Disco Elysium and Theme
StoryScan: Critical hit
Our newest feature, StoryScan: Critical Hit, highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. For our inaugural essay, we’re covering Disco Elysium (Studio ZA/UM, 2019), the award-winning point-and-click adventure game that puts players in the shoes of an amnesiac detective trying to outrun his past. This essay will cover content from the base game, but it will not touch on the additional content included in the 2021 patch, Disco Elysium: The Final Cut. Players who have not completed the base game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for both the main storyline and sidequests, but players who have not completed The Final Cut will not encounter any spoilers.
Studio ZA/UM’s award-winning hit Disco Elysium (2019) has captured the attention of players and critics alike with an ambitious storyline that features extensive world-building and a diverse cast. In Disco Elysium, players take control of Harry DuBois, an amnesiac detective who must solve a murder while dealing with the fallout from the worst bender of his life. As players search for suspects and clues in the run-down city of Revachol, they’re met by a diverse cast of characters with their own struggles and failings, and each of them has a storyline that reinforces one or more of the game’s complex themes. With its robust attribute system, varied political alignments, and a broad spectrum of narcotics, Disco Elysium asks players difficult questions about personality and social interactions, the goals of various political systems, and the causes and effects of long-term drug and alcohol addiction. The unique decisions players make throughout the game guarantee a customized experience, and no two players will come away with the same answers to the questions posed by the themes.
One of the most pervasive themes in Disco Elysium is the idea of redemption. When players first take control of Harry DuBois, he’s barely alive after a long night of drinking, driving, and doing miscellaneous property damage. As players learn the extent of the chaos Harry has left in his wake—along with the impact it’s had on his colleagues, his career, and the district of Martinaise—they will repeatedly be asked if Harry is a man beyond saving. Those players who decide to help Harry out of his hole will be confronted with an even larger question: if Harry is worth saving, how can he be saved? It’s a question that Disco Elysium answers by littering the world with broken objects, people, and places in need of help only Harry can provide. These broken things act as symbols of Harry’s own fractured state, and in repairing, accepting, or understanding their brokenness, Harry can piece himself back together, building a path to redemption.
The Importance of Broken Things
Harry DuBois has broken many things in the throes of his addiction. The whirlwind narcotics binge that sets up the game’s events is a category unto itself, one decorated with broken bottles, shattered windows, and splintered fences. Not all of these objects can be repaired, but all of them offer Harry opportunities for redemption. Broken bottles can be picked up and exchanged at the drug store for money, which Harry can use to pay for the damage he caused in the local hostel; broken structures can hold clues that help Harry track down the killer threatening the fragile peace in the district. Even objects that Harry had no had in breaking provide him with chances to redeem himself in the eyes of others. Some cannot be repaired, like the chipped mug in the Whirling’s dumpster; others only need a little help, like the busted freezer in the bottom of the Doomed Commercial Area. Retrieving the mug gives Harry a window into the minds of Martinaise’s most devoted fascists, opening up avenues for valuable information; re-energizing the freezer buys Harry more time to complete a pivotal autopsy, potentially cracking the case wide open.
One of the most poignant scenes in Disco Elysium can occur when players guide Harry and his partner, Kim Kitsuragi, to a wrecked car in a splintering ice sheet on the east side of the district. When Harry first discovers the car, he doesn’t recognize it, but players who choose to have him wait until the tide rolls out will witness Harry’s breakdown as he realizes the ruined car belongs to him. The sight of the wrecked police vehicle in all of its watery glory forces Harry to confront how his drunken actions have impacted others. Just as the people of Martinaise will have to make substantial repairs to the signs and fences Harry damaged, so too will his precinct have to pay a substantial amount to have his vehicle replaced. Even players who are uninterested in steering Harry on a path to redemption will be unable to ignore Harry’s shame as he recognizes the car and screams: “OH MY GOD, IT’S MINE, I DROVE MY CAR INTO THE SEA????!?!?!?!?!!!??!!!!” His shame can’t be dispelled with a simple repair, either. As Kim points out, the effort it would take to haul the car out of the water goes beyond what the car is worth. There is no quick redemption for Harry here; all he can do is internalize the consequences of his actions and decide for himself whether he’s going to take steps to ensure he never does something so reckless again.
