Disco Elysium and the Subversion of Character in Role-Playing Games
By Holly Green
Unlike many video games, Disco Elysium is not what you’d call a power fantasy. The game, a narrative-focused take on classic roleplay conventions, doesn’t feature any combat. Its lead character, an alcoholic cop on a suicidal bender, is not an aspirational figure. And its political subject matter, covering everything from class conflict to state violence, can range from depressing to enraging. If anything, playing Disco Elysium will make you feel like shit.
Yet, under the cynical surface of this 2019 PC title from fledgling UK studio ZA/UM (recently rereleased with extended material on console) is a surprising amount of heart and vulnerability. In the game, a police officer travels to a lawless coastal town to investigate the murder of a mercenary. As he begins to interview witnesses and investigate leads, he quickly becomes the town pariah, his substance abuse problems and amnesia (not to mention some pesky inner voices) alienating almost everyone he meets. But for all his dysfunction, he is armed with unique skills that accommodate his social limitations. Instead of more traditional role-playing traits, he is equipped with a system designed to utilize metaphysical fortitude and intuition.
While from the outside these characteristics look more bizarre than effective, between the game’s broad support for these skills and a robust ecosystem of conversational interactions, the game’s reward is not the satisfaction of a risk-free “perfect playthrough”, but rather the potential variations in narrative experience. That, in turn, reinterprets the skills’ perceived usefulness as he pieces together the painful memories that led to his breakdown and subsequent dissociation. It is a narrative reframing that suggests not empowerment from disempowerment, but rather, redemption through the redefinition of acceptable terms of success. And by overturning the traditional power fantasy, a sympathetic understanding of identity disorders emerges.
Disco Elysium’s transformative take on the role-playing genre is built on a subversion of the popular understanding of character builds. In an RPG, a player selects their character’s skills and traits from a list, then projects those attributes into their understanding of how that character will approach conflict. For example, in classic Dungeons & Dragons, the players invest points into six classic attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Other games tweak these conventions to suit the game’s specific themes, then add secondary traits. The Fallout series uses the SPECIAL system (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) and appends a set of tactical supplements that offer practical solutions to conflicts and obstacles the player encounters, like Lockpicking, Hacking, or Bartering. Disco Elysium’s set isn’t what you’d expect. Some skills, like Logic or Rhetoric, are obviously useful. But other, more emotionally or supernaturally based traits, like Drama, Conceptualization, or Inland Empire, less so. Even those that seem outwardly helpful can reveal deep layers of apparent dysfunction, and it’s not always easy to anticipate how these skills will come into play.
This lack of clarity, however, is not a setback. While role-playing games are considered the ultimate vehicle of self-expression, there are often design choices that place emphasis on some playstyles over others. Using superior XP bonuses, better mission rewards, or even the quality of dialogue, designers often incentivize certain prosocial behaviors (and their necessary skillsets) more often than others. For example, in Fallout, decisions are often judged Good, Neutral or Bad, altering the character’s reputation with local factions, which can affect the availability of side quests and missions (with “Bad” choices often offering significant barriers to fully completing the game, like cutting off communication with key characters.) This often renders an RPG not so much an exploration of all the expressions afforded within the game’s design but rather a thinly veiled reinforcement of the perceived “best” way to complete it. It encourages players to think less about what they want to do and what they think the game wants them to do. And it sends the message that there is a “best” way to do things, placing a value judgment on its skill sets in the process.
Prolific RPG writer Josh Sawyer discusses this topic in his GDC 2010 talk Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout: New Vegas. Outlining the design philosophies behind choice conflict in role-playing games, he argues that as a vehicle of self-expression, RPGs, which are built on the player’s ability to self-select their character traits, must validate all possible playstyles. This means that in order to not “punish” a player for choosing a particular skill or trait, their decisions must carry equal weight across a narrative system.
In Disco Elysium, the byproduct of adhering to this design philosophy is a surprisingly sympathetic reframing of dissociated identities and the role they play in coping with trauma. An amnesiac man awakens in the game, unaware of his identity, occupation, or even what he looks like, following an alcohol-fueled suicidal bender. Within the game’s first few hours, we find out about his investigation of the mercenary’s murder and that he’s been doing an exceedingly lousy job. And despite the perceived bizarreness of his character traits, his approach to the case, from conversations with locals to interacting with clues or obstacles, he is never punished. Whatever strengths the player has designed into his build, the Cop is not impeded, but rather he finds ways to progress even if not always in a straight line. This results in a stunningly inventive and complex ecosystem of possible narrative paths that embraces the weird. He’s a man who can solve a case as much by an educated guess, intuitive hunch, or the idle poetic indulgences of artistic observation.
