I learn through Paradise, or Disco Inferno?

A Brief Etymology of Disco Elysium

Francis Butterworth-Parr is a third year English Literature PhD student at the University of Glasgow. He researches the deployment of video games as metaphor in contemporary literary culture. He co-organised the Ludic Literature and Digital Heroisms conferences, and edits for Press Start. He’d live in disco, if only there were room.Follow the author on Twitter

If we believe game development company ZA/UM that their critical darling 2019 RPG has “over a million words in the game!” (ZA/UM, 2020) and believe reviews gushing with superlatives—“one of the finest RPGs on PC” (Kelly, 2019); “wondrous and unique compared to its peers” (Dale, 2019); “a masterpiece” (Bell, 2019)—then we can speculate on Disco Elysium as a generational artistic achievement, what we might call in literature studies a “great work”. But as in life, so in literature: although the game is a massive textual corpus, it is not the size of the text but how the words are used that matters. In this spirit, and given this game’s daunting textual inundation, I focus on two words: “Disco” and “Elysium”, and explore the valences of that word pairing. I tussle primarily with disco music, highlighting how ZA/UM’s religious imagery, affective design decisions, and appetite for exploring underappreciated meanings in vacuous concepts stem from disco’s paraphernalia, emotional excesses, and vacuous position in 20th century musical history. Throughout this section, I argue ZA/UM prove their literary resourcefulness by reimagining disco music’s ambiguities in a prose-heavy video game—an unprecedented species of musical writing borrowed by gaming. I then reflect upon Disco Elysium’s indebtedness to two readerly spaces: the “bibliothèque”, via disco music, and Black Isle Studios’ Planescape: Torment (1999) to reckon with ZA/UM’s ambitions to bring words to their limits. Finally, this entanglement of reading, dancing bodies, and knowledge becomes a composite image pollinating the diachronic Grecian paradise “Elysium” after appraising disco’s latin root: “to learn”. Disco’s potential as both music and verb alongside Elysium demonstrates ZA/UM’s remarkable attention to words, heralding a new culturally significant text along the ludic and literary divide. 

‘Real Darkness has Love for a Face’: Disco in the Dark

I imagine when most read “Disco Elysium”, disco music first comes to mind, a “genre of strongly rhythmical pop music mainly intended for dancing in nightclubs and particularly popular in the late 1970s” (OED, 2021b, Section 1.b). However, it first names a place, as the clipping of the French etymon “discotheque”, meaning “a nightclub or similar venue at which recorded music is played” (OED, 2021b, Section 1.a). Disco Elysium interweaves both meanings at its most dreamy. Take down-on-his-luck cop protagonist Harry DuBois’ first nightmare, where he replaces the hanging corpse—whose identity and death DuBois’ case hinges upon—in a tree while above him spins a disco mirror ball (Figure 1). Both a halo and gaudy trinket, the mirror ball juxtaposes disco’s vivid, sincere Romanticism with morbid Christian imagery. Refracted light runs over the image as a leitmotif of the disco scene where space scuttles between concealment and highlight. Yet the scene is dark, no natural light can snag the ball, and a spotlight surrounds, or perhaps emanates, from DuBois. The light draws attention to the scene’s weariness (practically everything appears “deader than disco”) in mocking reverence. It is as if a photo-negative Christ figure, encompassing miracle and meekness alike, swings beneath that branch. 

Figure 1

The allusion to Christianity places Disco Elysium between grooving and God in other ways. Tim Lawrence (2003), writing on a New York Catholic church’s conversion to a discotheque, enounces how “religious ceremonies that combined sacred worship with ecstatic communal transcendence were remarkably close to the future shape of dance culture” (p.18). I would add that both the church and the discotheque share an attraction for transcendence. Disco is alight with emotional excess—Richard Dyer (1979) spoke of Disco’s “massed violins” (p. 22), tracing them back to Tchaikovsky, but the vocals themselves swell with gospel’s call and response (think “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, or Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”). Disco Elysium exploits this relationship between disco and Christian aesthetics, creating new salvific qualities for disco music. One quest involves transforming a church into a disco “nightclub”; players learn the church houses a tiny hole in reality created by the mysterious “Pale”, the supernatural fog closing in on Elysium. Plugging said hole is largely incidental to the quest for a night of disco fun. After the fact, the player learns the hole came to be through the church’s congregation and gorges upon sound and information, reordering the salvific privileges of disco and the church housing it; the mantle of Lawrence’s “ecstatic communal transcendence”, passes from church to music. Healing the world’s wounds falls to disco’s de minimis attitude, legitimising its excesses as literally world-saving. But in DuBois’ “rigidly imbecilic” (ZA/UM, 2019) dancing through the church/club hybrid, the superficial, consumer-friendly Tony Manero-style disco persists. Disco’s silliness retains its poison in becoming a cure; it produces and tidies messes in equal measure. Disco, like Disco Elysium, knows how to be both. 

