Two weeks ago, Disco Elysium was immediately dubbed the Second Coming of Planescape: Torment. After two weeks, these comparisons have died down a bit.
The comparison was mostly surface-deep. The two games share an amnesic protagonist, excellent writing, a weird setting, and lots of text. Disco Elysium is doing its own thing, though. It is brilliantly funny and creative, both in its world-building and its mechanics. It is also great for this particularly moment, October of 2019, because it resonates with growing frustration with neoliberal capitalism. For many people, it’s 2019’s Game of the Year.
But I’ve seen one piece of criticism stand out: the ending sucks. More precisely, the conclusion to the murder mystery feels like a disappointment. It’s a fair criticism.
After thinking about the ending for a while, though, I think the ending works. Let me explain why.
Obviously, spoilers below.
The Case for Why The Ending Sucks
Harrier Du Bois (a.k.a. Raphael Ambrosius Costeau) (a.k.a. “The Gloaming”) spends the bulk of his time in Martinaise investigating half-truths and interrogating complicated characters. It works like any good detective fiction. We start with a too-simple-to-be-true narrative: there’s a labor dispute, some folks got drunk and rowdy, and a company man is hung. Right off the bat, Kim Kitsuragi dismisses the proposition that this is a “mysterious” case.
But Du Bois uncovers facts that don’t quite fit with that narrative. He tugs on the thread and the hanging story unravels. Then the player tries to tie weave these threads into a story that fits the evidence.
Did Klaasje kill Lely for reasons we don’t know yet? Was this a revenge killing by Ruby, a spurned would-be lover? Is Klaasje who she says she is? Maybe the merc got merc’d by another merc? Does the peephole factor into this? Was the bullet meant for Klaasje instead? Was Klaasje even there that night? Who does the eighth footprint belong to? Why is Titus fighting so hard to hide Ruby? Where did this fourth merc come from?
Then, however, the finale renders most of these questions moot. We stumble upon the culprit, The Deserter, a holdout from the communist revolution nearly half a century before. He snipes residents of Martinaise without much reasoning beyond, “They are subjects of a decadent bourgeois world order and traitors to the working class.” From my playthrough, at least, it wasn’t clear that he even knows who Lely or Klaasje are. Sure, we find him by analyzing where the shot could have come from, but we have no idea who this guy is.
So after investigating half-truths and sussing out motives, the killer turned out to be a hermit with no connection to any other character. None of the participants in the violent catharsis outside the Whirling-In-Rags know the real reason for Lely’s death. It’s an absurd result.
And it’s disappointing! Nobody likes a mystery with an answer that comes completely out of left field. The more transcendent parts of the finale (the phasmid and Dolores Deis) don’t fix that.
But I think that disappointment works in the story’s favor. It is a break with the rules of the genre. That break resonates with the world that Disco Elysium builds more than the straightforward whodunnit conclusion that we’re primed to look forward to.
The Rules of Detective Fiction
What makes good detective fiction?
“A key tenet of Golden Age detection was ‘fair play’ — the idea that an attentive reader must in theory have as good a shot at solving the mystery as the story’s detective. To establish parameters of fairness, Eliot suggests that ‘the character and motives of the criminal should be normal’ and that ‘elaborate and incredible disguises’ should be banned; he writes that a good detective story must not ‘rely either upon occult phenomena or … discoveries made by lonely scientists,’ and that ‘elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance.’”
-Paul Grimstad, What Makes Great Detective Fiction, According to T.S. Eliot, The New Yorker (February 2, 2016)
“Proper” detective fiction is like science or machinery. It has mechanics. It adheres to a set of rules. It is sensible, knowable. An intelligent, attentive reader can figure out the mystery.
S.S. Van Dine, a mostly-forgotten but popular-in-his-heyday novelist, declared the twenty rules of detective fiction. I won’t list them all, but here’s a few:
- The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
- The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
- The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
- The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
- The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face — that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter.
Obviously, these rules are just one genre fiction author’s idea of what makes the genre. And you’d be a shitty author if you followed all of them religiously.
But this list does reveal a lot about the spirit of the genre. That idea — that the reader should be able to solve the mystery embedded in the plot, fair and square, no trickery from the author — says a lot about the era in which detective fiction took off.
“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 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.”
— Grimstad, What Makes Great Detective Fiction
Just as The Detective uses Logic and Visual Calculus to solve the mystery at the core of the detective novel, so can the reader (and by extension, mankind) use Reason and Intelligence to solve the problems facing human civilization.
The question of race can be solved with calipers and haplogroups (thanks, Measurehead). The question of poverty can be solved by a technocratic welfare state, administered by educated men. Those same educated men hold conferences in which they write constitutions, divide savage land into nation-states, and argue over philosophical truths. And so on.
