header is screenshot from Disco Elysium
Chaos as Canon
Joshua Calixto

This piece reveals the name of Disco Elysium’s protagonist—a minor spoiler.

Decision theory is a philosophical study that seeks to evaluate human choices based on their outcomes. According to decision theory, if you act according to your values, and your decision results in an active furthering of those values, you’ve made a “good” decision. If, for example, you value intelligence, and you opt to attend a private university that ultimately makes you more intelligent, then decision theory would hold that your choice to go to college was an unequivocally good one. Up until this point, videogames have been comically easy to dissect in accordance with decision theory. In videogame parlance, “choices matter” is typically just back-of-box promo-speak for “this game has two endings.” Your character saves the world the “good” way, or they do it the “evil” way. If you’re lucky, sometimes you’ll be offered the third “unorthodox” way. But with such binary options at your disposal, it’s always easy to evaluate the quality of your decisions and to weigh them against their opportunity costs. When you plug in the “good” answers, you get the good ending and can usually surmise what would happen if you chose the “bad” answers.

This heavily-reduced moral roux is supposed to enrich the player’s sense of agency in modern videogames, from the Paragon/Renegade binary of Mass Effect, to the Good Dad/Bad Dad antics of Bioshock, to the 25-hour “Would You Rather” quiz known as Outer Worlds. In practice, these systems fail to tell us anything of note about our characters or the worlds they inhabit, so much as they serve as a flat, morally obvious extension of a game’s customization features: Do you prefer your character decked out in the white and gold armor, or the black and red armor? Do you want to shoot beams of light from your palms, or streams of fire?

In a framework where morality is just another cosmetic option, the player character tends to lack any sense of authored agency, instead serving as a vehicle for the player’s desires, which themselves are often driven by in-game incentives. You don’t free the prisoner because that’s what your character would do, you do it because you want to earn relationship points with the love interest. You don’t sacrifice that (frankly disposable) squad member because your character is evil, you do it because you want special armor from the opposing faction. Consequences are not reflective of a main character’s own thoughts or decisions, they’re tools meant to reinforce the player’s sense of agency (and often vanity) in a virtual world. Players are given apparent control over life and death, cause and effect, asked supposedly grave questions like: Do you see how many livelihoods hinge on your every word? Do you see how many things can change depending on whether you say yes or no?

We’ve only seen glimpses of a videogame experience where player decisions actually reflect on player characters themselves. The Witcher 3 stood out because the player’s options were limited to the framework of its protagonist, Geralt of Rivia: While the dialogue trees would often branch off into an overwhelming array of directions, they all made sense as things that Geralt would plausibly say in a given situation. In a 2012 interview with Gamasutra, Witcher 2 lead gameplay designer Maciej Szcześnik and gameplay producer Marek Ziemak said their intent was to give players a sense of freedom and investment in Geralt’s character without sacrificing his own distinctive personality: “What would go well with the type of character I’m actually playing… What would Geralt do? And the thing we are really proud of is that some of the players say that he would probably choose this thing, and the others say he would choose the other thing. So we’re delivering two choices.”

In ZA/UM’s landmark role-playing game Disco Elysium, no such explanation is necessary because the game reveals its philosophy on character choice within the text itself. Its skill system comes off as somewhat run-of-the-mill at first, giving the player “skill points” after leveling up that can be used to upgrade protagonist Harry DuBuois’ personal attributes, ranging from “Physique,” which determines his ability to deal with physical obstacles, “Inland Empire,” which bolsters his intuition, to “Electrochemistry”—his self-destructive drive to consume every drug and seduce every person he comes across. Parallel to that leveling system is something called the “Thought Cabinet,” a series of ideas that Harry can contemplate over the course of a few in-game hours. Think about any subject for enough time, and the thought becomes personal doctrine and grants Harry a set of permanent skill bonuses—some powerful, some irrelevant to the traits you’ve already acquired, some actively bad. The catch is, the game doesn’t tell you what bonuses your thoughts will provide before you acquire them, meaning that thoughts are chosen based on player intuition, and have unforeseeable consequences on Harry’s character that are then reflected in the gameplay. The outcomes can be evaluated according to decision theory, but they’re impossible to premeditate on those grounds.

