Roleplaying a Communist Cop in the Ruins of Revolution
By Christian P. HainesJuly 31, 2021
This is the opening scene of Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, the newly released version of the 2019 computer roleplaying game from Estonian developers ZA/UM. Amnesia is a well-worn trope, especially in video games, where it offers players a clean slate for building their own character. Disco Elysium makes up for this tired cliché by introducing the fascinating post-revolutionary city of Revachol and the peculiar stories embedded in it. Like the best detective fiction, the game’s murder case is really an excuse to dig up the social, political, and personal secrets that led to there being a corpse in the first place. The body hanging from a tree turns out to have been a mercenary, working for a shipping company (Wild Pines) that’s currently trying to break the local dockworkers’ strike. The mercenary may or may not have been killed by a band of union dockworkers. Drug trafficking may be involved, or it may just be a distraction. There are plenty of characters directly involved in the conflict between the company and the union, but there’s also a broad spectrum of individuals caught in the conflict’s orbit: an old royalist soldier gripes about how the revolutionaries of yesteryear paved the way for the decadence of the present. A red-headed boy spews obscenity, throws rocks at the mercenary’s corpse, and prays for the city to burn. A woman in a wheelchair reminisces about a moment in her youth when she spotted the Insulindian Phasmid, an otherworldly creature that uses psychic powers to conceal itself as a thicket of reeds.
Most digital roleplaying games feature a gameplay loop alternating between combat and dialogue. Sometimes conversation is integral to the game, opening up branching story lines, but usually conversation is simply a means to an end: you get a quest in a dialogue, that quest sends you after an object, you fight creatures to acquire said object, and you return to the aforementioned quest giver (for a reward, of course). Your character grows through this experience, but most of that growth revolves around combat, not only because you earn experience points through combat but also because those points get funneled back into combat skills. All of which is to say that all too often video games turn the richest fantasy worlds into stages of destruction.
In contrast, Disco Elysium has almost no combat. Instead, it has an incredibly complex conversation system. The conversation system ZA/UM designed doesn’t simply communicate dialogue between characters, it also expresses the inner conflict of your protagonist. Skills in the game take the form of distinct voices. These voices contribute to conversations, opening up different dialogue options, but they also present ideas, observations, and opinions to the player. In other words, even when he’s not speaking with another character, your detective talks to himself, a crowd of voices thrumming in his head. The “Inland Empire” skill — a nod to David Lynch’s film of the same name — channels surreal visions of your surroundings and hunches about mysterious goings on. (It makes you sound an awful lot like Agent Dale Cooper during the first season of Twin Peaks.) “Empathy” lets you understand others’ feelings, opening up conversation paths in which characters confess their inner turmoil, while “Suggestion” trades in charm to persuade others to your point of view. Even skills that lack obvious application to conversation, like “Visual Calculus” (used for reconstructing crime scenes) or “Interfacing” (for picking locks and operating machines), still play out as conversation. Instead of the lockpicking mini-games found in so many roleplaying games, Disco Elysium narrates the experience of picking the lock, as if you were overhearing the grumblings of a grizzled locksmith.
Disco Elysium is the roleplaying game as interactive novel, a sustained exercise in eschewing the flashy graphics of big-budget games in favor of dense prose. This prose appears in a dedicated window on the right side of the screen, a box that appears every time you converse with a character or interact with an object in the world. This means that more often than not time spent playing Disco Elysium consists of reading text as it cascades down the screen. When you’re not reading, you’re navigating your character across a two-dimensional representation of the Revachol, sometimes entering a specific location like an abandoned church or a down-on-its-luck bookstore. In some respects, the game does little more than revise the conventions of 1990s computer roleplaying games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, pushing them back toward their origins in pen-and-paper roleplaying games. The game’s descriptions resemble the notes of a skilled dungeon master (DM) coordinating a session of Dungeons & Dragons (though in much more detail than your typical DM). That isn’t to say the game is lacking in the graphics department. Aleksander Rostov’s art direction is a brilliant blend of steampunk fantasy illustration, the realist painting of Gustave Courbet, and the disfigured portraits of Francis Bacon: character portraits tend toward the grotesque; landscapes are detailed and realistic, with nuanced shades of grays, browns, and blues; and the nonhuman object world is littered with fascinating and fantastic junk, like radio computers with their own version of the internet.
