This is the barely edited script of this video.
Weird spacings, questionable grammar and wrong spelling ahead!
I have also tried to talk about Disco Elysium in my first video essay, but I did not like it and made this one instead.
Sadly, I am also not a big fan of the new attempt.
I am currently working on my last attempt at talking about Disco Elysium.
Disoc Elysium is a game for nerds who like to read. there is no combat, no action, its all just text, coming at you in short bursts, in precicse snippets, coming with superb voice acting, sublime sound effects and restrained screenshake so that even if reading is everything you do, it feels expensive and luxurious.
Because it is.
Coming in at around a million words, written over 5 years, Disco Elysium has won numerous awards for its writing, inlcuding 4 gameawards in 2019. It currently holds a near perfect metacritic score of 97 and all of that is nice and good, but in the end Disco Elysium is a game about re-imagining yourself and I wholeheartedly recommend you to go experience it on your own.
So This is you first and final warning: Do not read this text, if you are not DONE with disco elysium, because I will casually spoil everything from here on out.
Disco Elyisum is a CRPG, a computer roleplaying game and like all games of its genre, it is a walking contradtiction.
Because roleplaying, exists in the moment, it is a collective delusion where everything takes place in your imagiations, where situations become real and reactive as soon as you describe them and compared to this highspeed imagination-to-interactivity-pipeline, videogames are static, premeditated things,where even the most emergent narrative can only emerge from foundational rules and authored variables.
And Disco Elysium knows this, because despite harrys best efforts, he does not actually start the game as a blank slate.
Something has led to you waking up in that hotel room. Just like someone must have killed that dude. And you not only have to find out who did it, but also why you did this to yourself.
In both cases, the past is at fault.
The past In general, the concept of time passing, slipping through your fingers unnoticed, until it is too late, until you realise that you have irrevocably lost the thing that means the world to you and you are left with the choice between two extremes:
You can either glorify what happened and refuse to let go of an increasingly ennobeld and inaccurate memory or you can try to earse memory itself, drowning in a spiral of self-pity and gradual self-destruction.
Harrier duBois, like most people, can do both at the same time, Wich provides the conceptual glue that holds disco elysium together thematically.
For what is a theme, if not something that gets mentioned, like, all the time?
While Harry might have tried his best to obliterate himself, his body, his limbic system, his RPG Stats, can not let him forgtot what kind of animal he really is:
Intellect wants to pursue objective truth and to impose it on others with the biggest available words, but it also it confuses the history of the world with personal drama.
Mototics is your muscle memory, prying open the hidden compartements of your past.
Physique does not want that, physique wants to get fucked up, chasing transient pleasures instead of facing reality
Just like how Psyche wants you to understand how other people feel, it wants to make connections, it wants to hear voices where there arent any, as long as you dont have to deal with who you used to be and what you left behind.
And so, no matter which combination of stats you start the game with, each of them is, not only internally torn and compromised, but also directly reflected in the case that you are trying to solve:
The murdered mercenary of international capital was a drug addled, man of the moment, stumbling around martinaise, muttering madly to himself, tearing it up solider of the apocalypse style. He is an extreme version of harry, all psyche and physique, all outwards, all violence, all insane, all NOW.
While Joseph, the murderer, is a communist how never surrendered, who has been hiding in the reeds, dreaming of the past, held together by composure and idiology, watching the world through the scope of his sniper rifle, the other extreme version of harry, the one that is all intellect and motorics that is all self contained, all glorification, all alone, all memory.
In Disco Elysium you can not forget or escape from the past, because The whole game, was designed, developed and written as a reflection of your characters internal conflict. The cool thing about disco elysium is that it is a video game and that you get to experience this internal conflict dynamically.
On the cold streets of martinaise, under the symbolic ramblings of a standard alcoholc, there is a yellow bag. You do not have to pick it up. You can finish the whole game without ever laying a finger on its worn plastic, but if you do equip it, then you will look upon the world with new eyes. The crumbling streets and deyacing buildins are suddenly richer, as bottles become pick-uppable, as trash becomes cash.
And then… Maybe.. many days later, you are still seen carrying that yellow bag around with you out of pure habit. collecting bottles to turn into cents that you no longer need.
In Disco Elysium, your choices never fundamentally change the world, but they do change how you perceive that world and therefore how you engage with it.
The constant interruptions and comments from your skills are much more dynamic than the fritte bag, because they rely on passive skillchecks, a PnP mechanic where the dice are rolled in secret to determine wether a character notices something that the player never even asked about.