Disco Elysium is set in the town of Revachol on the island of Martinaise, a place that has endured many ideological and political regimes in its long history and been let down by every single one. In this setting, the game mirrors many hallmarks of Soviet-era Eastern European politics, forming the basis of the game’s conflicts between its characters and their many alignments which, while veiled, have real-world corollaries. From communism to neoliberal late-stage capitalism, many historical ideologies are represented, illustrated in the NPCs who espouse their worldview via dialogue. The resulting banter (be it between the Cop and an NPC, the Cop and himself, or the game and the player) avoids didacticism because the game refuses to commit to any specific philosophy. Be it in conversation or interior dialogue, the writing exposes the failings of each. No matter what your convictions, Disco Elysium will interrogate them, laying waste to all by validating none.
This interrogation would not happen without the interplay of the Cop’s inner Greek chorus. Each skill in his set can progress the case by solving puzzles and “speech checks.” But each is also personified by a voice that is observatory and third-person, as if coming from an externalized source. Often the Cop must internally negotiate with them as he interrogates a possible suspect or searches for leads, or as he’s walking about town. Logic and Perception kick in to offer hints. Empathy and Composure will plead for understanding and civility. Inland Empire and Shivers stop by to indulge their oblique, dark poetry, while Electro-Chemistry, no matter the occasion, begs for drugs. These skills interact with the Cop through the same multiple choice conversational structure as the game's dialogue trees and have their own perspectives and goals (think Inside Out, but for communists), creating an ecosystem of possible commentary. It is not unlike a bickering family, its mood and tone fluctuating fluidly. Sometimes, the skills offer warnings, suspicions, and self-doubt. Other times, they are poetic, supportive, or intuitive. Like our personalities, they let the Cop adapt to a situation by shifting to a different response from the available sets. And the conflict between these personalities is not exhibited as damaging but as part of a rich tapestry of prose that exists as much to amuse as to propel the story forward.
It is helpful to think of a personality not as a set of immutable traits that reflect your character but rather as a collection of reactions and coping skills. These responses are formed by events, memories, and other factors and can be positive, negative, or neutral. While we think of personalities as innate, they are fluid throughout our lives, as they react to new experiences. And when it comes to trauma, they can take on more adaptive forms, like those expressed by dissociative identity disorders. In those cases, a personality can act as a set of responses whose availability shifts according to the situation. In the Cop’s free access to each skill and the voices that personify each, you can explore that adaptive behavior and its usefulness despite how little sense they might make to an outside observer. He can take the intellectual path, play the erratic savant, or simply smash his way through everything. And these skills not only get the job done but also contribute to the Cop’s success as a detective. He is noted by his partner as having a high case completion rate and an impressively low amount of kills given the length of his career. If, to paraphrase Sawyer, a “right” character is one that is supported by the game’s range of expression, then the Cop is perfect for his imperfections, in that all of his expressions are systemically supported. While he does encounter social consequences--in the form of cringe-y interactions that induce secondhand embarrassment in the player--his path is not blocked, but merely diverted. He doesn’t perform on comfortable terms in order to achieve.
This game’s accommodation and permissiveness towards the Cop’s weirdness manifests in other ways. Repeatable skill checks and Thought Cabinet entries, which allow the Cop to research certain ideas or philosophies to flesh out his base stats, pad out any thin areas in his expertise. And while the game is established on a narrative flexibility intended to accommodate the game’s diversity of possible character builds, Disco Elysium’s reframing of RPG convention suggests that no skill the Cop uses to solve the mystery is good or bad, or better than another, regardless of the emotional or social consequences. It allows him to pursue leads on a nonlinear basis, giving his chosen approach to solving the murder more room to breathe and more time for his skill set to expand. This validates not only the audience’s chosen playstyle but also how the Cop carries himself as he adapts to memory loss, brain damage, and trauma. It does not matter what configuration of skills he pursues, he will find a means or a workaround to completing his goals.
The language of behavioral science is embedded deep within the writing of Disco Elysium; some of the Cop’s inner dialogues, for example, are between his Ancient Reptilian Brain and Limbic System, depicting a primitive hostility during the Cop’s most vulnerable moments. But while I don’t think the developers of Disco Elysium necessarily set out to make a humanizing comment on cognitive theory or identity disorders, their adherence to careful choice architecture brings these ideas out naturally. Because the interactions they’ve created between the voices of each skill are so unique, the player does not even have to “win” the game in order to enjoy it. And by not punishing how the player selects and uses his skills in-game, there is no stigma to the range of possible human responses to trauma. For all his seemingly useless, antisocial, or alienating traits, the Cop, or Harry, as we finally come to know him, is a symbol of self-acceptance, and a good RPG design.