Harry DuBois is a broken man surrounded by broken people. The specters of poverty and addiction can be witnessed throughout Martinaise, as the working-class population struggles to stay afloat in a city ravaged by a failed revolution. The powerful dock worker’s union, one of the largest employers in the area, has gone on strike, and corporations with a financial interest in the area have sent in strike-breakers to return the dock to order. When the resulting tensions boil over, a man is murdered, and the locals aren’t sure who they can trust. As Harry, players can take advantage of those schisms between characters, functioning as a so-called “human can-opener” who extracts information until people are empty. How Harry chooses to use that information is essential in determining whether or not he can redeem himself. For those living in Martinaise, that information can mean the difference between life and death.
Revachol’s most broken people are not the living; they are the recently dead. The hanged man who swings from the tree behind the Whirling in Rags is why Harry comes to Martinaise, which sends him on the bender that gives him the chance to turn around his life. Finding the truth behind the murder lets Harry prove himself to those who doubt him, including Kim, the other officers in his precinct, and all the people who witnessed his drunken downfall at the Whirling-in-Rags. The hanged man is not the only dead man who offers Harry redemption, however; there is a second corpse for Harry to investigate, one off the beaten path of the main storyline. The mystery man, dubbed ‘Working Class Corpse,’ plays a central role in a sidequest to track down a woman’s missing husband. Players who find the Working Class Corpse will quickly discover that it’s the very man they’ve been looking for, and his death was caused by a drunken fall. If players choose to have Harry personally deliver the bad news to the widow, he gets to witness first-hand the impact that the man’s death had on his wife. Although she had previously written him off, calling him an alcoholic and saying “…To hell with him!” when asked about his whereabouts, she grieves when she learns he’s gone. Like Harry, the working-class man has disappointed the people he cares about with his drinking, yet in the end, he was still loved. It’s a powerful thing for Harry to witness, as it proves that no matter how far a man falls, his life still meant something to others.
If Harry DuBois is a broken man, then the broken city of Revachol is the perfect place for him. The Antecentennial Revolution left the tiny district of Martinaise full of cracks and craters, and the last vestiges of winter have painted the city a dismal grey. The flow of traffic has been broken by the conflict between the union and the strike-breakers, and idling lorries clog the crumbling streets. While Harry cannot remedy all of these problems, or even most of them, they still offer him ample opportunities to better himself and the city in the process. With the player’s help, Harry can contribute to the city’s rehabilitation in countless ways, including tracking down the source of the drug trade, lifting the ‘curse’ from the Doomed Commercial Area, and creating original works of art on the walls. Each of these quests gives Harry insight into himself, assisting him on the path to redemption.
Players who invest heavily in the Shivers skill will have unique insight into the broken city of Revachol, as it allows Harry to communicate with the city itself. The in-game description of Shivers makes it clear that Revachol needs Harry’s help, saying: “[Shivers] enables you to hear the city itself, to truly belong to the streets…With a low Shivers, though you will seldom hear the city speaking to you – and if you cannot hear it, how can you ever save it?” Saving Revachol is no easy task, however; it is not something Harry can accomplish on his own, and it takes effort and trust in the citizens. Only those players who are willing to put their faith in a group of drug-dealing musicians can speak directly to the city through the power of dance. When Harry reaches the apex of his hardcore moves, the city reaches out, saying: “I NEED YOU. YOU CAN KEEP ME ON THIS EARTH. BE VIGILANT. I LOVE YOU.” It’s a bizarrely compelling moment, one where earnestness and compassion share the dance floor with police officers and disco lights, and it’s also the most compelling argument for Harry’s redemption. Even if he has alienated everyone else in his life, Revachol still loves him, and she needs him to keep going.
No matter how players choose to play Disco Elysium, Harry DuBois does not have an easy path forward. He’s disappointed everyone he knows, he’s deep in debt for property damage, and his self-image is at an all-time low. By interacting with broken objects, people, and places, players have the potential to turn Harry’s life around. Those who do will be rewarded with touching scenes that show just how far Harry has come, as well as how far he has to go. These compelling moments come together to form a nuanced, complex approach to redemption, proving that those who repair the world around them have the power to repair themselves.