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A Few Hours in, Disco Elysium Has Interesting Politics but a Frustrating Voice

The game's structure has a lot of potential, but its setting and tone can be off-putting if used carelessly.

by Ricardo Contreras
Oct 16 2019, 8:13pm

Screenshot courtesy of ZA/UM

Disco Elysium is a game set in an ugly world, but will it say anything through that ugliness? Sold as having an "unprecedented freedom of choice," the game does offers the player a myriad of options for each encounter. What happens when a player wants to choose the options that make their character a horrible person? How much pushback or consequences should there be, or should truly horrible options be left out all together? And how much ugliness can there be before it falls into cynicism? We discuss the opening moments of Disco Elysium and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.

Austin: I don't know that it's good writing. I know that a lot of words went into it. I know that a lot of effort went into putting together big words and references to the types of things I'm interested in. I know that it is literary in style, but being literary and style does not mean that it is good art. Do you know what I mean? It does in the world of video games mean that it is unlike many other things.

Patrick: Yeah, compared to the low standard of just about every other video game.

Rob: Ambition can be its own reward.

Austin: Totally, especially if you get press code and go "Huh, what is this thing?" You know what I mean? But if you're out 40 bucks you open the thing and 20 minutes in you're like "boy I hate being here," that's a much harder pill to swallow. To that end I definitely advise looking at some some people playing through the game to get a taste of it, to get a taste of like what that ugliness feels like and whether or not you're interested in being in that in that place.

At its best moments it reminds me of some of the stuff that I've read from some of my favorite authors. There's definitely China Mievill here, there is definitely some Grant Morrison, some Warren Ellis, this is the school of thought, the school of writing that I feel like [ Disco Elysium is drawing on]. At its worst it feels like another comics writer, Garth Ennis, who just had one of his books, The Boys, get turned into an Amazon original show. Have any of you seen The Boys yet?

Patrick: [No, but] he also did Preacher, which was really poorly adapted. Well, you know, Preacher was a comic that felt good in the moment for reasons that make sense, from who I was at the time and being younger. It did not particularly age well, I don't think, other than maybe aesthetically, it's like a very arresting comic to look at. But I don't know that I get [much else,] other than the Vampire, Jesse right? He still a fun character. But I had not watched The Boys, but I had heard "yo, do you think Preacher feels kinda gross? The Boys is way more of that cranked up to 11 and in no way is it a world that you like feel good [about], or even that feels like it's saying anything. It's just ugly for the sake of being ugly.

Austin: An [there are] moments where I think [ Disco Elysium] is being the most excessive or the most, frankly, just up its own ass, unwilling to commit to a sense that there could be a goodness in anyone. Just such a deep sea cynicism that it feels like the worst of Garth Ennis and you know, you could do worse than the worst of very popular, comics writer Garth Ennis. I could be here being like "this is shity Infowars trash" and it's not that but–

Rob: But also there's a tension between being an arch leftist and then having sort of reflexive cynicism about the world the people in it. If you're always above everyone and all things as they go out their lives, then whatever your politics they're politics of condescension. Now it sounds early enough though that right now everything's at arm's length because you're being given the opportunity to explore a lot of options, feel out your character.

Austin: Right, to determine your level of involvement.

Rob: And part of your journey might also be dropping that act and committing to things, I'm curious how that evolves. But, and think this was truer in the past, but a lot of times in older Lefty spaces, what I would encounter was an unfamiliarity or reflexive contempt for people who did not share their views, or this suspicion that average people were just like too dumb to get it. And I think that that is impossible to square with leftist objectives and leftist politics. If you fundamentally believe that people are fundamentally dumbasses and don't recognize their interest and can just be led around by the nose, then I think your politics are going to founder on that.

