Disco Elysium (henceforth DE) is a recently-released detective RPG that puts you in the place of an amnesiac detective sent to solve a murder mystery in a poor town that never recovered from a war ended fifty years past. Its role-playing is the most thorough and most wide-ranging of any game I’ve seen, and its single-minded focus on text-based dialogue allows it to indulge in writing deeper than most other games can allow.
Despite all this, I want to write a criticism of this game’s understanding of ideology, working backwards from the incredibly strange ending. Naturally, there will be spoilers, and I’m not sure how much sense this post will make unless you’ve played and finished the game.
A “Disappointing” Ending
There have been criticisms levelled at DE’s ending. The murderer turns out to be a nobody you’ve never met on an island you’ve never been to, unrelated to anyone or anything around. With no forecasting, the murderer wraps up half the loose ends in the game, and pulls a story out of thin air to explain every circumstance surrounding the hanged man. All the other suspects disappear with neither a trace nor an explanation, and you are left with an abrupt credit roll that few people would call satisfying.
But, from a thematic point, it makes sense.
For much of its runtime, the politics of DE seem to point towards the cynical leftist understanding of the “end of history”: the idea that global neoliberal capitalism is a system that is so total and so powerful that it is possible neither to act against its power nor to imagine a world outside it. All ideologies in DE are reduced to laptop stickers because they can do nothing more than announce empty allegiances to extinct projects. What is broken cannot be fixed. The opportunity for revolution is gone, forever.
You learn during your investigation that the hanged man was a fascist killing machine who served as military force for the neoliberal order. And you learn at the end that the murderer — the Deserter — is a diehard communist who, despite openly acknowledging that the time for Revolution will never turn again, cannot let go of his principles. He is a ghost — a “specter of communism”, so to speak — reminding the town of a future that will never come.
And he is not out of place: the town itself is similarly marked. The streets are covered with craters and the walls with holes from the failed revolution. The governance of this town, you are constantly reminded, is permanently in limbo. It is not normalized under the neoliberal order, but thanks to the extensive “Emergency” bills that govern its market, it is valuable enough to the central government that it can never escape that government. One foot in the past, one foot in the future.
Despite this, people live on. They might turn the ideology they once held into some kind of empty rhetoric — like René’s nationalist posturing or the cryptofascist’s mug collection. They might forget the problem altogether — as do most the townspeople — or they might opt to sing the praises of the status quo — thus Moralism. But in no case do they do anything about the problem.
Martinaise’s wounds will remain open until the world and the century end together. The Deserter is one part of this wound, and that’s why the ending must be so unsatisfying: there is simply no solution for Martinaise.
A “”Disappointing”” Ending
I like the above reading of DE, and I would have liked the game much better had I taken this reading and moved on with my life. Regrettably, though, I had several hours of free time after finishing this game. Now, I think this reading shoots itself in the foot, because the picture of the Deserter I scribbled above is only the façade presented in his first few lines of dialogue.
You learn shortly after those first few lines that the Deserter is actually some kind of stalker creep — the murder was performed not as rumblings of a long-dead ideological dream, but out of jealously against a man who had “degenerate” relationships with a woman he lusted for.
This makes matters less clear. At this point, the Deserter ceases to be a figment of a lost future, and is instead forced into the much less interesting mold of “misogynistic lunatic”. We can no longer have sympathy for his solitary war nor respect for his irreducible principles because neither exists. He is not a communist, just a lost soul who thinks he’s a communist. The game would have you believe that this murder investigation is about dredging up the past, about opening old wounds hardly closed — but in reality, it’s more like getting knifed on the subway.
You learn a few lines later that the Deserter is a stalker creep because there’s a magical monster in the pond that’s messing with his head.
This turn will take… a bit more work to explain. Let’s take a detour.
In the real world, ideology is important whether or not it bursts into revolutionary action, because it controls how people see the world and how they react to even the most minute stimuli. Yet in DE, ideology holds no power whatsoever. It is at every level hidden or superficial, and any changes to the status quo — even ones which bureaucrats will admit are possible within the neoliberal order — are derided as fever dreams.
Let’s consider a few of the racists in Martinaise: René, the hanged man, the Cryptofascist, and Measurehead. René sits around and throws balls with his not-so-racist friend Gaston all day. Between the two, racism is a minor difference of belief — one from which Gaston can look away with the trivial disavowal “he was an asshole” — that is consequential neither to their relationship nor to any of René’s other relationships. The hanged man may have enjoyed massacring indigenous civilians during his military trips, but this is because he’s “evil” (as described by the one who knew him best) or because he was part of the sanctioned central government military force (as admitted by the Sunday Friend) — not because he was a racist. His racism is also inconsequential to his death. The Cryptofascist is a racist only in his mug collection and his offhand slights towards Kitsuragi: he prefers to hide everything about himself. Measurehead’s racism is played as a joke on neo-Nazi phrenology — it too has no consequence, neither to you for “internalizing” it nor to anyone else. In this town, even racism is somehow defanged of consequence.
