The Existential World of Disco Elysium

The Existential World of Disco Elysium

You’ve heard the oft-used quote by Friedrich Nietzsche about staring into the abyss, right? Well how often have you played a video game that considers what it’s like to see that abyss staring back at you? In Disco Elysium, your character is pure, uncut chaos; a police officer recently arrived in the seaside town of Martinaise ostensibly to solve a murder, but really to drink and drug himself to a slow, painful death. Think Ben Sanderson from Leaving Las Vegas mixed with Harvey Keitel’s eponymous Bad Lieutenant, but with a handlebar moustache and disco flares, and you’re not a million miles off. 

Throughout Disco Elysium, you’re tasked with making decisions about what kind of person you want to be. Law-abiding cop? Empathetic loser? Drunken racist? Bitter fascist? All of these options are available to you, as well as the consequences thereof. The beauty here, though, is in the way it makes you think about who you want to be, about how mental health needs to be valued and treated, and about how you impact the world around you as you move through it.

As Disco Elysium opens, you face a black screen. You can see nothing. Then your limbic system begins to taunt you like a Dickensian villain trying to pick your pockets. Your ancient reptilian brain goads you into letting go of existence, to fall into the dark nothingness forever. When you open your eyes, you find you are nameless, naked, and half dead in a trashed hotel room. Suffering from alcohol-induced retrograde amnesia, you can’t remember anything about the life you had before. You are a blank slate, free to become whatever you wish. 

Welcome to Elysium.

As you wander the beautifully designed, oil painted streets of Martinaise—a seaside district in the city of Revachol—you will learn not just who you are but who the people around you are, and why their struggles matter. Klaasje is running from mistakes made in her past, partying hard to forget the problems she has; Cuno is a vile kid who throws stones at dead bodies and swears more than Gordon Ramsay on a Saturday night, but he is also being abused by his father; Lilienne is lonely since her husband passed away and often sways along with the waves on her boat, alone, thinking of the past. These are all people dealing with the struggles of being aliveThe incredible thing is that you don’t have to know any of this if you don’t want to—drug-fuelled nihilism is always an option. They are characters essential to the plot, yes, but their own stories don’t need to be told. You must decide if you want to know, and if you do want to know, then how much do you want to know?

One particularly strong instance of this is in deciding whether you want to look into Klaasje’s eyes. No, seriously, that’s an option you’re given. To do so requires a high Volition stat, which you may or may not have decided to level up. These are called White Checks, which means you’re allowed to try and look into Klaasje’s eyes as often as you can—but it also means you must make a conscious decision to level up your Volition at the expense of, say, your Logic or your Physical Instrument (how physically strong you are, meaning you can knock down doors or threaten people if need be). So to understand Klaasje’s plight, you must decide if it is worth working for. You must ask yourself if it is more important to know why this young woman is so sad, or is it more important to level up your Inland Empire stat so you can talk to your drug-obsessed necktie (again, deadly serious).

In the struggles of the inhabitants of Martinaise you might see some of your own, and you might be asked what you would do to change things if you could—both for yourself and for them. This is where politics plays an important part in the shaping of your character: are you a communist? Do you believe in the free market? What about trade unions? Part of the narrative centres on a strike conflict between the trade union organisation known simply as The Union, and West Pines—a typically heartless corporation underpaying and undervaluing their staff. As you mingle through the crowd of protestors, you’ll hear their stories. You’ll hear how they feel about this strike, how it affects them and their families. It’s an incredible insight which rumbles the critical thinking part of your brain and makes you consider what kind of world you’d like to live in, and how you can affect that world for your fellow humans. It also makes you consider how you might want to do this in real life

This is to say nothing yet of your own character (the less of whom you know before going in, the better). A blank slate though he may be, you can choose to dig beneath the surface of his existence and find answers about how he has arrived in thissituation. You do so through an utterly ingenious concept called the Thought Cabinet. You are given a few slots to start with—you can unlock more later—and a few Thoughts you can internalise through a given amount of in-game hours. For example, the Date of Birth Generator will tell you how old you are and when you were born; Apricot Chewing Gum Scented One will reveal the source of so much anguish triggered by a specific brand of chewing gum; Inexplicable Feminist Agenda will unveil new opinions surrounding the “XY chromosome hegemony.” All of these Thoughts can tell you something about who you are, what decisions you’ve made to reach this point, and what it says about the world you live in.

This discovery is perhaps one of the most vital aspects of Disco Elysium, as you focus—if you choose to, that is, as nihilism is always an option—on building your character. What is he running from? What pain and devastation drives a man to become such an utter wreck? It’s in this that you consider mental health. For your character (it is not a spoiler to say) is severely depressed. How do you want to address this? Learn from past mistakes, apologise for bad behaviour, and set about making amends? Or do a line of coke, down a bottle of wine, and continue down the path of self-destruction? The choice is yours, my friend. You may be surprised by your reactions, though. I began the game fully prepared to nuke my character into orbit with a cornucopia of drugs and alcohol, relishing the delicious prospect of hilarity that would surely ensue. As I got to know my character and his struggles, though, something strange happened: I felt sorry for him. I wanted to help him. Alcohol comes with certain stat enhancers—it lowers your health, but improves your strength, for example—and at one point I drank a bottle of wine because I needed the stat boost, but I found myself genuinely disappointed that I had set my character down this path again. A conversation with Lilienne reveals a possible romance, and with it the implication of redemption for your character, until the narration informs you that there is no chance; she would only consider you once you’ve put a year between yourself and your last drink. 

If you so choose, you can also discover the various aspects of the different religions and their inherent values and meanings. I spent one whole session doing nothing else but researching Dolorianism, a quasi-religion based around the life of Dolores Dei, a woman so pure and good she was effectively canonised into sainthood. Similar to the political aspects of the game, each religion can guide you towards deciding what your values are: Dolorianism values humanity and kindness, Franconigerianism values military might, and Solaism values individualism and defies ascribing to a common form of society. In each of these you can decide what means the most to you and imagine the world you yourself might build if you had the chance.

Long after your playthrough, you might find yourself wondering about some of the issues and aspects of Disco Elysium. Sure, you made some decisions in-game that you might not make in real life, but now you know that. You will be presented with a series of screwed up characters and asked deep, resonant questions about how they should live their lives, what changes they should make, what kind of person you want to be—both for them and for yourself—and maybe, just maybe, it’ll leave you wondering about your own life in the real world. For in the world of Disco Elysium, you’ll spend most of your time staring into the abyss, and when the abyss eventually stares back at you—don’t worry, it will—you just might discover something you didn’t know about yourself.

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