There are different ways you can fit detective fiction, and its approach to reason, into broader literary movements. You can call it to Realist literature because it envisions the world in a scientific way(knowable, bound by rules). Or you can call it Modernist because it realizes its own rules and embraces the resulting meta-narrative (i.e. heeding Ezra Pound’s call to “make it new” by recognizing the rules of the form, then consciously following or breaking them).
But let’s eschew all of that, and simply observe this: Detective fiction promises a detective, an enigma, and that the detective will solve the enigma. Not by luck, and not by brute force, but by reason. By analogy, we (the detective) can use reason to navigate our lives (the murder mystery).
Breaking the Rules — Postmodern Detective Fiction
Postmodern detective fiction (sometimes called “metaphysical detective fiction”) rebels against these premises.
I’ll illustrate that rebellion with a few examples.
If you you haven’t seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), stop reading this article and go watch it. Good? Okay.
Chinatown complies with the rules of detective fiction for the first 130 of its 131 minute runtime. Tenacious gumshoe Jake Gittes stumbles from tailing an unfaithful spouse into a vast conspiracy by a business mogul (Noah Cross) to control the city’s water supply and obtain vast tracts of land.
It’s got everything: fedoras, dames with fake names, our detective getting the shit kicked out of him, and so on. Jake cross-examines witnesses on their stories, hides pocket watches behind car tires, and so on. All of the clues are laid out for both audience and detective early in the film. Eventually, Jake solves the mystery.
But it doesn’t matter. Noah Cross warns Jake that he is powerless to resist Cross. Cross is the embodiment of greed and evil, the brutality of capital made flesh, a man who rapes his own daughter and granddaughter. And he cannot be stopped.
In the final chaotic moments of the movie, the police shoot and kill Cross’ daughter, and Cross slips away in the chaos, his hand slowly smothering his granddaughter’s mouth. It’s a dark scene. Cross does not answer for his sins. And in the final lines of the movie, Jake’s companion tells him to let it alone, that his efforts are pointless: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Chinatown tells us, “The detective may be able to solve the riddle, but he cannot write the wrong. Logic and tenacity alone cannot undo the violence, or hold the perpetrators accountable. The powers that be are too great for the detective to resist. The best he can do is realize the extent of their power. And you, the reader, are in the same bind. You are powerless to resist the vast hierarchies— corporate, governmental, religious, whatever — that dominate your life.”
Let’s try another example.
Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is a little different from the other two examples. It takes the detective story and distorts it until it is barely recognizable. In the first novel, City of Glass, our protagonist is an author of detective fiction who is transformed into an actual detective by a mysterious summons. Really, though, he is a confused not-detective who stumbles from one seemingly irrelevant and surreal tangent into the next. In the next two books of the trilogy, Ghosts and The Locked Room,
It’s a weird-ass series of books, an experimental series of abstract narratives, a meta-narrative about how you’re wasting your time if you’re trying to make sense of the world is around you. It is a trio of anti-detective novels wrapped in a hard-boiled aesthetic.
“Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge — none of that tells us very much.”
Auster‘s “detective story” carves out the heart of the detective story: you know, the mystery. The murder and solving it and all that. These books are not about detectives who uncover facts and craft them into a narrative: “[I]n City of Glass, the detection process, the case, and the text itself yield nothing but ‘the revelation of a dissembling endlessness.’ ” (Insert footnote: Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism (1999)).
Our archetypal Detective Protagonist moves from ignorance to understanding. Auster reverses this; we get stupider and more confused as we go along. The New York Trilogy tells us, “Good luck figuring this shit out. There are no epiphanies or easy answers here, just an endlessly unfolding web of hidden connections, metaphors, possibilities, and suggestions.
“We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another — for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.”
Honestly, it’s a little pretentious. In City of Glass, there’s this lengthy scene where the protagonist goes to actual-real-author Paul Auster’s house and interrogates him about the fact that the protagonist is a detective. Sort of over the top. Still worth a read, though.
One more example.
China Mieville’s The City and the City is a big, fascinating book. It’s a love letter to genre fiction, Noir-Detective-Meets-Weird-Fiction. The novel revolves around a city divided in two. And I really mean divided: politically, aesthetically, culturally, sometimes right down the middle of streets and buildings. As in, there is a literal line on the ground splitting the city in half. Trees are rooted in one city and then their branches wind into the other. Its citizens are forbidden from even looking at or hearing the citizens of their sister city. And these rules are enforced by a mysterious police force known as “Breach.”
