Role-playing computer game Disco Elysium has won plaudits for its political plot and subversive structure. It’s nihilistic outlook, however, reflects the pessimism of the past – not the revolutionary desires of today’s younger generation.
You wake up in the city of Revachol with no recollection of your past and basic concepts like money. Now you must go and solve the murder of a fascist mercenary sent to break a union strike. Welcome to Disco Elysium.
Disco Elysium is a role-playing video game by indie studio ZA/UM. Traditionally, video games are derided as completely non-political; devoid of anything to say about society or humanity; just brash, violent entertainment. But it is a hugely popular medium – by some measures more so than films.
So sooner or later, the massive shift to the left amongst young people would surely reflect itself in the creation of left-wing video games. This is exactly the case with Disco Elysium, whose writers – upon receiving an award last year – thanked Marx and Engels as inspiration during their acceptance speech. It was also made in collaboration with the producers of the popular left-wing podcast, Chapo Trap House.
The game focuses on a strike in a country oppressed by imperialist powers, following a revolution violently put down by this occupying force. Its critical acclaim and commercial success is another sign that the political consciousness of the youth has been radicalised in recent years.
Many critics have declared Disco Elysium to be the best role-playing game (RPG) of 2019 – some even say of all time. It has won acclaim through subverting the genre. Not only is it a deeply political, left-wing game (which is very rare); it is also a game that completely eschews the mechanics almost all other games rely upon – that is, violence.
Where other RPGs test the player almost exclusively through their ability to win battles, in Disco Elysium, the player is tested in terms of the intelligence of their dialogue choices when interacting with other characters.
What makes Elysium unique and deserving of praise is its incredible execution of its non-violent and political elements. Its lack of any combat mechanics is not some tongue-in-cheek statement on the excessive violence of most games, but simply a very serious obligation to its narrative integrity. Violence is the exception, not the rule. Death, as it should be, is taken very seriously, or else the weight of a murder would diminish in the usual splurge of wanton killing that is pervasive in so many other games.
So many other games are undermined by the fact that the player’s character – who is supposed to be a ‘good guy’ – must massacre hundreds, or even thousands, of people to complete the game. Elysium is subversive because it respects its world and characters enough to ignore the far easier path of giving the player fun battles to play with.
Disco Elysium’s lead writer, Robert Kurvitz, tackles issues of a personal and socio-economic nature with style and substance. All the way, he imbues his story with a subtle sense of melancholy and lost futures, being solemn and witty at the same time.
Revachol is ‘pornographically poor’ after its revolution – which took place a few decades ago – was brutally suppressed by international capital. Since then it has been the victim of a laissez-faire imperialism. Children are addicts; their fathers abusers. Fascists are hired by unions to protect strikes; and companies hire death squads to break them.
‘Moralism’, Elyisum’s equivalent of liberal democracy, is an entirely cynical and dead ideology. Its main representative in the game, the corporate negotiator Joyce, is all too aware of capital’s zombie pretence, outright saying that the company’s main concerns in the labour dispute the game centres around are the “normal circulation of the economy”.
In the background of destitution and demoralisation, the union has degenerated into the personal dictatorship of a gangster. And yet this is presented as by far the lesser evil than the corporation that dominates the economy.
There is, however, a clear undercurrent of nihilism. Moralism is dead – but communism, socialism, or any viable left-wing alternative are dead too. The player can adopt communist ideology by choosing revolutionary sounding statements in conversations. But this only leads to a spewing of meme-like ‘hang the bourgeoisie’ slogans that have none of the intelligence and subtlety of the game’s narrative. Even then, this serves its own purpose in the overall theme.
Your character’s penchant for ultra-left childishness reflects two things. Firstly, as Lenin said, ultra-leftism is the price the movement pays for the crimes of reformism. In this case, the hopelessness of Revachol’s situation, thanks to the counter-revolution, gives revolutionaries such as your character (should you choose to play as one) no option but to make inflammatory but impotent ‘communist’ statements.
Secondly, the superficial communism of your policeman character is intended as satire – as if a policeman would make a good communist! There is even a point in the story when you meet a real revolutionary, a veteran of the failed uprising, but it proves impossible to convince him that a cop could be a communist.
Certainly, nothing says this clearer than most of the game’s characters being – in a host of different ways – deeply and irreparably damaged, or simply indifferent, because the world they live in is so deeply and irreparably damaged itself.
Communism in Disco Elysium would at first glance be an almost cartoonish caricature were it not for the fact that the rest of the game is so dense and rich with nuance. Often in cases like these, the reader must be prepared to negotiate with the narrative on its own terms.
Past and future
This game is not going to spoon-feed you a lesson in political theory. It is not going to lecture you on economics. What it is going to do, as only games can, is show through your own personal interaction with this story, its characters and environment, the very human price of a crushed revolution. There are no heroes – only ruins; only humans.
Ultimately, its pessimistic, depressing tone reflects the past, not the future. Whereas the game’s writers seem to be writing about the devastating effect of revolutionary failure on the consciousness of a society, the youth of today who are playing this game are embracing the future – searching in increasing numbers for a socialist alternative to the failed capitalist system.