Welcome to the new beta.  Found a bug or issue? Report it here.

I Played Disco Elysium as an Absolutely Gigantic Fascist

Kim Kitsuragi is not the protagonist of Disco Elysium, and for that he is more or less a living saint. A middle-aged, no-nonsense cop in Coke bottle glasses and a sweet orange bomber jacket, he is instead the partner of the player character, the initially nameless detective with luxurious mutton chops, a mean case of alcohol-induced amnesia, and a regrettable affinity for disco. What this means, then, is that Kim must put up with you (or, well, me), the player probably choosing all the most ridiculous dialogue options. I mean, the apocalypse is nigh, so it makes perfect sense to sign your name as “The Gloaming,” right?

Kim is in a truly impossible situation, yet handles the player character with admirable pragmatism, supporting your increasingly unhinged methods and even offering a little smile or pat on the back sometimes. He’s stuck with you, after all, and even in such a state of total personality annihilation, you get results, dammit. He’s the straight man learning to use you as an unstoppable detecting force, the good cop to your qualitatively bad. The little white circle around his character portrait’s head can, I can only assume, denote his obvious sainthood.

He is also a lens through which Disco Elysium deals with its themes of bigotry. The game provides a whole host of dialogue options to define your character in a number of ways: the aforementioned doom-saying crackpot, a person who is sorry about absolutely everything all the time, and even a fervently nationalist, misogynistic fascist. The last option gave me pause during my initial playthrough of the game, as I kept seeing these occasional dialogue options to blame economic woes on The Foreigners, extoll my white character’s believed biological superiority, or express skepticism of “the homo-sexual underground.” You can say some pretty nasty stuff in Disco Elysium, but exploring these options reveals a portrayal of prejudice that is surprisingly thoughtful about both its origins and its repercussions.

“Welcome to Revachol”

Kim does not suffer racists. In the game’s fictional world of Elysium, his parents are immigrants from the country of Seol, coding him as East or Southeast Asian (One character, “Gary the Cryptofascist,” greets him as “yellow man”). But Kim has also lived in Revachol, the city where the entire game takes place, all his life. “I don’t speak a word of Seolite, I’ve never met either one of my grandparents. And I’ve never been to Seol,” he tells you if you ask. He even has a French-sounding accent.

So when a character named Racist Lorry Driver tells him “Welcome to Revachol,” Kim sees right through the charade. It’s the sort of assumption people like me (part-Vietnamese) often deal with: Kim doesn’t look like everyone else, so he must be from somewhere else. Kim has none of it, sternly correcting the man on his background. Up to this point, Kim has been by-the-book yet never particularly confrontational. So it’s apparent that this man has truly touched a nerve.

You’re faced with an early choice here: do you back Kim up in this rather straightforward situation (against a character who, I reiterate, is labeled only as Racist Lorry Driver), or do you, the guy with such extreme amnesia that he has a dialogue option to ask about the concept of money, suggest your partner is overreacting? Follow the latter branch of the dialogue tree far enough into the weeds and you can outright agree with our friend Racist Lorry Driver, declaring that you are “down” with racism. Other options are to essentially just nod along as RLD rambles on until you can awkwardly change the subject, or directly tell him to “fuck off,” which affects his future cooperation at the cost of doing, well, the right thing.

Getting Down

Through Kim, Disco Elysium not only demonstrates that people in its world are racist, that characters will notice and confront this racism, but also that there are repercussions for you, too, behaving like a bigot. Siding with RLD leads Kim to take you aside and ask what’s going on, if you’re really into “race stuff” or are just humoring this guy to stay on his good side. The conversation functions as a sort of safety net, leaving nuance for ulterior motives while conveying that someone like Kim does definitely notice your conversation choices. It’s a sly little “are you sure?” on the game’s part.

You can still press on, attempting to debate Kim until he shuts things down by noting that this is far from the first time he’s had such a conversation. He promises to stay out of it in the future, which isn’t actually true — he still chimes in, assuring people that your prejudice does not represent the Revachol Citizens’ Militia and even berating you if you go particularly far. The game removes the momentary safety net, and Kim no longer gives you the benefit of the doubt — you’ve made your choice.

Kim isn’t a pushover, either. Besides confronting Racist Lorry Driver, he’ll totally stonewall you on certain lines of questioning or actions (like stealing boots off a corpse) that he does not feel are prudent. You can occasionally convince him to humor you, but at other times you have to sneak out once he’s gone to bed and do those things alone. He feels like a legitimate presence rather than some tagalong companion, which makes it all the more significant that he chooses to work with you.

Being “down” with fascism means tanking your relationship with Kim, and if the Steam achievements are any indication, it’s a fairly successful deterrent — at the time of this writing, the achievement for having the best possible relationship with Kim tops the list with 35.2% having unlocked it, while the one for having the worst (which I did get by choosing all the awful dialogue options) is in the bottom three at just 0.9%.

The dilemma, then: do you continue to alienate literally the only person with any measure of faith in you, or do you stop being an asshole?

More Disco Elysium:

“The Unpromising Race Pupil”

One of the dialogue options for choosing to argue with Kim insists that people are simply a product of their environment, but the game refutes this by its very construction. Prejudice is less foisted upon your character than directly chosen from a list of multiple dialogue options (and in some cases, like Kim’s initial confrontation, it means choosing them and then doubling down).

There are a couple of exceptions, however, when the game forces you into certain situations, depicting you as ruled by urges and knee-jerk reactions essentially against your will if you don’t clear certain skill checks. Failing an Authority check to get Kim to dance, for example, forces you to berate him as a “yellow monkey fucker,” and in response, he leaves the building.

