Yes, I am one of those game critics who has picked up Disco Elysium and is fascinated by it. However, don’t expect me to sit here singing its praises as a revolutionary text. I will absolutely praise it for the on-its-face quality of the writing, and one of the best dialogue systems I’ve ever seen, where a constant stream of skill checks shape the conversation to truly reflect the shape your character’s personality has taken. It’s incredible. I only wish it was in a game that was less… well. What Disco Elysium is.
The idea of the “one block RPG” has always been appealing to me: what if you dialed down the scope of a world to such a point that you could really, really go nuts fleshing it out? What if everyone had something to say, every building had a story, and there were tons of ways to explore the small space? The trouble comes with what made the game. I can’t make any claims about the developers themselves: I can’t say we’re acquainted. So rather than talk about those people, I’ll talk about the mindset that apparently seized them when working on this game: the position of the South Park Centrist.
Once upon a time, I liked South Park. I was never nuts about it, I just don’t watch very much TV, but it was funny, and sometimes it mocked things others wouldn’t. I told myself this was “brave” and “smart.” As I grew, my thoughts on it changed. I wouldn’t ever claim Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn’t have talent: to run the show as they have is a feat. But what they’ve been running is a cowardly show that wears courage as a costume.
South Park mocks everyone, sure: but its commentary stings those who are disadvantaged, while the privileged can easily laugh it off. The show’s position is that “everyone is stupid,” and so it sees itself as an equal opportunities jester. Republicans in Congress? Ha, laugh at those idiots! Poor homeless people in New York? What a laugh riot!
It is a child’s view that sees these two parodies as equal. Senator Marco Rubio will sleep just fine whatever insults you sling his way: he is a paid, elected government official running our country, and commits heinous acts of greed and cruelty to those he represents on a daily basis. If he wasn’t prepared for a few people to shout cusses at him, he’d be out of the game long ago. Panhandlers on the side of the street in Queens would dearly love to get out of that game. They are where they are because they are victims. Perhaps of the economy, perhaps of circumstance, perhaps of their own carelessness. Does it matter? They are in pain. To mock a person’s advantage is to hold them to a standard. To mock a person’s disadvantage is obvious cruelty.
But that’s just the most basic cruelty of the show. The other thing that defines South Park Centrism is a disdain for ideology. Naturally, this is an ideology unto itself, just as “zero” is a number. What they’re really sneering at isn’t ideology, it’s belief in or hope for change. To the show as well as the individual who agrees with its politics, the status quo will last forever, and trying to change anything is an act of foolish fancy. It’s naive to think anything could be made better, it’s naive to try. The optimist is a fool, the revolutionary an idiot: the true path is to weather the storm and laugh as those who try to “improve” things are crushed by the weight of the world.
This is the position of the privileged. It’s easy to laugh at attempts to change the world when the current state of things offers no threat to you. Again, it’s a simple thing to dissect: does the show think that people fight for rights because it’s fun? Do they protest and march in their free time because it’s so rewarding? In all likelihood, their efforts will be met with nothing: the weight of the world will crush them. They know that perfectly well. But not trying is all the more painful.
So, great speech, Six. What does this have to do with Disco Elysium? Well… everything. In Disco Elysium, you play as a detective so overwhelmed by alcoholism you’ve drunk yourself into oblivion, falling into amnesia and ignorant of the many things you’ve done that make everyone who’s previously encountered you hate you. Feeling out the world reveals a dystopia full of people the game openly scorns.
An encounter with a racist truck driver harassing my Korean partner left a bad taste in my mouth: he was utterly comfortable in his vitriolic hate, and suggested that naturally I shared his beliefs. I didn’t, and made this plainly clear before walking away from the bigot. When I next encountered a South Asian man he explained that the only correct path was to be racist against white people, as obviously there must be a superior race, and just as obviously by my previous choices I didn’t think it was white people. This was delivered by a man whose head was covered in phrenology tattoos, demonstrating his inherent value via the measurements of his skull. When my skill was high enough to point out that one of the values actually indicated his lack of worth in the eyes of phrenology, he dismissed it with a wave and a quip. Naturally, he was an idiot. How could he not be: he believed in something.
Every character is a different type of extreme, and in the eyes of Disco Elysium, therefore a different type of idiot. Overly aggressive, homophobic children who make false accusations who can only be dissuaded by violence. A young woman minding a storefront who is too airheaded to follow a conversation. A pawn shop owner too high on drugs to offer useful information. You wander the street, snarking at the foolishness of those who believe, aloof by way of your apathy. Ignorance is bliss, and thus amnesia all but godhood. It’s a shame that the clean slate your overdose has given you must inevitably be ruined by this stupid world and its circumstances.
I need to keep playing this game. It’s so different from anything I’ve played, and making such varied dialogue choices is engaging even when my options are often loathsome. But I refuse to fall into the trap that some of my fellow critics have. This isn’t a brilliant bait and switch. They aren’t setting you up for a reveal that the world does matter, that you do need to care. This game holds the ground of a pathetic nihilist, feet locked firmly in false equivalence and a condescending sneer. And god, what a fool I am for believing it should be better: for only fools believe. The wise soul simply observes, and laughs at another’s pain.