On Disco Elysium and the end of art
I was going to title this post something along the lines of “when video games became great art”, but that would imply a more or less permanent condition, or at least an enduring level of excellence. I rather think this is a one-off thing. Once in a blue moon. Culturally speaking, I think our period is a veritable desert, which makes this gem all the more surprising.
Disco Elysium from late 2019 is one of the masterpieces of our time, notwithstanding medium, artform or genre. On its own, as a novel, the story would have been an instant classic. While perhaps not rivalling something like On the Road or Im Westen nichts Neues in their respective eras, it does bring out the spirit, conflicts and aspirations of our period in a way that no other contemporary written work really approaches.
Compiled as a video game, we encounter a complex artwork whose narrative synergizes excellently with the elaborately designed visual aspects, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack that effectively mirrors and accentuates the depths and richness of this particular story. No, it can’t be reduced to an adjunct, the music really carries aspects of the story’s meaning in the sense unique to the artform, particularly when it’s later interwoven with the character arcs and the brilliant voice acting.
And on top of this is added the almost perfect implementation of interactive fiction, bringing together all of the other components to be conducted by the player-reader’s active intention, such that your personal connection and responses to the work become part of the story’s trajectory. This is unique.
In a sense, of course, interactive fiction is an aspect of most video games as such, and was wholly central to the medium in the early 1980s. Story-driven text adventures brought this form to a rather high level, with gems such as the Lovecraftian The Lurking Horror from 1987 still standing out in this regard. Still, the writing was rarely more than amateurish, albeit with a few glimpses of brilliance, and due to the level of effort involved and the limited return on investment drawn from selling great fiction on the attention-deficient video game market, story-focused games petered out in the 1990s. Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream from 1995, the original two Fallout games (1997 & 1998), and Planescape: Torment from 1999 were probably the form’s high water mark.
In spite of this, we are now suddenly presented with a singular reincarnation of the genre, that is not only based on what would have been a great novel on its own rather than just pretty good pulp, but which also manages to bring the medium’s many aspects together in precisely the player’s intentional interaction with the story in an unprecedented manner. From this perspective, almost every facet of the game is afforded a profundity and complexity through being interwoven with the story and the player’s active reading thereof. It’s as if almost every prop is somehow given the venerable atmosphere of a beloved heirloom connected to a multitude of half-remembered stories, experiences and memories, not least via the subtle worldbuilding and background narratives.
The game as such is a more or less traditional point-and-click adventure game, popular in the early to mid-90s, albeit one that involves a lot of RPG elements and a novel’s worth of branching and interactive dialogue, mainly written by Estonian author Robert Kurvitz.
The narrative opens as an introspective and existentially framed detective story in a fictitious universe, which nonetheless explicitly mirrors our contemporary period, with an emphasis on the political history of the 20th century. The social world of the narrative is an experimental and speculative interaction of liberalism, fascism, socialism and capitalism, which indirectly brings into focus the political situation we now seem to find ourselves in.
The main character, whose development we to a degree are invited to portray, is one of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful losers. A kind of hybrid between Sherlock Holmes and an alcoholic Socrates engulfed in a dissociative fugue state, this admittedly stereotypical narrative device effectively and plausibly allows the reader-player to approach the story with a beginner’s mind, which especially renders immersive the worldbuilding and progressive character development. Everything takes shape before fresh eyes.
And here’s where the interactive aspects of the medium are so masterfully employed. The authors have painstakingly woven together a cohesive network of parallel story lines taking shape through dialogue choices, allowing the reader/player to actively take part in how the narrative progresses.
And in the very first lines of the work we are struck with its profound existential themes, reluctantly drawing in even the most skeptical recipient to actually form a response to the questions posed, leaving no one indifferent.
We’re immediately to understand that here is an excursion in the exigencies of the human condition, a series of meditations on the meaning of life, the inevitability of death, and of the human person’s uniquely problematic experience of existence. This theme frames and focuses the entire narrative as such in synergy with its political and ecological conflicts, eventually culminating in quite challenging reflections pertaining to everything from the meaning of art, to the individual’s relationship to political and economic macro processes, and children’s experiences of parents’ substance abuse and poverty.
Yet the two main intertwined leitmotifs of the story are the unlikely friendship between two fundamentally different people, and the hopeful, radical possibility of redemption, renewal, and a sort of Kierkegaardian faith. Slowly and painfully Kurvitz ekes out a blossoming finale, developing these themes, depicting how hope for deliverance is always a real and tangible promise, in spite of us losing our one true love; in spite of us losing our fundamental trust in our lives and in being as such. In spite of us even losing ourselves.
And an assertion that slowly creeps upon the player, constantly vitalizing the above themes, is how very near the catastrophe is. How fragile a human being is. The fictitious history and cosmology is explicitly employed to address issues pertaining to colonialism, racism, and the catastrophic econonomic structures of industrial civilization as such. In the latter part of the story, the lens widens, focus moving from one’s purely personal disaster to the precariousness of life itself, scrutinizing our society’s trajectory towards overshoot, collapse, and death. These dual perspectives are then interwoven, inviting us to ask questions about who we are as human beings at the end of these immense historical processes, what role our tiny lives and sacrifices may possibly play. The tentative, defiantly compassionate response we are given finally emphasizes the beauty and meaning of being an almost entirely insignificant player in what even may amount to nothing but a spectacular failure, as long as we audaciously hold fast to the hope inherent in doing and desiring what is right.
You can see the clear connections to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, not least in terms of the protagonist’s relative naivety and bewilderness in the modern context, but the narrative’s progress and resolution rather brings us to Levin in Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, since the theme of atonement repeatedly emphasizes how we must transcend ourselves, how we must dare be vulnerable in the face of the world and The Other if we ever are to find ourselves again in what oftentimes amounts to an utterly perplexing existence.
I don’t know if one can really speak of the end of art in general. It can have many purposes, and many sorts of effects. And in another sense, I suspect that this work may very well be one of the final really great, coherent messages of a decaying culture. But teleologically speaking, I think art must somehow direct us towards the truth, even if by contrast or other means. And there is no truth without beauty, nor without love.
What I do know is that this peculiar and painfully beautiful story inspires me like almost no other artwork ever has. A mere video game here emboldens my will to keep struggling. To accept some of the things which are inevitable. And to some extent to forgive myself.
The final notes are a message of an austere sort of hope. Of faith in a hard ground. A paradoxical reassurance that it doesn’t matter if we’re fighting a losing battle. That it doesn’t matter if the trolls and giants win in the end, for the only thing of importance is that we die on the right side, and that we nonetheless have to grit our teeth and keep at it, for there is hope even if we can’t understand nor even fathom it:
The wisdom of Odin, the humourous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder, will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man (Lewis, 1942).
Lewis, C. S., “Notes on the Way”, Time and Tide, vol. XXIII, June 27, 1942
Kurvitz, Robert, Disco Elysium, ZA/UM, 2019