If you don’t play video games, they may seem far removed from literature and narrative structure. But to think that is to do them a major disservice.
For a long time, there have been a lot of impressive, narrative-driven video games. Most notably in the many and varied role-playing games (RPGs) since the 1980s. Plus, point-and-click adventure games such as the Monkey Island series.
Disco Elysium fits into both genres, but it’s officially classed as an RPG. It’s a critically-acclaimed one, too, by the London-based indie developer ZA/UM.
Despite all the fancy pants graphics and excellent soundtrack by British Sea Power, the driving force of the experience is its brilliant dialogue.
It develops the narrative through extensive dialogue trees. You can think of these as a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure book—you guide the story by picking what your characters says to various characters you meet.
By doing so, you develop out an impressive narrative structure veering from hilarious dark humour to stark tragedy.
Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz (and founder of ZA/UM) wrote the structure for the game, plus he also designed it (an indicator of how talented people in the games industry are).
Helen Hindpere was also a lead writer on the project and won all manner of awards for her work. Rightly so! It’s incredible, which is why I want to explore the game’s universe to consider its depths and depravities.
Disco Elysium and the Exploration of Heartbreak and Drunken Acceptance
The game first launched in 2019 and was a big critical hit, winning numerous Game of the Year awards. And it is brilliant.
Disco Elysium is at #6 in my list of the best indie games of all time. Oh yeah! I rate it big time.
After playing the game, I classed it as a sodden mixture of Bukowski meets Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow Stations. Plenty of existential considerations and flirtations with hungover philosophising amongst a sense of growing madness and heartbreak.
It has the scope of a Solzhenitsyn epic, merged with dark humour and a sense of enterprise—an ambitious project looking to do something pioneering. As this is a landmark achievement in gaming.
To this day, there’s still a lot of embarrassing, ham-fisted narratives in the industry that are juvenile and stuck 30 years in the past. They don’t do the industry any favours.
The likes of ZA/UM sweep away the awkwardness to showcase how narrative can and should function in video games.
Now, sadly, due to the nature of the experience there’s no official complete text of the work available. Frankly, it’d be pointless to gather it all together. Even if you did, it couldn’t function here as it’s interactive storytelling.
That’s made picking bits of dialogue from Disco Elysium a tad tricky.
I had this problem with Sartre’s The Reprieve, which was written in simultaneous prose. Minus a traditional novel structure, where do you begin? The prose of characters merges together, often from one paragraph to the next. Well, I just dove in and pieced things together based on intriguing segments.
Much the same way as I have with Disco Elysium. It’s an experiential thing—play the game, marvel at its vastness, enjoy the moments you trigger off by your decisions.
You learn, advance, solve puzzles, read, and wonder.
If you don’t play video games, but love literature, then I do suggest you put your concerns aside and try Disco Elysium.
Its themes of madness, heartbreak, post-war cultures, racism, pseudoscience, cryptozoology, polemics, and absurdity offer some of the best video game writing ever seen.
The Development of Harry Du Bois
As the player, you can take control of Harrier “Harry” Du Bois.
Harry’s character arc takes him from bumbling sodden fool, to an increasing unstable mind, before some redemption by close of the story.
The game is set in the world of Elysium, which is plagued by relentless wars. It’s a strange place consisting of land masses separated by land and sea, with a lot of mist/smog contributing to a general lack of visibility. This mist is called The Pale and can cause severe neurological damage upon extreme exposure.
The period players arrive in is called The Fifties.
And it’s a highly political world, with the main ideologies consisting of communism, fascism, moralism, and ultraliberalism.
It’s kind of a classic dystopian future, although bracketing it under such a term feels lazy. The game and its narrative are more innovative than that.
You get a sense of our world in Disco Elysium—the highly charged politics, bickering, strife, inequality.
To note, Helen Hindpere is a socialist (as am I) but the nature of the story she structured doesn’t shy away from critiquing communism (i.e. Stalinism) in the 20th century.
