There are only 14 books in Martinaise. Disco Elysium constructs a literary history for you in the outdoor shelves of a slowly failing bookstore, which include self-help, biography, and romance. The purpose of books is twofold: to let you learn more about the history of Revachol, and to help you pass time. If you know what you’re doing, you can solve the mystery that animates the game in as little as five days. Disco Elysium gives you 10. That’s a lot of time to sit and read.
Disco Elysium is more than novel-length itself, containing over a million words. The 2019 narrative RPG is based on an untranslated novel its creator published in 2013. It references literary and political theory and builds its own versions of both. It’s been described as a work of literature, one with cross-genre appeal, the game to recommend to people who don’t play videogames. Indeed, it’s the game that I’ve talked the most about with people who’ve never played a game, and who don’t have an interest in visual novels. But it’s also, on a basic level, just a lot of information in one package: hours and hours of lore and history, almost too much of it.
The vast majority of the mystery you’re solving in Disco Elysium is addressed through conversation, with yourself or with other people, or with the city itself, which enables what Chris Breault has called “intuitive and ‘supra-natural’ methods—talking to the victim’s corpse to learn there’s a bullet in its mouth, talking to the wind to learn which building the suspect is hiding beneath.” But for a game so focused on interpersonal conversation, Disco Elysium includes an equally surprising magnitude of stuff. There are dozens of items you can pick up that give you even more information, sometimes about the world, sometimes about yourself. There are clothes, guns, and tchotchkes, books and postcards that provide at least some explanatory text, and at most a few minutes of conversation with yourself about the object and its history.
It’s clear that one purpose of these items is to provide flavor for the player. But it also seems clear that they’re accomplishing something else. In this game so focused on interpersonal communication, you spend a surprising amount of time just looking at something—holding it in your hands, gauging your emotional reaction to it, and letting its history run into you, in a different way than in conversations with people. Some objects can literally talk to you. Others call to you from across the city, begging you to find them. I don’t know what to do with these objects, as compelling as they are. They seem to be a key part of Disco Elysium’s thematic contrasts between tangibility and immateriality, between memory and present, but how? In other words, what exactly are all these objects doing here—and why do I care so much about them?
Amber die with a mosquito: This unusual 13-sided die is made of amber. A fossilized mosquito has been trapped inside, legs bent beneath the weight of eternal rest.
Of course there are more than 14 books in all of Revachol, and although he’s not a big reader, your character Harry has certainly read some of them. There is Loos, ‘87—Radio City, and the Tome of Fascist Magic. But as far as books you can pick up and hold, Martinaise only has 14. One of them, Sixteen Days of Coldest April, is so boring that finishing it literally hurts you. Another, Medicinal Purposes of the Pale, gives you a recipe for a whiskey drink that is supposed to kill hangovers (it doesn’t work). Another is Volume 1.4 of the Communist magazine La Fumee, dedicated to the conflicts of the local dockworkers’ union, and decorated with white antlers that represent “a society in accord with the natural world, and at the same time, above it.”
The city transposes itself over the people who live there. A smoker in the seaside apartment complex gives his name as “Martin Martinaise.” René, an old soldier, shows you his war medals and (if you pry) tells you about saving a jawless prince during the Revolution, a conversation you have standing in a crater made by shelling from the same war. Everywhere you go, you can talk to someone or pick up something that tells you more about the city’s history. Kick a mailbox, dial a phone, sit down in a chair or read a book: objects are the avenue towards interacting with Revachol’s civic memory.
Sometimes, these objects lead you deep into the city’s past; other times, into your own. Investigating the bookstore will eventually lead you to a woman named Neha, who spends her days making handmade dice for game players. You can speculate about why her business has stayed afloat while others have failed, which gives you a thought called “The Precarious World” that raises your critical success and failure thresholds by one. Its description in two parts is a lament about the world’s instability, then an almost frustrated plea for resilience in the face of it: “You can either play or you can crawl under a boat and waste away—turn into salt or a flock of seagulls.”
Neha herself is adamant that capitalism, not supernatural forces, have led to the demise of the other businesses in the commercial district. You can find all their objects, museum-like, laid out around the rest of the building. You can call a representative from an electrical company that, you discover from talking to Neha, failed 100 years ago. This relationship, two people on other sides of a buzzer, hundreds of years apart, feels a lot like the description for another thought, “The Bow Collector,” that can occur to you after you read your case ledger and accidentally imagine your own past: “The ghost of Revachol between you, carrying your signals.”
Dried may bells: This is the wildflower you caught—one of a bouquet of muguets that you found on the Whirling roof. It’s shedding its petals quickly in your pocket.
Very late in the game, you can meet a creature called the Insulidian phasmid, which looks like a stick-bug but is much larger, a species called “Ghost-insects, colloquially.” It reveals its assessment of humankind to you: “There is an almost unanimous agreement between the birds and the plants that you are going to destroy us all.”
