A Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Disco Elysium on the Past and Present

Alastair Hadden
Nov 9, 2019 · 28 min read
A corner of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus.”
A corner of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus.”

1. The White Flag

What should we make of our past?

The first embodied person we meet in Disco Elysium tells us she has overheard our character, Harry Du Bois, shrieking that he doesn’t “want to live as this kind of animal anymore.” The line is played for laughs, but there’s black ice underfoot. What kind of animal is Harry, anyway? A human. What is essential about humans, asks Disco Elysium—as compared to seagulls or giraffes or Insulindian phasmids?

Part of an answer might be that they can reflect on the past, write biography. And we know that humans are ideological creatures: they internalize theories of history and society, including scientific communism, Revacholian nationalism, and moralism (that is, radical centrism). Another answer is that humans are uniquely capable of abstract thought. They can look in the mirror and reconcile with—or reject—what they find there. They can imagine states of being other than their present.

What if we became a different kind of animal? Harry’s half-death and resurrection, which begins the game, is the fulfilment of that wish. He finds himself purged of biographical and ideological baggage, unmoored from memory and hurt. Briefly, he doesn’t even think. All it takes is a remarkable act of self-abnegation, hurried along by drink, drugs, and possible exposure to a hole in the world. “Total retrograde amnesia” may be a worn-out trope, but it’s a working stage door into the world of Elysium.

It’s also impossible to sustain. Our pasts selves aren’t just kept in our heads, after all; they can be detected in our environment and in others. Within moments of Harry’s mysterious rebirth, we’re on the case. We deduce that he’s trashed his hostel room. That he’s a reeking alcoholic, a mess. We can even confront his mirrored reflection—the “clearest water” of the game’s epigraph—and begin trying to comprehend or change what we find there. Once we leave the room, we learn that svelte and sympathetic Klaasje has met us before. Hers is the first of many dialogues that help us retrace our steps: H.D.B. is a police detective who loves disco music, it emerges. He breaks shit and howls in the night. Already, our new, rarefied form is being weighed down with stones out of the past.

Disco Elysium, like Planescape: Torment before it, delights in telling us about the damage our character did before we got there. The broken skua, the lost gun, the crashed motorcarriage . . . Harrier Du Bois has littered the district of Martinaise with clues to his former self. The player will inevitably start sifting through this wreckage, despite the warnings of Harry’s fractured mind—and especially of “Inland Empire,” the game’s most insightful and least practical skill.

But while we can uncover his past, we cannot change it. We have no choice in our character’s miserable biography. To escape the first room, we have to drag on Harry’s “piss-soaked, cum-stained party pants,” and we’re forever stuck in his rundown body. Everywhere we go, we learn of his ruinous past behavior—often to comic effect, always through a veil of guilt and sadness. The past is never finished with us, Disco Elysium says. We can’t drown it or pawn it or hurl it out the window. A human can be without their past only temporarily, like a beach before the tide rushes back.

There are still choices to be made in the present, though. “Life gets hard, but we go on,” as Klaasje sings. Like every CRPG before it, Disco Elysium contends that its player-character can improve with experience. Games are inherently optimistic this way: by accepting tasks and completing them, we steadily become more capable. There’s room to reshape ourselves, too; we can build ourselves better than the next cop, given time and effort and deliberation. That said, one of the game’s few middle fingers to the lineage of Dungeons & Dragons is its notion that a skill can be too developed; a detective can be too smart for their own good, too sensitive, too tough. And it’s noteworthy that almost all of the game’s Thought Cabinet projects and clothing bonuses come with debuffs and drawbacks, too. Progress requires trade-offs, the game wants to say. Everything in this world is compromised.

Yet we can still be better than our beginnings. Robert Kurvitz, the game’s lead designer and writer, has said that Disco Elysium is about “reapplying for your job as a human being and as a cop.” This implies a test, a watching authority; someone or something will judge our fitness for both those roles. The reapplication process may prove grueling. Meanwhile, the past will return to us on every street corner in Martinaise. We will never get the drop on it or be done with it. We can only reassess our old choices and make better ones. In mechanical terms, this reduces to decisions about where to go, what to say, and how to think. Along the way, we tinker with Harry’s impulses and beliefs, and even introduce him to new concepts as we stumble across them.

