[This essay contains several major spoilers for the game Disco Elysium. Also, if you haven’t played Disco Elysium, this essay will make almost no sense, so probably just skip it. Special thanks to Erik Hoel for reading a draft of this post.]
BREAKING THE LOOMS OF RPGs
Computer Role Playing Games have a strange inheritance.
CRPGs are descended from pen & paper RPGs. The promise of a pen & paper RPG is simple: absolute freedom. Be anyone you want to be! Do anything you want to do!
The rules guide you, but you are constrained only by your imagination. You can always fail; but anything may be attempted.
“That’s why people like role-playing games. You can be whoever you want to be. You can try again. Still, there’s something inherently violent even about dice-rolls.”
This kind of freedom isn’t possible in a CRPG. We just don’t have the technology to offer the kinds of infinite choices made possible by a pen & paper format. In a CRPG, every dialogue tree must be planned, scripted out entirely in advance. No amount of preparation can make a CRPG unlimited. Ten dialogue choices is always several fewer than infinite choices.
“‘Fortress Accident SCA produces revolutionary interactive call-in radio games’ — that’s what the catalogue says.”
This is the paradox that kills most CRPGs. If you promise infinite choice, and don’t deliver, the game feels comically restrained. Why can’t I bribe this guard? Why can’t I climb through this huge, open window? Why can’t I just attack these thieves instead of playing along with their stupid riddle game? These questions quickly pile up, and lots of games drown in them.
While Disco Elysium does offer more dialogue choices than the average CRPG, it is still bounded. Most dialogue trees have only 4 or 5 options.
UNPRECEDENTED FREEDOM OF CHOICE
In the promotional materials, Disco Elysium promises unprecedented freedom of choice. Somehow, they deliver. How did they manage to do this?
IT’S A ROLE PLAYING GAME
A thing that people often seem to forget about RPGs is that they are ROLE PLAYING GAMES; they are games where you get to play a role. Where you get to have the experience of being someone else.
Different types of games have different strengths. Pen & paper RPGs do allow infinite choice, and good designs will take advantage of that strength. But you shouldn’t play to strengths that you don’t have.
CRPGs can’t offer you infinite choices. But CRPGs have strengths all their own.
After you wake up in the Whirling-in-Rags, you immediately start making choices about what sort of person you want to be. What’s important to you. How you want to interact with others. How you behave towards yourself. Are you the kind of cop who talks to his necktie?
You encounter different political philosophies. You consider them. You hear stories about what sort of a cop you are, what sort of person you are. You defend, reject, or apologize for your behavior. You balk, or you double down. Maybe you should get a drink. Some speed? Think about it.
And yet… there is something strange, lurking behind all these choices.
“YOUR BODY BETRAYS YOUR DEGENERACY.”
You can be a sorry mess. You can be a naïve optimist. A fascist or a communist. You can be a drug-addled superstar. You can reject your own name. You can be kind or you can be cruel to those around you.
But you can never not be the kind of guy who wakes up from a three-day bender, naked, lying on the floor of a trashed hostel room.
You are that kind of guy from the first moments of the game. It is inevitable.
Here it is. Hard facts from the man you are. You once jerked off in the locker room and were caught. You held a young woman by the arm and kept her in your apartment for 20 minutes against her will. That’s right, these are not flights of fancy. These are *real deeds*, Harry, emerging from the darkness of your past. You tried shooting a fleeing suspect in the foot but hit him in the pelvis, crippling him for life. And above all, you let life defeat you.
Be as violent and unhinged as you want, but you can never take your gun and start threatening civilians for money. The game doesn’t give you that option. Harry has it in him to be a beggar, sure, and to be a woman-hating fascist, but threatening civilians for money is something he will never, ever do. It’s just not in him.
Not trying to defend Harry here; he’s pretty lousy. Maybe you think it would be reasonable to help clean up the hostel room that you trashed? Turns out this is another thing that you can’t do. It’s not clear if this is something that Harry would refuse, or if it’s just the sort of thing that would never occur to him on his own. But either way, the game never offers the option. These simple acts of decency are also beyond you, one way or another.
