[PODCAST Episode 271] A Few Hours In, Disco Elysium Has Interesting Politics but a Frustrating Voice

Disco Elysium is a game set in an ugly world, but will it say anything through that ugliness? Sold as having an "unprecedented freedom of choice," the game does offers the player a myriad of options for each encounter. What happens when a player wants to choose the options that make their character a horrible person? How much pushback or consequences should there be, or should truly horrible options be left out all together? And how much ugliness can there be before it falls into cynicism? We discuss the opening moments of Disco Elysium and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ywaez5/a-few-hours-in-disco-elysium-has-interesting-politics-but-a-frustrating-voice

The first two things I heard about this game were “you play as a cop” and “the Chapo Trap House guys are in it” and there are fewer things that kill my interest in a game this thoroughly.

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I respect that Austin is putting in the work to engage with that game on its level, but boy am I tired of this aggressive “what are my politics? I don’t know, you tell me bro” cowardice.

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I haven’t listened yet, but I just wanted to say thank you (Cado?) for putting game titles and time stamps in the show notes.

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Some of the things being said about Disco Elysium give me some pause, but some other gaming voices i trust really really love the game. Plus for me the thing that always kills these CRPGS is way too much tactical isometric combat, so a game that that excises most if not all of it sounds amazing to me tbh

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So I’m about six or seven hours into the game, and I’ll say I’m kind of surprised by how down on it Austin is. Like…he’s right that it has some issues, the weirdest of which to me was the use of censored homophobic slurs by a couple of minor characters. I’m not really sure what they were going for there even though I suspect their intentions were not to be like “edgy and intense” or anything based on interviews I’ve read with the director. I need to think more about this and go talk to them again and report back.

Re: the game’s politics; I mean the creators have said they’re leftist, I think, but the game is more interested in sort of interrogating basically everything; centrism, neoliberalism, communism, and fascism are all made into ridiculous caricatures of themselves. But in the midst of all that are these really interesting characters who are just trying to get by, and the most admirable and relatable of them are usually the common, everyday people. I guess maybe you could say the game is suggesting that we stop trying to figure out the big picture for a minute and just engage with the people around us? We’ll see how that develops.

And yeah, you’re a cop…sort of. You’re a kind of citizen cop without much authority in this setting, and you can choose dialogue options about not wanting to be a cop; you can also be a cop who shouts at people about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Or a cop who tells everyone the world is ending. Or apologizes to everyone you meet. It’s…complicated.

To me it’s such an interesting game. So much to do and see, some really great writing and humor, a neat aesthetic, and probably the most unique role-playing system I’ve seen in a CRPG ever. And Kim, your partner…he’s wonderful. Just the best companion.

So I dunno. Maybe I’m a really bad person or something, but I think the game is at least worth a look.

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I haven’t had a chance to play much of this game, digging what I have played. I replay these kinds of games first parts 2 or 3 times in an attempt to internalize how varied things can get… and then when the swings are wide like this games seems to be I am way more anxious about my choices… which as someone with an anxiety issue I weirdly enjoy.

The real world is a complex place where you always have the option to be a shithead and the potential pros and cons for that are varied. I like when games include that path even though I won’t take it when there’s any benevolent or righteous option. I really like it in the rare instance when those preferred paths close to me or become costly. Many things are a transaction in life and most the time it’s pay what you want until they don’t take what you spending, and that’s how I view these games. It’s way more interesting because I could spend those bad boy bucks, sometimes that might get me the most for what it costs me, but the character I’m role playing wouldn’t.

This is all the more profound for me because I get to see my character’s thoughts and impulses as choices about how I think not just speak and act. I personally experience cognitive dissonance all the time, that’s what it feels like is this game. I don’t know if I’m making sense but it seems like the point of this game is about the questions we ask of self AND setting and where those answers lead us and who they make us. The ambiguous politics feels like a purposeful ambiguity but also a part of your identity to be discovered… I mean this is a game which the main mechanic is the 24 parts of your brain and how you use them to solve a mystery.

Seems good so far.

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Yeah, this is where I’m at as well. The devs are Estonian and have talked about the experience of being post-Soviet, and the game really feels like it reflects that. It feels like it’s critical of all lofty narratives because of their tendency to become completely abstract from the people they’re supposed to benefit and end up marginalizing those same people. Which I think is fair. It’s not taking the centrist point of “well everything is equal so whatever,” but it is suspicious of and lampoons anyone who claims to be driven by a higher purpose while not engaging with the actual people involved. And while it does let you be a truly horrible person, I think it makes it pretty clear how the devs feel about racism and such.

The cop thing I think is a narrative convenience for the awkward place it puts you politically, but I of course understand why playing a cop in a game can be inherently uncomfortable.