At first, the game’s attitude to all this appears cynical. In the opening hours of Disco Elysium, Harry Du Bois is an ideological magpie, lining his nest with leftover scraps of political theory. These are necessarily frail and worn-out ideas, and the game heaps derision upon them. Disco Elysium appears to have little time for hermetic ideology, for ideals universally applied. Its political digs, early on, are things any Twitter user—or worse, any South Park viewer—might recognize. A drowning man may grasp at these straws, the game seems to scoff, but they won’t save him.

There’s real danger in this: by mocking communist and fascist impulses equally, the game risks sliding into a morass. Make no mistake, though: Disco Elysium is earnest and loving. Its heart, slowly revealed, pumps without irony. Also to its credit: it never permits its players an Archimedean point. Some of the game’s fiercest scorn is reserved for mealy-mouthed centrism or the “Boring Cop” who won’t commit. Neutral ground is still territory, this game knows, and there’s no safe vantage for laughter. As the hanged man tells us, there’s nothing funny about jokes.

But what is this place we’re policing? And what’s at stake? Just as Harry is waking up, his limbic system offers another theory of the human animal: we’re “evil apes dukin’ it out on a giant ball.” All we do is vie for resources, our brain laments; we have to beat the other apes or we lose. Is this Hobbesian vision true? The people we meet in Martinaise, their histories and hopes, should convince us otherwise. Even the phasmid defers judgement on the flitting, open-hearted humans it has observed—despite its knowledge that they may be the cause of Elysium’s long, slow surrender to a phenomenon known as “the pale.”

By nudging Harry’s thoughts and actions, we can work toward refuting the limbic system’s paranoid assessment. Even in the game’s opening moments, we are given the option to think that the giant ball and its small, squabbling apes—this state of being—is sad, actually. We may not be able to alter Harry’s past, his human nature, but the individual player can choose how they feel about these things. A person should be more than an evil ape, we can argue. As Joyce Messier later remarks, “Even animals aren’t animals.”

And is this giant ball we share even a ball?

2. The Gorgeous Undertow

On the first night of his second life, Harry Du Bois dreams of the crime scene behind the Whirling-in-Rags. Within the dream, he can ask his hanged self a vital question: “What is Elysium?”

“Everything,” the Bloated Corpse of a Drunk replies. “The pale and the isolas … Burning, furious truth, eight thousand years of written history.”

We hear the same story about the world from Joyce, a member of the moneyed elite and the chief supplier of Harry’s “reality lowdown.” When pushed, Joyce reveals that Elysium may not be spherical like our Earth. A trickle of images from orbit suggest “a dark grey corona.” The pale, a featureless phenomenon that resists description, covers almost three-quarters of the world’s surface:

“There are grey flares and prominences, even arcs above entire isolas . . . The images are blurry, but if there was a sphere in there it certainly looks like it fractured a long time ago. . . . They say there is a rarefied envelope of matter surrounding the darkened disc of our planet. That is, if we are still living on a planet.”

The pale, it emerges, is an existential threat to the ecumene of Disco Elysium; it is growing, year by year, to swallow the known world and everyone in it. The isolas—little outposts of matter amid the pale, where humans dwell—are shrinking. There are perhaps three decades until everything that lives is pale and gone. Until then, humankind is but an “opportunistic microorganism” scattered across the pale, beaming its lights out into the void. Easier to picture Elysium as a disco ball than Carl Sagan’s blue dot.

So why is the wider world not panicked by this looming calamity? Everyone we meet in Martinaise seems defeated, hopelessly inured to the logic of late-stage capitalism. Shouldn’t the heaped corporate wealth be pumped into mitigation strategies, into human survival? Why does the truth of the coming pale not “jolt us out of our rut,” as Joyce herself asks? No one knows.

One live debate, we are told, is between Elysium’s logical positivists—who believe the pale harms us through “extreme sensory deprivation”—and its dialectical materialists, who argue that the pale “somehow *consists* [sic] of past information . . . That it’s rarefied past, not rarefied matter.” Any humans exposed to it, on this view, become “over-radiated by past.”