At other times, DE’s commitment to ideological meaninglessness crosses into straight absurdity. There is a small questline you can get from the smoker when you demand of him if he is part of the “homo-sexual underground”, which gives you a Thought on your own sexuality.
As in much of the modern world, homosexuality is in DE not yet normalized. It’s still a joke to the children, who make profligate use of homophobic slurs. The Hardy Boys’ banter is often explicitly predicated on an aggressive heterosexual masculinity, and you will get explicitly wrapped up in it when they give you suggestions on how to recover from your sudden illness. This setting isn’t in itself bad — but it also means that being gay is socially and politically consequential in a way that being slackjawed isn’t. The game’s position on this — its advice to people who may fear discrimination due to their membership in the “homo-sexual underground” is:
“Stop obsessing over it”, the final result of the questline you receive from the smoker.
What exactly does this mean? How does one “not obsess” over their own ostracization? Is it the kind of problem that disappears when you stop thinking about it, like the monster under the bed? Or is it also a problem which is impossible to solve under neoliberal capitalism? When asking whether we should move towards a belief system more accepting or more rejecting of other people — questions which the Sunday Friend is undoubtedly asking even as a dog of international capital — is the best response really to not care about the problem? There’s no good way to read this. Yet it’s clear that this conclusion too flows from the same core conviction that ideology is as empty and inconsequential as laptop stickers.
Diagnosing a “”Disappointing”” Ending
Perhaps we can now explain the mystical turn in the denouement to the story. If all ideology is inert and if thinking about even the simplest political issues is akin to running in “obsessive” circles, then the Deserter-as-specter-of-Communism denouement doesn’t hold up on a logical level. It’s too absurd to suggest that one person has staked out an island for fifty years for the sake of a dead cause if ideology is so consistently and universally meaningless in the meat of the story. This is in fact Harry’s diagnosis of the Deserter: the Deserter is too angry, too hardy, too committed for someone stowed away on an island. DE is a world where ideology explains nothing, so actions committed in the name of ideology must be explained by something else.
What else is there? DE chooses, from a list of pathetic inspirations, misogynistic hatred and alien mind-control.
But it didn’t have to be this way. That neoliberal capitalism is an all-encompassing and inescapable reality does not necessitate that all ideologies are impotent. This second claim is only backed by the game’s worldbuilding, in which NPCs’ ideologies have no consequence, and the game’s dialogue system, in which your choice of ideology has no consequence. We’ve discussed the worldbuilding — let’s move to the dialogue.
Dialogue, Choice, and Consequence
In DE’s dialogue system, you have choices — both physical and verbal. And your choices matter. I like this dialogue system.
But something changes when the dialogue system turns to the purely verbal question of Harry’s beliefs. When the question comes — “are you a communist, a fascist, or a liberal?”, your choice remains, but there are no longer any consequences to those choices. You will choose one, the rest of the characters will make zero to one lines of snippy responses, and you will return to the previous conversation, regardless of whether or not you just told the others that they should be guillotined.
When you get one of the several prompts that give you a Thought for a political allegiance, the game makes sure to posit the belief in the most ridiculous light possible. Communism is about wanting to kill everyone, and fascism is about (assumedly heterosexual) men being rejected by women. No belief is spared a strawman, and it’s made clear from the start that any ideology you declare via this mechanic is nothing more than a bad joke at the expense of actually understanding how these ideologies work.
But there is a gap here. If Harry’s ideological leanings are pure posturing, then what explains his decision to harass the Cryptofascist until his face goes blue? What explains his decision to let the music-heads off with a slap on the wrist after their attempt to start a drug operation? What explains his decision to pester the shopkeeper into letting her daughter come inside on a cold winter evening? These deeds are the purest form of ideology: they are worldviews evinced through action.
Throughout the game, Harry continues making ideological decisions, and the game respects this. But the game does not respect when he verbalizes his ideology. This is the critical fault in the game’s understanding of ideology: it treats Harry like an idiot for saying that is going to change things, but lets him change things anyways. Harry can act in the world, but any attempt to give an explanation for why he acts the way he does is not allowed to be anything more than a bad joke.
Now we can see the alien mind-control for what it is: a symptom of a fundamental contradiction in the game’s writing.
In Disco Elysium, Harry can act ideologically, but serious ideologies do not exist. The main body of the game evades coming to terms with this duality by making absurdist jokes about it. But the finale, out of time to make jokes, can neither evade nor solve this. The writing posits that the Deserter acts out of ideological belief, but then corrodes this assertion with the same aspersions it casts on Harry’s declarations of ideology: no, ideology is meaningless, why did you really do this? Here the writing’s contradictions have finally caught up with it: no wonder that “alien mind-control” is the answer that finally comes out.
This is the first “critical” review I’ve written where I can say that the game is, despite the last 2200 words, quite good. The extent of what I’ve shown here is that there are consequences to worldbuilding and player agency, and that DE’s writing wasn’t careful enough in matching those consequences to the narrative thematics.
Thanks for reading.