Passive skillchecks have not seen a lot of use in CRPGS, because of their exhorbitant cost. If you fail the check then all the work that went into creating it goes unappreciated and it is exactly this wasteful, luxurious use of passive skillchecks that makes reading text in disco elysium so engaging.
When a passive roll fails… then the conversation just keeps moving smoothly, but when a passive roll succeeds… then a new, maybe crucial piece of information is given to you and … then the conversation just keeps moving smoothly.
And so every time a skill speaks up it makes you aware of all the times when.. it didnt speak up, and you wonder how much you might have missed, what kind of truths disco elysium might be hiding.
The much less dynamic, hardcoded reactivity fulfills a similar function, but from a different direction. When kim mentions the fact that you spent the whole day running around with only shoe, then that is not only a funny and memorable moment, it also raises a questions.
What else is the game keeping track of? which of your decisions are being logged and noted and which ones arent? You can not know and suddenly, every decision you make becomes more interesting, simply becasue… it might be recorded, it might be reacted to later and so you start to feel as if there actually was a real life game master, watching over you.
But Disco Elysium is a video game. Everything inside of it has been handmade and this constant micro reactivity is not sustainable, forcing the game to cast wider nets with its thought cabinet, A video game system that can lead to moments of hilarious emergence like when “rigorous self critique” is internalised after sitting alone on a bench for an hour or when you become a fascist after reading a cheap fantasy novel. Like drugs, clothes and items,Thoughts exist outside of disco dialogue system, but they all affect your skills, which, in turn determine how you engage with the world.
Disco Elysiums contains multiple novels of text, where not only hard coded reactions, but dynamic systems act as filters that laid over the text to determine which paragraphs you get to read and which ones will remain hidden from you.
The four stats and the 24 skills that are forming this dynamic filter are all dealing with harries internal conflict in their own, unique way, referencing and remembering events and concepts through their own function and from their own perspective.
What grounds all of this high concept stuff is that each possible perspective you can inhabit, is mirrored and represented in the world. Everything that your version of harry can think and feel is also somewhere, out there, for you to stumble upon and to recognise yourself in.
The game is littered with reflective surfaces, with Npcs, groups and concepts that are representative of harry, that are laser focused on highlighting different aspects of who he once was and who he might become once more.
This extends to Disco Elysium’s incredibly dense history, lore and pop culture, on which the game relies to overwhelm you with raw information, with daunting daedal details, with worldbuildingly memetic mutterings, connecting characters and concepts without calling for additional code.
All of this would be a lot easier to understand if disco wasnt written by depressed intellectuals because the dynamically assembled meat of the game leans towards being very literary verbose prose, standing in stark contrast to the princess is in another dangerous to go alone type of videogame writing and it is this comparative complexity of the text itself that turns the basic activity of reading into a constant, low key puzzle.
Measurehead is not just a “black racist” he is a semanese supremacist and since neither we not harry know what that means exactly we can approach the concept of racism from a conceptual angle, only to then find out that Harrys version of racism is pretty fucking stupid.
Its based on territory, not pseudo-science. It wants “revachol forever” to turn from tag to truth and it uses fantasy metaphors, it is a fascism of the immediate feelings of the body, of physique, a stat that is trying to project manly strength while also being a drug driven paranoid masochist. This is a very specific, gleefully vindidictive depiction of nationalism.
Because when you play disco elysium earnestly, when you select the answers that most closely align with your actual, real life convictions, then like a sadistic 40€ personality test, Disco will show you a distorted, grotesque, maybe even to some degree accurate reflection of yourself.
You think you are a Nationalist? Nope, you are just stupid and you hate women and yourself, you sad fucking looser. You are an ultra-liberal? Nope, you are a psycopath, licking the idiological boots of even bigger psychopaths You think you are a communist? Nope, you just like making videoessays.
And so, when you read what people have to say about disco elysium it is always pretty easy to guess what kind of cop they played, because they often look at the game only through the lens of communism or the feeling of shivers, completely ignoring all the other delicate perspectives.
Psyche, on the other hand is all about perspectives. It’S about understanding other people, it’s about making connections.
Like, did you know that the movie harry rented all those years ago is a reference to georg büchners play “wojzeck?” or that rene arnaux is the name of an actual tip top race car driver?
Did you know that both joyce on her boat and real life game designer chris crawford in his book “on interactive storytelling” mention “prions” as things that always arrivee unexpectedly?
Did you know that if you draw all thoughts, NPCs, items, copotypes and political alignements onto a map based on thematic proximity to their respective stats, that you then get a you get a structure that consists of four divergent dendrites, all growing from harry?
Did you know that?