What does this mean? Whom should we believe, and where does it leave us? Another kind of animal, the Insulindian phasmid, unpicks the thread at the game’s end, if we manage to communicate with it:

“[The pale] is a nervous shadow cast into the world by you, eating away at reality. A great, unnatural territory. Its advent coincides with the arrival of the human mind.”

The pale showed up when we did—in light of which, Kurvitz’s introduction to the setting becomes more pointed: “It has been there for as long as human beings have written down history.” The pale is a human creation, an excretion of the human animal. The phasmid tells us that no other species remembers it existing before we rose to supremacy. While Disco Elysium never offers a definitive account of the pale and its causes, you might call it the accumulated weight of our human past. Our tidal wave of history, rolling back to shore.

Is there any hope for us? Aesthetically, maybe. We can admire the collapse, furnish it. In the later parts of the game, the player can spend much of their time on a series of interrelated tasks at an abandoned church, one of the “Seven Sisters” built by early settlers. The tasks revolve around converting the space into a nightclub for a new kind of dance music. This part of Disco Elysium starts out feeling tangential, but it culminates in a series of discoveries that are thematically and emotionally vital.

Short version: there are multiple holes in the universe, 2 millimeters in size, and the Seven Sisters were built to house or contain them; these holes are related to the relentless production of pale; one of these holes may have factored into Harry’s amnesia; the “swallow” or un-sound produced by the holes proves an essential feature of Revachol’s emerging anodic (electronic) dance culture; and Harry can commune with the city by boogieing out of his mind. (Revachol beams him a warning. It tells him he is loved.)

Some of the game’s most staggering worldbuilding is staged in this little church; it is here we witness the synthesis of Elysium’s spiritual, scientific, artistic, and “para-natural” aspects. Note how Soona, the failed programmer, finally locates the 2mm hole: she surrounds it with its opposite, its antipode. She floods in loud, live, human music. And not just any music: noisy, urgent rave. Youth music. If the old world is leaking, Disco Elysium seems to say, plug it with the new. If there is too much past to bear, make yourself present.

Outside, the world is 72% pale, and the ratio is worsening. There is more and more of the stuff each day, growing skyward. A rising tide of past, crashing ceaselessly into our present, threatening to wash us away. Yet a beach still describes the ocean, even as it is consumed by it. And Harry Du Bois provides a living analog of this—its human proof. He cannot run from his past, but he can dance with it.

He can make something of it, with the player’s help.

3. Whodunnit?

Who killed the hanged man?

Disco Elysium calls itself “A Detective RPG,” and it thrives on big, heady swigs of classic detective fiction. Harry is the battered old cop obsessed with one last case; Kim is his faithful partner and confidante. Klaasje is the femme fatale out to save her own skin, and the city itself is a character—all evening shadows and icy breezes, littered clues and ticking clocks. But the game also picks at the seams of old genre fiction, of the familiar. The world is surprisingly colorful and spirited, rich with culture. Martinaise may feels mournful, but it’s never a vise. And the corpse behind the Whirling-in-Rags isn’t the usual blonde angel of pulp—an unavailable object left to inspire the priapic male detective. Instead, it’s the scarred, rotting meat of a man who’s been dead for a week. It emerges that the body belongs to Ellis “Lely” Kortenaer, a strike-breaking mercenary who once reveled in the rape and pillage of far-off colonies.

Even animals like Lely deserve justice, holds Disco Elysium. If not justice, then attention and care. The cops of the Revachol Citizens Militia (RCM) may be depicted as little more than overworked civil servants, but they’re not unmoved by their purpose. Corrupt and cynical, maybe, but not heartless. It’s a view of policing that may be jarring to anyone reared in a culture where cops are understood to be—or lionized as—militaristic and often murderous enforcers of the status quo. But Revachol is a city in which violence, including state violence, is largely implicit. The police in Jamrock and Martinaise are neutered politically and carry impotent, muzzleloading firearms. The function of the RCM, Kim notes, is almost janitorial; they spend much of their time tidying up messes, ignoring minor offenses, and negotiating the peace.

