This article discusses plot points from throughout Disco Elysium.
There’s a line in Charles Bukowski’s Post Office where the book’s author surrogate protagonist wakes up, feeling like shit, to look at himself in the mirror. He brushes his hair and stares at his face, wishing he make it more presentable, too. “I went to the bathroom and threw some water on my face, combed my hair,” he writes. “If I could only comb that face, I thought, but I can’t.” The opening of ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium, which sees a police detective regain consciousness on the stained tiles of a hotel room floor, sprawled in a pile of dirty limbs with an empty bottle next to him and an apocalyptic hangover, recalls this scene. The Detective looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and sees an impressionist blur of furious line work and watercolours forming his leering, unshaved face. A bulbous red nose sticks out from sallow skin, surrounded by untamed hair. His features are twisted into a wild, unhinged grin. The Detective refers to the face he makes as “the Expression” and his inner monologue’s battling personalities detail his struggle with what it’s meant to communicate—perhaps a friendly smile; perhaps a self-assured exterior—versus the wretched, off-putting reality of what it communicates to the outside world. He can lose himself in trying to understand the Expression.
The Detective’s self-examination is a charged introduction to the game’s main character and its thematic concerns—even more so when paired with the warning of Elysium’s R.S. Thomas epigraph: “The furies are at home in the mirror; it is their address. Even the clearest water, if deep enough can drown.” The evocation of Bukowski—and the other modernist and beat gutter-scribes who so often devoted themselves to examining the depths of self-annihilating horror—defines the opening scenes of the game, suggesting that Elysium is going to be a story of a poetically wretched scumbag trying to get a job done (in his case, solving a local murder) while battling the influence of his own self-destructive impulses. Soon enough, as the plot broadens, and the player begins understanding the Detective’s place in the local community of the decaying, desperate city of Revachol, it becomes clear this isn’t really the case.
Bukowski was often a devastatingly beautiful writer, but over a lifetime of novels and poetry, he wasn’t quite able to escape the nasty solipsism that defined so much of his work, even as his characters and verse raged toward the breakthrough that would bridge his remarkable introspection with something like a recognition of his words’ place inside more universal human struggles. In Disco Elysium, on the other hand, the Bukowski-like Detective steps out from his room and enters a world where any valuable understanding of his own damaged self can only progress through interpersonal relationships.
This happens, in part, because Elysium’s story requires the Detective to solve a murder case by exploring Revachol’s Martinaise district, following leads by talking to locals and asking them what they know about what’s happened. He gains experience points by learning new facts, uncovering bits of the mystery step-by-step. After gathering enough of these points, the player can improve the Detective’s attributes—a selection of mostly psychological traits, like his ability to empathize with others, command authority, recall facts, or mentally hang on when confronting depressing or existentially profound information. Elysium places a lot of emphasis, through this important element of its design, on exploring its protagonist’s thoughts and attitudes as they’re defined by the player. The greatest joy of the game is meeting others and talking with them, regularly choosing how the Detective responds to their personalities by defining his own. The most clear-cut examples are outwardly political: A union representative might talk about the “unlawful privatization of Revachol,” and the Detective can chip in to agree that local labourers need to stand united in the face of this threat or argue instead for the virtue of unregulated markets. He can listen to a racist trunk driver rail against immigrants and downplay his tirade (much to the chagrin of his partner, Kim Kitsuragi) or call the other man out for the piece of shit he is. The game remembers these dialogue choices, externally defining the Detective by what he said so others treat him differently. It also locks off certain responses based on the personality traits the player chooses to unlock after gaining experience points. Everything connects in a feedback web where, rather than artificially define their version of the Detective as “good” or “bad,” “mean” or “nice,” politically left- or right-leaning, Disco Elysium registers what the player actually chooses to do and say in subtler moments. Someone may want their version of the protagonist to be a committed socialist, but the choices that keep him on that path aren’t clearly flagged; instead, they’re registered by the game as a huge number of suitable or opposing choices.
These systems create a clever way to force the player to grapple with her actual worldview—it has to be enacted, not just signalled. They’re also, and more importantly, essential to Elysium’s inalterable argument that defining a personality is based on human interaction, not just endless internal reflection.
The Detective hears voices in his head constantly throughout Disco Elysium. Unlike many role-playing games, which blunt the nuance of conversation and personality into blanket stats related to traits as broad as “intelligence” or “charisma,” Elysium breaks these categories down into ones small enough to approximate a bit more of the scope of the human psyche. The Detective’s inner monologue, influenced by the player’s chosen skill upgrades and in-game decisions, is a constant battle between coexisting traits like a roaring id that demands to be indulged with sex, violence, and drugs, a mystical spark that points the Detective toward metaphysical contemplation, the cold logic of an analytical viewpoint, and an unmitigated emotionality that wants tears and song, grand gestures and romance. These facets of the Detective’s mind all exist from the start, exerting various degrees of control over his dialogue choices and thoughts, but they can only be resisted or strengthened not by dwelling inside the character’s head, but by getting him out and talking to others who agree or disagree with him.