What distinguishes Disco Elysium from other recent retro roleplaying games like Divinity: Original Sin or Pillars of Eternity? In part, it’s the game’s setting. There are fantastic and sci-fi elements in the world of Elysium, but they’re incorporated into the mundane affairs of working-class life. There are no roaming monsters, errant knights, or dank dungeons. Instead, you’ll find a maintenance worker perpetually sweeping the floors of an apartment building, a street artist working on a mural and sneering at the police, and a fisherwoman stoically mourning her husband’s loss to the sea. To describe the overall tone by analogy, it’s as if David Lynch had directed the second season of The Wire, blending its depiction of labor struggles in the Port of Baltimore with a mysterious air of otherworldly corruption. I won’t get into the otherworldly elements of Disco Elysium — it ventures into spoiler territory — except to say that they tend toward the apocalyptic, with hints that the world is far less stable than the city’s concrete structures suggest.
But what truly distinguishes Disco Elysium from most recent video games and a great deal of contemporary culture is its unflinching approach to the politics of capitalism, revolution, and policing. Revachol is haunted by the ghosts of a failed revolution — a communal uprising that established an alternative to empire and capitalism, only to be violently put down by an international military alliance. The people of Revachol don’t just remember the revolution, they relive its conflicts. They hash out the questions it raised about the dignity of work, what constitutes real democracy, how much autonomy folks should have, and much more. As a detective, you’re a lightning rod for these political conversations, in part because of your inquisitive nature, but even more so because you represent political reaction: like it or not, your amnesiac protagonist is the police, and the police almost by definition preserve the status quo. The developers of ZA/UM could have had you play a private investigator, a conventional move in noir fiction which makes the protagonist more sympathetic by virtue of their exemption from a (usually) corrupt police force. Instead, Disco Elysium takes every effort to remind you of your complicity, to gesture toward the fact that solving the mystery might mean abetting a multinational corporation in shutting down a worker rebellion. That isn’t to say you can’t make political choices. You can, for example, choose to learn Mazovian Socio-Economics — the science of revolution! — becoming a socialist cop who vows to push history to its ultimate conclusion: the abolition of capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course, socialist characters in the game will be more than a little suspicious of you. Perhaps you’re really just trying to infiltrate radical political groups in order to undermine them from within.
There are other political paths players can choose, too. In my first playthrough, I drifted toward my own proclivities, choosing every anti-capitalist piece of dialogue available. In contrast, in my second playthrough, I ignored my political instincts to become an “ultra-liberal,” which essentially meant I was Milton Friedman with a badge, praising the creativity of entrepreneurs and decrying the barbarism of socialism. The game also allows you to role-play a moralist — a humanitarian centrist — and a fascist — all right-wing diatribes against race-mixing and decadence. No matter the political orientation you play toward, the game introduces friction into your internal dialogue, as well as your conversations with other characters. One character might mock you for believing that resistance to capitalism is possible at all, while another will not so subtly call you out for being a tool of the bourgeoisie. When you choose enough dialogue options that correspond to one of the game’s political orientations, it offers you a “thought” that not only introduces even more dialogue options of the same type but also rewards you for choosing them. Crucially, the game doesn’t suggest that the different political positions are equal in value. The majority of the characters lean to the left. They’re more than happy to insult you for your chosen profession as an officer of the law. Even if they’re not revolutionaries, you get the sense that they would have rooted for the communards during the revolution. After all, it wasn’t the revolutionaries who shelled their neighborhood.
The fantasy offered by so many roleplaying games is that of being a hero, a savior, the last hope of a besieged civilization. Disco Elysium turns that entire paradigm on its head. Civilization is already fucked, and not because of monsters but because of the impersonal machinations of capitalism and empire. You aren’t a hero; you’re a cop, a detective. You might be able to introduce a measure of justice into the world, but that might come at the cost of perpetuating the violence that’s built into the social system. The strength of Disco Elysium is that it manages to raise these questions in a manner that’s blunt but not didactic — or when it is didactic, it’s with a wink and a sly grin. It’s a game that makes the difficult matters of politics, ethics, religion, love, and loss into a pleasurable conversation, but it’s a conversation without victory or resolution. If there’s hope, the game suggests, it’s in reckoning with our own complicities and in learning the lessons of political history.
Christian Haines is an assistant professor of English at Penn State University and a managing editor of Gamers with Glasses.
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