Disco Elysium is experienced entirely through the detective-colored lens of your protagonist’s mind. Everything from browsing a bookshelf to considering a karaoke performance is presented as an internal dialogue where his Logic delivers observations while Drama tendencies urge him into singing the saddest song he can imagine in front of a bar’s patrons. All 24 facets of his brain offer their opinion eventually, requested or not. Even conversations with others are only made up half with dialogue – the other half is the detective’s inner monologue, Perception perhaps pointing out how a suspect hides their hands while Empathy highlights their suffering.
Despite playing like a classic RPG set to the tune of ’70s disco and a TV crime procedural, Disco Elysium is all about the bedlam in our brains. “With Disco Elysium our main thing was ‘being this type of animal’,” lead writer Robert Kurvitz explains. The human animal, that is: a beast burdened with abstract thought, imagination, and the indignity of existing in a constantly decaying meat prison. The only animal aware of its inescapable fate. Disco Elysium’s detective is beleaguered by his own mind, assaulted by thoughts that may be distressing or comforting, helpful or distracting. “Our hope was to render the player character in minute detail — every thought, obsession, muscle twitch,” Kurvitz says.
Disco Elysium’s detective protagonist attempts to solve a murder at the center of a union-controlled district called Martinaise. Thanks to alcohol-induced amnesia, he doesn’t know his own name, let alone his opinions on the warring ideals of organizing labor and capitalism. He is constantly forced to face thoughts from various corners of his brain and decide whether to incorporate or discard them. Some are helpful. Others frivolous. Knowing which from which is as convoluted as you might imagine for an amnesiac. It’s a sensation that’s more relatable (minus the memory loss) than I realized until seeing it played out so literally on the screen. How did developer ZA/UM write this swirling mess of thoughts in a way that made them feel uncannily familiar?
Although most of us don’t see our thoughts as pieces distinct from one another like colored panes in a stained-glass window, this storm of imagination at the center of Disco Elyisum is a familiar part of the human experience. Human minds aren’t single-rail machines, Kurvitz reminds me. They don’t carry a single thought from origin to conclusion in a sensible way. A great many thoughts are negative, and a subset of those are known as “intrusive,” – a psychological term better known by those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Some are amusing connections, like realizing a friend looks like a character in a TV show. Others are ideations of purely anti-social behavior like the urge to yell “fire” on a train. Or distressingly vivid imagination of your own death: slipping in the shower and hitting your head on the tub spout just so. These thoughts that come off the assembly line mangled and unrecognizable, the thoughts that feel like they don’t belong to you, are intrusions. Many people, when faced with violent, visceral, or Freudian thoughts are able to let them continue on down stream, emptying out into the ocean without ever affecting the whole.
For the rest of us, intrusive thoughts can be like finding yourself stuck in an optical illusion and unable to swap perspectives. By interacting with it, you retrace the neural pathway, link the thought to your surroundings, give it a home and a place to stay. The accidental shower death is my own intrusive thought, and though it doesn’t actively distress me, I can be sure it will float through my mind at least once every time I step in. For others, intrusions can become obsessions that breed compulsions.
I asked Kurvitz if Disco Elysium’s writers felt the need to consult experts in psychology or mental health disorders in order to nail these portrayals of dark, distracting thoughts. ZA/UM had a dedicated researcher, Andrus Laansalu, advising on subjects such as forensics and psychology, but Disco Elysium is more rooted in sci-fi notions of the human mind. “Grandiose and ominous 19th century philosophical ambitions and some esoteric Soviet nonsense,” rather than modern psychology. It’s not-quite historically accurate but an intensely familiar version of post-communism in a place that feels like eastern Europe. Disco Elysium’s foray into the dangerous territory of the human mind is recognizable but uncanny.
“In the short time the human neocortex has spent on our planet it has completely transformed, possibly fatally. No such mechanism runs without ‘disorders’,” Kurvits says. “This is the price we pay for our unparalleled ability to mirror and recombine reality.” It’s the inherited price of the species that Disco Elysium’s detective pays for being a stellar investigator. And yet, he has the ability to interact with these thoughts, to turn about the idea of identifying as a feminist, a communist, or a fascist before deciding to internalise it or toss it out. As the detective I have the option to reject a thought I don’t want.
Is that the real fantasy of Disco Elysium, then? The detective is able to sieve through thoughts, deciding at will whether to entertain them or tuck them up on a shelf. It’s a level of discipline that even people without neuroatypical disorders like OCD or ADHD wish for. In game form, a space free from real consequences, these intrusive thoughts become even more tempting to play out.
Kurvitz confirms that contrary to a typical RPG where players are able to perform large-scale massacre with physical feats of endurance or dexterity, Disco Elysium is a different kind of power fantasy. “Disco Elysium puts you in an extraordinary mind,” he says. Successful skill checks aren’t often about besting someone physically, but instead unlock heroic levels of empathy, intuition, and creativity.
In Disco Elysium, obsessing over a thought doesn’t always present the same risk as in real life. The detective’s Thought Cabinet is a sort of inventory where thoughts like “Volumetric Shit Compressor” can be unlocked through conversations and events and then placed in an open slot. Over a period of hours, the preoccupation runs in the detective’s mind until he achieves a breakthrough and often some accompanying stat boost or new conversational opportunities with a character. The shit compressor, for instance, is a play on “having your shit together” that after internalized raises the detective’s Endurance skill cap. It’s at odds with how obsessing over a thing works for actual humans.
“The original effects of the Thought Cabinet projects were to be more negative,” he says. “Oftentimes you would get straight up curses.” But Disco Elysium was already grim and conflict-filled enough. The Thought Cabinet became an opportunity for some positivity. Instead of acting as obsessions, then, those background processes churning in the detective’s mind are diversions instead.
“Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by negative emotions I like to go on Wikipedia,” Kurvitz reveals. “Read an article on Sir Francis Younghusband, Pleistocene megafauna, whatever.” These quests for knowledge, to turn over a concept until it’s known and completed, are a distraction from personal troubles rather than the torture of rehashing those same struggles.
“It’s not only torturous to think — to be the kind of animal us humans are,” Kurvitz explains. “It is also an absolute pleasure and a privilege.” If Disco Elysium succeeds at one thing (though in reality there are several) it’s setting reward and suffering as the two sides of the coin that is the human mind whirling through the air on its way to the ground.