The City and the City begins (obviously) with a murder; it proceeds with lots of hard-boiled detecting; and it culminates with the unraveling of a vast corporate conspiracy. It’s an interesting book because it explores complicated themes within the context of a very readable, exciting piece of genre fiction.
The murder investigation revolves around this division between the cities. In particular, our protagonist (Inspector Borlu) spends a good chunk of the book attempting to unravel the mystery of “Orciny,” the mythical nowhere-place between the two cities:
“ ‘Orciny’s the third city. It’s between the other two. It’s in the dissensi, disputed zones, places that Beszel thinks are Ul Quoma’s and Ul Qoma Beszel’s. When the old commune split, it didn’t split into two, it split into three. Orciny’s the secret city. It runs things.”
If split there was. That beginning was a shadow in history, an unknown — records effaced and vanished for a century either side. Anything could have happened. From that historically brief quite opaque moment came the chaos of our material history, an anarchy of chronology, of mismatched remnants that delighted and horrified investigators. All we know is nomads on the steppes, then those black-box centuries of urban instigation — certain events, and there have been films and stories and games based on speculation (all making the censor at least a little twitchy) about that dual birth — then history comes back and there are Beszel and Ul Qoma.
Orciny itself is a stand-in for the antediluvian period when Beszel and Ul Qoma were one, before the division that the investigation revolves around. Because the murder mystery revolves around Orciny, it also revolves around the city’s division (and the history preceding that division).
Though the division’s origins are shrouded in mystery, it’s kept alive by the daily customs of the city’s residents. They refuse to recognize the rift underlying their society:
“It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Beszel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does.”
Without going into too much detail: At the climax of the novel, partisans agitating for reunification of the two cities pour into the streets, “the nerve twitches of a little revolution that had died before it was born.” The Detective forces himself to walk between the two cities in order to confront the villain and then, later, become a member of Breach. This quote from Ted Gioia puts it quite well:
The solution to the crime also threatens to unravel the precarious balance between the superimposed city-states. Virtually all mysteries are premised on the pursuit of a solution in which the unseen becomes seen. But in China Miéville’s novel, this expansion of the gaze takes on implications not found in your typical detective story. And here the age old truism of the genre, dating back to Poe and his purloined letter, namely that the best hiding place is situated in plain sight, becomes not just a clever way of resolving a mystery, of identifying a culprit and closing a case, but a thought-provoking challenge to a whole set of social norms and conventions.
There’s a lot more here; for example, the climax of the book reveals that Orciny is a red herring, and the villain is basically just an evil CEO doing slimy profit things for profit. But we’ll sum this work of postmodern detective fiction like this: “Our detective must understand his surroundings in order to understand the mystery. The cities, their ideologies, and the power structures that divide them are inextricable from the murder. Investigating the murder transforms the detective and his relationship to his environment.”
Why the Disappointing Ending is Fitting — Or Why It May Not Even be Disappointing
There is an argument that the ending works because it challenges the assumptions of detective fiction: “We, as people, can’t really understand or control our surroundings. We can only grow as people. The conclusion of the investigation is an analogy for that.”
I think this is a valid postmodern reading. It is a rejection of the realist/modernist take on traditional detective genre fiction.
This isn’t my argument, though. “The investigation is disappointing because life is disappointing” is hardly a profound or interesting way of looking at it. It feels more like an excuse for a poorly-written mystery.
Instead, I argue that the solution to the enigma of the hanging mirrors the solution to a parallel mystery: What shattered the soul of Martinaise?
Or, more precisely: “The player could not have foreseen The Deserter himself, the individual person. But Disco Elysium tells us from the beginning that Revachol has been haunted by the ghosts of the quashed communist revolution for decades. The senseless murder the player investigates is a reverberation of a monumental historical event that has not been resolved or reckoned with.”
A Spectre Haunts Revachol; The Spectre of Communism
Throughout Disco Elysium, we are reminded of the swift destruction of the communist revolution decades prior. When Du Bois shivers, the player receives visions of tenements on the other side of the city, collapsing from mortar shells received forty years before. When he stands on the coast and peers across the bay, he sees the skeletal remains of communard fortifications. When he wanders out of the Whirling-In-Rags, he stands before the ironically reconstructed monument to Revachol’s analogue for the Romanovs.
Disco Elysium constantly prompts the player to consider issues from a political angle and, often, to “pick a side.” Is Du Bois a communist? A Revacholian nationalist? Is the problem capital, or foreign capital, or neither? Is the RCM a legitimate police force? Is the Union worth sticking up for, despite its corruption? Is it preferable to preserve an imperfect status quo or undergo a violent revolution in the hope of achieving something more just?
Notice, however, how rarely the Revachol’s residents’ identities are informed by their politics.
