'Disco Elysium' Was Too Afraid of Sincerity to Be Revolutionary

“What games does Disco Elysium remind you of?” Ask around and the top answer is certain to be Planescape Torment. No surprise there, as the connective tissue between them is obvious. The visual perspective of the world is the same, the heavy focus on dialog and being able to choose a wide variety of ways to roleplay your character, and consequently those choices changing the way the world and the people in it react to you. And the creators of the game, Estonian developers ZA/UM, readily and gladly speak of what an influence Planescape was on Disco Elysium.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/7kpjzq/disco-elysium-was-too-afraid-of-sincerity-to-be-revolutionary
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Yeah so I extremely disagree with this.

First of all, I think that the idea that Harry’s journey is at all meant to be instructive is a massive failing. He exists as a sounding-rod for political opinion, you as a player get to choose exactly where he lands, but there are compelling textual arguments that before player interaction he already exists as a massive fuck up who’s had his brain melted through exposure to politics (See the centrist cop thought)

I think the biggest mistake is assuming that Harry is meant to be an inherently political figure. If he was then surely the ending of the narrative would have some political weight other than the idea that revolutions that happened 50 years ago are bad and lead to further consequences down the line.

No the real argument of the game, regardless of what alignment you pick for your character, is that neoliberalism consumes all. No matter what, you as a cop who works partly for the neoliberal government that runs revachol, are tasked with enforcing the law of the neoliberal hierarchy. An enforcer hired to enact the rule of corporations over workers has ended up dead, and despite your particular political leanings the point of the game is that you solve that murder; there’s no way for you to square that circle in a moral sense.

This is not a game that ever dreamt of being revolutionary, and to describe it as such seems like an awfully American sentiment. This is a game that describes the experience of being political in an environment where politics no longer matters. What matters is power, and the ability to prescribe the shape of the world, something that is not relevant to America because America has been doing that exact thing for decades on a global scale. To suddenly see that ability disappear and describe it as a lack of politics feels like American Exceptionalism prescribed on a world that has never had that power, and then is again being punished for that lack.

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This end summation is key to me - as several other people, including myself, noted of other attempts to analyse Disco Elysium by Way point staff from an unknowingly Americentric viewpoint, these are doomed to fail.
Disco Elysium is one of the most Baltic games I have ever played, and it’s approach to politics - and cynical, weary - yet ironically ‘optimistic’ - viewpoint is exactly what I would expect from them. Since a lot of this is cast from the perspective of Estonia’s own position - between the EU and neoliberal USA on one side, and Russia on the other, the same is reflected in Revachol.

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Even if the underlying politics are inherently good, there is a point where trying to make a grander statement outside of the story’s scope makes the whole work incredibly top-heavy. The third act of Night in the Woods, where the setting’s verisimilitude and mostly subtle messaging is cast by the wayside in favor of yelling the point at you in the form of an awkward operatic skit, drags that game down for me.

That’s what this piece seems to suggest for this game, and having my own views propagandized back to me sounds like a tedious exercise that the authors deliberately avoided.

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Add another strong disagree from me. If you’re not seeing the moments of painful sincerity in DE and how integral they are to the game, you’re not looking.

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The games politics certainly are not revolutionary, but not for a lack of sincerity.

But instead of going on a long rant about revolutionary socialism, social-democracy, liberalism, Marxism, Anarchism, left-wing optimism, post-stalinist cynicism and pessimism, I’m just going to do the lazy thing of pointing to a book about communism with an edgy title: https://libcom.org/library/nihilist-communism-monsieur-dupont

It doesn’t contain everything of what I just mentioned and is ultimately not as edgy as the title suggests and the authors might have wanted it to be (otherwise there would be no point in writing it), but it does give food for thought for a revolutionary perspective, in my experience.

Also a lot of good (and from my pov correct) critiques of the book on that site. Definitley worth checking out.

EDIT: What I am getting at is somewhat described by the summary of the book on the website:

‘Nihilist communism’ argues against the conception of ‘consciousness raising’ and recruiting as practised by the far left, whereby it is implicitly assumed that the social revolution may be brought about by enough persons spreading communist ideas effectively enough. Monsieur Dupont also argues regularly against class consciousness and even consciousness as a factor in revolution. To this, they counterpose a model of revolution based on a crisis of capitalism which will necessitate the appropriation of entire key industries by the essential proletariat - a class which they believe should be defined solely by the economic position of its members. They write (in a manner somewhat typical of their style):

‘We do not know what anyone means when they describe the proletariat as a social category. If they are implying that the working class as a social body have something between themselves other than their experience of work then we utterly reject this. MD [i.e. Monsieur Dupont] have a penchant for Champagne and Tarkovsky movies whereas our neighbours prefer White Lightening [sic.] and WWF wrestling, our economic position, however, is identical.’