All of which is essential to understanding the game’s view of police work: there is dignity in it — when it’s done with patience and empathy—but little heroism. Contrast this with conventional detective fiction, in which the identity of a corpse and its killer are reduced to intrinsically thrilling puzzles for a person of genius to solve. Most famous literary detectives eschew the political, emotional, and social aspects of a given crime, unless those aspects offer pertinent clues. Yet Harry and Kim are quick to relate to the citizens they police, because nothing would get done without their cooperation. Even the most bullying, reckless version of Harry Du Bois spends most of his time talking to people and trying to help.

Other fictional detectives—Philip Marlowe, the Continental Op, Dick Mullen—serve as cleansing agents. They disinfect a given wound and restore the world to order, even if that order is lamentable. Harry Du Bois, by contrast, is an active contaminant, a man with no memory who queries everything, by necessity, and drags the whole world under his lens. Martinaise, all of it, becomes the object of his investigation. And while Harry’s methods are madcap, his curiosity is infectious; just ask Kim Kitsuragi. Or Kuuno de Ruyter.

“THE HANGED MAN,” as Lely’s murder is named in Harry’s ledger, is not the first or even principal mystery of Disco Elysium, but for many players it’s the main draw, and they are disappointed when Lely’s killer is revealed to be someone that Harry has never met. Iosef Lilianovich Dros, the elderly communist deserter who shot Lely prior to his hanging, doesn’t appear until the game’s denouement. This, many argue, is unfair to players doing their own detective work at home; it breaks the established rules of the genre. But what are those rules, exactly? And does Disco Elysium even give a shit?

Nearly a century ago, one version of the “rules” was enshrined by Ronald Knox, one of the authors of detective fiction’s so-called Golden Age. Knox’s first and cardinal rule affirms many players’ dislike for the ending of Disco Elysium: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” If the criminal has never been in sight, the thinking goes, their unmasking won’t satisfy.

But what else does Knox demand?

“2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”

Disco Elysium is stuffed with contrivances and unreal technology, but let’s stick to things that are weird even for the denizens of its world—and leave aside the pale and the 2-millimeter hole. The Deserter has hidden out for decades on various islands in the bay north of Martinaise, during which time he has suffered prolonged exposure to the “para-natural” Insulindian phasmid and the mind-altering camouflage it uses to avoid detection. This camouflage, the phasmid concedes sadly, has damaged Iosef’s mind and played its part in the murder.

“3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.”

Count them: there’s the pinball museum in the Whirling-in-Rags; the hidden spaces beneath the Feld Building (including the communist bunker, itself a secret room within a secret passage); the inoperable door on Land’s End that would have brought Harry and Kim to the Sea Fortress; the Doomed Commercial Area lurking behind the bookshop’s curtain; the Dicemaker’s nest in the chimney (another space within a space); Cuno’s shack . . .

“4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.”

As mentioned above, the phasmid unintentionally subjects the Deserter to an “undiscovered poison,” which Harry can sample (using a high-level Electrochemistry check) as one method for speaking with the creature. But think also of the radio device with which Ruby assaults Harry beneath the Feld Building, normally used to blast channels through the pale.

“5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

No, this list hasn’t aged well, and this item is the clearest indicator yet that Disco Elysium knows the rules it’s breaking. Kim Kitsuragi isn’t a “Chinaman,” of course; he’s a Revacholian of seolite descent. But his centrality to the game’s story feels like a deliberate rebuttal of Knox’s rules. And if this seems too tenuous a connection, consider the racist “Chinaman” mug Harry finds discarded in the trash.

“6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.”

The game delights in breaking this rule; there are simply too many instances to count. Disco Elysium is a storm of happy accidents and unaccountable intuitions, and two of its skills—Inland Empire and Shivers—are all but devoted to giving the player privileged information that later proves true.

“7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.”

This is one rule that goes unbroken. But let’s not forget that the game flirts with the possibility that Harry is a criminal and a killer: Ruby believes, mistakenly, that he is a “peone” for the gangster La Puta Madre, sent to execute her. And as a man without a past, he is also a man without an alibi, at least initially.

“8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”

Because of its dice-roll mechanics, Disco Elysium permits the player to “light upon”—and then immediately lose access to—important clues. For example, a failed check robs us of the flowers on Klaasje’s roof, the “May bells” that become one of the game’s most telling pieces of evidence. And Harry himself is full of clues not instantly produced; his mind only spits them up when prompted by a relevant situation or dialogue—or when a particular skill is emphasized. This is one respect in which a videogame with branching paths can be more compelling than a linear narrative: Disco Elysium allows us to miss things, or mistake them, or return to them later, and it offers varied routes to the same truth.

