Rediscovering Politics in RPGs

The Case of Disco Elysium

Kacper Szozda is a Master’s graduate in electrical engineering from the University of Western Australia, who now works at Horizon Power, one of WA’s state-owned electricity companies. In his spare time, he lurks on Civilization forums. He lives in Perth.Follow the author on TwitterMore about the author

Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019) is a role-playing game recently released by the Estonian company ZA/UM. The self-described detective RPG, itself a derivation of a tabletop RPG campaign, was the product of a long development cycle, and at release, was met by substantial commercial success. Its press reception was highly positive: there was praise for its innovating new mechanics and what they could bring to RPGs (Williams, 2019); others commended its ability to have mature conversations on contemporary matters on account of its writing (Klepek, 2020); while still others considered its choices to be uniquely granular and weighty, allowing for highly personalised experiences (Adams, 2019; Dale, 2019). Disco Elysium has made an impact, and its settings and storytelling are not incidental to this effect. The game’s riskiest departure from RPG conventions, its highly limited combat, became its greatest strength. By circumscribing player agency, Disco Elysium replaced the cycle of reproduction of violence that is typical for conventional RPGs with a reproduction of politics. I argue that this enabled it to engage in a level of truth-telling on contemporary politics and history unseen in the genre: a polemical RPG. In turn, those revisions achieve what I contend to be Disco Elysium’s most significant result: serious political engagement from players on the game’s own terms. I will argue that this result suggests a productive rhetorical shift from persuasion to recognition that allows the game to radically commit to a protagonist embedded within the power structures and politics of the shattered world it presented—a game uncompromising and polemical.

Power Fantasies as the Price of Admission

Players in Disco Elysium are presented with a different set of choices than those that prevail in conventional RPGs, but this on its face isn’t important if we don’t articulate how and why choice matters in the RPG genre. Player agency in RPGs always begins and ends with some expectation of choice. It is in RPGs where expectations of player agency are highest and where the idea of what constitutes freedom is most produced. Choice thus marks a common point of departure for RPGs and how they are received. However, it is important not to accept the notion of agency uncritically and question its significance based on its own conceptual ambiguity (Stang, 2019).

Following Stang, we understand freedom for a player exists only insofar as it is perceived to exist. To this end, an RPG’s narrative will attempt to situate player character freedom within the gameworld—which is to say, it will articulate the player character’s ability to intervene or make decisions by using the rules of the setting. In this way, player character’s ability to make narrative decisions can be understood in terms of the license they assume in the story, a discretion the player possesses. The granting of quests is the exchange that underpins this relationship, functioning as an acknowledgement of this license and impetus for the player to keep moving and do what it takes to succeed. This dovetails into what Steffan Björk has called narrative framing: “[Players] adopt a player frame and perceive themselves as having a moral carte blanche regarding actions as long as they adhere to the frame conventions” (Björk, 2015, p. 173). In this way, quests become a device to frame player agency narratively. It can be a quest to root out vermin in a peasant’s cellar, whereby the player acts as a convenient freelancer, or something with higher stakes, such as scalping bandits that the local government is too stretched to quash (Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian Entertainment, 2010). The adaptability and ambiguity of quests leads us to the other feature omnipresent in conventional RPGs, yet still conceptually underdeveloped: power fantasies as the architecture that organises play experiences.

The essentials of the power fantasy are mundane—it is animated by a combat loop roughly as follows: find and kill enemies, loot the spoils and earn experience points (XP), upgrade your gear and level up, pursue tougher enemies, rinse and repeat. These hostiles necessarily exist as an endless resource that cannot be exhausted or resolved narratively. The starting point for RPG design is often orchestrating this kind of loop, with quests an indispensable tool to set up these encounters and opportunities for levelling (Smith et al, 2011). RPG games’ narratives may have to jump through more hoops to justify indiscriminate killing than FPS games, where moral decision-making doesn’t figure in the appeal at all. Still, the loop and its tendency continue to bend towards what can be called a reproduction of violence. Violence remains natural, its alternative associated with surrendering agency rather than embodying it.