(Although somehow Harry does have it in him to shoot a child — if only barely.)
Abstain from alcohol and drugs; be pure and above it all; try to live the life of the mind. You can only change so much. Whatever you do, you will still be the kind of cop who notices a bit of congealed rum in a cafeteria bar and considers licking it off the counter.
There are things that Harry will never consider, and there are voices that will always be speaking in the back of his head. There is no truce with the Furies.
There is no way to open the supply depot door. Accept it. You cannot open all the doors. You have to integrate this into your character. Some doors will forever remain closed. Even if every single other door will open at one time or another, maybe to a key, or maybe to some sort of tool meant for opening doors… But this one will never accede to such commands. A realization crucial to personal growth. Crucial.
This is how Disco Elysium makes choice work. You can’t choose to be just anyone. You are stuck with yourself. Not only the circumstances of your birth; you are stuck with the consequences of every bad decision you have ever made. All you can do is choose what to do with the situation you’re in.
This is much more meaningful. Making these limited choices is all the power any of us have. The game gives you the chance to become someone else, experience his confusion, carry his weight. You can’t choose just anything, but you can feel what it is like for Harry to make these choices.
The promise was unprecedented choice, not unlimited choice.
“I think this racist is better than the last — but the next racist will be the really good one.”
Race is, strangely enough, a mainstay of traditional RPGs. Making a new character involves a couple big choices, and along with class, race is usually one of them. Do you want to be an elf? A dwarf? A bird-person?
Race is also a mainstay in Disco Elysium, but here, it is very different. You have no control over the race of your character — you will always be a ham sandwich, just like you’ll probably always be in thrall to *AL GUL*. You are given no choice in the matter.
This may be why racism is such a central theme, and it may be why Kim Kitsuragi, your constant companion, is Seolite.
Disco Elysium turns the normal logic of RPGs on its head. You can choose how to deal with racists as you encounter them around Martinaise. You can choose how to respond to how they treat Kim. But you will never actually be in Kim’s position. You will never actually know what it is like for him.
You make choices, and the choices you make are important. How you act will affect how Kim feels, and how he feels about you. But in the big ways, your hands are bound.
“She said she’s heard of you from Jamrock. That you’re a human can-opener. That you play suspects against each other. Open them up, like cans.”
There is something pathological about you, detective—as if you weren’t aware.
“He can talk human beings into telling him anything. And he doesn’t stop. In all the time I’ve spent with him, he has not once stopped working on the case. He is tireless. Madly driven.”
The final lesson of choice is about something that Harrier Du Bois cannot control. You are an addict, and not just in the obvious ways. You can never stop solving crimes. You have no choice in the matter.
“*He* is the infernal engine. He never stops. He only gets worse.”
The logic of the game enforces this. As far as I can tell, if you keep going around trying dialogue options, and you don’t die, sooner or later you will solve the case. It is inevitable.
I’m not even sure you can be fired. No matter what I tried, the 41st ended up taking Harry back in the end. Drugs, racism, fascism, nothing would dissuade them. HDB will keep detecting until he dies.
“I don’t know why I do the things I do, lieutenant Kitsuragi.”
GASPINGLY YOU PARTAKE OF A SHIFTING IDENTITY NEVER YOUR OWN
Decades ago on the D&D forums, a common topic of discussion among DMs was: How do you play a character who is smarter than you are?
A smart DM might have a real-world intelligence of 14 or so, maybe 16 if they’re very gifted. But characters in D&D can easily have an intelligence of 18, and some monsters have intelligence scores that are even higher. It’s easy to act within your own abilities, pretending to be less intelligent than you really are. But how can you pretend to be someone smarter?
Infinite choice is one of the great strengths of pen & paper RPGs. This problem is one of their great weaknesses. You’re given the promise of being anything you can imagine. But how can you choose to experience being something that is beyond your abilities?
