header is screenshot from Disco Elysium
A Hallucinatory Plea
Maddi Chilton

This article discusses plot points from throughout Disco Elysium.

A few hours into Disco Elysium, the protagonist, a police detective, and his partner Kim Kitsuragi cross a previously-inaccessible water lock and come across a crashed motor carriage, nose-down in an icy marsh and flooded with water. In it, he finds his own badge and coat. The detective asks Kim what happened; Kim gives a noncommittal reply. They sit on an abandoned swingset as the detective mulls over the possibilities, a task which (due to brain damage and general incompetence) takes several hours. After far too long, he puts two and two together: “I DROVE MY CAR INTO THE SEA?!?!?!”

This man is a detective. At this point he has spent multiple days investigating a lynching, despite missing both his professional credentials and his memory. He and Kim came across the water lock to pursue a possible suspect, but for the moment, the protagonist is distracted by the obvious answer to a less pressing question, hovering just past his peripheral vision. Not for the first time in the game, the pressing demands of a murder investigation and the player’s innate desire for movement take a backseat to the dreamlike inclinations of the detective, his attention eternally elsewhere. He takes a break from the grind of police work to remind himself of his own name.

Moments like this are pretty typical for Disco Elysium. It succeeds at being a good detective game in direct defiance of its protagonist; it unfolds into a complex and compelling mystery almost on accident, after multiple instances of Kim and the protagonist nearly writing off the case. At one point the protagonist quite literally finds himself running up and down stairs to interrogate witnesses on their conflicting statements—a task that would be monotonous and annoying under other circumstances feels urgent, buoyed by a sense of sudden and promising progress after days of slow evidence gathering and less-than-convincing theories. There’s the player’s sense of excitement, but there’s also a certain level of incredulity—the protagonist is solving the case? This guy? Are you sure?

But the strands of competence unwind themselves again, as an extraneous suspect who escaped along the coast leads Kim and the protagonist on a chase, which can go quickly or slowly based on how smart your version of the detective has become (mine was very dumb.) The hunt for a murder suspect unfolds not dissimilarly to an earlier hunt for cryptids that look like marsh reeds; the confrontation ends up feeling more fit for a superhero comic than a crime novel. After the suspect flees or dies, Kim and the protagonist are left to wander aimlessly back in the direction they came. The protagonist’s sentient gut instincts give him a heads-up that shit’s about to hit the fan. Then shit hits the fan, spectacularly. Credit where credit is due to ZA/UM, Disco Elysium’s creators, for writing the most mentally exhausting text-based cutscene in recent memory.

A lot of people die. The protagonist almost does, too. Kim can be hurt badly enough that you lose him as a follower. When the protagonist crawls his way out of fevered wound-sleep days later, he’s no closer to a satisfactory solution to the crime than he was before guns came out. The sudden tonal shift of the game is alarming and affecting. The notion of justice sounds naive; the idea of a real answer to the last floating strands of the mystery seems as impossible as digging a crashed motor carriage out of sinking mud and ice.

But the protagonist doesn’t care much about police procedure, and at the end of the day, Disco Elysium gives far less of a shit about justice than it does about truth. Your character was never that good of a cop anyway. The hanged man whose death kicks off the case is still dead, the street outside the Whirling-in-Rags is still painted with blood and motor oil, and God knows the protagonist’s never getting his girlfriend back, even if he really has shaped up this time, I promise. By this point as a player I felt hopeless, used to RPGs that let me save the world, but the protagonist, with a storied history of drinking himself into oblivion and doing a surprisingly decent job at detective work the next day, soldiered on. For the first time in the game the protagonist is the one who convinces Kim to keep going, following the last and least likely clue. There’s no real reason to do it, except, well, you want to know.

And in the standout moment of the game, as Kim and the protagonist finally figure out who killed the hanged man (it was a communist deserter from a war that happened a long time ago, angry at the world for rational and irrational reasons), the insuliandian plasmid—a cryptid, comically hunted earlier in the game by a crackpot biologist and his gentle wife—bows out of the reeds behind him.

It’s a baffling narrative choice, especially considering that the quest where the existence of the plasmid is introduced is separate from the main plot and some players could have missed the setup entirely. But after a moment, it clicks. Surreal accounts of cryptid sightings suddenly seem as urgent and captivating as the testimonies of murder suspects. The plasmid demands recognition, belief, and acknowledgement with the same hallucinatory plea as the specter of the hanged man before it. And for the protagonist, who has been living a life adjacent to but not quite aligned with reality for what seems like a very long time, the presence of the plasmid slots perfectly into place amongst the restless, shifting gears of the world. “I exist,” the plasmid says, to which the detective responds, “I exist too.” The plasmid says, “Tell me what it’s like for you.” It is perhaps the only moment of true understanding in the game.

In a more traditional detective story, where the culprit was also the villain and protagonist was synonymous with hero, including something as risky as this interaction could have ruined the plot. In this, Disco Elysium is aided by its gleeful rejection of morality systems, as a standard RPG’s evil/good/overhyped-in-between is replaced by a series of bizarre archetypes (I have a certain fondness for the “Sorry Cop” play style) and your own evaluation, as the player, of where you think this guy lands on the spectrum of “alright” to “asshole.” This narrative choice makes the story’s rejection of justice as the ultimate goal land more soundly: the protagonist as moral or legal arbiter is less convincing than that of him as a conduit of experience, from the infamous first bad night to that last moment on the island, begging Kim to put his camera down so as not to startle a myth.

And the narrative space outside these conventions is where Disco Elysium really shines: in brief but impactful moments of truth, whether they be a demon that turned out to be a dicemaker or an inexplicable silence in a church or a posthumous love confession for an old, competitive friend. There’s just as much honesty in the protagonist’s mirage-like recurring dreams, exposing in their own time the buried torment of his psyche, as there is in the solemn death notice he delivers to a woman who didn’t even know her husband was missing. And though the game builds a grand mystery, casting unscrupulous union thugs and corporate mercenaries alongside screeching, shitty teenagers and mysterious lorry drivers and a hardboiled detective, charming and roguish if you block your ears and close your eyes, it never quite lets you fall for it. The truth is just a little bit more than that.

Maddi Chilton is games-adjacent and lives mostly on the Internet. You can find her on Twitter.