Disco Elysium is one of those RPGs that it feels like you alone have played. I knew so many people playing at the same time as me, but I didn't recognize the game that I was playing in their descriptions. It wasn't just that, as a player, I was making different narrative choices, or that I'd maxed out the Physique and Motorics attributes, creating a thoughtless, amphetamine-obsessed character ill-equipped for human interaction, let alone detective work. It was also that, unlike my friends, I was reluctant to cede authority to this unbalanced protagonist and the roll of two dice. That is, if Disco Elysium "present[s] us with a player-character whose unity, authority and freedom are, at best, conspicuous only by their absence," this player quickly discovered strategies through which to reclaim autonomy.1 I'm talking about 'save scumming', a recognized practice in gaming communities where players regularly save the game in order to be able to revert to previous progress. Save scumming offers player-characters a way of avoiding unfavorable outcomes (e.g. death). It's embraced by hoarders, who hate the thought of an item leaving their inventory (even if it saves a character's life), and completionists, whose enjoyment relies on completing every quest or challenge, and unlocking every achievement. In other words, save scumming allows players to control the outcomes of their gaming to overcome not just their own failures, but also the limits of the playable character and the game itself.

In these terms, Disco Elysium isn't the most obvious or rewarding game to save scum. Like other RPGs, the game presents players with multiple plotlines organized by complex branching structures. Character variables such as attributes and skill points interact with these branching narratives, and determine which narratives players can pursue, as well as how easy or difficult they are to complete. Most of the game's branching narratives influence how you can pursue future plotlines, for example by determining subsequent branching options, or by modifying the difficulty of dice checks related to different branches. Importantly, though, there is no single, or "right," way to play through the multilinear narrative of Disco Elysium. Every dialogue choice a player makes unpredictably affects the future, making certain paths possible, and others highly improbable. (There goes completionism.) But there's almost always a way for player-characters to solve the murder of The Hanged Man.

Moreover, failing repeatedly is mostly rewarded. During each conversation with a non-playable character (or NPC), player-characters can choose from a limited number of dialogue options and actions. Some options indicate that they require a dice check to be performed. These options display player-characters' odds of success based on relevant attributes, skills, or internalized Thoughts that players have chosen to pursue in their customization of the game's protagonist Detective Harrier "Harry" DuBois; previous dialogue options or actions players have taken in the world of the game; as well as any items acquired that grant skill bonuses. If selected, the game randomly generates a dice roll between two and twelve, and calculates whether player-characters have passed or failed the dice check, by adding up the total dice roll and any bonuses. But the stakes simply aren't that high. Failed dice checks tend to create alternative paths for success and progression. If players fail a white dice check, they can unlock it and try again by putting more points into relevant skills, by internalizing certain Thoughts in the Thought Cabinet, or by acquiring items (like drugs, clothing, or dice from the Novelty Dicemaker, an NPC that player-characters can find in the Doomed Commercial Area).2 While red dice checks cannot be rerolled in this way, failing them does not prevent players from progressing through the game. Rather, it can open up new routes through the multilinear narrative.

For example, on Day One, I as a player didn't want to stump up the Reál to cover the damage that Harry had caused to his room at the Whirling-in-Rags prior to the commencement of my roleplay as the protagonist. As a player-character, I attempted a Savoir Faire red dice check to "slip away unnoticed". The odds were good. In my customization of Harry, I'd poured half my available points into the Motorics attribute, so my skill level in Savoir Faire provided a bonus of +5 to my dice roll. And so, while the game specified that I needed a total dice roll of ten or higher, my player-character could succeed the check with a roll of anything between five and twelve. Alas, the game's random dice generator didn't respect the laws of probability. My failure saw Harry attempt an escape so spectacularly conspicuous that it resulted in him losing consciousness (and the intrusion of the Ancient Reptilian Brain). Yet this failure was also a kind of success. I'm not just talking about the physical comedy of the cut-scene, which I as a player enjoyed at the expense of my character. Rather, Garte the Cafeteria Manager was so shaken by the performance that he reduced my player-character's bill by 30 Reál. The commotion also made it slightly easier for my player-character to pass the Physical Instrument white dice check that woke up the dockworker sleeping nearby. What's that saying? When one dialogue tree closes, another opens?