Psyche is about connections. Maybe too many connections as it can turn you into an insane, raving lunatic.
But Psyche is the best stat of disco elysium, because it adds the most points of view to the game, with the horrific necktie being your 25th skill and your third party memeber, a literal manifestation of your mind that has a surprising and hilarious narrative arc.
If you want the most story out of disco elysium, the psyche, like charisma in conventional CRPGS, is the way to go, because it not only allows you to talk to your tie, it also connects you to Kim Kitsuragi.
From Kims perspective, Disco Elyisum is a very long long escort mission, where harry keeps getting stuck on the metaphorical level geometry of his own drug addled brain.
When kim leaves you to do some adult stuff like, driving a car, when you are alone, then sitting on a bench to pass some time becomes something you can do, allowing you to wait for him to return. Because without Kim, some quests can not be completed, but without kim, everything is less fun. He is your straight man, he is your counterpart in every way, he is the dead pan rejection of insanity that makes pretending to be insane enjoyable at all.
He is the personified notification, telling you that “nobody liked that”, but he is also a very well composed, patient and pragmantic man and so we feel bad when we put him through our shit, because we have all been in similar situations ourselves, where one friend is way drunker than all the others and you have to awkwardly stand and watch as they… maybe, we have been that friend ourselves.
In any case, Kim is probably the most interesting and and believable NPC I have ever seen in a game.
He often reminded me of an inexperienced but determined PnP player who approaches the game methodically and cooly, who has chosen character traits that are min-maxed for case-solving, because finishing quests is what Dungeons and Dragons is all about, right?
when you ask kim what political idiollogy he subscribes to, he says that he believes in the RCM, the organisation that is healthy mix of all the extreme political ideas floating around revachol, threatening to pull the city back into chaos.
It would be a pity if that happened, wouldnt it? And dont worry, we are sure that the apocalyptic folk myth of the return has nothing to do with the primal entity under the church, or with the stashes of weapons that we keep finding in the purple cocaine catacombs.
Dont worry. We got this under control. Everything is fine. Focus on whats in front of you.
Focus on the case.
In Disco Elyisuzum you read some text and as a reward, you get to read some more text.
Inbetween the endless sentences, you get to make decisions and where passive skillchecks are a translated PnP mechanic, the techniques and patterns of Discos Dialogue draw from the rich and often forgotten history of visual novels and interactive fiction.
For all of it’s video game systems, Disco elysium is handwritten. every choice you see has been created by someone and even if Disco calls itself a CRPG, it can never truly simulate roleplaying.
Just consider the difference between “YES” and “LIE” and you will discover that you do not need the endless reactivity of PnP roleplaying to encounter interesting problems, you just need tension between the choices you can make.
Disco elysium knows this and so it presents you with seven options to say yes and one option to say no when you consider smoking a cigarette, it lets you choose between yelling “fuck the wolrd” and falling over, between saying something insane and saying something sexist, it lets you choose between fucking kill yourself you asshole.
And then, no matter what we choose, we usually, end up in the same place anyways, but we dont really want to be mad, because it was our actual choice, we decided which version of the story we wanted to become real. But we also remember the options we did not pick and they shape our idea of who harry could have become, how he could have acted, we try to imagine how the situation could have evolved and, even if disco then turns out to never fundamentally branch, we can take pleasure in the fact that it has given us a lot of space to act.
And so on the first day of disco we bumble around martinaise in an excited stupor, choosing all of the weird options, testing just how far the game is willing to let us go.
It lets you go far and it adds nuance to the boring GOOD and EVIL, by replacing EVIL with 3 different version of absolutely unhinged. Yeah, you might be an asshole, but you are an asshole with character, with style, with convictions, you are the loveable kind of deadbeat alcoholic, right?
The first few active skillchecks are funnier if you fuck them up. This is where you can have a heart attack while trying grab your tie, this is where you can “I want to make fuck with you. and this is where raphael ambrosius costeau adds a new choice to almost every dialogue for the rest of your game, this is where disco elysiums is infinite,
The first day feels so open and free because every quest you get is actually a sidequest. You do not need to get body from the tree, you do not need to enter the harbour, you do not need to talk to joyce or the smoker on the balcony.
All you need to do to progress is to wait for titus, who shows up on the second day of disco.
Disco Elysium consist of a series of mandatory active skillchecks, that are surrounded by sidequests. If you fail at the main check, then the game pushes you to explore the sidecontent, leveling up and getting more information, enabling you to retry.
Here, for the first time you actually NEED to do something. Here failure not just a fun thing that adds roleplaying opportunities, here failure just locks you out of progress.
