How Disco Elysium helps to prove video games are high art

Disco Elysium – an artistic achievement (pic: ZA/UM)

A reader explains his love for cult classic Disco Elysium and how its mix of the profound and the absurd has left a lasting impression.

*** WARNING: spoilers for Disco Elysium ***

It really helps that I love the music of Sea Power, née British Sea Power. They are an awesome British indie band with a beautiful brand of soaring orchestral scores punctuated by the use of achingly mournful horns, which have led to them being commissioned to make several scores for film and, more pertinently to this article, video games. It’s well understood that music can elevate a game, heightening the emotional impact and adding depth and heft to your bond with the characters and gameplay. Sea Power did their job well for ZA/UM on Disco Elysium, an incredible experience that’s unique to video games, but the music is just part of an overall experience that comes together to produce a key example in the argument for games as high art.

For people unacquainted with Disco Elysium, it is ZA/UM’s first game and similar to an old school point ‘n’ click adventure mixed with even older school pen and paper role-playing games. You play an amnesiac detective called Harry Dubois (though you don’t even know your name at the start), who wakes up from one of the most epic drug and drink fuelled benders of all time to the realisation that for three days you should have been investigating the dead body hanging from a tree at the back of your hostelry. Your room is almost completely destroyed, to the chagrin of the owner, and you must deal with your new partner from another district, Kim Kutseragi, whose infinite patience belies a man who thinks you are a complete mess both personally and professionally.

I love the plot, which twists and turns as you develop a picture of yourself, the crime, your location, the locality, and the world, as the game introduces a labyrinthine and nuanced cast of deep characters. It’s important they are deep because the most important aspect of Disco Elysium is the conversations. Conversations carry they game, they are fully voiced and explore a wide range of topics from the use of drink and drugs to racism, identity, supernaturalism, and bigger ideas like existence itself. They meander but can be profound, as it’s an incredibly well written game.

Disco Elysium also introduces two genuinely innovative ideas. You are given points to allocate towards your own personality attributes at the start of the game and these attributes influence the massive number of dice rolls in the game, giving you a better or worse chance of passing these checks. They also play an active role om advising you and forming part of your ongoing internal monologue, which is always present and gives you guidance, both good and bad, throughout the game. This voice in your ear is innovation number one. Due to this, no two people should have the same game experience, as they will receive different advice and be forced, though dice roll percentages, to approach puzzles in different ways.

The second innovation is the Thought Cabinet, which is revealed through conversation and provides a temporary debuff din return for a passive, unspecified buff. The kicker is that you have no clue how useful the buff will be or what it will apply to. It appeals to your inner gambler as you debate where to invest a skill point and then take the debuff for a period to get an uncertain reward. It’s actually a bit of genius; in the same vein of the Nemesis System, I could see it being a mechanic that may well find its way into other games.

Tying this all together with the most striking aspect of the game (apart from the music) is the artwork. The art can be broken into two broad areas, the static backgrounds and portrait photos, and personality traits. The static backgrounds are beautiful, watercolour steampunk impressionism, and gorgeous and evocative to look at. The character portraits are more in the expressionist style, with the personality traits also having a dash of cubism (logic’s avatar being a good example of this) as abstract images capture the idea of each personality trait.

This all combines to put your mind in a fugue state as you get drawn into the world, and although the game hints that the straight and narrow is the right path it turns out that Harry’s impulse to be a strange dipsomaniac is effective; in fact, the more supernatural and strange you become the more effective you are. Your straight edged partner may initially seem like he outclasses you but it becomes apparent that he is limited by these restraints and unable to approach problems laterally. However, his ability to keep you grounded is essential and I came to have a deep love for Kim Kutseragi.

The world of Revachol is recognisable, drenched in 20th century political ideology and familiar archetypes. It feels grounded and real but dig beneath the surface and a strange alien underbelly emerges, completely different and unrecognisable. You’ll help a woman find her husband only for it to be a little too brutally real, followed by setting up a rave in a church that becomes an act of world-saving genius. You learn that traveling between continents is a life-altering prospect and that collecting rubbish is a viable method of paying for accommodation.

This is Disco Elysium’s triumph, mixing the banal with the bizarre. I found the ending rather profound and I was genuinely sad to leave the rain-soaked coastline of Martinase, the forgotten frontier of a once great empire. Did I leave the place better than when I arrived? The answer to that is uncertain but the way Martinase left me is clear and will stay with me for a long time. Long live the Moralintern and the RCM.

By reader Dieflemmy (gamertag/PSN ID/NN ID)

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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