Disco Elysium makes full use of the CRPG medium to offer an UNPRECIDENTED ANSWER to this question.
The key is passive skill checks. Rolling passive checks in a pen & paper RPG quickly becomes tedious. Often, you forget to make the check at all. And how could the DM manage have an appropriate insight ready at every possible juncture?
Letting the computer keep track of all the checks, and having all the insights be pre-scripted, solves these problems neatly. The result is that you get the experience of having skills that you may not have in real life.
Want to play a character who’s smarter than you are? Max out those intellect skills. Watch as Logic and Encyclopedia breezily analyze the world, while Rhetoric and Drama feed you lines to run circles around your inferiors.
Rhetoric urges you to debate, make intellectual discourse, nitpick – and win. It enables you to break down arguments and hear what people are really saying. You’ll spot fallacies as soon as they’re used – what exactly did the waiter leave out of their testimony? What was the dancer trying to divert you from? Was that double entendre intended, or did you just get an accidental lead?
Smart enough, but social skills never that strong? Pour your heart into Empathy, Esprit de Corps, and Drama. Pick up on the thoughts and feelings of friends and strangers in a way you never imagined. Experience the thrill, the pain, the regret of your actions. Learn what you can carelessly do to people. It’s like seeing a new color.
Empathy breaks into the soul of others and forces you to feel what’s inside. It enables you to notice social cues other may miss: perhaps a hidden sadness you could coax out a little more, a strange joy from someone who should be bereaved, or a hidden resentment that could return to harm you later.
This cuts both ways. Never had much trouble with self-control? Don’t know what it’s like to live in fear of what you might do? Dump Volition and Composure, to constantly lose your cool. Overinvest in Authority, Hand-Eye Coordination, and Reaction Speed. Be appalled at the things they make you say and do.
At high levels, Hand/Eye Coordination makes you deadly – supposing you’ve a weapon in your hand. But once you do, Hand/Eye Coordination will compel you to take the shot – even if it’s not the best approach.
A few times in my first playthrough, I figured out part of the mystery before Detective Du Bois did. That was ok. I realized that I was smarter than he was in that playthrough, and it didn’t break the story. I wasn’t mad that the developers had kept me from acting on my flash of understanding, because I understood that Harry wasn’t there yet. He had to work it out on his own, and eventually, he did.
I have decent enough social skills, but in my first playthrough, Empathy would still occasionally surprise me with cutting insights about characters, obvious in hindsight, but which I had entirely missed. Even though they were only small mistakes, it was humbling. Now I see that there are levels of empathy I can still aspire to.
Empathy. This is the power of a good RPG, to experience a life totally unlike your own. It’s a rare thing, and never before has simple technology been so skillfully leveraged to make it happen.
A GOD DAMNED TRAGEDY
Time for some Coppo Del’Arte. What genre is Disco Elysium?
Most RPGs are adventures. Go on a quest. Slay the monster. Get the treasure. Confront an ancient evil.
Clearly this game is different; the best treasure often ends up being a piece of clothing you found in a barrel. Quests are things like, “find your other shoe.”
Sure, Disco Elysium is billed as “A Detective RPG”. And sure, there are some detectives involved. But the story isn’t exactly about the crime, or even about solving the crime. Crypotzoology takes up almost as much of the plot. In fact, if the game’s attitude towards Dick Mullen is anything to judge by, this game hates detective fiction.
Dick Mullen is stupid — and not even real. You’re real. Your brain is real. Your real real brain is inside the hat.
There’s only one thing it can possibly be:
Disco Elysium is a Greek Tragedy. The game is practically dripping with it—the original title was No Truce With the Furies, and Disco Elysium isn’t all that subtle either. The Furies are essential to Greek tragedy; it is their address.
