[PODCAST Disco Elysium Spoilercast] The Radical Politics of 'Disco Elysium' Make For a Potentially Complicated Legacy

Disco Elysium, by and large, came out of nowhere for a lot of people, including us. A powerful story about the fallout of a failed political revolution and the people left in the rubble, portrayed through the lens of an alcoholic who’s just woken up from a bender so powerful it’s legitimately caused amnesia. And while a lot of games claim to embrace the idea of choice, few grant the player with the shocking granularity offered by Disco Elysium.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qjdb5m/the-radical-politics-of-disco-elysium-make-for-a-potentially-complicated-legacy

I’m just an hour in, but am full of thoughts and want to share/process/record them. I audibly gasped when I saw this come up in my feed, and have been looking forward to it for a while now!

When Patrick brought up pessimism in response to Austin’s critiques of the lack of positive change in the game’s ideology, I was reminded of this Foucault quote:

“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is danger­ous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.”

Foucault, who identified as a Marxist, but who was often distanced from the critical tradition and placed in the post-structuralist tradition (while claiming neither), resonates a bit with me and with the game here, I think. And Austin’s critique of the game reflects a common (and often valid) Marxist criticism of post-structuralists as do-nothing buzzkills. But I think Foucault’s quote points to something here. That a cynicism toward all systems (which the game seems to evince, too), isn’t necessary an excuse for defeatism or nihilism, but rather may be fuel for a constant, embodied, cautious, pessimistic activism.

The arrival of the plasmid was for me, like it was for Austin and Patrick, one of the most memorable and affecting moments of the game. Though I read it very differently than Austin, who seemed to fit it into a traditional nature-human binary that I don’t think a game this complex and clever would cleave to. A recurring theme in this game, and I think a source of its cynicism, is the tragic reality of bounded human subjectivity, and how what we can’t see nonetheless distorts our vision (which is a very critical-theory notion, going back at least to Habermas). The Hollow in the church, and the Pale (which, in my read of what the plasmid says, is generated by humans because our subjectivity necesarily generates an Unknown), as well as systemic social forces and internalized ideologies, are all things that are invisible to individual subjects that nonetheless impact their vision and action. (I think this is part of why humanism and (neo)liberalism, both systems which elevate the notion of the individual human subject, are so heavily critiqued in this game).

What the plasmid does is not say “all those human systems are broken, here’s a ‘natural’ system to complement it.” The plasmid is, by virtue of its physical nature, something that literally distorts reality so it can’t be seen, and in doing, causes immediate damage to nearby people, and results in second-order damage like the central murder for which the plasmid is ultimately partly responsible. It shows that we are shaped not only by countless human systems, but also countless non-human systems that are out of our control. It broadens the scope of its systemic critique. It feels like the game, with its sensitive Shivers and imaginative Inland Empire, is calling us to pay greater attention at the systemic level - and to all kinds of systems.

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Real quick - how did the plasmid have some responsibility for the murder? I missed that - I saw it at the end but maybe just, didn’t catch that bit.

Long-term exposure to the plasmid contributed to the mental illness of the hermit sniper, which contributed ultimately to his choice to (and justification for) murder.

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I agree with this, although I was approaching the same message via Absurdism. I think your Foucaultian interpretation is probably more what the writer(s) intended though…

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Could you unpack your Absurdist take a bit more? I’m curious where it came from and where it led you, especially if you feel like it took you away from authorial intent to someplace off the beaten path!

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Have to say I dislike the framing of this title and much of the discussion around this game generally. So the game’s got radical politics, so what? How is it’s outlook any less depressing or “potentially complicated” than the tortured neoliberal nonsense that pumps through every single big video game narrative? It seems to me that when a story slots neatly into our culture’s dominant ideology, there’s always some attempt to meet it on its own terms, with varying degrees of grumpling along the way. But when a story tries to imagine something different outside of the centre the critical response is defined by discussion around the ways it does or does not even deserve to exist.

