“Disco Elysium” is a genre-bending role-playing game that discards any kind of traditional combat system in favor of letting the player interact with the world almost entirely through dialogue, either with other characters or the various voices in your head. There’s a lot of dialogue. Over a million words of it, in fact. But every single one of those words is gripping, and the game pulls you into a story that examines how the past affects us and those who cling too tightly to it.
You play as an absolute mess of a human being. You awaken in a trashed hotel room with a bad hangover and no recollection of who you are — not even your name. Pretty quickly, you find out that you’re a detective that is supposed to be solving a murder case. To that end, you explore the district of Martinaise in the city of Revachol, looking for clues and leads, either by talking to people or sticking your nose in the right places. As the case starts coming together, so too does the story of your character.
Revachol is a city with a storied past, involving a successful communist overthrow of a monarchy, followed by a successful capitalist overthrow of the commune by foreign powers. This history is seen everywhere. It’s in the yearning of the old fascist who longs for the return of the monarchy. It’s in the students discussing critical theory in the hopes that communism will one day make a resurgence. It’s in the old bullet holes on the walls that speak more than any history book could.
The city is full of those attached strongly to the past, and this is most apparent in the main character, a man with a past so painful that he spent years trying to drown out the day it all went wrong. The first half of the game’s name comes from his obsession with the disco era of his youth and how desperately he tries to cling onto that happiness from days long gone. It’s that desperation that is most horrifying, and most human. As you learn about his past, you come to find how badly he wants what he used to have back. Yet, as is all too often the case, it’s gone. No matter how much he wants it, he can never win it back. This struggle to keep going when everything you’ve ever wanted is far behind you is at the core of the game’s story and message. I’ve avoided spoiling anything major because I truly believe “Disco Elysium” is a game that everyone should experience with fresh eyes, even if you don’t really like video games. It tells an engaging murder mystery while simultaneously critiquing various political views and ideas, and delivering a heartbreaking and important story of a man trying to move on.
If you dig deep enough into your character’s memory loss, he comes up with something of an explanation for what might’ve happened. And in that explanation is one of the game’s most poignant quotes: “What if you didn’t lose your memory? What if something in Martinaise came and stored it all away? For you to slowly open one box at a time. So you can choose which parts to keep. Keep almost none of it. Only the flowers on the windowsill. Only the distant sound of a radio. Lose all the actors, the dark shadows, leaving only the still lifes, the blissful distant wash of waves.”
Maybe, just maybe, our frail minds aren’t meant to hold on to every detail of our past. Of every heartbreak, every regret, every tinge of pain. We can’t choose what we do and don’t remember, but we can choose what we think about, what we ruminate on in the late hours of the night. And if we can spend our limited time recalling not the painful words from someone’s lips, but the soft songs of the birds, or the feeling of the cool wind blowing through the trees and gliding across your skin… well, that’d be better, wouldn’t it? The past is endlessly receding, after all; you can’t go back to it, you can’t change it. You just have to keep living.