Austin: It's so interesting because I feel like I could imagine the defenders of this game being either people who say "you're just too dumb to get it. You need to step up your game and really open up your mind for this. This is for people who have high SAT scores." right? Or I can imagine people saying "you don't like it because you're on your fucking high horse. You're in the Ivory Tower you want everything to be perfect. You want everything to be unproblematic? Well, guess what, bucko, down here in the fucking in the fucking gutter, in the grime, in the streets? No one's perfect, no one passes your purity test, and this is the real world."

And like, okay, but also this is a game where I lost a morale point because I couldn't get my tie off the fucking ceiling fan and my inner demon voice made fun of me for it. Like, you know, I'm here for the ride, I'm happily open to the possibilities. There have been a couple of moments that have been truly incredible so far, and I think the basic structure is there for something really great. The fact they built these systems to make conversations feel tense is already very good. It's what they do with that–

Patrick: And isn't the story supposed to be more or less completely open-ended, in which like "hey, you can go do this, or you can go do that, or don't, you're good."

Austin: Yeah, there's a time mechanic, as you talk to people time passes and the world changes, different things open up and close. If I'm going to have real deep, you know anything like a real thought about this besides these first impressions, it's going to be [a while].

Patrick: I'd be curious to see you complete a couple of arcs, where the game would be forced to start previewing what it would potentially do with the larger arc of the character. Or what it wouldn't or will comment on through smaller things that you solve or take care of.

Rob: I hope you like this game Austin. You just spent thirty minutes putting markers down that now you're gonna have to pick up. I hope that game rewards the time.

Austin: I think it's noteworthy in the sense that it is so unlike other of games of this type. Even games of this CRPG, dialogue heavy, character heavy game.

Patrick: It's an audacious no matter how you strike it.

Austin: So I think that it's worth the time in that sense. If only because it's a curiosity. So I don't know. If I can I'm going to try to get through, like you said Patrick, at least a few smaller arcs. They are big cases and small cases, and I'm going to try to get to take some side cases basically.

Patrick: Get that body down, man. Go find a mask to put on or something.

Austin: Dude, I found smelling salts, that didn't work. I puked my fucking guts out in front of these little kids. They made fun of me.

Patrick: Wait, so you like smell the smelling salts and then, how is that going to help you get that body down?

Rob: Well because it overpowers the smell of the body.

Austin: Yes. Oh sorry it wasn't smelling salts, it was ammonia, so it was like "Oh if I smell the ammonia that will prevent me from [puking]." But there was a strong wind, It didn't work. I puked my guts out. My partner was like "you know what? [lets try later]." Actually, this is a good moment, when your partner shows up he is like "what the fuck have you been doing? I'm not going to cause a scene, but how is the – you didn't take the body down? It's been days!" And after finally going over and trying [but puking] he's like "all right, let's just– maybe the wind will change directions. Maybe let's go talk to people for a little while and anything but seeing you puke twice in a row."

Patrick: "Let this kid throw these damn rocks and maybe he'll knock it down."

Rob: Have you tried getting the kid to knock it down?

Austin: Not an option, that kid was too busy calling me slurs. And then telling me his dad is a shithead and and a drug runner, and that's one of the side cases. Either I could go bust his dad for being a drug runner or I can get into some of that drug-running action and be a corrupt cop. Both of those seem like they're on the table for me a hundred percent. So yeah, that is my early impressions of [ Disco Elysium]. It's one of those games where to give you more Impressions it will not be another 2 hours, it'll be another 15 hours because that is the level of depth, you know what I mean?

It's like, you could go bowling for a day and have some thoughts about, but you better go bowling for a month before you tell me anything else about your bowling trips. You didn't learn shit on day three of your bowling, you better really commit before you tell me more.


Discussed: Disco Elysium 28:55, Divinity Fallen Heros 1:11:58, Valfaris 1:13:51, Indivisible 1:20:48, Destiny 2 Shadowkeep 1:29:22, Final Fantasy XIV 1:30:52

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Tagged:
Podcasts
Waypoint Radio
Final Fantasy XIV
Indivisible
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
Valfaris
Disco Elysium
Divinity: Fallen Heros