Disco Elysium, Mystery Fiction, and the Point of it All

I’m of the belief that mysteries shouldn’t have too many rules. As cliché as it is for the butler to have done it, I don’t want to experience mysteries where I can immediately rule out to butler because it’d be too obvious.

Hell, more butlers should do it just to shake things up. Maybe Jeeves is tired of being surrounded by incompetent bastards and bashes a couple of heads in with a chair leg.

Anyway, I prefer my mysteries to be a bit wild. Unpredictable. Sensible, when it gets to the end and all is revealed, but crazy enough that I couldn’t just rule out solutions just because they’re tropes.

And then there’s Disco Elysium.

graffiti

Fair warning, I’ll be spoiling the game. If you haven’t played the game, just do it. Please. I’m literally begging you.

With that out of the way, let’s jump in.

Out of all the things to talk about in Disco Elysium, the mystery far from the most interesting. There’s the politics of Revachol, the worldbuilding, the main character himself, and how it’s all tied together with an insanely tight thematic focus.

But let’s put that aside for a bit and focus on the mystery. A corpse is hanging from a tree, and you are to find out the who’s and why’s.

As you’d expect, what seems like a simple mystery gives away to something much deeper, with grave implications. It’s never just a murder, is it?


RULES OF MYSTERY FICTION


dick mullen

In ye olden days of 1929, a brave soul named Ronald Knox tried to codify some rules for detective fiction. As you’d expect, these laws get broken time and again by every relevant mystery writer out there.

But it’s still relevant because of just how far Disco Elysium goes to break these rules. It’s hard to think that it’s not intentional.

So without further ado, let’s get started with Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments:

#1 The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

And we’re already off to a great start here. In Disco Elysium, the murderer is introduced right at the end, after the climactic tribunal has already taken place.

Despite all the enemies that Krenel, Lely, and Klaasje made, the culprit turns out to be someone they’ve never even directly interacted with.

#2 All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

There’s lots of weird shit in the game but it’s possible to justify it in different ways. Checks from Inland Empire? Harry’s intuition and imagination.

Spooky happenings? Must be related to the Pale.

La Revacholiere? Espirit de Corps? Well, Harry is more than a just a bit crazy. What’s another hallucination after we’ve already talked to the dead man.

But then, at the end…

There’s a staggering sense of relief when we hear it. Harry hasn’t cracked. We’re not heading towards a “it was all imaginary” styled cheap twist.

But there’s no doubts here, Kim sees the Phasmid as well.

#3 Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

What’s an RPG without a secret rooms? Or two? Or three? Hell, add a few more.

From communist bunkers, to strange shipping containers, to pinball arcade passageways, you can find hidden rooms all over the place in this game, including the crime scene.

#4 No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Oh boy, and we didn’t even get to the Phasmid’s secretions yet.

Turns out our killer suffering from neurological damage due to the strange pheromones generated by the Phasmid. The strange new poison was used, turned out to be relevant to the story, and was followed by a section of scientific hypothesis.

And the weirdest part is, it wasn’t even necessary. The Deserter could have lost his mind from the isolation, even without the influence of the phasmid.

#5 No Chinaman must figure in the story.

nopee

#6 No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

Lieutenant double-yefreitor Harrier Du Bois steps into the crime scene, chats with the corpse, and declares that communism killed him and love did him in.

And he’s 100% right.

Now we have one of my favourite skills, Inland Empire. Harry’s “imagination” that provides him with interesting tidbits that he couldn’t have possibly known.

#7 The detective himself must not commit the crime.

Despite Harry’s insistence about the dark and sexy twist in the case, he’s pretty clearly innocent of the crime here. So kudos there.

#8 The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

This one seems pretty straightforward. As the POV character, we get a nice look into every single thought that crosses Harry’s mind and that includes the declaration of clues.

On the other hand, our hero doesn’t stop there. Good ol’ Harrier will declare everything as a clue, from decades old bullet holes to kebabs in the dustbin, to unrelated corpses.

While the evidence isn’t exactly hidden from the reader, it’s important to note that the detective is pretty far from dependable when it comes to clues.

#9 The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

The closest thing to a Watson in Disco Elysium is our partner Kim Kitsuragi and he’s definitely not the chatty sort. At the same time, he’s also a sharp guy so he’s obviously not been designed to be dumber than the average reader.