The inheritance of these play design norms is also why RPGs are so often lacklustre when articulating politics. Presenting politics entails presenting political choices and thus ideas of collective need and participation. But to preserve the integrity of the power fantasy, the stakes of these choices are reduced to the simple and appreciable danger of life and death, inviting the player’s immediate and convenient solution. Politics are ultimately immaterial. A recent example of this is in the plot of The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment, 2019), where the corporate occupation of a stellar colony has reached a tipping point, and the player is the so-called “unplanned variable” that will decide whether it tilts into complete servitude or throws off the capitalist yoke. From an RPG design standpoint, it is entirely natural that the colony’s fate should revolve around the player, but representing the colony’s politics requires tiptoeing around the fact that the player can make or break the world with a snap of their fingers, a world which has been carefully prepared as their stomping ground. In RPGs, this illusion can be made better or worse with certain elements, such as selecting hostile NPCs and the design of quests, but the artifice remains. Conventional RPGs have been designed and played this way for more than a decade: the power fantasy is merely the price of admission, irrespective of whether it is literally enjoyed as such.

This is a tall order. How is Disco Elysium any different?

At the Coalface

Disco Elysium averts reproducing the loop of violence so common to other RPGs by having almost no combat whatsoever. Even when armed, the player can’t usually initiate lethal encounters—there are no hostiles to be killed for XP. In fact, it is much easier for the player to die from their own mistakes than for them to deliberately kill an NPC. Disco Elysium has an alternate loop in mind, one that originates from its grounded approach to narrative and questing.

In-game map of Martinaise.

In RPGs, the player character is often a stranger in a strange land, whether as a nascent explorer (Fallout, Interplay Productions, 1997), fleeing orphan (Baldur’s Gate, BioWare, 1998), or marooned colonist (The Outer Worlds). In this sense, Disco Elysium is no different: the player is a cop sent to investigate the murder of a mercenary during a dockworkers’ strike. Where it differs is that the distances and stakes involved are much smaller. The cop in question is a sorry alcoholic with crippling amnesia, who finds himself in the most neglected quarter of an occupied city (Martinaise Quarter, located in the Jamrock District of Revachol West Special Administrative Region) with no memory of himself, not even his name. The quests are proportionate as a result: find your clothes, talk to potential witnesses, maybe spin yourself a new name while you’re at it, and recover your police ID before gradually solving the murder case. Quests are oriented around simply finding things and interviewing people rather than any eleventh-hour heroic rescue. A loading screen tip is prescient in this regard: “Don’t be afraid to say *weird* things. People are more forgiving to persons of power—like police officers” (ZA/UM). True to form, it is entirely feasible to be absurd and contradictory in your conversations with potential witnesses and suspects, who all will excuse or elide your behaviour in various ways. The effects of dialogue are unpredictable and difficult to optimise, which lends itself to experimental play. And while acting the part of a cop will get you far, without your police ID—lost before the game’s events—certain characters will ask you to perform favours accordingly before assisting with the investigation. All of these elements serve to foreground the player’s license (in this case, as a compromised police officer, bestowed with significant coercive power nonetheless) in the world and later render the political tinderbox into which they have got themselves.

With this context in place, Disco Elysium replaces what would normally be a combat loop with a loop based on the circulation of discourse. XP is earned from quests, skill checks, and dialogue and can only be spent on developing skills or internalising Thoughts. Thoughts are various conceptualised ideas prompted by environmental and conversational cues which offer bonuses and can accentuate the opinions echoed by the player’s skills. In this regard, Revachol offers plenty of fodder, given the communist revolution quashed by foreign armies that marks its past, and is now an international zone with no sovereignty—the player will find no shortage of people volunteering their theories, experiences, and ideology. There are four primary ideologies in the game, broadly resembling contemporary ideologies of the 20th century before the End of History, each associated with a historical period of the city and embodied by multiple NPCs. This kind of polarisation extends back to the player themself. Even within the privacy of their mind, politics and history can’t be escaped. One of Disco Elysium’s main draws is that the player will engage in discussion with their own mind and its 24 different skills, each with its own personality. As the game progresses and the player develops these skills, their characterisation will tend towards caricature. The Authority skill, for example, will suggest assertive action—fitting for a police officer—and that might makes right in an eventual march to fascism. On the other hand, Rhetroic encourages inciting and winning arguments, and is the biggest beneficiary of taking favours from the union and promoting their brand of social democracy—even if that entails taking jobs for them on the side. Esprit de Corps serves as the player’s connection to the police force, providing flashes of live events from their precinct, inexplicably (it is one of the two supernatural skills), and is a reminder of who is giving them orders. Even in your head, the Discourse is never far away.