“9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”

Kim Kitsuragi is far from stupid, and Cuno often shows quicker wits than Harry, especially if he joins the latter for the game’s finale. Both companions routinely withhold their thinking from H.D.B. and the player. High levels of Esprit de Corps, Empathy, Composure, and other skills are required to access their inner states, which means some versions of Harry learn little of what goes through Kim’s or Cuno’s minds.

“10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.”

Edgar and Evrart Claire are (almost) identical twin brothers. Lilienne from the fishing village is mother to twin sons, whom Harry cannot tell apart. And while Ellis and Raul Kortenaer aren’t blood relatives, they grew up together and share the surname given to them by their foster family. Raul’s identity and connection to Lely can remain hidden until the tribunal, if the player does not gain the trust of both Joyce and Klaasje.

There’s a mound of evidence that Disco Elysium goes out of its way to violate Knox’s commandments at every possible opportunity. Its assault on the rules of detective fiction is knowing and deliberate. But what’s the point? Why attack a set of principles designed to produce a pleasing narrative?

Remember that the game has already shown contempt for the tidiness of ideology; it distrusts any rigid frame for viewing or creating the world. Knox’s rules are one such frame, and they don’t jive with the postmodern tradition Disco Elyisum inhabits. Postmodernism asks us to be skeptical about grand narratives, about any “explicable” chain of events that can be traced back—link by link, clue by clue—to a single cause. Knox and his contemporaries lived in a time of prevailing modernism, and they idealized self-contained puzzles that would please the enlightened mind. Disco Elysium, by contrast, depicts a world like our own, dizzying and fractured, in which we are unsure of our ability to make the pieces cohere. Accordingly, it treats the “rules” of genre fiction as artificial, stultifying, and dishonest.

Raymond Chandler might have agreed. In the postwar period, he drafted a new set of commandments for the detective story, and Disco Elyisum hews better to these (except, perhaps, for No. 8: “It must not try to do everything at once.”). In 1950, Chandler dismantled the fussier, rule-following tradition of detective fiction in an essay called “The Simple Art of Murder.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a relevant excerpt:

“There is a very simple statement to be made about all these stories: they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art.”

Disco Elysium is acutely concerned with “what goes on in the world”—and with being radically honest about it. On this view, it is far less important that the player is able to recognize the murderer from the opening moments of the game, and much more important that the murder dramatizes true things about Elysium, about Martinaise. This theme is taken up at much greater length in PJ Judge’s piece, “A Spectre Is Haunting Martinaise.” Of particular note is this quoted passage, from Paul Grimstad’s What Makes Detective Fiction Great:

“At the end of his 1944 essay, Edmund Wilson suggested that it was no accident that the Golden Age of detection coincided with the period between the two World Wars: in a shattered civilization, there was something reassuring about the detective’s ability to link up all the broken fragments and “know just where to fix the guilt.” Such tidy solutions were to Wilson the mark of glib and simplistic genre fiction. But to [T.S.] Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” wrote of the fractured modern world as a ‘heap of broken images,’ it seems possible that Golden Age detective stories offered above all a pleasing orderliness—a way of seeing ghastly disruptions restored to equilibrium with the soothing predictability of ritual.”

Disco Elysium offers no “soothing predictability,” and neither is it glib. Its fractured world, so like our own, is not the setting for a mystery; it’s the subject of it. “Who killed the hanged man?” isn’t the question at stake. It’s the prompt for a broader investigation into what has damaged Martinaise—and damaged it irreparably, such that it cannot be made whole.

On this view, the game becomes what Harry Du Bois calls a “stereo-investigation,” a meta-inquiry into the world and his state of being. The game jokes about Harry treating everything as a puzzle worthy of investigation . . . but there’s nothing funny about jokes. Think of all H.D.B.’s diversions, his side tasks. Where is his paperwork, his badge, his other shoe? What’s behind the blue door in the Whirling-in-Rags? What’s behind the curtain in the bookshop? Who put the racist mug in the trash? Where is the victim’s missing armor? What’s the significance of these strange white flowers? And those are just the smaller ones. Go wider: what shuttered the businesses in Martinaise’s doomed commercial area? What has become of a working-class woman’s missing husband? What ruined the ambitions of a “radiogame” company and led Soona to the church? Is there a mythical cryptid lurking in the reeds?