Fleshing out Harry as a character led Hindpere towards eccentric philosophers. She told TechRaptor in a March 2021 interview The Story Behind Disco Elysium:
Philosophically… it doesn’t perhaps come as a surprise we’re fans of Slavoj Žižek. His term ‘less than nothing’ became one of the ways we describe Pale in the game …
I’d say he shows you can use humour and irony to explore the world and its underlying assumptions, something we’re also trying to do. There’s great intellectual sincerity hidden behind his eccentric self. There’s definitely a bit of Harry in him too—or vice versa.
Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, cultural critic, and psychoanalyst. Although a controversial figure, his idiosyncratic ways make him something of a celebrity philosopher of our times.
With his considerations as an influence, the result is a game steeped in biting satire, meaninglessness, and dark humour.
However, Robert Kurvitz also steeped Harry in his own experiences.
Kurvitz had struggled with alcoholism and depression around 2013, this was following the relative failure of the book Sacred and Terrible Air he’d written. After overcoming his issues, he had a new set of ideas to follow.
And Harry is sculpted around such concepts. He’s a curious beast—quite self-deprecating and lost, but there’s something compelling about his ways that shows a stumbling sense of humanity.
A magnificent character study it most certainly is.
Let’s hop to it, then, and explore the world ZA/UM created! Let’s begin… at the beginning.
Enter the Town of Martinaise
I’m going to explore the opening hour of the game closely, but I’m not here to land spoilers. If you want to know the full story, you’ll have to play the game.
Disco Elysium begins with a drunken, psychotic episode where you’re having a disturbed, lucid dream and a conversation with your leering subconscious.
Proceedings lead with a learned quote.
The furies are at home in the mirror; it is their address. Even the clearest water, if deep enough can drown.
That’s a line from Welsh poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), immediately nodding at how heavily entrenched the game will become in deliration; Thomas is considered the Solzhenitsyn of Wales, such is his status.
With the benefit of hindsight writing this, I know the quote is a marked indicator of the troubles of conscience that lay ahead for Harry.
And you do get a few insights into a troubled psyche as Harry stirs from his drunken state. Your subconscious tells you the following.
ANCIENT REPTILIAN BRAIN – There is nothing. Only warm, primordial blackness. Your conscience ferments in it — no larger than a single grain of malt. You don’t have to do anything anymore.
And to explain how the game works, you then get the following choices.
1. – Never ever ever?
2. – (Simply keep on non-existing.)
But the damaged brain of Harry Du Bois doesn’t miss a disco beat as it continues to pummel him with hungover self-deprecation and causticity.
ANCIENT REPTILIAN BRAIN – The song of death is sweet and endless… But what is this? Somewhere in the sore, bloated *man meat* around you — a sensation!
Like a fly to the ointment, your conscience sticks to it. The limbed and headed machine of pain and undignified suffering is firing up again. It wants to walk the desert. Hurting. Longing. Dancing to disco music.
The game starts proper in the town of Martinaise. Harry wakes up very hungover in his hotel room.
He’s lost his memory, isn’t properly dressed, has thrown one of his shoes through a window, and is a bit of a mess.
After checking himself out in the bathroom mirror, you can take a dialogue tree deducing he’s a late-stage alcoholic who appears to be clinging to some sense of lost youth and groovy, disco-loving past.
Or, as the voice hanging over bothers you, there’s the choice of deciding you really are something special.
It appears you’re also dead. There’s clearly rigor mortis on your face, or wait… is that an *expression*? Are you trying to make an expression with that face? Why?
I think it might be because I’m a superstar.
Outside his hotel room, he meets a young lady (Miss Oranje Disco Dancer) staying in the room next door. She reveals what he was up to during the night, drunkenly bellowing along with disco music.
Harry confides—he’s lost his memory, but she’s pretty cool about all of that.
She also reveals Harry has been at the hotel for several days, but has been drinking heavily for most of that time and causing a lot of disruption.
And this feels a good time to reveal Disco Elysium’s dialogue tree system to anyone unfamiliar with this. You select your response to the conversational prompt.
To note, yes! You can dress Harry in clothes. But I decided it’d be more fun to keep him in his underpants.