Elysium’s protagonist, informed by the built-in background he begins the game with and the player’s starting choices, is only defined as a full character—a full person—by the ways in which he exists in the local community. His personality is constructed not just by the various aspects of his mind that literally speak to him inside his head, but by how he chooses to use his ever-evolving self to help, listen to, or fuck with those around him. He learns if he’s a genuinely kind or simply manipulative character by what he chooses to say versus what he ultimately does when verbal altruism collides with self-interest; he sees whether he truly wants to explore the mysteries of the universe by reacting with fear, excitement, or dismissal when incredibly bizarre plot points crop up; he knows who he is by existing in relation to the diversity of Martinaise’s people.
Despite how malleable the Detective’s character development may be, Elysium doesn’t shrug off an authorial opinion on morality or shy away from embodying a distinct ideology. It’s always clear, no matter how the protagonist’s personality has been guided, that the game knows what it’s portraying. Martinaise is economically and culturally distraught partially because it lacks an adequate welfare system (no matter who the Detective is, he’s on the street if he can’t pay his hotel bill each night; only a kind woman’s offer of a spare room offers a second option). Its depiction of authoritarianism shows how cops develop a taste for cruelty and callousness, easily forgetting kindness when those around them, failed by the law before, lash out at their actions as stifling representatives of an ineffectual neoliberal state. Mercenaries and tradespeople, intellectually adrift after coming up in an education system that leaves poor kids studying in spare moments between calling out to potential customers for their mothers’ shops, drift toward the appealingly straightforward, frighteningly simplistic guidelines of racism and fascism because they’re surrounded by violence and wracked by hardship, unable to imagine a better way. The game’s portrayal of a trade union, bloated with power and its goals of solidarity poisoned by hierarchal structures and monomaniacal leadership, shows the importance of continual, engaged resistance to totalitarian structures, regardless of whether they surface in nominally egalitarian movements or not.
Elysium is full of political opinions, even if the Detective can try to flail around in resistance to them. Nowhere is this clearer than in its climax, which brings the rest of the game’s subtler celebrations of communal joining into plain sight by paralleling its opening scene. Having followed the trail of the killer who set the plot’s events into motion to a deserted island, abandoned by the locals and populated only by a derelict military bunker, the Detective finds himself talking to an ancient communist political commissar, veteran of a past war. The Deserter failed in his military duties 44 years ago and, filled with a sour mix of regret and self-loathing, pride in the lost cause of the defeated communists and anger at the shape of the world that came after peace, he lives alone, watching Martinaise through the scope of his rifle. The more he talks, the more obvious it becomes that the Deserter is a shell of a person. Finger on the trigger as he observes the city from across the water, he gains a sense of total personal control over the citizens of Revachol, never interacting with them but monitoring and following their lives. At times, he kills those who upset his vision of what they should be, sniping a former union leader and the man whose death the Detective has been investigating throughout the plot. His resentment building and his personality hardening into an implacable anger—about the failures of post-war socialism; the continued existence of fascism and liberalism; the happiness that others get to enjoy while he sits alone, never growing by relating to others—he eventually shoots the game’s murder victim, jealous because that man, and not him, gets to have a sexual relationship with a woman he’s idealized but never spoken to.
The Deserter is a warning. He is, despite believing that he’s ideologically pure, a complete individualist, motivated only be his own anger and desires, informed as they are by an ingrained allegiance to decades-old communist principles. He has nothing to live for other than to assure himself that he knows better than those he silently watches—to daydream about killing a hated enemy soldier who lives in Martinaise, fantasize about others who don’t know he exists, and stew in whatever twisted version of selfhood his brain’s cooked up from years spent doing nothing but staring deep into the mirror and studying the distorted reflections of his own stunted mind. His socialism, which he argues to the Detective is purer than others’ despite the moment he faltered in combat, has lost sight of any politics of connection—of the deep-rooted truth that the individual exists in the community, and that both thrive in relation to each other. He is, no matter what the player does, the ghost haunting all Disco Elysium’s characters, issuing a silent warning through his sad, lonely, pathetic existence.
Like the Deserter, the Detective begins the game alone. Lost in anger and sadness and confusion, he destroys his room and, with a little help from drugs and drink, overloads his self into it blows out like a worn-out fuse. If he was able to stay in the room, watching the world outside without interacting with those who live in it, he would continue to fall apart—to reify and calcify into an unmoving object of individualist fury and self-loathing. His isolation would foster more anger and resentment—the kind of behaviour that warps the mind into obsessing over itself; that leads to an impartial understanding of humanity. Left alone for too long, he would lose himself in the mirror, staring at a surface reflection, what’s best in him curdling into aimless violence, misdirected rage, and a desire to hurt everything and everyone that seems to misunderstand his fractured self.
 A real highlight comes when a fractured set of storylines related to a partially abandoned church coalesce into an ecstatic whole. If the player chooses to reconcile the desires of a researcher studying the building’s paranormal properties with that of a group of ravers wanting to turn the place into a dance club (and the mad hermit who lives in the rafters), the sequence dovetails into a gorgeous culmination of Elysium’s optimistic views of the intersections of art and science, technology and spirituality, metaphysics and mundane humanity. The Detective, having facilitated the meeting of all these characters, their goals seemingly opposed to one another but actually complementary, gains more than just experience points from witnessing how their disparate worldviews and talents work together to create a gorgeous musical insight into the sublime.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.,