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Cop of the Apocalypse: How Disco Elysium changed political storytelling in video games

Conquest of Revachol. (Image by ZA/UM)
Conquest of Revachol. (Image by ZA/UM)
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Soureesh Datta

Disco Elysium is a role-playing game published and developed by ZA/UM. It is the studio's debut title and is inspired by Infinity Engine- era RPGs like PlaneScape: Torment. It has multiple elements from the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, from where it borrows its dice-roll mechanics and ‘character sheet’ mechanics.

Disco Elysium defies RPG norms by not having any form of a combat system, instead giving the player a reading-heavy experience. It blends together different genres like detective thriller and supernatural, accompanied by a stream of conscious narrative with political underpinnings and enhanced by a gritty writing style.

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WREAK HAVOC ON THE MIDDLE CLASS”

Disco Elysium’s narrative takes bold steps in the direction of political storytelling, especially in the use of its setting. Revachol is the former capital of the world once dominated by a faltering monarchy, which was succeeded by a brief glimpse of revolution. The player explores Revachol as a decadent wasteland of its own memories.


Disco Elysium’s narrative and how it parallels the events of the Paris Commune

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The political landscape of Revachol is a striking parallel to the Paris Commune of 1781, where the working class of Paris put together a functional commune after the fall of the third Republic. It had leftist principles at heart, like the separation of church and state, worker self-management, and abolition of the death penalty.

The commune was violently put down by the Republic in what was infamously dubbed 'The Bloody Week', with executions piling up on both sides of the conflict. The Paris Commune had a far-reaching influence over later leftist revolutions throughout the globe.

In Disco Elysium, the Coalition of Nations also forcibly puts down Kras Mazov and the Communards' regime in an extremely violent takeover and renders Revachol an international zone of control under the Coalition.


Revacholian politics

Harry and Kim reconstruct the public execution. (Image via Disco Elysium)
Harry and Kim reconstruct the public execution. (Image via Disco Elysium)

Every school of thought and government has failed this city – but I love it nonetheless. It belongs to me as much as it belongs to you.” - Kim Kitsuragi

As soon as the player's character Harrier Du Bois sets foot into the port of Martinaise, the signs of the Antecentennial Revolution become apparent. The player glimpses a broken scenery of a city that was subject to a siege by the Coalition.

There is an extremely poignant scene where the player character reconstructs the scene of a public execution from the scars of bullet holes on the side of a building. It remains a mystery to the characters whether it was the Coalition forces or the Communards that were in charge of this execution. This interaction is an indication of the general ideological muddle of the people of Revachol and the after-effects of which multiple characters are still living out in the game.

Rene and Gaston. (Image via Disco Elysium)
Rene and Gaston. (Image via Disco Elysium)

The characters of Rene Arnoux and Gaston Martin are a perfect example of two people living in their own ideological twilight. Rene was a royalist, Gaston was a socialist and the two now argue, play petanque and have only each other for company.

These minuscule interactions give Disco Elysium its worldbuilding incentive. The political history isn’t delivered in a big expositional dump of information but told through bullet holes and the squabbles of two old friends at the tail end of their life.


Kras Mazov and Mazovian socio-economics

The bust of Kras Mazov. (Image via Disco Elysium)
The bust of Kras Mazov. (Image via Disco Elysium)

The Paris Commune parallel does not come to an end there. Quite early in the game, Harry discovers an empty room that belonged to a Communist youth. There is a bust of Kras Mazov( a subtle reference to Karl Marx), who was ‘the father of scientific communism’. Empty bunkers and old weaponry are the only remnants of the old communist regime that the player meets until the very end of the game.

The only communist character you meet throughout is at the very end, when Harry comes face to face with Iosef Lilianovich Dros, a living reminder of the old communist regime. This character is a testament to the political worldbuilding of the game and demonstrates how the events of a regime from sixty years ago still influence the present narrative of the game.

Mazovian socio-economics is mentioned multiple times throughout the game and stands in as an allegory of Marxist economics. The game provides sharp political commentary without ever leaving behind the ground realities of Revachol.


Characterisation and internal politics

Internalizing the Communist Ideology. (Image via Disco Elysium)
Internalizing the Communist Ideology. (Image via Disco Elysium)

The characters’ internal politics are also given prominence throughout the course of the narrative. Harry meets different NPCs (non-playable characters) throughout the narrative who he can work with. Among them are Evrart Claire, who heads the Dockworkers Union and represents the socialist regime in Martinaise, and Joyce Messier, a representative of Wild Pines and supporter of an ultraliberal outlook (the game’s rendition of the modern capitalist ideology).

It’s interesting that this doesn’t function as a mutually exclusive choice in Disco Elysium, unlike in most games where you make a binary decision that leads down a specific path in the narrative with two radically different outcomes. True to form, the game again subverts video game tropes by giving you the freedom to work for both and gives you a personal space for your own internal politics within the world and history of Revachol.

Harry and Kim meeting Evrart Claire. (Image via Disco Elysium)
Harry and Kim meeting Evrart Claire. (Image via Disco Elysium)

These are not two contrasting choices on different sides of the board but people with different ideologies trying to negotiate their way into benefit and a mutual solution. The choices you make are manifestations of the political nature of the game’s writing, narrative, and mechanics.


Atmosphere and soundtrack

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Disco Elysium is a narrative that benefits from subversion and blending itself between different genres. It doesn’t follow the tropes of video game storytelling and features dense reading, dice roll mechanics and choices that give the player agency throughout the narrative.

Disco Elysium may be one of the first games to cross the lines between mediums of entertainment and art and use the different influences to its advantage. The worldbuilding, accompanied by the oil-painting art style of Aleksander Rostov and the atmospheric score of Sea Power, give the game its tone. They allow the player to explore Revachol and discover what kind of cop they want to be.


Edited by Ashish Yadav
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