One idea that Harry can dwell on is the “Normal Law Official” thought, which pops into the player’s subconscious when they’ve chosen enough “normal” or “boring” dialogue options. Contemplate the thought for 1 hour and 20 minutes of in-game time, and you lose a point in both the “Inland Empire” and “Shivers” attributes, but are rewarded with the following passage:

“You’ve done it, Harry! Whatever else you are, you’re also boring now. It was not easy. You’ve spent most of your life trying to funk up every nook and cranny of your personality. When someone says something political, the first three thoughts in your head are a ludicrous hodgepodge of communism, fascism, and stock tips. When they ask you why you did something, it’s superstardom, apocalypse, or the mea culpas of a flagellant cop monk. It’s not easy, reaching for the fourth option—the normal one. But you have. And now you’re not just crazy, you’re also boring.”

It’s a passage dripping with implications not just about Harry’s character, but about the philosophy of Disco Elysium itself. On a narrative design level, Harry isn’t a blank-slate avatar that players can mold into drastically different personas that either liberate or enslave the world; he’s a washed-up cop riddled with neuroses and a history of substance abuse he can’t shake. He’s limited and guided by his impulses. He doesn’t always know what’s good for him. Still, as a flesh-and-blood human being, he has the capacity to change, and by sheer virtue of the fact that he’s a detective making significant decisions on a moment-to-moment basis, he will change.

The inextricable complexity of Disco Elysium’s decision trees call to mind larger philosophical discussions about the choices we make and the impact they have on our lives. In Joshua Rothman’s 2019 New Yorker essay “The Art of Decision-Making,” Rothman explores the nature of choice through the work of author and media theorist Steven Johnson:

“Ideally, we’d be omniscient and clearheaded. In reality, we make decisions in imperfect conditions that prevent us from thinking things through. This, Johnson explains, is the problem of ‘bounded rationality.’ Choices are constrained by earlier choices; facts go undiscovered, ignored, or misunderstood; decision-makers are compromised by groupthink and by their own fallible minds. The most complex decisions harbor ‘conflicting objectives’ and ‘undiscovered options,’ requiring us to predict future possibilities that can be grasped, confusingly, only at “varied levels of uncertainty…”‘And life’s truly consequential choices, Johnson says, ‘can’t be understood on a single scale.’

The consequences of real-life choices aren’t usually clear-cut. Bad decisions can yield good outcomes, and good decisions can lead to misery in the long-term. Unfortunately, there isn’t some “alternate ending” clip we can pull up on YouTube to affirm or reject the validity of our actions. Instead, we have to accept reality as it is and trudge on. But there’s an important distinction to make here between the anxiety of real-life decisions and the anxiety we get from the all-or-nothing dilemmas that videogames present us: it’s not the costs of our decisions that haunt us—it’s the uncertainty.

Books, films, and other authored media relieve us of this burden, at least to an extent. Faust could make a hundred terrible decisions in a Goethe play, but as readers, we’re afforded a sense of narrative distance that makes his misery feel less oppressive. We can empathize with the character in all his turmoil, but we aren’t forced to participate in it directly. It’s not that books or films or plays aren’t interactive, it’s simply the difference between feeling for a character, and feeling on a character’s behalf.

Games, by contrast, usually give us the worst of both worlds by turning the decision-making process into one big opportunity cost. Not only does this create an alienating oversimplification of the way choices actually work, they make it feel bad to participate in the fiction because they shove our faces into it, demanding that we comprehend all the things we’ve sacrificed by choosing certain paths. If Clementine will remember something, the game needs us to know.

This is the shadow that hangs over Disco Elysium. In the game’s opening hours, it feels bad to put a point into one attribute over another, and it feels like you’re giving something up when you commit to a dialogue option. There are hundreds of decisions, even in the game’s first area, that make you want to save your game in case you make the wrong move. But give the game a few more hours and something unimaginable happens: You realize you won’t ever be able to catch up with the game’s seemingly infinite character trees, and you let go, doing instead whatever your gut tells you. This is where the magic kicks in: Despite the fact that Disco Elysium presents you with thousands of thought, action, and dialogue options, it turns every last thread into indisputable canon, splitting the difference between narrative distance and interactive proximity. Every thought and possibility you’re presented with is a pre-existing idea in the main character’s head, waiting to be plucked from the void and tossed into existence. Part of the game’s excitement comes from watching these seeds blossom into relationships or tension, regression or growth. There is no “good” or “bad,” because regardless of what you choose, the game will never fail to yield something far better than a fresh set of armor: spectacularly-crafted outcomes of literary scale and artistry.

Joshua Calixto writes about technology and culture. Find him on Twitter @hitherejosh.