Beyond the Pale: Disco Elysium and the three spheres of transformation

Disco Elysium concept art by ZA/UM

This is the first of a series of short blogs about Disco Elysium that the (extended) Anticiplay project research team will write in an attempt to work out why this game seems to hold such unique potential as an example of how to build games that grapple with the complexity of societal change.

There isn’t an Anticiplay project meeting where Disco Elysium doesn’t come up — at this point it has become a running joke. What is it about Disco Elysium? First of all, if you’d like to know in some more detail what this game is about before playing it, check out the thoughtful essays by Noah Caldwell-Gervais, NeverKnowsBest and Jacob Geller. But we would highly recommend that you play Disco Elysium yourself. Speaking personally, it’s one of the best games I have ever played, and that’s without taking any of its utility as an example into account. Its writing is incredibly intricate, imaginative, emotionally resonant, funny and multi-dimensional. Its world design and mechanics are amazing, original, and perfectly support the whole experience.

And here’s your SPOILER warning — if you don’t want any surprises to be ruined, stop reading now.

To put it extremely briefly, Disco Elysium is a role playing detective game. The game is set in a kind of alternate reality, which may look similar to the world of our (recent) past but which, at its roots, turns out to be surprisingly alien. A kind of nothingness, ‘the Pale’ separates different continents from each other. Travel and trade through the Pale is possible, but dangerous, since it eats memories, and erodes sanity and health. The Pale works as a kind of nebulous blanket metaphor for human existential crisis — for the Anthropocene, for climate change, for a kind of fragmenting of psychological, social and cultural reality — whatever you’d like to apply to it, it would probably be a pretty good match.

You start the game as a detective waking up with a murderous hangover caused by days of unhinged behaviour. You’ve forgotten everything — even the most basic things about yourself and the reality you live in. Disco Elysium is as much about (re)constructing yourself as it is about investigating the murder you have been tasked with solving. In this, it is heavily inspired by the classic, maximalist reality-shifting role playing game Planescape Torment.

What makes Disco Elysium so uniquely fascinating from a ‘sustainable futures’ perspective is definitely not that it offers a hopeful, uplifting tale of transformation toward a better world. Its outlook is warm, humanizing, but also bleak and melancholy. The story takes place in Martinaise, a run-down district of the city of Revachol. Martinaise was ground zero for a failed communist revolution that got relentlessly crushed by a liberal coalition of nations. And this failed revolution can be felt everywhere.

What is so interesting about this game is the many interconnected ways in which it engages with how the political, the personal, and even the sub-personal interweave. The core of the story revolves around a conflict between a dock workers’ union and a major corporation, and this conflict is closely connected to the game’s central murder. All of this is happening against the backdrop of failed revolution. Then, there is the larger existential, cosmological threat of the Pale. Another layer consists of the many personal stories of loss, inequality, loneliness and failure that can be found everywhere in the small but incredibly dense game world. There’s the personal story of the main character. And inside the domain of his personal psychology, there are two more layers: his skills and capabilities which express themselves as semi-independent subpersonalities with their own voices, and key ideologies and concepts that shape the protagonist’s outlook.

The protagonist’s skills and capabilities — each with their own voice in interactions in the game.

All of these layers are constantly interacting with each other. And, very importantly, the way they are operationalized in game play is nothing short of amazing. The star of the show is the skills system. Each of your skills is realized as a sub-personality that you are in dialogue with — and the skills are also in dialogue with each other. And what’s more, through your character’s words, they are indirectly in dialogue with other characters. The skills themselves are each highly unusually framed. For instance, ‘Inland Empire’ is a kind of mystical, intuitive, spooky skill that allows you to pick up the strange and uncanny. ‘Shivers’ is a skill that lets you ‘vibe’ with the city you are in. When ‘Conceptualization’ is strong, it helps you conceptualize abstract problems, but it also just marvels at the conceptual coolness of ideas a lot (I found this very relatable). The more experience points you allocate to each of these skills, the more they will speak up in your internal dialogues. And having very high levels of some of these skills is typically not purely beneficial. My character had very high Inland Empire, and it made for a lot of spacy, out-there thoughts that were definitely not necessarily ‘optimal’ in a solve-the-murder sense. But they were incredibly fun to engage with. Then there is the thoughts system. You can pick up concepts, ideologies and mental states which shift your experience of the game, give bonuses and drawbacks. This includes communism, centrism and fascism, but also a kind of avant-garde snobbery, a sense of the contingency of the universe, or a profound derealization which makes everything seem new and unfamiliar.

These amazing mechanics at the level of personal psychology (or below) engage in absolutely incredible ways with the many options the game offers for interacting with other characters and the world. And so many of those interactions seem to hang together and impact each other. It has been said many times before — but Disco Elysium very much feels like playing a tabletop role playing game with a game master who is brilliant at multidimensional storytelling. The game’s tone also fits its entanglement of the personal, social, political, cultural, economic and mythical. It is melancholy, absurd and funny in a very endearing and resonant way. It even brings in a kind of multi-species, non-anthropocentric perspective on the human condition, which it uses to stunning effect.

So, all of that sounds great, but why would it warrant a series of blogs investigating this game in the context of how games can help imagine sustainable futures and sustainability transformations?

Well, we are in desperate need of new ways to imagine the world. Games offer unique possibilities in this regard because we as players can interact with imagined worlds and inhabit characters — engaging with their systems, their cultures, their rules, and the ways in which these worlds develop or break down in a dynamic fashion. But so far, ‘serious’ games used specifically as tools to help imagine new futures get nowhere near the layered richness of Disco Elysium when it comes to engaging with the full dimensionality of societal change. On the other hand, Disco Elysium is also pretty much unique in its own context as a commercial game in terms of this richness of societal, interpersonal and personal systems and storytelling.

Karen O’Brien is a researcher at the University of Oslo who focuses on social/cultural change in the context of climate challenges. She offers a framing of change that includes three spheres — the personal (beliefs, values, worldviews & paradigms), the political (systems & structures), and the practical (behaviours & technical responses). Karen offers a guiding comment that culture permeates all these three spheres. She argues that many perspectives on sustainability, climate change, and transformation fail to investigate the many connections between these spheres. This is where Disco Elysium truly shines. So much of its text and game play is focused on interactions that cross these spheres, and show their tensions and consequences. This results in truly resonant interactions with its intricate game world.

The three spheres of transformation as conceptualized by Karen O’Brien (2018).

To us, Disco Elysium’s success shows that games can offer a kind of multi-level, multidimensional depth of play and narrative. People are eager to engage with this kind of complexity. The one thing it does not have — and this is not really a critique of the game at all, but more a possibility space that it opens — is a focus on how the world can, in fact, be changed. The setting is dystopic, even though it has some elements of beautiful, uplifting humanity. But what would a Disco Elysium look like that engages with the hard work of societal transformation? Our team’s reflections on this game will be aimed at offering space for reflection and inspiration, to hopefully follow in Disco Elysium’s footsteps to help imagine better worlds, and how to get to them, hangovers and all.

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!

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An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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Anticiplay

Anticiplay

An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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