From specific dialogue choices and their foreclosure of certain narrative branches, players might infer the possibility of other choices, other Harrys, and other game worlds. For Conor McKeown, the recognition that "our 'other selves' dispersed throughout the multiverse are experiencing the alternatives" is one of the things that makes Disco Elysium's representation of the self so compelling, and so distinctly posthuman.3 Daniel Vella and Magdalena Cielecka similarly praise the game's refusal to gift player-characters with the self-possession associated with modern subjectivity, and the ways in which it declines to authorize a "right" way to play.4 Notwithstanding their interest in Disco Elysium'smany possible readings, it strikes me that, for Vella and Cielecka, as for McKeown (and, I suspect, other critics), save scumming would constitute a 'bad' practice of reading of the game. In granting player-characters powers of self-determination, save scumming appears at odds with the game's fractured protagonist and forking narratives. At least in relation to Disco Elysium, save scumming can also appear to be a somewhat redundant practice both because there are different, successful paths through the game's many dialogue trees, and because consequently the game can only ever be played partially. Yet, by thinking about save scumming as a reading practice, it's possible to identify a distinctive ethics within its motivations, orientations, and interpretive protocols. Always "good"? Almost definitely not. But save scumming is worthy of attention precisely because it raises questions about how we confer value on acts of reading.

By approaching save scumming as a reading practice, I mean to suggest that save scumming is a way of reading Disco Elysium, and that it forms part of the ludic and interpretive repertoire of the game'sactual players. In defining gaming as a kind of reading, I'm following gaming scholars in understanding the "text"' of a computer game as "a set of rules that governs the fictional world of the game", and the "game" as "merely an individual reading of this text".5 But I'm also seeking to draw an analogy between the ways that both reading and gaming (especially roleplay gaming) are subject to historically specific value systems that differentiate "good" activity from "bad." Just as there are "bad" ways of reading literary texts, so too are there "bad" ways of playing RPGs. By naming save scumming a reading practice, then, I'm attempting to evoke and interrogate the hierarchies that circulate around both gaming and reading, and the practices of distinction that uphold these hierarchies. As the social settings of reading have multiplied, so too have conceptions of 'bad' reading. But, in an important way, 'bad' reading emerges out of the professionalization of literary studies, and has come to signify the instrumental, interested, and identificatory practices of lay readers.6

Even for Wolfgang Iser, whose reader-response theory legitimizes the diversity of reading and interpretation, there remain practices which do not properly constitute reading at all. He uses the term "colonization" to metaphorically refer to failed interpretive practices that seek to exert the authority of the self over the text. When reading becomes an exercise in self-determination and self-authorization, he argues, "interpretation ceases."7 In my own discipline of postcolonial studies, "bad" reading names the "simplicity" and "complicity" of imagined lay reading practices. "Bad" reading names the unchecked self-involvement of non-professional publics. The specter of "bad" reading galvanizes and legitimizes the further professionalization of reading in the discipline. The imagined existence of "bad" readers of postcolonial literature, as Sarah Brouillette has argued, "gives one a foil against which to define what is right (such as 'complexity') in one's own position."8  This is to say, "bad" reading is a mostly uninterrogated fiction, about which there is nonetheless a powerful, professional consensus in postcolonial studies.