The game is smart enough to know that’s the decision you make, which some characters (and the voice of your subconscious) actively refer to.
Decked out in his fancy Y-fronts, Harry heads heads downstairs and meets Kim Kitsuragi, his highly competent and introspective colleague.
Kim informs Harry they’re in Martinaise to solve a murder, which is in the form of a man hanging from a noose attached to a nearby tree.
Harry is clueless to what’s going on and his bumbling incoherence and incompetence is what starts the narrative rolling, as these early stages are darkly amusing.
The dialogue trees commence and you have to pick your way through awkward conversations with Kim, confiding with him you’ve no idea what’s going on or who you are.
Harry is a cop, yes, but he’s lost his gun, police car, badge, and is now a walking shambles.
I find this opening section hilarious. It fits my love of absurdist humour, shifting from the conventions of society to create ridiculousness through Harry’s unprofessionalism. Meanwhile, the ultra-professional Kim doesn’t convey too much criticism of Harry’s predicament. He’s just there to make sure the job gets done.
But it’s the conversation with the cafeteria manager, Garte, that really gets the absurdist humour flowing.
Garte runs the Whirling in Rags, plus two other cafeterias (as he snobbishly informs you).
In Harry’s hungover stupor, you can pick irreverent responses instead of conducting normal police investigation stuff. This is where it all emerges he’s caused a lot of damage to the hotel and needs to pay 130 réal for the room he’s drunkenly trashed.
Here’s my recording of all this, revealing how the dialogue trees work and the free-flowing nature of the brilliant script.
The police officers head out back to finally take a look at the bloated corpse. The stench makes them take a step back.
The corpse looks at you with bulging white eyes. The face around them does not look human, it’s swollen and ready to burst. His lips are fishlike and his tongue like a ball gag in his mouth.
You look down.
A cargo belt twists his neck at an unnatural angle. The body below appears stiff. It’s letting out an ungodly rot, the smell seeps in even through your clenched nostrils.
You: “God… what is that? Why is it so bad?”
Kim Kitsuragi: “Active decay.” The lieutenant raises a white piece of linen to his nose. “It’s okay to throw up, officer. No one is judging.”
This death lingers over the opening of the game, not least as it seems Harry is only a few steps away from his demise.
In fact, everything around you seems half dead. A recent war, the town of Martinaise is dilapidated, Harry is mourning the loss of something, and then there’s the physical embodiment of it right there—hanging from a tree.
There’s a trash container (belonging to the Whirling Rags) nearby and you head over with Kim, but you can’t wrench the thing open.
Your partner recommends heading to his “motor carriage” to get a prybar. And you do that, running over whilst the game’s brilliant soundtrack swells with a sense of urgent melancholia.
The soundtrack, by British Sea Power, is essential to the game.
Along with the dialogue trees, it continuously generates a sense of pathos. There’s something afoot, but the player really isn’t quite sure what yet.
Harry gets the prybar and heads back to the trash container. But they still can’t get into it, so they head back to have a word with Garte.
And it continues in this fashion. Naturally. This is where I recommend you play the game to get a better understanding of everything. As it’s all rather brilliant.
But what intrigues me is the nature of all this narrative structure.
How do video games differ from books? Or is this more like an interactive film? Well, kind of both. It’s not dissimilar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series, whilst also having a cinematic quality that video games have certainly taken on over the last 30 years.
But what the actual structure. How on earth can you get such a complex set of consequences going? How does all of this complex stuff work?
Well, the joys of technology allow for advanced dialogue trees that create triggers in the game to make it all lifelike. Let’s have a look at the process.
About Those Micro-Reactive Dialogue Trees
Disco Elysium is a very different type of RPG. There’s no combat, instead the game develops through skill checks and dialogue trees. There are 24 of these. There’s also a Thought Cabinet for Harry containing his ideologies and personality.
Based on the text you pick when interacting with other characters, you can change his narrative arc.
One of these is the Volition Psyche skill. By choosing this option in dialogues, Harry generally becomes more of an altruistic sort with a path towards decency. One such line in this area is below.