But let’s flip the script for a second. Since Watson was the POV character in the Sherlock Holmes novels, maybe Harry is the sidekick in the story.

In that case, we do get a look into every demented thought that passes through his head.

Unlike Watson, however, Harry isn’t meant to be the “normal” and “relatable” character.

And his intelligence can flip flop between being able to accurately deduce the trajectory of a bullet without much physical evidence, to being unable to figure out what “money” is.

#10 Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Here’s a fun one. We’re introduced to the fact that Evrart Claire, the union boss and a figure of interest, has a twin brother, Edgar, who looks just like him except for a slight difference.

And then we never meet the fucker.

Cue the Seinfeld slap bass


WHAT KIND OF DETECTIVE ARE YOU?


Volition: You can do it. It’s nothing. Do it for the city. Go.

Shivers: Do it for the wind.

Logic: Do it for the picture puzzle. Solve the world. One conversation at a time.

So with all that disregarded, it begs the question: what is the point of Disco Elysium if not the mystery?

If we loosely define mystery as the process of figuring out what happened, then it’s not something that.

Even the mystery of what happened to Harry is fairly straightforward. He met a girl, she broke his heart, and it destroyed him. While we get to learn more details about it, the basics are the same. We’ve seen this story hundreds of times.

But it’s not about that; or rather, not just about that.

There’s one more step left after the mystery is solved, maybe even when the mystery is unsolved. What is to be done now?

Where does Harry go from here? How does he rebuild after this? Hell, will he even be Harry anymore?

the wreck

You can end up with Lieutenant Double Yeferitor Harrier Du Bois, a cop so straight edge that drugs straight up just don’t work on him. A true blue Moralist to his core, always looking for the “none of the above” option. Willpower of steel. With unshaking hands, he pops a capsule of magnesium in his mouth every now and again, to undo all the years of damage.

Or maybe you are Tequila Sunset, who continued bludgeoning himself with alcohol and drugs even after waking up. Fine-tuned to the city, with an imagination so vivid that he’s arguing with inanimate objects. And when he’s not licking Rum stains off the table, he’s hustling. After all, gotta look out for numero uno.

And we’re not Bioshock here so you’re not picking between a complete bastard man and a babby angel. Maybe you finished the game as Detective Cousteau, not touching the alcohol because it has made him “uncool” now. Instead, he smokes like a chimney, all day and half the night. It helps him think, and much sharper than his nicotine clad mind is his composure.

Unfazed by almost everything. It feels like he could pick up and gun and shoot an annoying child, just for the hell of it. He never did connect well him Kim or the other cops though. After all, he’s a boiadeiro.

Also, he’s trying to build communism. Why not?

And that’s just the start. Once you put together the shattered remains of Harry’s psyche, there’s lots of different ways it might end up depending on your actions.

Which brings us to…


THE P WORD


That’s right, motherfucker. You thought you could read an article about Disco Elysium and not have to deal with politics?

For shame, you fucking Moralist.

But seriously, politics is an important part of it. After all, you can’t really separate the Deserter’s character from his politics.

However, there’s another ‘P word’ at play here. One that’s very closely tied to politics: the past.

And here’s where the final dream comes in; the death blow.

The placement of the dream is actually a bit awkward. We’re in unknown territory, and who knows what’s waiting out there, but Kim urges us to take a nap in the bed.

It was a very deliberate decision to place the dream in the Islet, and not in either of our usual bedrooms.

In my opinion, it’s to show a contrast. First, we see Harry’s past and how badly it hurt him. And then we see what holding on to the past does to a person.

It’d be a massive understatement to say that Harry had been hurt by Dora. And it’s not just hurt there. There’s anger, pain, resentment, love, and a boatload of emotions.

From his failed dialogue options like the ‘cock carousel’ or communist Harry wondering if the women are the bourgeoisie, it’s clear that the event has left a mark on him.

While brings us to the deserter. A person consumed by the past, until there’s nothing left except hatred. He’s a communist but he’s filled with hateful rants about mental illness music this, whores that, degenerates this, and so forth.

The deserter had been hurt in the past, and he’s let it consume him completely. Hell, even his title “the deserter” is a reference to something that happened almost 50 years ago. He’s literally defined by his biggest failure.

the deserter

And that’s where Harry was headed.

