I want to note down some of my thoughts on the video game Disco Elysium while it is fresh in my mind after finishing – though I have a feeling this is going to be one that I will revisit sooner rather than later. There’s already been an outpouring of praise for the game, so I think another lengthy panegyric would not add much. The most I will say is just how happy this game made me in its existence. Interactive media can be a difficult topic to have discourse in because of how frustratingly imprecise of a term it is, and because it means so much to so many people. A book exists as a book, and a film as a film. But a video game can take on the role of a sport, a hobby or a social activity. People will argue constantly over whether video games are an artform or not, which seems like far too broad an argument to me. Do video games that try to be an artform exist? Absolutely, and to state otherwise is categorically false.
I don’t begrudge any of these differing but connected forms of media. I myself enjoy video games for their social and hobby aspects. But when speaking from a purely entrepreneurial standpoint, it is hard not to see games as a storytelling medium feeling a little snubbed of late. What really puts a spark in the eye of most studios is the ideas that games can become no longer a single form of media, but a “service”, becoming essentially a second job with its own demands, despite being something that is paid for. It’s the media equivalent of a wage job I suppose. You give your time and your money. This can be fulfilling, of course, like any job, but that is the way the relationship with the player is structured.
That was why it was such a joy to play through Disco Elysium and be reminded that there exists a space where that relationship was different, where a video game can give as much to a player as a reader or watcher receives. And this is a game that gives plentifully. I tend more and more to judge media by how much it lingers – how often my mind keeps coming back to it and the impact it had on me. How much, essentially, that it pushes back against the concept of disposability. Even in this consideration, parts of my experience are drifting back to the surface.
Piecing together the life of an elderly housewife from her tiny apartment as I try to find the best way to explain to her the stupid and pointless death of her husband.
Singing karaoke in the grungy cafeteria of a grungy hotel, a little emptier than it normally was due to my own failings in the face of human violence.
A very strange but playfully foreshadowed ending, where empathy from the oddest place pushes you through to the end of a satisfyingly meandering detective story.
And those are just some particular moments, all of which are surrounded by gorgeous music, hilarious and evocative writing, and an art style that feels like, well, art, resembling a painting in motion. As I said before, it’s a generous game with plenty to give. I couldn’t shake the feeling while playing it that it was something of a thesis statement on the industry as a whole, with an equal measure said about what a video game should and shouldn’t be.
There’s a lot to unpack, but this was meant to be a short reaction, so I’ll focus in on one aspect I thought was handled in an interesting way. Like so many video game protagonists beforehand, the lead character of Disco Elysium (who I will not name to reserve spoilers) begins as an amnesiac with no real memory of who they are. This is not uncommon in games and generally is used for two reasons. Firstly, it can be done to make the character a blank slate for the player to project onto either themselves or a roleplayed identity. Secondly, it can be used to add mystery to the plot, concealing information for a later reveal or plot twist.
However, in Disco Elysium, these purposes are more played with than used straight. The main character may start off with some pieces missing, but he most certainly has a character of his own. He is less a character that you build from scratch, and more one that you can attempt to steer. Despite having a fractured psyche, he is still his own person and his own character. The game would be significantly affected with a differing character in his place. And while his amnesia is used to conceal certain facts, they are not the usual sort of revelations you would expect. Traditionally it is a massive aspect of character, world or game that is kept in the shadows. (An excellent example of all three at once would be in Bioshock.) What we slowly pull out from behind the amnesia in Disco Elysium is in turns hilarious, heartbreaking and humanizing. Our main character wasn’t the villain all along, nor an integral part of some massive plot, or an outlandish element of the world. He was just a person who probably wanted to forget a lot of things.
Too often when the “human element” is brought up in discussion of video games its in the context of trying to crack the psychology of what makes people give up their time and money. It meant a lot to me to instead have a game give this human element a respectful and thoughtful presentation. I wish the studio the best and I’m hoping to see more from them soon.