‘The Proletariat will not be motivated by political values in its resistance to work but by its selfish interest to assert its species being; its bodily desire to be human floods across the barriers of separation. There is nothing nice or noble or heroic about the working class, it is essential to the productive process which constitutes the structure of our reality and therefore essential to revolution and the abolition of reality based on production.’

This view, among much else, also necessarily calls into question the role and point of art/cultural production, in terms of political praxis from a revolutionary perspective.
Disco Elysium doesn’t have or, crucially, doesn’t want to have that perspective (as is pointed out by the other comments), but it is also this which is seen as some kind of “lack of sincerity” in its left-wing leaning, by Waypoints critique.
A general problem of “left-wing art criticism” imo.

Americans fail to grasp foreign perspectives on leftism yet again say what. It is both weird and sort of disappointing that late/retrospective criticism of DE on this site is apparently falling into what I felt were the pitfalls of its initial criticism and critique on this site. At the time of release I was willing to chalk that up to how Bernie was dominating a certain sphere of American political discussion… I guess now I could chalk that up to the riots/protests/mass direct action… but I’m feeling less charitable, and I’m wondering if it’s a product of the particular way that a certain demographic (being online leftist millennial intelligentsia) has grown to talk about art and politics.

More under the cut about tone, theme, and this article.

If this is too off-topic, let me know and I’ll edit/remove, but I’m finding myself very tired of the new-new sincerity’s domination of discourse in circles that I am otherwise very eager to be a part of. When David Foster Wallace criticized the prevalent exclusivity of irony, I don’t believe he intended for guys like Foer to write long, saccharine, bourgeois paeans to modernity while hiding behind “new sincerity” as a shield against criticism that he wasn’t being self-reflective or writing critically enough.

As @miscu said upthread,

Having my own views propagandized back to me sounds like a tedious exercise that the authors deliberately avoided.

This take–that for a work of art to be not only politically satisfying but teleologically politically fulfilling (revolutionary reads here like a buzzword for the ultimate aspirational quality of a work of political art)–it needs to flip the folding chair around and break the forth wall, or, more sincerely, stop playing with a certain artistic toolkit (which is not revolutionary) and start playing with another, pre-prescribed artistic toolkit (which is revolutionary).

It amounts to a kind of critical tone-policing, which is a particularly bizarre tack for someone in this season of “don’t criticize Biden or Trump will win” to take against a work of art that was I think rarely opaque about its intentions and its fundamental perspective. “Don’t be ironic or else communism won’t win?” I feel like we’re never going to not have this argument about “purity politics” and the “dirtbag left” and so on.

It’s an especially bizarre approach considering the fact that the article more or less acknowledges what other, more-concise posters have already said: DE is, in so many ways, about skepticism of human endeavors; especially the large-scale ones. It’s not striving to be politically revolutionary (though I would argue, in contravention of the article’s title, that it was technically, thematically, and aesthetically revolutionary for the medium) because political revolution is just the kind of movement that the game (or at least the protagonist) is so skeptical of.

Why demand that the game be a fight song? That game exists–explicitly leftist versions of that game exist. If you want a game that is more often a meditation, with as many unanswered questions as answered ones–which I believe that it is–then I think you must be prepared for a degree of dissatisfaction and disappointment with the reality of your system–or the reality into which you have fit your system.

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This is something that’s really jumped out to me in conversations about DE in general. There’s a lot of people talking in vague terms about how the game is ground-breaking and their own personal journeys with the game, but it all feels like a surface level critique that refuses to engage with the potential motivation behind those aesthetic choices.

I especially hate the way that people talk about the dolores dei stuff. Yes it is a lot of sad man-angst, but their relationship is pretty clearly a metaphor for the political history of the setting that is alluded to throughout the game on a symbolic level (Harry’s weird obsession with the colour blue, the skua, etc.) and it’s frustrating to have an interesting and complex part of the story reduced to “this is toxic masculinity and I don’t like it”

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I don’t think I really agree with the thesis of this piece but it did really help me think about and see why my conversation with the insulindian phasmid was such a powerful experience.