Kim is skeptical about the importance of many of these questions, but Harry is always proved right that they are relevant or consequential. Even his zaniest tasks turn out to be fruitful, and his journal never imposes a hierarchy or scheme upon them (unlike more traditional RPGs), beyond noting the day they were begun. Every task in Disco Elysium belongs to a singular mystery, it emerges. The case of the amnesiac detective. The case of Martinaise’s neglect. The case of the failed Revolution.

Okay, but who killed the hanged man?

A nobody we never met. Case closed?

Look around: the environment is littered with clues. Outside the Whirling-in-Rags, the terrain itself is fractured. An unrepentant royalist plays pétanque in a crater, never filled. The scenery is studded with bullet holes, never patched, and Harry, in his naivety, wonders if they’re evidence of something. We tour a bombed-out apartment block with pricey ocean views, or we peer through a coin-operated viewer and spot the Deserter’s sunken fortress. Everywhere, Martinaise has failed to resolve its crisis: at the center of the harbor’s traffic jam, a monarchist statue has been restored, by goofing artists, to a half-exploded state. One of the game’s most mournful scenes has Harry visually reconstruct a long-forgotten firing line. Who was doing the shooting is unclear, but Kim suggests it was Coalition troops, who are always the last ones standing. The forces of foreign capital, swooping in to claim their morsel.

From the opening moments of Disco Elysium, we are repeatedly shown that Martinaise is a wound that won’t heal. Home to drunks and dockworkers, the district has never been absorbed into the wider city, and all attempts to gentrify it have failed. The RCM squabbles over who won’t have to police its streets; the Wild Pines Group needs the place only for its harbor. Everything about Martinaise is wrecked and haunted and wanting. Waiting for a resolution that never came. The bullet that lands in Lely’s mouth comes several decades late.

(During the initial autopsy, Inland Empire allows you to ask the hanged man what killed him. “Communism,” he replies, and we dismiss it. It’s a silly answer, reductive and unhelpful. It’s also not wrong.)

Disco Elysium is a game in mourning—not for lifeless “scientific communism,” but for the Revachol commune, for what it represented and might have been. For what it was not allowed to be. The grave markers are everywhere, and they leak into Harry’s mind. He can mistake himself for Kraz Mazov, the game’s version of Karl Marx, or convince himself that Mazov never died. He can tangle the feminine spirit of “girl child Revolution” with his own lost love for Dora, an ex-girlfriend who left him six years ago, and whom he’s never gotten over. In Harry’s addled mind, this isn’t a trite comparison; the Revolution and Dora were both opportunities for hope—joyous uprisings—but they’re gone now, into history. In spite of this, he can’t help sorting through the wreckage. Harry puts a hole in his own head, and still memory comes flooding back.

What makes H.D.B. remarkable, in the player’s hands, is that he still gets up and does his job. He starts afresh. He bears the weight of his past.

Compare him with the members of the game’s twisted love triangle: the Hanged Man, Miss Oranje Disco Dancer, and the Deserter. Those aren’t their real names . . . but they’re hardly real people anymore. They’re revenants, walking corpses. All three gave their youth to some form of national service, and it damaged them irreparably. Iosef poured himself into his Revolution; Klaasje and Lely have done heinous things on behalf of their shared country of origin. None of the three can escape what they have done, or continue to do, in the name of ideology.

Lely is a brutish husk who can’t stop taking blood money. His only purpose is to inflict order on Martinaise, to “civilize” it as he has civilized Oranje’s colonies. Even a bullet to the head can’t free him from his layered shell: the bitter spring temperatures preserve his flesh long after death, and Harry can conjure his spirit and speak with it. While Disco Elysium shows a measure of sympathy for the dead colonel—and for the other members of his squad, whom it treats as the damaged claws of capital—it is clear-eyed about how their lives must end. There is no escaping such carnage.