In part because of the fandom of the professional gaming studies field, and the professionalization of RPG fandom, ideas about what constitutes a "good" RPG and "good" forms of play do not derive from institutionalization in the same way. As Evan Torner highlights, "most RPG theory and criticism is produced by critical amateurs for critical amateurs."9 It primarily takes place on online forums, blogs, podcasts and social media, rather than in classrooms and journal articles. Yet the amateur disposition of RPG theory and criticism has not produced a critical democracy, in which all modes of play accrue value equally. As Ken Gelder warns, "subcultures", like RPG-gaming, "can indeed be elitist and excluding, as well as esoteric."10 Among critical amateurs and academic fans (or "aca-fans"), there emerge unmistakable theories of "good" and "bad" gaming. As Evan Torner argues, "Most RPG theorizing comes in the guise of advice: how to design and play RPGs 'well.'"11 For all their differences, these theories of playing "well" tend to denounce save scumming alongside other forms of metagaming, where players use knowledge, skills, or capabilities that their characters don't possess. Save scumming comes to constitute cheating; the players that do it deprive themselves of a more immersive experience. And while critical debate is a key feature of online forums like Reddit and Discord, dissent can risk the belonging and recognition of critical amateurs within the subcultural community. This is especially true of contributions that flout the normative tone of RPG theorization.

Hence, defenses of save scumming have not substantially interrogated the evaluation of its motivations and outcomes, or the value systems that continue to distinguish between "good" and "bad" gaming, instead justifying save scumming as a less immersive but practical form of cheating that should remain a personal choice. On the forum section of The Escapist, an online platform for the celebration of escapist entertainment, for instance, one contributor to the thread, "Save Scumming and You," says "I know that some will take [save scumming] as a loss of immersion since your actions don't actually have consequences, but some people just don't value that immersion all that much."12 Another contributor to the same thread agrees, writing "save scumming might be looked down upon by some developers and gamers but it is down to the person playing it at the end of the day."13 Such arguments leave intact the immorality of save scumming, and the legitimacy of others' judgment. The first explicitly concedes that it interrupts play and immersion, while the second implores others to indulge in save scumming as "bad" gaming. But what if save scumming forms part of the ethics of playing Disco Elysium? What happens we recognize saving and reloading the game as a practice that sustains, rather than suspends, roleplay? How do moralizing discourses of gaming (and reading) inhibit our appreciation of other forms of discursive engagement?

Take the Tribunal, for instance. A lot can go wrong. You can fail to shoot Raul Kortenaer. (For the record, completely forgetting to find your lost gun or otherwise arm yourself really doesn't help you shoot Kortenaer). You can also fail to dodge Ruud Hoenkloewen's shot, and get pretty injured. But failure to pass the red Authority check to warn your partner Kim Kitsuragi that Phillis De Paule is about to shoot him is, I think, the most consequential. It will see player-characters wake up in the Whirling-in-Rags to the petulant and foul-mouthed Cuno, who declares "Coinslot's dead." Cuno is referring to Kim. Throughout the game, Cuno derides those who wear glasses, like Kim, as "binoclards" or, less frequently, "coinslots" because Revachol's coastal binoculars are coin-operated. Now, Kim is not dead, but he's so severely injured because of your inaction that he cannot return to duty as your partner. With Kim in the hospital, player-characters must either conduct the rest of the investigation alone or take up Cuno on his offer to be their new partner. On this occasion, I think that reloading to an earlier save scummed game can be defended as an ethical reading of Disco Elysium. Sure, I would say that: I am the player who forgot to find Harry's missing gun, I did fail all possible checks at the Tribunal, I did wake up to Cuno, and I did instantly load an earlier save file. But well, I think there was a rationale for my doing so that isn't that I'm a bad reader or gamer, or a self-obsessed asshole.