It’s better to know you’re being played than to be played without knowing it, is it not?
But you can pick options that make you out to be a total arse, too.
Just as importantly, the deep voice of your (seeming) subconscious haunts your every turn. It often chips in to belittle, or correct, Harry about his machinations.
No, Harry. You were just talking to yourself. That’s all you ever do. Even in your dreams. And the act is wearing thin, the spots of the disco ball fade around you…
And in a dream with a former girlfriend, Harry recalls some of the nature of his lingering heartbreak. She said to him the following.
This is real darkness. It’s not death, or war, or child molestation. Real darkness has love for a face. The first death is in the heart, Harry.
The incredible density of Disco Elysium’s dialogue trees makes all of this possible. It’s a vast novel of work—if you have a short attention span, or don’t like reading (!), the game isn’t for you.
And its dialogue trees work through micro-reactivity. This is where the game remembers and responds to seemingly innocuous and trivial matters throughout the game.
It may be the choice to say one thing to the NPC (non-player character) in the hotel at the beginning of the game. It may be what you say to the foul-mouthed Cuno in the garden with the corpse hanging from the tree.
Or you may just get your mullet cut off.
Do that and you flip a boolean switch for the game. That’s a system of algebraic notations used to represent logical propositions, which lets the world of Disco Elysium understand the hair is gone and appropriate dialogue must be presented to reflect that.
With this in mind, you can appreciate the mammoth tasks the development team had.
As dialogue is so essential to this experience, the writing had to be good. Not only is it excellent, I feel it pushes boundaries in the gaming industry by usurping many longstanding RPG genre tropes.
The way it does this is subtle, but clever. And I feel you can trace some of its inspirations to a cult writing genre from the 20th century.
The Constrained Writing of Disco Elysium
Recently, I did a review on Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947). In that, I covered constrained writing and the challenge it poses to writers.
It’s a literary style where certain restrictions are imposed, which leads to works such as Georges Perec’s A Void (1969), a novel free from the letter “e”.
Queneau was part of the French surrealist literary and mathematical movement Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle). Queneau and François Le Lionnais founded it in 1960, other members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Jacques Roubaud.
Whilst experimentation was central to their projects, so was a sense of fun. For example, they’d play exquisite corpse in the cafés of Paris (hopefully whilst sipping at Pernod).
Yes, they were were trying to push literary boundaries with their collective imaginations. But why not have a bit of a laugh whilst doing so?
You can experience this ground-breaking work in what Disco Elysium is.
As I think there’s a constraint to Disco Elysium as a work, one involving the almost total abandonment of longstanding RPG genre tropes. Instead of dialogue often providing a helping hand, instead there’s rambling nothingness.
It was a risk to do this. By relying on reams and reams of often irrelevant ranting between characters, ZA/UM could have alienated itself from genre fans and gamers in general. And there are gamers who don’t like the innovations the game presents (see some of the very few negative Steam reviews for confirmation).
But the risk was worth it. As Hindpere noted in her TechRaptor interview.
Our bet on the masses paid off. They understand almost everything. They’re smart as hell. They’re forgiving to the things we got wrong—and they really like the things we got right. Without misanthropy and doubt in the mix, the question becomes: what is our duty in this world that has proven to be nicer than our fears would have suspected?
To qualify the above, it’s worth having a look at what those industry tropes are.
In most RPGs, you can talk to characters and they’ll respond in a way that provides hints, a task, or how to advance in the gaming world.
Disco Elysium doesn’t do much of that. One of the game’s writers, Justin Keenan, said at GDC 2021 that at the heart of the game’s dialogue is a sense of meaninglessness.
If you’ve played even a handful of RPGs you’ve probably developed a sixth sense for what a character’s narrative function is going to be the moment you meet them. This is why anytime you meet somebody in a moment of crisis, like when they’re calling out for help or seem engaged in some sort of frantic activity, you know, right away, that if you ask this person “What are you up to?” that eventually they’re going to give you some kind of task to perform.
