History, Life, and Death in ‘Disco Elysium’

Disco Elysium’s world is a corpse. The symptoms of its ongoing decomposition can be seen everywhere, creeping upon the shoulders of every character, reflected by the wild, fragmented expressionism of the protagonist’s mind. It emerges from a well-spring of nothingness, the chemically-bound erasure of a past self whose denial is nonetheless incomplete, since its phantoms keep coming back again and again.

The history of Elysium works in parallel to the character’s mind, articulating a relationship between life and death of a Gothic sort, in which it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Living death and deadly life — a looming threat seems to pervade every interaction, history appearing as raised knife, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Disco Elysium thus joins other Gothic texts in denying that history has a motorized forward impulse, drawing ever closer to a full, total life. As part of a Gothic tradition, the game focuses on the myriad specters that bleed from the impossibility of such a life, the stench of death following wherever it goes.

The Knife

For instance, as a player, you can insist that a part of the protagonist’s mind should resist the word “Harry” at all costs in a senseless quest to be an other, but it constantly returns, an unprompted section of his thoughts intruding upon your will until denial seems idiotic. “Harry” is a destroyer, and just as he once effaced himself by grotesquely paralyzing his own semblance into The Expression of better times, when disco music reigned and he idealized a toxic relationship, he pushes the player away when it truly seems like he’s a blank slate for our projections. Harry’s protracted struggle is a struggle with history and memory: he wants to kill something that is already dead, and yet it lingers. This un-life permeates the pieces of the city of Revachol that we are able to connect with as players, delineating a relationship between death and life that produces a particular understanding of history which breaks with both linear and circular interpretations of it.

Disco Elysium

Thanks to the feedback loop between biology and Romanticism in the 19th century, many historians and philosophers redeployed an old, Greek and Roman idea in which history traced the course of all organisms: the cycle. In it, life and death are inextricably linked but always separate, the ashes of empires birthing new civilizations just like an animal’s reproduction means its own renewal. But a popular, parallel cultural movement haunted this very serious conception with the idea that maybe there is no law to explain historical development — if history is the domain of death, if the invocation of it holds a certain unmovable quality — then it might just as well be the deadly shadow of the here and now, burdening the present with its heaviness, always on the verge of suffocation.

The horror of this impending suffocation was the source material for Gothicism. As such, the genre was first used within the Enlightenment as a way to reassure readers that the power of reason was the best way to hold such fears at bay. However, as it grew throughout the late 18th and the 19th century, it also began to apocalyptically warn of the maddening flipside of reason, whether it took the form of a “reasonable” society ready to destroy true reasonability (think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or a scathing reminder that nature silently gnaws at the heart of humanity’s “reasonable” faith that it alone is at the center of the universe (think of her Last Man — in our times, nature is screaming as it burns away). 

Sometimes, this warning took the form of new interpretations of history, perhaps most famously represented by the hobgoblin/ghost of communism haunting Europe. In all instances, the Gothic undercurrent signalled something contrary to the mastery of nature and of historical development, denying the light of progress to affirm that life might not entirely be antithetic to death. We live, after all, amidst ruins in the making.

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The Ghost

And what a ruin the mind of Harry is. Informed by players’ starting choices, the different aspects of his psyche offer a torrent of sometimes contradictory, often purely speculative statements seemingly rooted in an off-center site where his past self collides with the puppetry of player decisions. Whatever, whoever you think Harry should be, his mind will always resist, or bend in unexpected ways. The death of old Harry does not necessarily lead to the birth of a new one, and the failure to comprehensively define a unity of character, even if you pass all dice checks to seemingly unify all your actions in the game, leads to the sense that life and death are but simultaneous fragments of a relentless existence.

It is an existence that constantly leaves traces, whether impressed into the “thought cabinet” as memories and dreamlike concepts, immobilized into The Expression, or, most clearly, made concrete in the torn up landscape of the small piece of the city of Revachol we bear witness to. History, in other words, is that eerie mixture of life and death, a cumulus of fragmented ideas and matter whose phantom has a “real” presence, linking the characters together along with the place they inhabit. If pushed hard enough, the detective inquiry line about a phenomenon only known as The Pale will lead to the revelation that it is, under one interpretation, the past itself, information continually degrading, an atomic reaction whose toxic, generative radiance holds the dead body of Elysium together. 