If I save scummed before the Tribunal, it is because I cared about the outcome both as player and as character. And if I chose to reload to an earlier saved game, it is not because I as a player cannot proceed and complete the game (I can), but rather because I as a player-character didn't want to complete the game on these terms. Some player-characters may just not want to see themselves or Harry DuBois fail so spectacularly in defending the people of Revachol (Regular Law Officials, I'm looking at you). Some may reload because they neither want to be responsible for the injury of Kim, nor continue the investigation without him. Others may sit somewhere in between. In calling reloading "ethical" in this instance, then, I'm not saying that it's "good" or "moral." Rather, I am highlighting that it is an act which is obligated to the virtual world of the game and its protagonist Harry DuBois. This obligation narrowly (and perhaps briefly) edges out the extrinsic motivations of a player, such as their desire for game progress and completion, or their calculations of the time, progress and experience points (XP) that will be lost by reloading to a save scummed game.14 Through the act of reloading the Tribunal, the player awards priority to their "alternate self," Harry DuBois.15 It is a heightened form of roleplay, paradoxically achieved through metagaming. The act of exiting the diegetic world to attempt to resolve the perceived desires of the game's protagonist can surely be described as "ethical" insofar as it involves the inhabitation of a temporary viewpoint in the text, and the concomitant deferral and transformation of a player's own viewpoint. This is ethics in action as "selfless work"16. Or, as John Guillory puts it, this is ethics as "a practice on the self", where the pursuit of pleasure, ungoverned by any moral code or political imperative, contains the possibility of self-improvement.17 Save scumming may have no moral justification, nor political effects, then, but it can be defended as an ethics of reading that sometimes intensifies that which is transacted between player and character, and between text and world. In this case, save scumming might be the only way for player-characters to continue the investigation with Kim. And, as Joseph R. Worthen argues in the cluster, solving the case of The Hanged Man with Kim by your side is "the most desirable ending" only because Disco Elysium guides players to find pleasure in the redemption of Harry (as surrogate self) and the cultivation of a relationship with Kim, as well as in cracking the case.

There are further moments in which save scumming and reloading Disco Elysium might constitute an ethical reading practice, rather than an act of metagaming that suspends immersion and reinstates a player's sense of self and self-possession. Player-characters who help the ravers covert the church into a club for anodic music have the opportunity to invite Kim to dance when the dancefloor is finally ready. To do so successfully, player-characters have to pass a difficult red Authority check: Kim is a consummate professional after all, and he's made his distaste for the raving 'delinquents' pretty clear. Fail the check and the game gives you no choice but to say something hideously racist and almost unforgiveable to Kim. By making player-characters verbalize a racial slur, this failed check coerces them into the co-construction of Disco Elysium's racist imaginaries. It recruits them in the racialization of Kim as Seolite, a designation Kim himself regularly refutes because he was born in Revachol, doesn't speak the language of the isola, and has never met his Seol grandparents. And it has them participate in the circulation of one of the crudest stereotypes about Seolites. Suddenly, player-characters don't sound all that different from the Racist Lorry Driver outside the Whirling-in-Rags, who is explicitly hostile to Kim, and describes Seolites as an "intruder species" in Revachol; or Lena, the Cryptozoologist's Wife, who draws on evolutionary zoology to legitimize her understanding of Seolites as a different species; or Gary, the Cryptofacist, who warns player-characters about the "Global Seolite Conspiracy," an outlandish theory that the migration of Seolites, together with Seol's export of advanced technology, proves that the Seolite Empire is attempting to take over the world.

Although player-characters can still complete the game even if they call Kim a racial slur, if this Reddit thread18 is anything to go by, many choose not to. Disco Elysium seems to anticipate this. If player-characters elect not to apologize to the lieutenant if they commit to the performance of racism, perhaps because they plan to reload anyway they are chastised by Kim in the following way:

No, you fucking asshole. This isn't a *game* and you're not the *hero*. You don't *get* infinite chances to do the right thing. That's not how the world works . . .

Here, the game seems to metafictionally reflect on its own ludic construction. Of course, Disco Elysium is a *game* and you are the *hero*. You do *get* infinite chances to do the right thing. That is how the world works. . . But Kim denies players the alibi usually gifted by roleplay, by deliberately blurring the relationship between the actions of Harry and the actions of players. The second person is "doubly-deictic," in referring to both the game's protagonist and players' performance as Harry.19 Save scumming won't make you less of an asshole here, but rather exactly the asshole that Kim derides. By reloading the game to an earlier moment before you refused to apologize, or before you hurled racist abuse at Kim, players perform the role that the game places before them. Sure, the game makes do-overs available. I immediately reloaded the game after Kim called me out. But by choosing to embrace save scumming as a do-over, I became the implied reader of Kim's reproach. This is only paradoxical if we continue to understand save scumming as the termination of play, rather than a form of continuation. It doesn't matter that I and others might reject their interpellation as a narcissistic racist asshole. My point is that save scumming doesn't sever the connection between player and character here; it amplifies it. Save scumming doesn't erase this game; it memorializes it. In this instance, players like me who reload and start anew have still performed the racist act (whatever their intentions), and have still experienced a game in which they have been called out on it, and on their implicit belief that there would be no consequences. And so, reloading ends up proving the Kim of this game right, even as it creates a new game in which player-characters can defy his assumptions by roleplaying as Harry differently.