BTW, Waypoint’s article on Spider-Man is titled “‘Spider-Man’ Isn’t Just Good, It’s a Game About Trying to Be Good”. I bring it up just because I’m playing it currently. This is a game in which an iconic moral paragon establishes a surveillance state, takes actual glee in concussing drug dealers and there’s entire portions of the game dedicated to showing the player how great and necessary NGOs are. If there’s any game that should have its existence questioned it’s that abomination. But while these issues are sometimes bought up in coverage they rarely seem to enter the structure around which discussion hangs.

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right, I also have this issue: there’s plenty of games which have slotted into the dominant cultural ideology of their period which also look dated now [and will look dated in the future]. As long as they had enough complexity to make their positions on things clear, they’ll have had enough complexity to look dated in the future. The problem is that we assume that the “centre” doesn’t move, so we only talk about things potentially looking dated in the future when looking at things which aren’t in the centre now.

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Really basic question - What are Austin and Patrick referring to when Austin begins to ask him “Did you set-?” and leaves it at that? It wasn’t eliciting for me whatever it elicited for them, and I’m not sure if I’m just not clicking with it, or if they’re referring to something I didn’t encounter on my playthrough.

EDIT: I’m guessing they’re referring to setting the letters on fire toward the end, based on later conversation.

I’ve been learning about the game second-hand through my friend playing through it, and an impression I’ve gotten is how rare it is to see a game where the backing ideologies are hard left at their core. Enlightened centrism is the norm for WRPGs (e.g. The Outer Worlds with its praxis of trying to find compromise between collectivism and corporatism), and even conservative/nationalist ideology is more commonly expressed in the genre than any real form of leftist politics.

Said friend mentioned that their character has been pushing hard for communism, and got pushback from a character in the form of “you realize that this is an extremely unpopular ideology, and that you’d have to be the center of any real change, right?”. It’s at the point where their character is literally regarded as the “Big Communism Builder”.

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Regarding cryptid/phasmid: Cryptid means “unknown animal”, in this case because it hasn’t been documented. Stuff like the Yeti and such. Phasmid is just the biological order for stick insects.

I didn’t get a proper explanation of the Pale (where’d you find a book about that? All I saw was the prompt on the rich lady and I couldn’t make the roll for that), only the stick insect’s explanation that it’s basically “thought smog”, generated by the process of thinking. I figure its poison is the reason the cryptozoologist never saw it again, she got poisoned the first time she saw it and as a result would never be able to perceive it again.

I definitely failed the shoot-down of the corpse a few times, because I hadn’t learned about the game’s loss mechanisms I didn’t save after I succeeded on my first try and all my retries made me instantly lose from morale depletion if I failed (I had 1 morale and no magnesium).

Going with the INT-archetype for my character resulted in me not getting any emotional response to the Sunday Friend or Klaasje (saw reports of other people having their Harry fall in love with her).

So, spoilered a bit in case you wanted to try something different but: I think you fall in love with Klassje if you choose to look her in the eyes, fail the Volition check, and then choose the option that isn’t looking away, if you didn’t do that and succeed at the Volition check then you were having an emotional response to her, your Harry just hadn’t realised it yet.

I never shot down the body, and had to talk to the union boss about asking Measurehead to take it down for me. As noted, this game’s “fail-forward” design is really thoughtful, and its small world is dense with interesting wrinkles and redundancies.

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Regarding the post-pod talk of Leon’s face texture: UV mapping on a character model, (particularly a human head one) is indeed a vat of nightmare fuel, but the concept of why is simple.
The faces (quads/tris) of the mesh are separated in patches and pulled apart like felt cloth (or uh, skin), and the texture is mapped onto the coordinates of those faces. Larger patches of mesh data enables higher detail, as Austin mentioned, and hidden / less important parts, like eyesockets or inside of mouth for example, can just be a tiny speck over a single colour.
Anyway just thought someone would find it interesting, haven’t played the game so can’t speak to it ^^’

image

For a visual, imagine this except instead of for a dice it’s a human face.