Klaasje, too, cannot outrun her past, even as she tries out new names, new drugs, new sexual partners to cover over her espionage. Martinaise is the end of the road for her, she admits. There is no place her old employers won’t find her. Yet she clings to life out of habit, flees out of habit, smokes and fucks and lies out of habit. Those impulses define her; she can’t make new ones. She is sorry for what she has done, she maintains, yet she knows that isn’t good enough. Her history towers over her, and she can only linger in its shadow, feigning a shrug.

The Deserter is also stranded in the past. He cannot forgive anyone for the failure of the Revolution, least of all himself. He fashions his scrapheap of ideology into ironclad righteousness, all to sustain a pretend guerrilla war—though its casualties, plural, are real. If his vigil ends, the Deserter thinks, so will the future. Yet the future is already over. The game invites us to compare Iosef with Rene: both are furious old men clinging to outmoded politics, to ideals capitalism has dispensed with and stripped for parts. Both refuse to abandon their posts . . . and no one notices. They might have been friends, it is implied, if they could have recognized each other’s personhood.

Instead, the Deserter sees himself in Klaasje. He spies her arriving in Martinaise and hiding her documents. For a brief moment, he thinks of her as a kindred spirit who has seen the mask of capital slip, as he has. He is bewitched by her, by her solitary flight into Revachol, even as he loathes her for what she represents—and for her sexual embrace of Lely. He murders the latter not just for what he is—a deformed golem—but for what Lely can share with Klaasje, whom Iosef cannot have. She is simply too far away for him to reach, in distance and time and ideology.

The task of the detective, on the conventional view, is to point out an evil and cleanse it. If we can identify “whodunnit,” we can punish the culprit and make things right. But there is nothing to be done with Iosef, an angry old man who murdered a stunted ogre on behalf of a sad and unavailable woman. Disco Elysium cares about all three of them as people, but it’s not clear things could have gone otherwise. History wouldn’t allow it.

Let’s be honest: the simple fact of the Deserter’s identity isn’t valued in the story of Martinaise, and neither is the player’s vanity in deducing it. This place was shattered decades earlier, and the Deserter’s act is just one more sad beat of its dying heart. Lely’s murder isn’t a mystery to be solved; it’s a tragedy to be understood—and mourned. It deserves as much consideration as the death of the working-class drunk who slipped and died on the boardwalk. Which is to say, all the consideration we can muster.

That’s Harry’s job, in the end, and ours. To stare into the past and ask what happened. To determine how we should feel about it. Because of his amnesia, H.D.B. is the only person in Martinaise who can approach the world anew, encounter it with fresh eyes. The world is radically available to him; he can pick up any of its pieces and begin rebuilding communism, or spouting fascism, or affirming the “ultraliberal” hustle. If we choose, he can even pursue a ragged, loving humanism.

Yet Disco Elysium treats ideology as a form of dementia: Joyce jokes about the pandemic that provided the material conditions for the Revolution, and if we play Harry as a devout Revacholian nationalist, all but two minor characters will treat his outbursts as they would a madman’s. Mechanically, the game treats fascism as a kind of psychological self-harm. It hurts our morale to pursue it. That’s a wishful indulgence, perhaps, similar to Kurvitz’s declaration that slavery has never existed in this world; it would seem even Disco Elysium, a radically honest project, is not without its evasions. But the game is bluntly truthful about a society, like ours, where capitalism has won an almost total victory, and in doing so “ended history.” Capitalist logic is unassailable, if we forget the encroaching pale.

It’s sad to admit, but Harry’s political opinions are flimsy. They don’t stand up to scrutiny, let alone the prevailing world order. They also don’t factor much into how Disco Elysium proceeds or how it ends. Regardless of our approach, we bear witness to a more or less inevitable conclusion, with relatively little variety, give or take a few deaths. It remains for us to decide how we feel about it.

As a consequence, some critics have called the game a visual novel or a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. They complain about how it “railroads” the player to the same location, the same revelations, the same lurking phasmid. But that’s exquisitely the point: we are forever steeped in history, drowning in it, carried on its tides. Martinaise is bound to failure, Lely to his bullet, and the Deserter to the island, his rifle, and an impossible dream.

The past is never behind us, on Elysium or on Earth; it keeps returning to haunt us. Knowing that, what can we do?