Rather than repeating and reproducing violence upon respawning enemies, the player, through conversations and interactions with NPCs, the city, and their inner thoughts, engages and reproduces politics. Developing skills and Thoughts allow them to uncover the forces that continue to animate Revachol. The solution to the murder case that incites the narrative and the ensuing interrogation can’t be understood without recourse to the ideologies and political history present throughout the game and can either redeem the player’s police badge or condemn it. It is by committing to this loop and placing the player’s license front and centre, that Disco Elysium is able to engage in truth-telling on political ideology and history without undercutting itself. It is polemical.

Political Detectives

While Disco Elysium’s mechanical features—especially its skill and Thought systems—deserve attention, it is important to note that they do not in-and-of-themselves guarantee that the game is received as a political polemic. Rather, by themselves these systems’ most visible contribution has been to make the game topically important as a reinvention of the RPG genre, which has necessarily drawn attention to other novel aspects of the game, aspects less inherently commodifiable, such as its take on ideology and the use of the End of History as a backdrop. Put simply, popular consideration of Disco Elysium’s mechanical novelty (always the main subject of any RPG’s reception) has led widespread consideration of its narrative originality. These mechanical features have not made Disco Elysium unprecedentedly political or polemical by themselves (it would be short-sighted to assume that all that has held back the political maturity of commercial RPGs as such were a few decent mechanics—Fallout: New Vegas exists, after all). Still, their popularity has brought those polemics to the mainstream and rendered them visible in the ensuing discussion. Importantly, following this reception, gameplay hasn’t been isolated from the discussion; the game’s politics are inescapable, no matter where you look. There isn’t anything that obviously neutralises serious political consideration of the entire game—no heroes, no world-shattering stakes, no monsters—because one of the most important feature of Disco Elysium has been the absence of mechanics that would constitute an action economy dependant on the reproduction of violence, and invite the above contrivances. Even when under scrutiny, the narrative can breathe.

How has the audience received these polemics? There are multiple well-commented threads on Reddit asking and answering the question of what political point the game is trying to make, and to what camp it belongs. One popular thread in particular states confusion at the fact that no political ideology in-game has flattering characters to represent it, and asks how the game can be seen as left-wing as a result. Here, political text and the persuasion therein are reduced to the same composition as political propaganda. This elides the fact that the choice of what specific ideologies to represent as historical forces, such as communism and fascism, is itself evidence of a particular political outlook and not something to take at face value necessarily. Nevertheless, could we talk of some developing recognition of the polemics present in the game? Ian Bogost’s theoretical intervention of procedural rhetoric was designed to promote the creation of games that articulate and advance points of view, to inform and persuade players (Bogost, 2007). While his methodology did not live up to his lofty ambitions, the latter aim of informing an audience with games is still alive in the genre of educational games. In this context, could just being recognised for having a specific point of view be accomplishment enough? While the kind of audience most likely to appreciate Disco Elysium’s political turns are the kind of people already persuaded of its politics in the first place, that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have something else to offer in that space to the rest of the audience. Despite its wrestling with politics, the game’s reception is not as hostile as that which has visited other RPGs that have interrogated history, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018). Perhaps this has more to do with the obscurity of Disco Elysium’s setting, as the cowboy western genre of Redemption 2 has more cultural weight and expectations associated with it than detective noir (Locke & Mackay, 2020). The fact that Disco Elysium was the debut of ZA/UM, an unknown Estonian developer, rather than a title of Rockstar Games, the UK company that owns the Grand Theft Auto franchise (Rockstar Games, 1997-2013) with all the baggage that entails, possibly also helped in this regard. So, for once, we can take a game’s politicality for granted rather than for controversy. This popular recognition is enthusiastic, uncertain, and hostile at the same time.

Forget trying to persuade players of a political ideology with procedural rhetoric or what have you—I think just being able to invite the same question unto itself successfully is a mark of progress for this grade of RPG. In Disco Elysium’s case, this has been the result of a constellation of factors: its novel mechanical design, unambiguous narratives, revision of certain RPG conventions, and, finally, commercial success, all interacting in particular ways to produce a reception that could discuss and recognise its politics at arm’s length as political ideas. Recognition, not persuasion, is the word of the day, fragile and unproven as it is. Disco Elysium is a game worth remembering and recognising on that level, even if, as the NPC Joyce Messier says, its critique eventually becomes subsumed into capitalism itself, if it hasn’t already.

Pandemic dialogue with Joyce.

Because it’s always material.


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