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I keep thinking about how similar works like New Vegas or Planescape—where principal characters espouse great man theory (Ulysses) or ancap libertarianism (Ravel)—are treated with reverence for their great storytelling and design in spite of the ideas they value.

Games with real provocative politics end up judged on the merits of their praxis rather than how they fit those views into the story being told and the systems that convey them. Obviously “good politics” is not a free pass to leave a work’s ideas unexamined critically, it just shouldn’t be the sole component that gets the bulk of analysis.

(this is ironically an annoyingly common framework that CTH looks at media through, so maybe it’s only fair they get the same treatment in the game they cameo in)

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I’m going to come and second what a lot of people are saying and say that I really don’t agree with the central point of this piece.

I do agree with this: Disco Elysium has problems with its irony. For me, a significant way this showed itself to me was that much of what I’ll call the game’s “political responses” (responses where the player is given a choice to express an ideology) are so extreme and on-the-nose that its hard to perceive the expressions of that as sincere. I do consider the game to be very much about self-loathing, and while I do not agree with the read that the constant self-criticism makes the game “less revolutionary”, I can see where that perspective comes from.

But I find it ironic that as the piece describes the failings of the game in its unwillingness to “be vulnerable”, it ends up making a convincing argument for the game using that to effect. Yes, the ending of this story shows something strange and kind of bleak: in Colin Spacetwink’s words, “It’s a beautiful ending, but on reflection, a deeply telling one. The game’s only moment of vulnerability comes from a bug. A bug that wasn’t supposed to exist.” But to me, that was precisely the point. Yes, it came from the mouth of something that shouldn’t have existed. This is because the characters, namely The Deserter, have been so profoundly hurt and delved so deeply into a cynical nihilism that revolution no longer seems possible. But The Deserter (quite literally) cannot comprehend how and why the future revolution will occur. For this essay not to talk about The Deserter is surprising, given that I think that arc is what clarifies the game’s message for me significantly. This moment is, for me, a massive rejection of cynicism, nihilism, and defeatism.

I’m finding myself reminded of the piece “The Failed Revolution of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite by Kelley Dong. It’s a well-written piece, and has some pointed criticisms, but it’s one that I ultimately disagree with. Just like this piece! It’s final paragraph reads (minor thematic spoilers):

Though the contextual explanation would be that capitalism subjugates young people into surrender, the move itself is an act of nihilist surrender that replaces conviction for widespread change with an individual “I feel bad.” Everyone moves on, we leave the theatre engaged and entertained but not implicated. Like Mr. Park says of Ki-taek, “even though [the film] always seems about to cross the line, [it] never does cross it.” Instead, Parasite sits right on the edge of resistance, hand-wringing over the notion that tomorrow will be no better. Oh bother, if only we could cross that line!

This part really frustrated me when I read it. To say, “Sure, this story makes its point, but why didn’t it end with a revolution?” is an incredibly… weak form of critique for me. @Karla explains a lot of why this bothers me up-thread quite eloquently (I may have chosen not to write all this had I seen how well they summed it up in their comment). As critique, it does not engage with the story on its own terms, but on whether or not it matches up with some form of narratological praxis. I’m not saying you have to like it, but to say, “therefore, it is, in fact, neoliberal/counter-revolutionary/etc.”, well… that really frustrates me.

I don’t think this piece is doing that. And I’m not sure Kelley Dong’s piece was, in its entirety, doing that either. But I have found myself more exhausted lately by the discourse of splitting hairs about whether or not this or that art is truly leftist, or if it’s secretly liberal propaganda. It can feel disingenuous. And for me? As a reader? It feels just as cynical as you’re trying to claim the art to be in the first place.

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While I haven’t played DE and so can’t comment on this specific piece, the comments in this thread make perfect sense to me given the recent tone of Waypoint’s criticism in regards to politics and identity. It seems like, in an effort to always push critical boundaries, Waypoint has adopted a sort of contrarianism where they insist that a game’s premise is actually something other than it ever intended to be and then criticize failing to meet the imagined premise. It’s a frustratingly shallow form of political art criticism.

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Dang, I really need to play this…

Would you mind, at least a bit, explaining what you’re getting at? At least in relation to Disco Elysium?