Disco Elysium

Tagged: Game

Videogame (2019). ZA/UM. Designed and written by Robert Kurvitz. Platforms: Win (2019); Mac, PS4, Switch, XBoxOne (2020). Working title was "No Truce with the Furies".

Disco Elysium is a 2019 Computer Role Playing Game laid out in the Isometric projection fashionable twenty years earlier, in which the player controls an Amnesiac policeman wandering a post-communist dream city. Made independently by a handful of Estonians working initially out of a squat in Tallinn, the game is an Absurdist SF, New Weird procedural, imagined by lead writer Robert Kurvitz as "Dungeons and Dragons meets 1970s cop show".

As Disco Elysium's alcoholic detective protagonist, players are faced with the relatively prosaic mystery of a corporate mercenary found lynched behind a bar. The game's strangeness unfolds with its modernist fantasy setting: the coastal ghetto of Martinaise in the city of Revachol. Fifty years after a communist revolution was violently suppressed by foreign intervention, Revachol is a city colonized by international capital, whose warships float menacingly offshore. With crumbling architecture and broken institutions, Revachol seems a fable of the ruined hopes of eastern Europe or post-industrial America – anywhere where the tide of history has washed in and then out again. A single conversation, easily missed among the game's many avenues, elucidates the world as a series of isolated land-masses separated by "The Pale", a region of growing nothingness where the laws of nature break down.

The world of Disco Elysium was initially created by Kurvitz and friends for their own private role-playing games, and is further explored in Kurvitz's novel Püha ja õudne lõhn ["A Sacred and Terrible Air"] (2013). It is some of the most imaginative world-building in a computer role-playing game since the philosophically-minded Planescape: Torment (1999), which Kurvitz and friends played as adolescents, and to which Disco Elysium could be seen as a spiritual successor.

The "gaming" aspects of Disco Elysium will appeal to a niche audience, as they consist largely of selecting responses in conversations. These include interrogations of suspects, but also the ceaseless internal chatter between the many facets of the policeman's personality, personified as skills such as "Savoir Faire", "Pain Threshold" or the Lynchian "Inland Empire". Cumulatively, these dialogues are the equivalent of a large novel in the vein of China Miéville or Thomas Pynchon, and they offer unusual latitude to shape the protagonist's personality, from psychic feminist to fascist bruiser.

In contrast to most Anglo-American games, Disco Elysium is joyously political. It pushes players to declare an internal allegiance – to communism, nationalism, neo-liberalism or moralizing centrism – and then sets out to prove the contradictions in each. It depicts capitalism as a dehumanizing and colonizing force, a weapon now turned inwards onto the culture which birthed it. Revachol is not a dystopia, but a failed utopia, which nevertheless must be fought for against the alternatives. On the scaffolding of urban fantasy, Disco Elysium's Estonian creators have built an angry piece of social commentary, which Kurvitz has described as self-consciously in the Soviet science-fiction tradition of Arkady and Boris Strugatski.

Disco Elysium's final revelations feel rushed and a little unpolished, but the narrative concludes with insurrection welling up in Revachol, and the promise that, after fifty years of stasis, history is primed to erupt again.

As of 2020, further games are promised and television rights have been sold. [JN]

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