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I think that another two important things about the Delores Dei / Your Ex dream which Austin and Patrick don’t really touch on [and you can see I’m just adding more comments as I listen through the podcast] are:

firstly: sure, you’re given the option of being a possessive or bitter jerk in your dream, to your dream image of your Ex/Dei - but you don’t have to. You’re also given the option to be a fascist, a racist and all kinds of other stuff at various points in the game. I played that encounter about as well as you can (basically accepting that she was going to leave and saying [really to my subconscious], “okay, can we get this over with”?), so I got a lot less Sad / Angry Sad Man out of it than Austin and Patrick. You might not be able to avoid the sequence, but you can play it a lot better. I also felt that it was definitely a dream of a memory of the original breakup - Delores implies that you’ve had exactly this dream several times before, so I think you do just keep revisiting it and remembering how it went [with increasing distortion and metaphor layered on it] (and, if you’re playing my kind of sorry cop, you definitely regret how you acted at the time).

secondly: yes, there’s definitely still a bit of Sad Man about it even then - but it’s also seen by everyone who knows the full story as being a crazy reaction to the breakup. If you talk to your colleagues from your Station about it in the “endgame” debrief, they make it clear that they think you’re massively overreacting to the whole thing (whilst they might sympathise for you feeling bad more generally) and just need to get over it. So, I think it sort of manages to mostly rescue it anyway.

[Also, as an aside: cnidarians are jellyfish, for those of you as confused as Austin is.]

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(Haven’t listened to the pod yet, but DE thoughts have been churning in my head for some weeks so let’s try to make some words of it)

The manpain of the protagonist is supposed to feel ridiculous and overblown, and it does, but it still gets kind of grating when it keeps coming back again and again. The sad man obsessing over a bunch of nothing was by far the least interesting part of the story for me.

On the politics front, I don’t know that Disco Elysium points to any kind of answer, but it clearly shows the value of struggle and desire for change through a lot of its characters. I found an article which express these ideas pretty well: https://www.gamesradar.com/how-disco-elysium-captures-our-current-political-moment/ Also, in my ending, the game teases some kind of big protests in the streets in the coming years

What I took from the story, the ending, the whole world of Disco Elysium, is an appeal to empathy (but not the empty, Moralist kind) and a broadening of perspective. Everything in the game refutes clear, simple answers and points out the systemic issues. Looking at the main murder as the foremost example:

spoilers for the full investigation
  • it initially seems linked to the conflict between the strikers and the mercenaries, the victim a casualty of a complex social crisis taking place at the docks;
  • as you uncover evidence, you discover the cover-up and are directed to Klaasje. If you dig up info on her, the case takes a political dimension, with possible espionage and interference from other countries;
  • after a round of misdirection and the shootout, you end up finding the sniper on the island. The murder happened almost by accident, caused by another remnant of war along with the many demolished buildings and bullet holes littering the town;
  • and then the phasmid apparition points to a metaphysical influence: directly contributing to the degradation of the mental state of the sniper, but also a symbol of the Pale expanding and affecting all of Martinaise.

The murder wasn’t caused by any of those issues separately, by the phasmid or the old sniper or the spy in hiding. It was caused by all of it, a system clicking together to produce death and catastrophe.

The murder itself isn’t even very important; the whole district is full of tragedies and abandoned people, other products of the system. The strike was going to blow up bad even without this. But your actions can help save people, can help avoid future armed intervention, can help a kid who is cold standing outside. And not because you’re the Bethesda hero who is here to fix the situation; because it’s the only only way forward for any of this to get better. People acting with empathy; kind acts, big and small; taking decisive action when needed.

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My take on the Dolores ‘breakup’:
The metaphor of using the likeness on the mural during the dream sequence isn’t indulging the cliche of the ‘sad man’; I think it is paralleling the expectations of a utopia to that of patriarchal hetero male entitlement to a relationship. In my playthrough it was made clear that his girlfriend (I dont recall them having been married?) left him because of his passivity and unwillingness to improve himself, in the same way that he realises the utopian ideal of a truly humanitarian state abandoned everyone, collectively, because of the passivity of the ‘Ultraliberal’ majority. They were not entitled to a utopia to begin with, they were not willing to put in the effort, to fight for it, so they were left without it

(crucially i think the appearance of dolores in his dream isn’t of a representation of the actual fictional historical figure, and by extension neoliberal imperialism, but of the idealised form of what the woman with burning lungs was meant to represent, ‘the mother of all humanity’, a society of caring and welfare for all)

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So, a late reply, because I wanted to think about this a bit.

