Disco Elysium: ghosts of a lost future

Boogying down with
capitalist realism.

As someone who isn’t really interested in point and click adventures, Robert Kurvitz’s role-playing/mystery hybrid game Disco Elysium was strangely alluring at a first glance.

Even before you can make sense of your surroundings, the game instantly plunges you into a murky black screen, complemented by a jarring monologue. Two voices nag at you, reminding you of your unconsciousness before you wake up hungover and in an unfamiliar room. As you limp forth, clothed in whatever discarded items you can find, you hear from one of the apartment residents about the remnants of a lost disco culture, virtually analogous to our high-flying 70s metropolis. Citizens of the post-revolutionary city Revachol speak reverently of the vibrant, hyperreal disco days of the past. To them, it is a point of fleeting nostalgia. Your character, however, is permanently trapped in the disco days of your youth, face temporarily frozen in a sickly-looking “Expression”.

Kurvitz and the development team at ZA/UM explore an untapped niche of rich dialogue, vivid storytelling and gritty worldbuilding. The ‘disco’ of Disco Elysium doesn’t just connote music and dance but extends to something so much more. Boundless possibilities of lost futures and ecstatic youth have the potential to materialise through the inner workings of your mind. Different pieces of thought provoke choices of dialogue: choices which matter and create thoughts in your mind which you can choose to ‘internalise’ and influence dialogue later on. “Mazovian socio-economics” and “Inexplicable Feminist Agenda” are just some that harken to (and satirise) the fragmented politics of the 21st century, following the collapse of ‘Actually Existing Socialist’ states and a new global world order headed by explicitly moralist global institutions.

Eventually you encounter a government bureaucrat who speaks only in catchwords – it is as if he is not really listening to you but reaffirming the righteousness of the international moralist project, synonymous to the “practical” and “reasonable” ideologues of the United Nations:

“It’s pragmatic, realistic and level-headed, an ideology for ‘doers’.”

And in another, strikingly ironic line, the bureaucrat asserts:

“Because moralists believe in a normal, stable world governed by democratic values.”

On the other hand, the young street artist Cindy the Skull is fiercely antagonistic towards the Revachol Citizen’s Militia (the local police force) and derides them as piggies. Meanwhile, Cuno is a foul-mouthed ten-year-old and a victim of domestic violence who regularly ingests speed and magnesium to elude his morbid reality.

Rather than optimism for socially responsible governance and economic sensibility maintained by the Coalition, there is a somewhat dispirited air in Revachol. Streets are lined with bottles and bags, while the youth find an escape in graffiti and substance abuse. The ambient, sometimes eerie diegetic music in hotels and shops betrays the clear indifference that citizens hold to yourself or their own environment. In other words, Disco Elysium captures the essence of Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism perfectly. The failure of the Revolution has rendered the possibility of any viable alternative to the existing hegemony null.

Fisher writes of the ‘reflexive impotence’ experienced by British students in acknowledging that “things are bad, but, more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it.” The atomisation of mental health and privatisation of these issues within individual neurology rules out any systemic, socially induced cause of depression or mental illness. His statement poses eerie parallels with the neoliberal unipolarity of Disco Elysium. Youth like Cuno and Cindy are on the streets because they have been rejected by a status quo that inculcates and consistently reaffirms the lack of any political alternative. Rather, they are shunned as outcasts, delinquents who are part of the distasteful scenery.

Much of the symbolic value in Disco Elysium is acutely captured by Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology – roughly defined as the persistence of elements returning from the past, reminding of a future that failed to happen. Derrida outlines that the hauntological presence of the “spectres of our past” are manifestations of figures that are neither present nor absent, and neither dead nor alive. The protagonist is constantly plagued by this almost bipolar sense of reality – on one hand, he is the optimistic, charismatic disco star of the Golden Age and on the other he is a depressed, alcoholic cop who remembers little about his murky past or police work.

At its core, Disco Elysium doesn’t simply lament the death of the future and the ghosts of the present. It raises a sort of psychedelic consciousness – not just the type of consciousness induced by hallucinogens but an awareness of the liberatory faculties of art, music and theatre as psychedelic experiences that change how we think about our place in the world, outside the confines of hegemony and repression.

For all that we mourn it, Disco isn’t dead – at least not in the realm of the creative.