And yeah Kim sure is the best, huh? What a wonderful character.

And my god the skill and thought systems are both so clever. We’ll see how the game holds up, but I am EXTREMELY impressed so far.

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While I really appreciated the conversation on Disco Elysium, I really need Austin to spend a lil bit of time on the next podcast talking about Mistover. I have been super intrigued by the game given the mash-up look of Darkest Dungeon and Etrian Odyssey and haven’t found any reviews or features on it from the usual folks I read/listen to.

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I agree 100%. Darkest Dungeon and Etrian Odyssey are games that I like conceptually, and a mix seems so intriguing.

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So here’s a thing that happened in this game last night:

On the second in-game day I stumbled across a plain-looking middle-aged woman outside the bookstore browsing books. While many of the characters in the game are named, she was simply “Working Class Woman.” After the game gave me the chance to rather hilariously try and fail to force a missing persons case as a side-quest (“Yes, but do you know where your husband and children are right now?”), I was presented with the option to thank her for her contributions as a worker (probably because I’ve internalized a couple of communist thoughts in my thought cabinet) and to give her a hug. The hug was…great, half-comedic and half-sentimental, starting out awkwardly and then eventually with both of us leaning into it and just enjoying the human connection.

And then it’s over. I’ll probably never see that character again. But I can’t stop thinking about the amazing little moments of humanity that the game keeps offering up like this.

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Yeah, for two games/series that I have tried multiple times to play through and never succeeded (or even come that close) I am always super intrigued by anything that receives comparisons to either of them.

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That NPC really sums up the tone of this game. Outwardly comic and wacky, but with a wounded warmth underneath. The fact that “solving” the goofy missing persons case you force on her ends with her revealing a very real pain with her husband that you can actually work towards doing something about is really wonderful.

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Given that my experience thus far with the game has not really meshed with theirs at all, this makes their whole take seem out of place in a way I found suggestive. When I look at the game’s writing, their thoughts seemed like a broader statement about people in general instead. The critique of the game seemed more a critique of the politics of people with cynical viewpoints.

Some people feel like we live on a hellworld for a reason. Usually not because our lives were walks in the park. It felt like being talked down to about my own lack of confidence in our political establishment and discourse, a sort of victim of transitive association with the writers.

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I mean the creators have said they’re leftist, I think, but the game is more interested in sort of interrogating basically everything; centrism, neoliberalism, communism, and fascism are all made into ridiculous caricatures of themselves. But in the midst of all that are these really interesting characters who are just trying to get by, and the most admirable and relatable of them are usually the common, everyday people.

Trying to explore mass politics, without actually showing mass politics, usually ends up as ridiculous caricatures of ideology and leads, for lack of a better term, to morality politics (and with “morality”, I specifically mean that everything is focused on individuals and their isolated choices and moral virtue and personal relatable-ness, which then either gets reflected in or contrasted with, their officially associated ideology or lack thereof).
Actually exploring these politics in fiction is incredibly hard (even more so in video games, where you actually have to control an individual), because the various fiction mediums don’t really lend themselves well to the portrayal of collective struggle. There are very few novels that attempt this (and succeed imo) and even fewer movies. And, as far as I know, most of them are set during real-life events.
I’m not saying that just talking about ideology is necessarily bad, but I think it just doesn’t get to the heart of what this is supposed to reflect in real-life. It’s not really exploring politics, in as much as it explores individual abstractions of politics. Something is missing here.

Whatever, I’m certainly excited to play it further, as it does indeed succeed greatly (at least until now) in portraying a deeply disgusting world with a hidden, underlying humanism, embedded in the individual characters you encounter (who are it’s true point of focus) and through that preventing you (at least it does this for me) from seeing that world through a nihilistic lens. And that’s a positive in my book.

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A fun out-of-context moment: I shouted “Fuck the police!” as I smashed open a truck window with a crowbar. Kim’s response: “Subtle.”

GOTY

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Not to be pedantic, but video games don’t always have to be about controlling an individual character.

Unfortunately, that’s just what a lot of video games have been over the past ten years.

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Maybe, but I have yet to see game design that is suitable to exploring collective struggle, even when it’s a strategy game, where you control units or even hundreds of people, a building game, where you control a quasi god-like being or a game where you switch between multiple individuals. In the end it’s always about the player. It’s always about being the center of gravity and having some form of direct control.
Passive mediums (TV, Movie, Novel etc.) also have a similar problem, but I think it’s less necessitated by the essential features of the medium itself.
However, if you do know of games that are different and suitable to exploring collective struggle in your opinion, then I’d really like to know.

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This sounds quite cool. I wonder, and hope, it gets a console release.

Was listening today and want to say the whole sidetrack about Giuliani which also managed a callback to the earlier Mangler discussion put a smile on my face.

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