If you take the “metaphysical” position of DE as being presented mostly via the metaphor of the Pale/Hollow , the conversation with the Phasmid, and the general tone of the writing regarding both different ethical/philosophical positions, and how people’s lives generally go…

I felt that the point that the Phasmid conversation made was that humans are unique in that they actually can choose to do things or not - they “add intent / meaning / context” to the universe, which other things don’t do. The Phasmid can’t choose not to exert its psychic influence on the Old Soldier, even though it is increasingly killing him; it’s something the Phasmid just does, because it is in its nature. And the reason why the other creatures are so… existentially terrified of humanity… is that humans do choose - they pick up all these influences from the world, and then impose meaning, morality etc [and make choices, or believe they do] as a result. (I think that Hollows, and the Pale around them, are a reaction against the structuring of reality by humans adding “meaning” and “observing” reality [in the Berkelian sense, not the QM sense]; they’re the other side of a metaphysical see-saw, places with zero-structure and meaning.).
The Phasmid (and all of nature excluding humans [and other conscious entities presumably]) isn’t “good” or “bad” (or “evil”), because morality is a thing that people create, it’s not inherent to reality. Its advice to Harry re his feelings for his Ex are the only advice that a non-conscious being could give about something which causes “pain”; filtered through your Harry’s personal philosophical biases [which presumably colour his Inland Empire “translating”].

So far, so every post-Schopenhauer field of philosophy, so this could be anything vaguely post-modernist or existentialist in position.

I picked up on an Absurdist, specifically, tone roughly following your reasoning: DE is cynical about all positions and won’t let you pick one without pointing out both the positives and huge negatives - but it’s particularly upset about centrism and moralism, which are the closest things to a kind of philosophical nihilism [in the Nietzchean tradition, at least] in the setting. DE seems to want you to choose to believe something, in the knowledge that what you’re devoting yourself to is, necessarily both inherently flawed, and also not “true” in a deeper metaphysical sense. The value is in both - wholehearted commitment to adding meaning, whilst simultaneously being aware of the inevitable futility of this on the universal scale. The striving is what’s important.

(I think the inevitability of the Pale destroying all existence serves as a pretty blunt reification of the inevitable futility of all human endeavour, on the long scale; especially as the Pale explicitly erases even meaning, the one thing that Existentialism thinks will “outlive” you.)

And, really, the central murder mystery itself is a pretty Absurd activity (as is the work of the RCM in general): we’re trying to do a “bit of good” and solve a problem, but in the end, the killer is questionably responsible [being not of sound mind], we’ve tried to defuse a massacre, and had mixed success… and we know that there’s going to be more things to investigate in the future.

(Even Harry’s own unresolved psychological issues are Absurd in this sense: he obviously strives to be a good cop, keep things in control [and if you play him as I did, can have every intent to “keep it all together for good this time”], but his colleagues from his Station make it clear that they expect this to be just like the last N times this happened, and that his eventual failure is inevitable. A hero with a Sisyphean struggle, played during the upswing, is almost a perfect Absurdist hero.)

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I have a more Gamey question to pose: I’m really struggling with whether I want to replay, or go through old saves, to see stuff I missed. I’m struggling because I kind of have some attachment to the story my character had, the events that occurred, the things that weren’t done. My playthrough was probably “sloppy” - I probably wasted a good bit of time not being sure what to do next. I didn’t finish a few stories that I did start, and botched another towards the end. There is so much extremely cool sounding stuff in this game that I’m so curious about, but I am worried about diluting the story I helped make. Do y’all have any thoughts on this? I figure that eventually I will go back but I’m just not sure when.