The Radical Politics of 'Disco Elysium' Make For a Potentially Complicated Legacy

A spoiler-filled conversation about 'Disco Elysium' gets us thinking about the future of games—and the world.
Screenshot from Disco Elysium, The character equipment screen shows your character in the center, with the various items he is wearing as different equipment slots. On a sidebar to the left, you can see the various stat changes these clothes give you.
Image courtesy of ZA/UM

Disco Elysium, by and large, came out of nowhere for a lot of people, including us. A powerful story about the fallout of a failed political revolution and the people left in the rubble, portrayed through the lens of an alcoholic who’s just woken up from a bender so powerful it’s legitimately caused amnesia. And while a lot of games claim to embrace the idea of choice, few grant the player with the shocking granularity offered by Disco Elysium.


It’s also a hard game to talk about without really digging into what happens—because a lot happens. Disco Elysium might take place in a small location, relative to a lot of video games, but it’s utterly dense. It does not require more. Austin and I managed to tiptoe around a bunch of stuff on Waypoint Radio, but with both of us having recently finished the game, it seemed like a good idea to sit down and talk through the whole damn experience.

Again, this is a spoiler-filled talk, top to bottom. While your playthrough is likely to be different than ours, there are several universal beats, and we don’t shy away from bringing them up.

This post, however, does not contain spoilers. Instead, I decided to highlight an exchange that Austin and I had towards the end of the podcast, when we considered the potential legacy of Disco Elysium, and how it relates to the state of our current political moment.

Austin: It is interesting to me that this game starts being made five years ago, or something like that. It feels like a game made ahead of the last election—the last American election—and also at the height of Brexit starting to roll up.

Patrick: A lot of reactionary fascism across the world.

Austin: Exactly. But also a defeatist leftism that I think has shifted in the last in the last five years, right? Obviously, here, I'm talking about the American context. But you look at something like Bernie [Sander’s] current run in the polls right now, but also looking at the development of people like AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], and a conversation about the left in America that is a different place than it was four years ago. This is not an American studio. I'm 100% sure that our relationship with revolution, with communist revolution, it's obviously a distinct one. Different worlds, effectively. You have to cross the pale to get to the world where this game was developed.


Patrick: I feel like we're crossing the pale right now.

Austin: Yeah, a little bit. 100%. I do, I think five years from now, two things are going to happen. One, I think you're going to have people come to this game who, today, are put off by it, and they're like, “Wow, this is perfect. This speaks to me.” And you’re gonna have more people that are in our boat who are like, “Yeah, this speaks to me now,” [but] in five years being like, “That game is really dated,” or “That game is already dated because political thought on the left left continued to change and develop.” And I hope in such a way the momentum grows, and the feeling of “What next?” is even more prevalent. I could be wrong. We could fall back into defeatism and fatalism and it feels like the all the doors have closed, and this game will feel more relevant than ever.

The thing that I'm really curious about is: are we going to go 20 years again, where for 20 years we’ve said “If only there’d been more games like Planescape Torment. If only there were more games that really took writing seriously.” And obviously, one, lots of games take writing seriously right now, they just don't get big, broad coverage at major game sites. Many of them can't be 35-hour long RPGs with lots of visual art and voice acting and all that stuff. Many of them are visual novels, many of them are text-only games, many of them are mobile games that have a lot of writing in them, stuff like that.


So I don't want to say that that doesn't happen. But instead, what I'm kind of not worried about, but I'm curious what will happen. Will we so mythologize this game that we don't see the other games that are doing very important other things there, too? I'm very excited to finish playing Kentucky Route Zero, because that is a game that I think is in dialogue with this one, even if it doesn't seem apparent out the gate, as being too text heavy or a story-driven games that are about capitalism and about the state of the world.

It’s so rare that I'm like, “What are we gonna think about this thing in a decade?” When I played Mass Effect 2, I was like, “Oh yeah, people are gonna fucking love Mass Effect 2 in a decade,” and by and large, that is still the case. There are obviously outliers there, but that is the game that “the establishment” still really loves quite a bit. You play The Witcher 3—still five years on, people fucking love The Witcher 3. I bet they still will in five years. No fucking idea what people are gonna think about Disco in 2030. At all.

Patrick: But it’s a marker.

Austin: It’s not a complaint about the game.

Patrick: No, no, no. In some ways it's a compliment to like the art of the game and its own politics that it can become outdated because it staked certain positions. The inherent centrism, which I mean like less politically as much as like the way Mass Effect is designed as a video game. Which is itself like a form of centrism. It's the blue and the red. It's the good and the bad. That's just how it works. Even though everyone plays like a Han Solo, because actually the world is fucking gray and sometimes you have to choose different sides.


Austin: Sometimes you really gotta kick someone off a building. [laughs]

Patrick: Its [Disco Elysium] ability to age even, maybe not gracefully, is the result of the fact that it made choices that other games avoid doing. Regardless of how we feel about the state of things in five years, you can look back. Games feel representative of the times, and when we say that, that usually means like, I don't know, technology and design philosophy? It doesn't necessarily mean what it is saying about the culture…

Austin: …at that moment.

Patrick: I think Disco Elysium says something about the culture of a certain politics at the time.

Austin: It’s a great game to end the 2010s with.

Patrick: There’s a new election, you have a lot of people that were radicalized into action by 2016. One’s own reactions to will say something about the world but will probably say something more about you. Because the marker signifies your own reaction to how you've internalized the politics of the world around you, and how you decided to react to it.

Austin: I think it's I think it's a really good point you make here. It is the MoralIntern [or Moralist International, the leading body of the game's world government] that would say “a good game should never date itself,” that “the good things in life are the things that will last forever.” I think it is the revolutionary perspective that a game can only be good for so long until finally it is co-opted by reaction.

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