Before you leave the phasmid, Kim can take its picture. This surprised me. The game has already made the phasmid real with Kim’s insistence that “I can see it, too,” the glue that distinguishes the insect from all your previous dreams and drug hallucinations by making the character most devoted to moderation and realism share the experience with you. Your collective memory is the only thing that makes it real. Then, the photo takes the cryptid back into the realm of public knowledge. Now that you know it’s there, so do others. Now you can show the phasmid to your police colleagues, who see it as a PR opportunity:
TRANT HEIDELSTAM: “Absolutely—this is great. This does not say ‘vigilante murderers’ to me at all. This says: science, news, human interest.” He smiles. “You know, it’s a really good thing you have that photo.”
But the photo never becomes an object: it’s never something you can hold. You can’t do anything with it. It’s not the photo that convinces you the phasmid is real, but Kim’s confirmation, and its own words:
YOU: Am I awake? Is this a dream? What is happening?
INSULINDIAN PHASMID: No. You are awake. I am real. Light is forming me. This is real.
Postcard La Delta ‘51: The sunlight has made this postcard almost completely sepia-toned. Midtown traffic passes, overhead the ghosts of skyscrapers disappear into a beige mid-day mist—vapour rising from the delta on which the district was built. The postcard is pre-paid.
The objects you find and use exist in the immediate shadow of the main natural threat of Disco Elysium: the pale, an anti-object that’s man-made and destructive to the basics of human thought. All the cities, people, and objects in Disco Elysium are surrounded by a sea of the pale, an interisolary phenomenon that outnumbers matter two to one. It is imperceptible to all senses but sight, made up of the absence of any language or physicality. Joyce Messier, the Wild Pines corporate representative, tells you that exposure to the pale can cause sensory damage, either because it is the absence of anything, or because, as the dialectical materialists believe, “the pale somehow consists of past information, that’s degrading. That it’s rarefied past, not rarefied matter.”
The anti-object of the pale is produced by people. And in contrast to all the objects you’ve picked up, thrown out, kicked and stolen over the course of the game, the pale resists not just language and diagramming, but attempts to comprehend and contextualize. If the game’s objects help Harry better understand a sea of memories and interactions that are too much for him to handle, the pale is all of those memories together, all at once. It is the ultimate combination, which in the game’s terms is the same as being the absence of everything.
There is one place, though, where you can observe the pale without being overwhelmed by it. This is in a church in the south part of Martinaise that holds a 2mm hole in the world, a small bit of the pale in the middle of the district. Here, rather than being the source of existential dread, the pale is an occasion for curiosity. It’s not just nothing, or rarefied something, but something you can use. If you take up an optional quest and turn the church into a dance club, you’re repurposing this material for fun, life, and joy; turning the combination of everything back into one thing, an identifiable, observable, and functional object.
One criticism Disco Elysium received when it was first released was that it was unintelligible precisely because it contained multitudes. It would let you be a fascist, a communist, or a middle of the road liberal, and all of these positions would be mocked and judged by the text of the game. To some, this was the kind of empty moral choice that is the backbone of a lot of RPGs; rather than a coherent character, the player is an amalgamation of ideology and history that amounts to being the same as nothing at all.
So what is Disco Elysium? Is it an incoherent group of disparate and meaningless choices, or is it a compendium of description and history that through its accumulation somehow ends up saying something meaningful? I don’t know if it’s possible to definitively answer this question. I do know that Disco Elysium’s ethos of accumulation, and its use of that accumulation as a key part of telling its story, is deeply impressive to me. It draws together so many political ideologies, historical anecdotes, and yes, objects that their combination is what gives me a sense of what Disco Elysium’s world actually is, more than the course of the story or the overall orientation of the game.
This accumulation includes the game’s conversations too, of course; the number of stories I can think back to is a testament to the quality of the game’s writing as well as its devotion to little, seemingly random details. But its story is equally dependent on all the mute and non-vital objects that you spend your time picking up and reading about. It’s not just that these objects are beautifully rendered or described, although that’s also true: they provide a look into a past that still creeps up on you and forces itself into your life, a fact which is a big problem for Harry, and for all of Martinaise. And they also provide a barrier against that past, a window that lets you look into it without being overcome completely, except for the few times when you’re pulled through.
Disco Elysium is very interested in how non-physical, non-observable concepts like politics, historical memory, emotional trauma, and conspiracy haunt the conversations you do have and the objects you can see, the lives that exist within physical things. Several years on from playing it for the first time, I’m convinced that more than Disco Elysium’s lauded conversational mechanics, more than its skill system, its accumulation of information and history is its most revolutionary storytelling technique. This accumulation happens in action and conversation, but it’s in moments of pause, holding something in your hands, that it’s at its most poetic, and most successful.
Emily Price is an intern at Paste and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.