This is the insoluble mystery at the game’s heart, not “Who killed the hanged man?” Our singular, sprawling task is to make sense of Martinaise entire. To gorge on the thing and hope to understand it. One playthrough can’t accomplish that. Several won’t. There will always be an unvoiced thought or recollection, a dice roll that lets us down. But the effort is the thing. The loving attempt to comprehend the past, reckon with it—and await the future.

If there is a single image that haunts Disco Elysium, it’s Klaasje’s nightly vigil on the roof of the Whirling-in-Rags, smoking her cigarettes with her back turned. Her back turned. Only later, if she is allowed to flee, does the player discover that Klaasje has long since traced the killing shot. She has determined it came from far behind her, from the island. While she never learns the Deserter’s identity, she is sure of his intent. Through the long-range scope of his rifle, Iosef has seen her staring back at him.

Yet Klaasje waits up on that roof every night, frozen in a square of light, inviting a second bullet. She stands with her back to the future, looking into the room where Lely was shot. Into history.

4. New Angel

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”

The passage is from German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a short essay from 1940. That same year, Benjamin, who was Jewish, fled Vichy France and died soon after.

As Stuart Jeffries details, the passage describes a painting by Paul Klee, which Benjamin hung in every apartment he ever lived in, “not quite as a guardian angel but a suggestive presence that would keep making appearances in his writings until [his] death.” The painting, “Angelus Novus,” has since become an emblem of the political Left.

Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” an oil transfer with watercolor from 1920

Benjamin was a Marxist, but his most famous lines chip at the pedestal of historical materialism. Progress is messy and our faith in it blind, suggests Benjamin, who witnessed the failure of the November Revolution and the rise of Nazism. The end of capitalism may not be coming each day. We cannot know, as our only view is backward, into the storm. Our only option is to watch and wait. “Man kind [sic], be vigilant,” demand the credits of Disco Elysium, invoking the final written words of Julius Fučík, a Czech journalist and Communist Party member who was tortured and hanged by the Nazis. “We loved you.”

Decades after the deaths of Benjamin and Fučík, the political scientist Ronald Beiner writes:

“Historical materialism, under the influence of Hegel, is an effort to conceive history as rationally intelligible. But there is nothing of this conception in Benjamin’s “Theses.” For Benjamin, history is radically fragmented; the task of the angel of history is to establish a redemptive relation to the fragments.”

There is redemption in detective work, too. Solving a murder will never awaken the dead or make whole what has been smashed, yet we trust it redresses a wrong. Comprehension can change us. The resolution to a crime like “THE HANGED MAN” can help us see the single catastrophe that is every lost life. It should deepen our sympathy.

Now consider Harry’s redemptive work, which is also the player’s—retrieving his soiled paperwork, his drowned badge, his pawned gun. Sniffing discarded gum wrappers and dancing to outdated music. Fashioning the shards of his mind into a coherent, glittering whole.

One of the earliest tasks you can accept in Disco Elysium is to sing karaoke at the Whirling-in-Rags, downstairs from where you began your life again. Days later, you finally track down a working cassette of “The Smallest Church in Saint-Saëns,” the only song sad enough to convey the depths of your soul. You return to the hostel, mount the stage, and pass or fail a skill check. Either way, you sing these fateful lines, dredged from memory: “I have been so glad here/Looking forward to the past here.”

In this moment, the most Harry can hope for is a gentle reception, scattered applause. Perhaps reassurance from Kim, his partner. That doesn’t make this gesture at self-expression, at self-recovery, any less moving. Harry has been smashed to bits by the ruined love for his ex-girlfriend, Dora, by his drinking, by Revachol and this twilight of history. By the rising tide of present becoming past, becoming pale, until it swallows us.

H.D.B. cannot be remade as he was, yet he gets to his feet and goes back to work. He picks through the wreckage, his flotsam and jetsam. He tidies up, solves tasks, and seeks to understand. Somewhere along the way, he becomes someone or other new. Bearing witness to this process are the people of Martinaise, and a shadow in the reeds—and you, the kind player.

Down by the seaside, Harry Du Bois wakes up in a new life. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.

Alastair Hadden

Written by

writing, games, xwOBA · twitter: @exitsouth

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