Today we tend to be more familiar with Shakespearian tragedies. In Shakespearian tragedies, the main characters die. Macbeth dies in Macbeth. Romeo and Juliet both die in Romeo and Juliet. Julius Caesar barely makes it to Act 3 of his own play. In Hamlet, there are almost no surviors period. Being the title character in a Shakespearian tragedy is pretty much a death sentence.
Greek tragedies aren’t like that. Other characters die, but Oedipus survives to the end of Oedipus Rex. Orestes survives the Oresteia, pursued by the Furies. Antigone dies in Antigone, but Creon is the one who has made all the mistakes in that play, and he’s the one who survives to deal with the consequences.
Curses to the man whoever it was, that man who had saved me from the wild hooks on my feet, who had saved me from the wilderness, from those grazing lands, from death, only to give me this detestable end. Had I died then, I would be no burden of melancholy, now, neither to me nor to my friends.
Some of these plays are even more hardcore. In Medea, Medea not only lives, she kills most of the other characters in the play, including both of her sons. Then she goes to start a new life in Athens.
It’s not that the hero or the main character never dies in these plays; sometimes they do. It’s that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. In Greek tragedies, you have to keep on living. That’s usually the worst part. At the end of Oedipus Rex, the chorus says, “Call no man happy until he is dead.”
This is Disco Elysium. Other people die. Terrible things happen. Harry Du Bois has to go on living.
“He can’t go. Not before the case is solved.”
The game is even structured like a Greek tragedy. A Greek tragedy happens in just one place; Disco Elysium is confined to the narrow streets of Martinaise, hardly big enough to fit on a single postcard.
A Greek tragedy always involves a chorus, critical for interpreting and commenting on the plot for the benefit of the audience. Fifteen was a usual number. There are twenty-four voices in your head in Disco Elysium, but not all of them are active at the same time, and sometimes the chorus in a tragedy could number up to fifty men…
Most of the action in a Greek tragedy happens offstage, the actors commenting upon it later, as they learn of it. Often the worst of the tragedy happens before the play begins, and is recounted on stage by the actors or the chorus. Oedipus Rex opens years after Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother. That isn’t the plot. The action of the play is all about what happens as Oedipus and everyone else learn of these horrible crimes, and how they react to it.
“God, I don’t know…” He thinks. “Six years ago? She was way before my time.”
Disco Elysium opens six years after Harry’s ex-something left him, and the action of the game concerns what happens as he learns of the things he has done, and how he chooses to handle it.
A reasonable assumption would be that Harry’s total amnesia is there to help out with exposition. The player doesn’t know anything about the world of Revachol either, so making Harry a total amnesiac lets the player get exposition in a way that doesn’t confuse the narrative. Harry can ask the stupid questions that the player is thinking, and given his circumstances, it makes sense for him to do so.
But another perspective is that he is an amnesiac to allow for anagnorisis.
What if you didn’t lose your memory? What if something in Martinaise came and stored it all away. For you to slowly open one box at a time. So you can choose which parts to keep. Keep almost none of it. Only the flowers on the windowsill. Only the distant sound of a radio. Lose all the actors, the dark shadows, leave only the still lifes, the blissful distant wash of waves. If everybody knew — you never did. She’ll be coming soon. That is all.
Anagnorisis is the moment of recognition in a play, when a character sees their own true nature, or another character’s true nature, for the first time. In Oedipus Rex, it occurs when Oedipus learns for the first time of his true parentage. Most of us don’t have these kinds of secrets lurking in our past. But if you forget who you are…
Harrier Du Bois is the ideal tragic hero. He knows nothing of himself. Everything he learns, everything he does, all the voices in his head, yield terrible recognition of his past. And yet he just keeps going. He has to.
“I could’ve eaten it for all I know. I don’t remember anything. This world, this city. Nothing.”
WHAT KIND OF LITERATURE IS A VIDEO GAMES?
Why model a video game on Greek tragedy?
“Does it have anything to do with disco?”
“‘Officer’ is my stage name, right? I can see myself as a middling disco artist called ‘The Officer.'”
Did you know that the original term for “actor” in English was “player”?
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;