Behind a shattered mural lies the Pale hole.

DuBois’ ‘rigidly imbecilic’ dancing channels Tony Manero.

The most important heritage Disco Elysium receives from disco is its deference to powerful emotion. Even Diana Ross (1979), whose command of her own sass was enough to “turn emotion, on and off”, collapses, eventually, into a different romantic victory: it was “love”, not a man, nor material things, that taught Ross “who was the boss” (fab70smusic, 2012). Ross’ singing typifies Dyer’s (1979) argued function for disco, to give “a glimpse of what it means to live at the height of our emotional and experiential capacities” (p.23). Despite finding much to learn at love’s zenith, Ross (1970) also knew emotion (particularly love, on which she sang plenty) has valleys low alongside mountains high. ZA/UM inherited Ross’ interest in emotional limits; it is a valley of emotion that DuBois must ford at the game’s end. After learning DuBois’ inability to address his breakup with former partner Dora Ingerlund caused his descent into alcoholism, the player/DuBois confronts her in a dialogue battle. His skills (so intrusive and talkative they are tantamount to party members) are rendered impotent by DuBois’ guilt—this is a battle the player cannot win, Dora always leaves. Even here DuBois cannot fully confront Dora, conflating her with the mysterious Dolores Dei, the terrifyingly beautiful deity of the Innocence, Elysium’s religious organisation. Regardless of their intentions, the player becomes a bystander to impuissant affect. ZA/UM’s wrestling of control like this marks Disco Elysium out as an outlier. DuBois’ potent emotions transcend player control, the key genre convention of the RPG—play DuBois however you feel, but love is the boss and, as Dora says, “real darkness has love for a face” (ZA/UM, 2019). 

Disco does not just represent the conceptual differently but envisions different worlds as well. Perhaps ZA/UM’s plan with the word was to cash the contingent value of 20th-century sensibilities. Disco’s Bahktinian carnival spirit, embodied by the intersection of gay/straight (Attig 2008), feminine/masculine (Inness, 2003), white/black (Jones & Kantonen, 1999) interests, is a great place to imagine different worlds and revive Disco’s “escape from the usual official way of life” (Bahktin, 1984, p.8) for a moment. As Alice Echols (2010) suggests, “nothing seems to conjure up the 1970s quite so effectively as disco” (p.1), the decade when African Americans first enjoyed the civic progress made through the civil rights movement, the decade speckled with landmark court victories for women’s right (Eisenstradt v. Braid, 1972; Roe v. Wade, 1973), and the decade after the Stonewall riots inaugurated modern LGBT rights advocacy. This framing, however, loses disco’s practical friction in its utopian optimism. Having noted what came before, it is important to think about disco’s afterlife, both in music and the world. Disco comes before neoliberalism’s triumph in the 1980s, where the USSR’s last spasms coincide with New Right governance in the west, a period of conservative politics that snatched rightward the political centre of 21st-century politics. Although disco flirts with frivolous and deadly serious positions simultaneously, here is the sense of its utopian dream as music/event/community also being between two contrasts. Birthed from the 60s’ challenges to the status quo, but not revolutionary enough to resist the 80s’ voluble support for politics anathematic to disco’s most respectable ideals, disco appears like the 70s: an insubstantial intermission between two serious decades. 

What makes this aspect of disco relevant to Disco Elysium is that the game thematises this vacuity. Many quests and characters play on discovering meaning in vacuous circumstances. The aforementioned church disco staving off an apocalypse is one example, but also twelve-year-old Cuno, whose foul-mouthed comic relief belies his importance to the plot, potentially becoming the player’s partner if usual partner Kim Kitsuragi is wounded. Fittingly, Dubois’ own vacuity most disrupts vacuity’s meaninglessness. Take DuBois’ alcohol-induced total retrograde amnesia, which permits the player to inhabit a carnival vacuum without dissonance. Without memories, traits, or allegiances to cloud perspectives, the player engages the serious business of fascism, communism, neoliberalism and more through a booze-disinfected tabula rasa, disrupting the “official order of things” both mechanically and thematically. For example, although internalising racial supremacist Measurehead’s “Advanced Race Theory” to open a door is a poor thought—causing -1 to Drama because DuBois is “fooled by the absurdity” (ZA/UM, 2019) of it—removing it after internalisation is how the game tutorialises its thought mechanic (buffs requiring research). Thinking about racist ideology, then discarding it after finding it ridiculous as a tabula rasa man, shapes the game’s most basic model for thinking. It is in disco’s spirit that in its carnival extreme—where all is permissible, imaginable and free—learning to think means rejecting oppressive absurdities challenged in the 60s, but that persist to date. The tutorial’s synecdoche, where DuBois’ empty brain replaces historical embeddedness, overturns vacuity’s fundamental lack by framing this refusal of racism within human instinct. Thinking in Disco Elysium is more a metaphor of the heart than the brain. 

