dashiell Hammett while around us there are stories of human misery that evoke Émile Zola. The Pale fulfills the same mystical function as The Strugatsky Brothers’ Zone that inspired the “Stalker” saga. And by the poet Arvi Siig I have not had the pleasure of reading.
While Infinite Engine games are clearly the model to follow, one of the most direct and notable influences is probably “Kentucky Route Zero”. While it hasn’t received the same prestige as “Disco Elysium,” Carboard Computer’s adventure game is a constant challenge to the player, an experience that can be obtuse and frustrating but very worthwhile.
The game is presented from a class perspective, under the idea of the history of small rural areas that exploited during the Conquest of America and became the backbone of capitalist exploitation… only to end up abandoned by cost-cutting in the offshoring of companies and the overwhelming consequences of the 2007 financial crisis.
In “Kentucky Route Zero” we can explore that past of exploited miners, of technologies that have ceased to be useful and destinations that have now been abandoned. The game is almost like an archaeological exhibition in a museum: the miners’ tunes, the everyday objects that are now archaic or useless, the past typical of adventure games like “Colossal Cave Adventure”… there is a coldness in the facts that is confirmed when the game abandons one of its protagonists. We notice that absence and the game dedicates its last act to immerse us in mourning, orchestrating a funeral. A funeral for all that has been left behind.
It is also a game that makes fantastic use of the different ways of exposing dialogue: television programs, explanatory plaques in a museum, a play, phone calls… the ubiquity of dialogue on different platforms seems to want to break with technology and the conventions of these to try to express a more honest and heartfelt truth: the need for human beings to connect with each other and what we lose when those connections are broken.
“Kentucky Route Zero” was perhaps too rough for the larger audience that embraced similar ideas in “Disco Elysium.” There was no redemption in Cardboard Computer’s play, just a respectful silence for what we have lost.
Instead, when the collage mode of “Disco Elysium” was announced, we also got to see what “Disco Elysium” was in danger of being and should never be: a self-aware version of itself, more focused on generating viral content for social media than thrilling the player. Good art seeks to make us react as an unexpected turn in a conversation, not as an advertisement or a toy to be passed from hand to hand. What a work can do is speak to us one-on-one, and that is non-transferable.
During Kender’s trial, a moment was highlighted by the literary press when prosecutor Lea Pähkel asked about the use of sexual taboos and transgressions in his work. Kender then expounded his philosophy that it is necessary to cross lines in order for art to have meaning and offer a different view of the world. When Pähkel questions him on whether he really believes that art has to have meaning, Kender replies, “Only for the artist and no one else. The artist is responsible for himself and his work, but not for other people.”
This vision of art can be individualistic, but also intimate. In contrast, a totally erroneous reading of Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” has been imposed in online debates. While the French critic expounded the structuralist interest of giving life to the significance of a text over and above the univocal figure and version of the author. This means that a work comes alive in the eyes of the beholder.
I often see the idea of the “death of the author” used not as a field of possibilities for analysis but as a catch-all in which the author is insignificant or even a figure that must disappear.
Part of these ideas are driven by media campaigns that promote a type of art in the hands of large corporations, where decisions are made in committee under the auguries of statistical studies, algorithms or other superstitions that, according to their advocates, minimize financial risks.
This year has been marked by the rapid evolution of machine learning, erroneously popularized as AI. From its hand has also come a discourse on how authors are only catalysts of a Platonic idea of creativity, where an artist is reducible to a machine that makes collages of ideas that precede it. The reproducibility of art is a question with at least a century of history, brought to light by the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin.
When Benjamin speaks of an “aura” in art, he is referring to an intangible component that accompanies those works that are unrepeatable, a way of ritualizing originality.
This does not mean that a reproducible work, such as a video game of which there are millions of identical digital copies in its operation, has no artistic value, but that our perspective in the way we understand art has changed from the sacralization of the unique to a politicization of art.
All these analyses of works according to whether they conform to our particular morality or ideology do not understand that it is not about reaching certainties: art is about proposing dialogues. Otherwise, art becomes lesser creatures: a sermon, advertising or mere propaganda.
It is hard not to see in 2023 that there is an intentional quest to finally separate art from the very act of creating. The screenwriters’ strike in Hollywood is taking place as I write these lines. The casualization of the various liberal sectors is increasing at an accelerating pace. Everything is designed to offer products of minimum cost, predictable, without substance, something that will please everyone without exciting anyone.
It remains to be seen what the future may bring to those responsible for “Disco Elysium” on one side or the other of their litigation, but it is unmistakable that there is an intention to deprive works like this of their fangs, so that they can no longer bite our consciences.
The revolution may not come inspired by a great work of art, because the market will always find a way to adopt the popularity of the work and turn it into a better disposable and interchangeable consumer object. This is how the game itself expressed it, as if already advancing its terrible future:
“I can’t. That’s how simple it is. One may dye their hair green and wear their grandma’s coat all they want. Capital has the ability to subsume all critiques into itself.
Both Mark Fisher and Slavoj Zizek re-popularized the phrase “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The phrase was originated in 1978 by cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin in an article exploring the work of science fiction writer J.G. Ballard.
But, in the same generation of writers as Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin left another phrase:
“We live under capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. But so did the divine power of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by the human species.”
Our beloved detective is caught in a web where everything is confused, in a shrinking world and where he has no access to power to change things; however, there are possibilities because nothing is set in stone. Yes Harry DuBois can make of his reality what he prefers.
Or as anthropologist David Graeber said:
“the ultimate hidden truth in the world is that it’s something we do that we could easily do differently.”
Until then: let’s DANCE.
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