And then This pattern repeats itself 2 more times, once again with Titus, and once with the infamous feldt mural. And as you are standing there, in front of these gates, dice in hand, you get to make the actual, the real decision of disco elysium:
Do you want to sacescum or not.
Playing without savescumming makes the game richer as a game, because it pushes you to use all of its systems, and to notice how they overlap with the narrative.
Unlike your ledger or your car, failing at an active skillcheck is not an act of prescribed, static reformation, it is an act of randomness. And while the odds of disco are very game designed, randomness always feels less authored, less forced. And so the power of discos structure reveals itself when you accept failure and just invest a point into the relevant skill in order to retry immediately,
The point you just spent … stays where you put it, permanently affecting your dynamically assembled stream of conciousness, making that skill more likely to speak up for the rest of the game. You havent just spent a point to increase a skill, you have, quite literally, changed your mind and you have done so mechanically.
Seeing this incremental change unfold over the course of the whole game, maybe, not even realising that it is happening until it is too late, is the real magic of disco elysium.
But when failure consistenlty stops you from progressing, then you need to hunt for quests and grind for xp you need to suck all the content out of disco elysium, unil all the dialogue trees are dull and gray,
The longer the game goes on, the more the balance between talking and running tips in favour of running back and forth across the desolate, empty coastline for hours, unsure wether you softlocked yourself or not, desperately looking for someone to talk to, realising that the open world is closing soon.
It is the sad truth of any creative endeavour with commercial aspirations, that you have to finish the work before the money runs out. The way in which Disco elyisum shrivels up towards the end is especially heartbreaking because of the incredible openness of the first day. It migh be foolish to expect so much from a game, but it might also be irresponsible of a game to promise so much and then reign its branches in so suddenly and brutally.
But only reason that we get to play and talk about disco elysium at all, Is that the seemingly infinite openness withers away as the book overtakes the dice, while the puzzle assembles itself, because Time does not stop for your grand visions, and, if you do not adapt your scope, then reality and rent will take everything from you.
Faced with such hard, horrible borders, it can be tempting to retreat into delusional fantasy or to dissolve your brain in an endless stream of stimulation. But the only way to deal with all of this is to take an honest look at yourself and to decide if it is time to double down.. or to opt out, and so it is very fitting that the story that disco tells is not one of heroic individual action its not about saving the world,
Instead, its a story of pragmatism, about facing yourself historically speaking and to then working with what you have instead of running away from it.
When you replay the game, when you go through the same events as a different harry with a different perspective, then the illusion of a truly dynamic experience shatters completely but the thematic coherence of the book beneath the dice becomes apparent.
Now that you know that the version of Harry that could not let go of the past killed the version of harry that ran away from it, you can focus on poking at the intricate, dynamically assembled, interactive web of connections, that makes disco elysium such an impossibly rich game.
As a pure book, Disco would be an unsubtle avalanche of subtext but because everything is assembled on the go and in response to randomness and probability you never see the whole picture.
Instead, You can imagine Disco Elysium as a huge, interactive funnel. The more time you spend inside of it, the more you notice that it is pushing you towards a single conclusion. The longer the game goes on, the narrower it has to become, until you, inevitably, arrive at the end.
You can also imagine Disco Elysium as kaleidoscope. It can produce infinite colorful variations and patterns, but each and every one of them will, eventually, turn out to emerge from a single focal point.
You can not change the past you can not change who did it. You can only change who arrives on that island to finally solve the case.
It is here, in a place that was nearby but always out of reach, that disco elysium reveals its four endings.
The first ending is about the dream-something, the woman that you abandoned, long before she left you only to become a goddess in your memory. Here, you will tell yourself the truth, you will finally separate fiction from reality
The second ending is about the deserter who has held on to his rifle for over 50 years, but who can not keep himself together any longer. Here you find out that he did it, but also, that he did it to himself.
The third ending is about the horrible beauty that is out there right now, between the reeds and the rotten wood, waiting for you to find it, waiting for you to believe in it.
The last ending is about your group, about the people that you hurt, that still came back for you one last time. Here, you will be judged for your actions and here you will be defended by your new friends.
Disco Elyisum has four endings and they arrive suddenly, one after the other, right at the end of an exhausting investigation.
It is easy to miss them because they take up so little space compared to the piles of prose that are dedicatet to the dumbest distractions.
It is easy to overlook the four endings of disco, because they come at the end of a long funnel, because they come hours after you realise that you never really had a choice. But maybe, it is also easy to overlook the four endings of disco elysium, because they all tell you the exact same thing.
Thank you for