It’s surprisingly easy to imagine Harry in that position, completely alone and hateful of everyone, and a hollow shell of a human being.

The communist and fascist vision quests also expand on this.

Harry just couldn’t get over her.  She was far too beautiful and radiant and she’d told him that he had a vast soul. Even wiping his mind clean doesn’t erase the pain of it.

At the end, he dreams of her and revisits the pain, and then he sees what he could become in the form of the deserter.


AND THE POINT OF IT ALL


No. This is somewhere to be. This is all you have, but it’s still something. Streets and sodium lights. The sky, the world. You’re still alive.

Volition

In a typical mystery as Knox codified, the focus is usually on putting together what happened. But that’s not what Disco Elysium is about.

Now, it’s about what we do next. What’s happened has happened, and like Measurehead wisely said, there is nothing in the past.

Or rather…

THERE IS NOTHING IN THE PAST.

It’s all about the present and the future. Not about how Dora hurt Harry, but about what he does once the clarion call wakes him up.

Disco Elysium gives us a ton of choices when building our Harry from the ground up and while it is fun to create a superstar communist cop who thinks he’s Kras Mazov, it’s also thematically important.

By giving us so many choices, it shows us the potential that the present holds. There’s so much that Harry can still do with himself and so many directions he could take himself.

His past is of a heartbroken detective but his future is still open.

There’s still so many people he to talk to, quests to solve, and decisions to make; perhaps wrong decisions but failure is a part of the present, and has a lot of fun content behind it.

Meanwhile, the past is just a road in front of the video rental and an unbeatable dialogue “war” with Dora. It’s tragic, emotionally devastating, and the only way to win is to remain blissfully unaware about it to avoid it in the first place.

There’s nothing there except pain. But in the present, you can play a board game with Kim, draw a graffiti, punch a mouthy child, and a lot more.

something beautiful is going to happen

And to cap it all off, there’s the Phasmid.


THE INSULINDIAN PHASMID


After you meet the deserter, the game follows it up with one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen in a video game. We meet and optionally talk to a strange new creature.

And the funniest part about this is that the Phasmid wasn’t built up by the main murder mystery. You get to learn about it only if you interact with a couple of seemingly crackpot Cyptozoologists.

If you don’t talk to Lena about the Phasmid, don’t help out Morell with the traps, and never find about their relationship, the significance of the whole thing might be lost on you.

When a friend of mine played Disco Elyisum for the first time, he wanted to get to the bottom of the case. He had no time for Lena and Morell’s endeavors, or for the kids and their stupid nightclub.

In the end, he met the Phasmid, it got spooked and left.

He was so focused on uncovering the past and solving the mystery that he missed such an amazing moment.

He didn’t play the game wrong there. It wasn’t a fail state. He just played the game and then realized how much fun stuff he was missing because he was laser-focused on the mystery.

The Insulindian Phasmid is a sign that there’s still hope out there. There’s still something new to be discovered, and we see it right after seeing a man completely consumed by the past.

Harry sees the pain of his past in the dream, and then sees the deserter as a worst-case-scenario, and that’s followed by the Phasmid, something so new and beautiful.

In the end, the Phasmid even tells him to leave the past behind and go forward. Whether it is for freedom, or for Revachol, or for the working class, he has to turn away from the ruin or he’ll become a hollow shell of misanthropy and hate.

the phasmid

Despite all the darkness in Disco Elysium, we’re provided with just a bit of hope at the end.


IN CONCLUSION


Disco Elysium is a world that’s literally being consumed by the past. In between all this, there’s a plea for everyone to not dwell on what has happened and to go forward.

Despite the threat of the Pale, we still have the present and we still have the space to create something.

We see it with how Volta do mar was used to sail across the Pale, the Proto Rave Music of the future that’ll never come, and even the paintings behind Ruby’s pale compressor.

disco elysium

When the past is literally choking the world to death, there’s still beauty and creativity, and potential for something new.

Mysteries are fun, but Harry’s solved thousands of them at this point. Disco Elysium isn’t about any of the cases we can read about in the ledger, it’s about the process of putting together something broken and moving forward.

Volition: In honour of your will, lieutenant-yefreitor. That you kept from falling apart, in the face of sheer terror. Day after day. Second by second.

Inland Empire: DETECTIVE

Esprit-De-Corps: ARRIVING

Authority: ON THE SCENE

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