The Deserter is perhaps the only true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Communist that Du Bois encounters. The only others are college students, who remain (and sometimes die) off-screen. The closest thing to fascists are Rene, an old man who collapses and dies halfway through the game, and Gary, an odious basement-dweller who the game mostly regards as comic relief. A handful of characters — for example, Kim, Joyce, and the Sunday Friend — identify as ultraliberals or moralists, but only the Sunday Friend does so vehemently.
The Insulinde is dominated by what is basically neoliberal capitalism. The symbol and color of the Moralintern (white on pale blue) is an obvious reference to the United Nations; the ultraliberals are multinational capitalists, defenders of the world order. You know, International Monetary Fund-types; dedicated to the stability of the currency and the preservation and reproduction of the status quo.
And I mean “dominated.” There is no room for any other ideology. There are no political partisans in this play. Disco Elysium does not hint at an impending revolution. There’s a labor dispute, but there’s no indication that this dispute will boil over into anything but more violence within Martinaise. The residents of Revachol are resigned to the totality of the Moralintern.
Capital does not win an ideological war against the communists. It destroys them, swiftly and decisively. It establishes itself as the framework of power in Revachol, whether its residents like it or not.
In both Revachol and in our reality, neoliberal capitalism is like gravity. It is the law of the universe. It isn’t good or bad; it just is. And as either Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Zizek observed (the quote has been attributed to both), “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” This is especially fitting in Disco Elysium: as Joyce tells us, the pale will swallow the world in about 27 years, but the Moralintern is going nowhere.
I’ve read a fair number of leftists online who are upset that Disco Elysium treats Du Bois’ communist dialogue options mostly as a joke. Du Bois blurts out lines like, “The owners of the factories should be turned into dog food! Kill all the landlords! Glory to the eternal wisdom of Mazovian socio-economics!” and the residents of Revachol treat him as unserious, a lunatic, or a poseur.
This makes sense, however. It is impossible to be a communist in Martinaise.
Communism exists only in aesthetic terms. It is wrapped in reverent nostalgia of an inchoate utopian transformation. Du Bois cannot actually Build Communism. There is no communist party. There is no communist faction the player can complete sidequests for. Du Bois is not a politician or a labor leader or a person with any influence. He is a cop, a cog in the system. Like Jake Gittes, he can investigate and detect, but he has no power to transform his surroundings. The city — and the Coalition — is infinitely more vast and powerful than any individual. So when Du Bois tells people he is an inva-communist who plans on transforming Precinct 41 into a revolutionary vanguard… He’s scoffed at, and for good reason. It’s fantasy.
Even the forces for change within Disco Elysium — Wild Pines, the union, the mercenaries, the teenage HARDCORE musicians — accept the Moralintern world order as a given. There is no other choice. The system cannot be bucked. The proof is in the blasted potholes in the concrete, unrepaired for half a century.
Communists and fascists do not do battle in Disco Elysium. Why would they? Power lies within the hands of the moralists and the ultraliberals. Neither the communists nor the fascists are relevant enough to upset this balance of power. The neoliberal grip on the world is too strong, and the historical moment that allowed for the revolution has passed.
Revachol’s communist revolution lingers only in the collective memory of its citizenry. It is inscribed in the architecture; recall the mural on the side of the coastal building, riddled with bulletholes, evidence of execution by firing squad. The pawn shop owner suffers from sickness brought on by working on neighborhood cleanup crews after the revolution. This is where Mazovian Socio-Economics lives: in the past. Communism is relegated to the Past-Future that Might Have Been. It not only hasn’t happened yet, it merely Almost Happened forty years ago.
The ideas haven’t been defeated. Communism’s advocates weren’t persuaded. They were just wiped out. The ideas have been rendered irrelevant by overwhelming violence.
The text for the Mazovian Socio-Economics thought is telling: “Instead of building Communism, he now builds a precise model of this grotesque, duplicitous world.”
So that’s our murderer: the last gasp of the utopian project that haunts Revachol. It lashes out for blood, shudders, and dies. Fantasy, memory, nostalgia, ghosts, echoes of a previous era. The Deserter is a reminder of the violence that shaped the world. He is a false fulfillment of that revolution’s promise, a dark irony, and a sad delusion.
The Deserter is acutely aware of the failure of the revolution. For him, it is not a memory. It is the foundation for his life. And the impossibility of realizing it has driven him insane. His last and only respite is pointless violence.
One Final Note!
“Who are you, dead man?”
I forget what kind of skill check this is. When you’re examing Lely’s body, it’s something like an Inland Empire or Shivers of Empathy Check. But if you pass it, you can talk to him. And you can ask him, “Who killed you?”
Dead Lely tells you that communism killed him.
So it wasn’t entirely unfair!