They create worlds: Disco Elysium

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

The moment I wake up, I know that something is amiss. My reptilian brain and my limbic system talk to me, one in a snarling, jagged voice, the other in a hoarse, high-pitched whisper. They urge me, mock me, lead me astray – but who is this “me” they’re talking to? I drag my sorry body to the bathroom and look at myself in the fogged-up mirror – and there is no moment of recognition. I see my face, and it could be anyone’s. I’m a blank – and like a blank, I’m there to be filled with personality and meaning and purpose.

Computer role-playing games love the trope of the amnesiac player character, because it’s a shortcut to giving the player both licence and a reason to create themselves, so to speak. It’s so common a trope that it’s a cliché, easily ridiculed, but at the same time it’s easy to understand why it’s such a favourite. Many RPGs are about player choice and agency, and having a predefined character limits these considerably. At the same time, while there may be good reasons why a trope came about, it can still be a hackneyed cliché.

Disco Elysium may just be the most original role-playing game I’ve ever played, but originality doesn’t mean that its constituent elements have all been created from whole cloth. Yes, it uses the amnesia trope – though I have never seen it justified by the character in question having gone on the most epic bender in the history of alcohol and substance abuse. There’s more than a hint of China Miéville in the game, both in its politics and its aesthetics, straddling the divide between Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. The world building goes beyond those influences, adding a dash of Life on Mars, a touch of Francis Bacon, three gulps of film noir and a generous helping of the genes of the granddaddy of surreal narrative RPGs, Planescape Torment. The city of Revachol is both familiar and disorienting, it is blurry around the edges and hyperreal at the centre, creating an uncanny effect.

One of Disco Elysium‘s strokes of genius, however, is that the internal world of its protagonist, the amnesiac superstar wreck of a hobo cop, is as rich as the external world he inhabits. Traditionally, roleplaying games give you abilities such as Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, skills such as Stealth, Lore or Persuasion. Disco Elysium is much stranger: as you gain experience, you can become better at skills such as Empathy, Authority or Encyclopedia, but also more esoteric qualities as Esprit de Corps, which provides you nearly supernatural insight into fellow coppers on the police force, Inland Empire, which would have to be described as a Lynchian ability to associate seemingly unconnected things and develop bizarre internal rituals, or Shivers, which helps you understand in a roundabout way just why those hairs on the back of your neck are standing up right now.

Those skills don’t lie dormant, waiting for you to use them in a handful of situations: they provide a nearly constant internal monologue that is less about plot than it is about character, nuance and tone. As you see the logo on a discarded pack of cigarettes, Encyclopedia might tell you that this particular logo was discontinued five years ago because of its unfortunate, ethnically insensitive connotations, at which point the corporation decided on a more palatable new logo. Esprit de Corps might give you a flash of once attractive Lt. Daphne “Daph” Duchamps, on her third attempt to kick her smoking habit, reaching for her almost-empty pack. Shivers might tell you that the man who dropped that pack of cigarettes was now lying in a ditch a few miles away, growing cold, as the flow of blood from the ragged wound in his abdomen coagulates into a trickle. And above it all, Reptilian Brain rasps that this is exactly what you need right now, a cigarette, or five, and by that it means a bottle of whisky and the pills you got from the homeless guys you just half-questioned, half-threatened.

Games can have everything that the movies have, amazing visuals and immersive sounds, but a good game knows that there is more to creating a world than great graphics and punchy sound. Words and ideas: these are still among the most effective seeds to plant in a fertile imagination. And there is no end to the strange seeds that Disco Elysium plants. Those flowers blooming? They’re strange, man.

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