‘Disco Elysium’ Is A Beautiful Game About A Sick Culture

Nihilism has never been this involving.

Disco Elysium is a true masterpiece of gaming

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In 1979, social theorist Christopher Lasch performed an autopsy on a culture in terminal decline.

Titled The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch’s pioneering work was a critique of the right and the left, a despairing cry that damned both warring factions equally. America, Lasch wrote, had lost its way, forgetting its past and turning to face an increasingly bleak, traumatised future without the adequate psychological tools.

Rather than finding solace in community and family, most had instead turned to “purely personal preoccupations.” A political battle had become a psychic one — unable to “improve their lives in any of the ways that matter”, Americans instead indulged in health food trends and fitness regimes, burying themselves in self-improvement fads in a desperate attempt to dislocate themselves from their collective histories. “How did we get here?” became, “I am here”, with that singular first-person pronoun straining under the weight of an entire society’s wants and needs.

Disco Elysium, an astounding video game that might be one of the most essential titles of the last ten years, plays out this sickness on a macro scale. Its hero — a drunken amnesiac, lost in an endless battle taking place within his own mind — is a stand-in for a culture that cannot bring itself to get out of its own head.

Just as America lost interest in telling a causal story that would position them triumphantly towards the future, so too does Disco Elysium‘s bleary-eyed hero have no sense of place, and thus, no sense of purpose. His is a lonely path, one that sees him zig-zagging through an endless, near-uninterrupted internal monologue of fear, scarcity, and emotional poverty.

There is an outside world in Disco Elysium — a science-fiction dystopia in which national communities have become increasingly isolated from one another. But the player interacts with it only intermittently. The real action takes place within the boundaries of the hero’s head, as he folds further inwards, his grasp on reality slipping over him like whiskey poured across a clenched fist. He is constantly arguing with his own disconnected moral system, a way of seeing the world given a gravelly rumble of a voice that is as unpredictable as a stranger.

This is a game about isolation; about disassociation. The hero has a partner — the gentle-voiced Kim Kitsuragi — and a job. He must discover who has murdered an anonymous man, left hanging in a tree. But there is no combat to speak of. The player navigates the world purely through a cascading wall of thoughts, trying desperately to pick up on the emotional tenor of those potential culprits who the hero interviews, his world narrowing down to a single, flickering point.

When one does stumble across a surface-level sheen of solidarity, provided in the form of both a union, and a group of dock-workers who have formed their own vigilante group, it is only moments before it crumples. Underneath even the seemingly most connected group is more disharmony, more individualism. It’s not just our hero who has lost sense of a communal narrative that might guide him: the world outside is just as bleak, as hopelessly lost.

If that sounds bleak, it’s because Disco Elysium is.

And this is even as the technological developments of the future have, on some level, improved ordinary lives. The world of Disco Elysium is one of endless material comfort, but limited spiritual guidance. Walking through the fluorescent halls of a hotel, one finds drifting and bored outcasts, crying out for a purpose by moving in the exact opposite direction of one. Everyone wants something, but no-one has summoned the energy to name their wants. Their desires are one more product, to be sold back to them in the form of miniature, fleeting pleasures that they gaze across, eyes unfocused.

Capitalist realism, the theory proposed by Mark Fisher, comes to mind. Just as Fisher argues that subversion against the state has been diffused by a neo-liberal system that will sell anti-capitalism as one more capitalist object, so too have the characters of Disco Elysium — frustrated Marxists, desperate vigilantes — found their rage channelled into the same old diffused pockets of apathy and hollow self-improvement.

If that sounds bleak, it’s because Disco Elysium is. It is a game that begins in darkness — the birth of itself consciousness — and ends, in most of the branching paths, with a consolidation of the state’s power. And still that voice, that desperate internal voice, trembles with portent. Our hero might eventually manage to name himself, piecing together his past out of the bottom of a beer bottle. But he lives as he will die — pitifully, painfully alone, a sad man with nothing but the sound of his own voice, ringing in his ears.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp. For more of his game reviews, read this piece on the tenth anniversary of Skyrim.