While it’s depicted as a failure on your part, where you lash out in an attempt to disguise your impotent lack of authority, it feels rather disingenuous to have slurs uncontrollably fly from the detective’s mouth the way vomit does if you fail the “composure” skill check when investigating a decomposing corpse. A lot of the game is about your disastrous character flailing around chaotically, but enough of it is also about choosing what kind of person he is that it’s ultimately incongruous to have this particular set of words uncritically pop up in a kind of “heated dancing moment.”

For example, buying into the phrenology ramblings of a character called Measurehead (named, naturally, after his cranial measurement tattoos) takes the prospect of choiceto a comedic extreme. Disco Elysium presents you with equippable thoughts that yield stat bonuses and additional effects once they’ve been “researched” for a set period of time. Constantly espouse the plight of the working class, for example, and you’ll start up the Big Communism Builder, which offers a small experience point reward every time you choose left-wing dialogue options. Acquiring Measurehead’s “Advanced Race Theory” thought requires becoming his disciple, his “unpromising race pupil,” by paging through paragraph upon paragraph of fictional racism written in eye-searing all-caps.

Internalizing Advanced Race Theory means you’ve foregone any of the other ways of getting past Measurehead — knocking him out or sneaking past, for example. And the final researched thought reveals that your character still cannot totally decipher his ramblings. “The mindbending phylogenetics appear more distant and, to be fair, a little ridiculous,” the thought’s solution reads. “The great Race Mystery has cleared up. All that’s left to do is to verbalize your thoughts — go and talk to Measurehead about your newly-found insights.”

Returning to Measurehead presents a list of seven dialogue options, most of which tell him he’s full of shit (and he still lets you move forward out of pity) while only one furthers your descent into fascism. It is, again, prejudice as a conscious choice rather than a purely incidental byproduct of the environment. When the game is on target (which it unfortunately isn’t always), it balks at the idea that you’re just Detective Economic Anxiety, instead insisting that you’re Detective A Goddamn Fascist.

The Hard Stuff

The trick of Disco Elysium is how it presents your character’s actions at a teasing remove. Though it takes care to foreground the fact that, through people like Kim, your actions have consequences, there remains a meaningful distance between player and character, a thin film of the game’s own editorializing. Some of these are interjections from Kim or other characters like a drunk named Idiot Doom Spiral (he characterizes your rants about The Foreigners as “low-concept”). Many of them, though, come in the form of the game’s skills chiming in to offer advice or to simply make fun of you — Rhetoric, for example, will urge you to argue with people or cut through particularly delicate phrasings to tell you who it believes is calling you an idiot.

In this way, the game avoids leaving such comments hang in the air unchallenged, even beyond labeling Racist Lorry Driver for what he is and even when you’re the one espousing the prejudice. Your skills will give you the verbal side-eye, as artsy skill Conceptualization says something like, “Oh, you’re one of those detectives” if you bemoan how no one knows how to laugh anymore when examining a mug stamped with a racist caricature. 

Some of these little rebukes are even more direct, as in how internalizing the fascist, umlaut-laden “Revacholian Nationhood” thought begins damaging your morale  every time you pick a nationalist dialogue option. To really commit to fascism, the game actually makes it more difficult to keep throwing it in everyone’s face. You’re never not characterized as a doofus, but you’re characterized as a special sort of doofus for being a right-wing fanatic.

“An Absolutely Giant Fascist”

Early in Disco Elysium, you get a quest to sing karaoke that you’ll probably fail, yowling horrendously to some sad song in an attempt to express yourself. Everyone hates it except Kim, because it shows him something underneath your disgusting exterior — he sees you, sees the pain clutching to those high notes you absolutely should not have tried to hit. This moment encapsulates so much of Disco Elysium’s deceptive humanity, a game where what isn’t spent in one dialogue exchange or another is probably spent running between them. 

It’s a game built around curiosity and empathy, about talking to people to find out what their deal is as you come to terms with yourself, finding something to grasp onto and believe in amid the war-torn ruins of a world where nothing seems to matter anymore. Only your principles (or lack thereof) can guide you; you don’t find meaning so much as create it from within, internalizing your most deeply-held beliefs.

Being what your character terms “an absolutely GIANT FASCIST” often means an absence of empathy (sometimes literally, when it comes to the Empathy skill), a disinterest in what’s going on with people in favor of saying horrible things to them or perhaps arresting them outright. In doing so, you close off certain questlines and segments as a consequence of your lack of curiosity; it’s the dialogue equivalent of playing through a big Bethesda-esque RPG and just trying to kill everyone you meet. 

But you can do it all the same, and the surprising thing is how thematically consistent your “bad choices” are. Your character is someone dealing with a truly profound, burnout-induced self-loathing exacerbated by a rather pathetic breakup. The constant intrusive thoughts and the general fuck-everything tone are its outgrowths, a sardonic veneer pulled back as you progress through the game. Much of the finale is based around letting go of that bitterness and pain before it destroys you, even paralleling your character with an ideological fanatic grown old and bitter in his isolation. That’s where you’re headed if you insist on clinging to your pain, and playing the bigot is the only way to express failure here, an unwillingness to let go.

Rather than directing those self-loathing thoughts inward as you might in a playthrough where you learn to become a better person and form connections again with characters like Kim, you push the hatred outward, targeting it  towards whoever is easiest to blame. When the game is at its most thoughtful, you emphatically choose to verbalize your character’s failures and insecurities through a hatred of the Other, and unlike so many games where the “bad guy” playthrough feels like an afterthought, in Disco Elysium it feels just as plausible.

But it’s not what Kim would want.

About the Author

Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.