A look at Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet and “Advanced Race Theory”: the solutions explains it is “a little ridiculous”.

Doing Disco

An important reference point for thinking Disco Elysium is its emergence out of two readerly spaces. Discothèque derives from the French “bibliothéque”, meaning “a library; a collection of books or treatises” (OED, 2021a), making disco’s etymological lineage places of reading, comprehension and, amusingly, silence. Just as disco invites patrons to read each other, encouraging “the textualization of the dancing body” (Brabazon, 1997, p.104), it also elicits a more conventional textuality—one at odds with the fractured lights, constant motion, and lack of peace and quiet. Indeed, “discō” is the Latin first-person singular verb meaning “I learn” (Olivetti, n.d.). David O’Keefe addresses this, explaining the “game’s title is a double entendre meaning ‘I learn Elysium,’ with Elysium being the name of the game’s setting” (O’Keefe, 2020), linking this usage to the game-world. This makes “Disco Elysium” a coherent sentence, a point worth making when considering Planescape: Torment’s influence on the game. ZA/UM lead designer Robert Kurvitz’s admiration resonates in his interview for Escapist Magazine, saying that “[Planescape lead designer] Chris Avellone’s contributions to video games got me past 29” (Nelson, 2019), and Disco Elysium continues Planescape’s ambitions for provocative literary games. For Diane Carr, Planescape succeeded literarily by “resist[ing] resolution or even comprehension”, because “a rambling text like Planescape: Torment bounces when you try to nail it down, it resists totalization” (Carr, 2003), and to ZA/UM’s credit they resist and ramble. In fact, they go further. As a sentence, “Disco Elysium” is the first person promise of the player to learn Elysium but, by resisting totalisation, Disco Elysium promises literature’s indefatigable meaning, as Planescape did. From Avellone’s fragment to ZA/UM’s sentence, to say Disco Elysium is to speak a sentence and a life-sentence, a disco inferno for those that literature’s limitlessness irritates. 

The final valence explored here is relational; if disco is a verb, then it acts on Elysium. Described by Homer in The Odyssey as a place “where living is made easy for mankind” (2003, 4.564–566), Elysium’s sense of paradisiacal contentment is evident. However, as Elysium passed from classical to post-classical literature, it increasingly resembled a parlour of the dead. The Elysium of Dante’s Divine Comedy is in Hell’s first circle. Virtuous pagans like Virgil reside in a place more like purgatory than paradise, made “not sad with torments/but only darkness where lamentations sound” (Dante, 1472/1997, VII.28–29)—a planescape altogether more tormented than its source material. In keeping with basic RPG tenets, the shape of DuBois Elysium depends on player choices. These choices decide whether Elysium unfolds as a Grecian redemption or Christian condemnation. Therefore, the verb ‘disco’ generates a powerful resolving quality in the word Elysium; learning about Elysium involves doing the good, the bad, the ugly things available to RPG players and thus determines Elysium’s contents. Disco is to Elysium what Roger Caillois’ ([1961] 2001) shaman, “the man possessed, transformed by vertigo and ecstasy,” is to the society that produces him, giving to it “the correct allocation of honors and privileges” (p.101) from its vantage point within a carnival reimagining of disco itself. It is from within disco as carnival, which here confusingly is Elysium, that I learn about and change what Elysium, the afterlife, will be. 

It seems fitting after examining how Disco Elysium’s title trades on two different, dead pasts to advertise its present, that the last words ponder its future. Disco Elysium appreciates the power of a name which bodes well for its reception across the literary and ludic border. Those interested in what gaming can do when words are as important as stats, mechanisms and play, have in Disco Elysium a touchstone for this design philosophy done right. For bleeding-edge gameplay, look elsewhere; for innovative graphics, continue searching; for actual disco music, bad luck, but few texts offer opportunities for literary investigation like Disco Elysium. The title Disco Elysium points in strange directions, but in the many ways they can be read, these words signpost the attention paid to language in the game. These words are not exhausted here, the point is quite the opposite; that even in the confines of its title, Disco Elysium announces laudable ambitions for both ludic and literary greatness. 


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