The materialism and magic of the surprise RPG hit ‘Disco Elysium’

Lead writer Helen Hindpere on the video game that goes deeper and weirder than most.

In December 2019, Reggie Fils-Aimé, the former head of Nintendo of America, announced to a packed auditorium that the surreal detective RPG Disco Elysium had scooped Best Independent Game at The Game Awards.

Helen Hindpere, Aleksander Rostov, Mikk Mesnitt, and Dani Woodford, members of the development team ZA/UM, walked on stage looking stunned and just a little sheepish. “We’d like to thank some of the great people that came before us,” said Hindpere. “Vladimir Makovsky, Viktor Tsoi,” continued Rostov, referring to the painter and musician respectively. “And…” concluded Hindpere, perhaps leaning into the sense of occasion. “Marx and Engels for providing us with a political education.”

It’s a striking move shouting out the authors of The Communist Manifesto at The Game Awards, not least because the glitzy industry ceremony is arguably better known as a glorified promotional event than a genuine celebration of artistic achievement. “It was spur of the moment,” laughs Hindpere over Zoom. “And one of those rare occasions where you're more scared walking off stage than before you go up.”

Previously released for PC, the game is now available on PlayStation 4 and 5 as Disco Elysium: The Final Cut. Befitting its updated title, the new version is longer and more fully realized than what came before. In an interview with Polygon earlier this year, lead writer of The Final Cut Hindpere said, “This is the Disco Elysium we dreamt of launching when we started development in 2014.” There are new additional quests but, perhaps most notably, it’s now fully voice-acted, a welcome addition to a game whose script tops one million words. Recorded remotely during the pandemic, this audio takes players deeper into the broken, violent neighborhood setting of Martinaise and its cast of eccentric characters. The game world, already praised for its singular thoroughness, feels even more alive because of it.

Players spend the opening moments waking up with a colossal hangover in a trashed hotel room. It’s quickly established that the protagonist, a disheveled police detective with a taste for mind-altering substances, is suffering from amnesia. This is both a contrived and effective start, a narrative ode to one of Disco Elysium’s major influences, the 1999 RPG Planescape Torment (which opened in similar style), and a device that puts the player and protagonist on something of an equally clueless footing. Importantly, says Hindpere, the amnesia trope is familiar, helping soften players up to an experience likely to take them outside of their video game comfort zone.

Our main character (minor spoiler: there’s a story arc dedicated to revealing his name), Harry Du Bois, is in town to solve the mystery of a dead body — but this is simply a grizzly jumping-off point for stranger events. Harry’s own often wildly incongruous thoughts interrupt the game’s extensive conversations, eerie and beautiful dream sequences bookend each day, and, unusually for a video game, there’s a raft of political theory, including diatribes on liberalism, centrism and, fittingly for a game made in the 2010s, fascism.

There’s a raft of political theory, including diatribes on liberalism, centrism and, fittingly for a game made in the 2010s, fascism.

If there’s an intellectual, occasionally alienating streak to the game, it’s mostly grounded by the windswept streets of Martinaise itself, what Hindpere describes as a “working class place.” There are shades of 1990s Tallinn, the capital of Estonia where she and much of the team grew up, as well as the Paris Commune of 1871, a brief period when revolutionary socialists governed the French capital. In the north, a dockyard is ghostly quiet because it’s workers are striking, and in the south a fishing village is down to its last remaining residents. An elderly washerwoman who sits outside one of the flimsy shacks describes it as a “non-place… a gap,” which should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever known somewhere down on its economic luck. “It’s very much a materialist history we're presenting,” explains Hindpere. “A politically realistic world.”

Martinaise might seem dour, and the circumstances of many characters are undeniably bleak, but it doesn’t lack warmth, a sense sustained by the sensitive and rigorous writing. Cuno lingers in the mind, a foul-mouthed, methamphetamine-addicted teenager who’s also a victim of domestic abuse. So too does Neha, a novelty dice maker with a serene philosophical demeanor. “In some ways we were surprised to discover that we like to go so in-depth,” says Hindpere. “We were always so interested in each person. Where do they live? What’s their socio-economic situation? How is their love and family life going?” Disco Elysium feels generous like few others by virtue of how it extends complexity to every single character.

“It’s very much a materialist history we're presenting. A politically realistic world.”

This also applies to Harry, a tragic buffoon who, because of his amnesia, must slowly relearn every aspect of himself. This isn’t just achieved through conversations with the people of Martinaise; players also sink experience points into an idiosyncratic skill system which allows them to reconstruct Harry according to their own taste. They can choose to emphasize traits such as “Endurance,” his ability to withstand pain, “Inland Empire,” his sense of intuition, and “Electrochemistry,” his nearly insatiable desire to pursue acts of hedonism. This works in tandem with the “Thought Cabinet,” a system which allows Harry to contemplate various ideas. These provide permanent skill bonuses, the catch being that players don’t know what they’ll be before acquiring them. Some enhance the traits you’ve acquired while some actively undermine them. By the end, Harry is as conflicted and compromised as the rest of us.

These attributes aren’t just a neat metaphor; they impact the game’s most conspicuous reference to its Dungeon and Dragon roots — the set of dice that confronts the player at key moments of action or dialogue. Disco Elysium’s world isn’t just one moulded by complex socio-economic relations, but chance and likely chaos. This idea flutters to the foreground with each roll of the dice, serving up a series of thrilling, heart-in-the-mouth moments that seemingly represent factors beyond our control — perhaps even comprehension.

But there’s a bigger mystery at the heart of the game, and it’s not the hanging body Harry must investigate. What began life as a mystical mist, the “Pale” has grown into one of Disco Elysium’s most talked-about elements, spawning numerous Reddit posts from those seeking an explanation to the weird phenomena. In the game, it’s referred to enigmatically as both an ephemeral “separative tissue” and the “enemy of matter and life.” Speculation has only been exacerbated by an achievement called “Palerunner,” which only a tiny fraction of players have unlocked, and mostly through what seem to be glitches. Some players have found themselves transported to spaces outside of the tangible game world.

“I think in order to truly represent life realistically, you have to have a complete unknown.”

Is the “Pale” a scientific or spiritual occurrence — maybe a cosmic enigma which straddles both? Certainly, it seems to hint at something beyond the skin, bones, earth, and objects of reality itself. “We're big fans of [French novelist] Émile Zola but I think if there's one thing that he leaves out, it’s the supernatural,” says Hindpere. “When you think about the human psyche, we live in a world where, even in the twenty-first century — the age of science — we don't really understand what's happening. We don't understand death or the universe. I think in order to truly represent life realistically, you have to have a complete unknown.”

Despite the ambiguity, Hindpere confirms there is a definitive explanation lurking within the “Pale’s” melancholic vapors — perhaps a magical yin to the game’s materialist yang. “If I was to say there isn't an answer, that would be to say that the world is meaningless,” she says. Indeed, part of Disco Elysium’s beauty is that it shows how filled with meaning life actually is, from the lives of people society ordinarily forgets to the political ideologies suffused within its systems. But the game also makes room for something else, and that’s arguably what makes it feel complete — the idea that significance exists beyond humans and what we ultimately construct.