This grand burden often dissolves, in the game’s various stories, the clarity with which we would normally demarcate life from death. One of the strangest intuitions that suddenly coalesces in Harry’s mind is the sexual undertone of the Hanged Man’s murder — to the surprise of the reasonable, deductive approach of his partner Kim, the victim’s orgasm does reveal a network of deadly events whose texture is brimming with various forms of lust for life. Such love is the grim destiny not only of Harry’s denial of a relationship he broke by trying to intensify his everyday existence, but also of the Last Revolutionary who authors the assassination. 

The Last Revolutionary, an old man by the time of your encounter, has fallen bitterly in love with the loss of the Revolution. His sense of self, as detailed by the numerous books that litter his hollowed-out living space, is no longer anchored upon the present, on everyday life. He has become an empty vessel filled with history instead.

In this sense, his hope is indistinguishable from his sense of loss, and, against all the currents of Disco Elysium’s realist aesthetics, can be uncovered to be inextricably connected to a fantasy creature that suddenly comes into being. The cryptid in question has been like an alien observer of Revachol’s events, haunting the Revolutionary, feeding off his mind and in return intensifying every moment of his death, for he stopped truly living after the revolution’s defeat.  

In his historically overburdened un-life, the Revolutionary’s desires become absolute self-erasure, evoking Harry’s own intoxication and amnesia. It is significant that when the cryptid acknowledges its own existence, its parasitical relationship with the Revolutionary comes to an end; no longer a hidden force of a nature never mastered, it unburdens the Revolutionary’s mind, affirming his true state as a ghost, as a tragedy that forever haunts the city of Revachol.

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The Castle in the Fog

Disco Elysium’s developers’ links to left-wing thought are by now well-known. Like all of us now living, they experienced an “end of history” that merely stirred the earth beneath us, suddenly filling the catacombs of the 20th century with impossible whispers. The Russian Futurist language of gods and stars to which the studio’s name refers (ZA/UM) was meant to articulate a “victory over the sun” that would annihilate the past’s hold upon the future and emancipate humanity from capital-N nature; its revival perhaps attempts to bring an end to the “end of history,” to banish the language of commodities that simplifies every RPG choice into “good” and “bad,” narratives you buy and narratives you don’t.

History as stillness, as the texture of a fading world, is the cryptid that keeps everyone’s minds simultaneously alive and dead — it is a Gothic relationship which, for a very select few, follows progressive cycles of life, while for most has devolved into a recurring nightmare of fragments upon fragments of deaths endured and lives long gone. This scarred panorama is not unlike that of Revachol, the host of a character so wealthy he’s achieved absolute individual freedom, but also of a fishing village where the absence of wealth leads its inhabitants to acts of solidarity. 

Revachol thus robs the grave of communism for its political and aesthetic elements just like the anarchist Ravachol once robbed the grave of an aristocrat to redistribute its treasure: the dead supposedly want for nothing, but our own lustful abjection before a warm, dying world seems like limbo, like a nebulous, intermediate state from which we cannot seem to wake or fade away entirely.

Not all is lost hope, however. One of Disco Elysium’s potential storylines involves the opening of a club in the ruins of a church. By bringing together a group of teenage electronic dance music nerds, a pioneer of cybernetics, and an ex-gang member mystic, Harry and Kim can establish a vanguard against the corroding creep of The Pale, a first line of defense constituted by the promise of a joyful life that comes face to face with absolute death. 

Seamless bodily and machine-human communication, as well as an appreciation of the unknown, align like so many a historical avant-garde to acknowledge that history needs not solely be the domain of stillness. The raised knife, in other words, can turn into a raised fist, ready to strike a blow against those who would have history remain in the hands of whoever looks forward to its end. It’s up to the rest of Revachol to follow these misfits into the abyss, hoping to “wake eternally,” “one short sleep past,” creating a bastion of presence amidst the rotting mass that is the world. Elysium might be a corpse, but they are not dead, at least not yet.

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