Maybe you can also talk to this person about their life, work, or their innermost political or spiritual opinions. But as a player you know none of this stuff matters as much as the fact that their prized chicken, amulet, or daughter has gone missing, and that if you bring it back you’ll get some experience points or reward.
It’s incredibly common in RPGs and action-adventure games.
You can think of World of Warcraft, the Zelda series, Final Fantasy series etc. All fantastic games, but even something as genius as Breath of the Wild relies on the RPG trope of meeting a character, they need you to get them something, you go off and do it.
It just isn’t how real life works. I live in Manchester and a real life video game RPG experience here would go like this—someone waving at me in Piccadilly Gardens city centre, having a brief exchange, then they ask me to go off and find them their missing chicken.
Why? As it’s their favourite chicken and they love it very much.
With a few hints of its general whereabouts, I could then head off, get the chicken, return it to the owner, and they’d thank me for my efforts. I’d probably also get a reward, like some rupees or an item of clothing to help me on my adventure.
In reality, this is what tends to happen in Piccadilly Gardens:
- Drug dealing
- Drunken football riots
- Casual antagonism
- Drunken fights on Friday and Saturday nights
- Drunken vomiting in the streets
- Petty theft
- People sunbathing during the summer months
It’s a notorious area where, no, you won’t be asked to go and fetch someone’s chicken.
But, in the name of fun side-quests to pad out an RPG’s long-term playability, you’ll find such demands in 99% of RPGs.
How do you get around such a trope? Well, simple. You resort to the mundanity of everyday existence. Most of what we do and say, as humans, is ultimately meaningless. Absurd. Our average conversation or exchange rudimentary and of no great consequence for our long-term prospects.
Disco Elysium does the brave thing of embracing such moments, but twisting them to make them macabre, fascinating, disturbed, or simply intriguing as character development.
Again, Keenan said this at GDC 2021.
When you talk to Roy the pawnbroker, who’s one of the shopkeepers in the game, you don’t just talk about the things you might be buying or selling, or ask for general information about the area. You can really go deep on his personal history. So, for example, in his youth he spent some time cleaning up a nuclear waste disaster. He also has some very exotic opinions about music and psychedelics. None of those things have any obvious relationship to the main plot of the game, but they do serve to make our pawnbroker Roy feel like a human being with weight and substance in the world.
There are many and varied examples of this, where you just talk non-stop and ponder. It is, though, meaningless. It doesn’t need to be in the game, but it is. And it’s great!
It enhances the immersive nature of the world and makes it appear living and breathing.
Yet I consider it constrained writing as it’s such an enormous effort to, ultimately, deliver nothing to the game’s progression. The writers were bound on developing arbitrary character arcs, rather than the familiarity of sending them off to find hapless chickens.
And that’s one of the great successes of the indie game scene.
Most AAA developers would be scared to try such a thing—there are huge budgets at stake and a mass audience of often angry gamers ready to shred something different apart.
But small indie teams are willing to take creative leaps. And the results are often outstanding.
A Boogie-Based Jiving Conclusion
Disco Elysium is a brilliant video game and one that explores the effective way video games can develop a narrative, in direct comparison to books, films, and television.
It’s vast and expansive as a work of dialogue, intricately detailed to the point of near madness.
That’s kind of apt, as the tale it has to tell is one laden with sorrow. There’s loss, sadness, and grief. But as the player, you choose whether Harry crumbles through his emotional issues, or picks himself up and overcomes the onslaught.
Every little moment you take, even the small decisions, can have long lasting consequences in the world of Disco Elysium.
That’s what stands it out—your influence on the story is very genuine.
And that’s high praise for Kurvitz and Hindpere as writers. It’s a landmark achievement that sets new boundaries for the industry, one many developers will find impossible to match.
So much so it’s interesting to note Disco Elysium is getting a TV show adaptation. Amazon Studios is handling that, so it’ll be intriguing to see what it does with the narrative.
Until then, the only way to experience this unique form of in-game literature is to play Disco Elysium.
That is of your volition… but I do recommend it.