When I opened this essay, I suggested that I'd used save scumming as a way to reclaim some autonomy in my actions as a player-character of Disco Elysium. Maybe I should start over: reload, begin again, save. Except I don't think it works like that. Save scumming Disco Elysium is a way of playing, rather than not playing, the game. It's a kind of roleplay a process by which a player can cultivate their relationship to the protagonist, and grow more immersed, not less. I reload for Kim. I reload for Harry. I reload for the me that is like and not like Detective Harry Du Bois. I reload because the Working Class Woman outside the bookstore thinks that I no that Harry is weird, cold, too much like a cop. Sometimes I reload because I don't recognize myself, or don't want to recognize myself, in the game. I played "badly," I'll admit, but mostly because the game made me care for my two-dimensional avatar and the causes and desires of the people of Revachol. Save scumming didn't stop me regretting decisions I'd made, but it did allow me to make amends for other worlds and futures I'd participated in creating. Putting down a book, throwing it out of the window, imagining for it a different ending, burning it, not reading it: these are each a "particular kind of discursive engagement with cultural objects that is always meaningful, productive of meaning, in excess of nothing."20  I think that save scumming Disco Elysium can work in a similar way.  By abandoning a current save file, a version of Harry, a version of myself, an iteration of Revachol, they don't cease to exist, and I don't cease to play. Past games inform my play and my choice of different narrative pathways. Save scumming understood in this way becomes exactly like reading, in that it remains a form of roleplay through which the self and the subject positions it performs can be revealed, queried, and transformed.21 To abandon a save file, just as to abandon a book, can involve the interrogation of one's social, cultural, political and aesthetic desires. For all their differences, games and texts implicate players and readers in the co-construction of both themselves and the object of attention. Discourses of value that mediate our understanding of gaming and reading alike, and which encode particular kinds of activity with moral and political significance, limit our ability to talk about 'bad' practices as distinctive forms of discursive engagement that in their prevalence alone deserve attention.

Hayley G. Toth (@TothHayley) is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University. Her research focuses on reading, print and performance cultures.


  1. Daniel Vella and Magdalena Cielecka, "'You Won't Even Know Who You Are Anymore': Bakhtinian Polyphony and the Challenge to the Ludic Subject in Disco Elysium," Baltic Screen Media Review 9, no. 1 (2021): 90-104 (94).[]
  2. There are just 205 unique items to acquire in Disco Elysium. Compare this with Borderlands 3, released in the same year as Disco Elysium,and popular with hoarding gamers, which features around 1 billion different collectible weapons. In no game of Disco Elysium is it possible to acquire all 205 items: for example, if you acquire the Ledger of Failure and Hatred, you lose the Ledger of Oblivion; choosing to purchase particular dice from the Novelty Dicemaker will prevent you from acquiring other kinds of dice. []
  3. Conor McKeown, "'What kind of cop are you?': Disco Elysium's Technologies of the Self within the Posthuman Multiverse," Baltic Screen Media Review 9, no. 1: 68-79 (78).[]
  4. Vella and Cielecka, "'You Won't Even Know Who You Are Anymore': Bakhtinian Polyphony and the Challenge to the Ludic Subject in Disco Elysium":102.[]
  5. Julian Kücklich "Literary Theory and Computer Games," INTERSEMIOSE 2, no. 4 (2013): 107-128 (108).[]
  6. For example, see Merve Emre, "Post-Disciplinary Reading and Literary Sociology," Modernism/modernity 3, no. 4 (2019). DOI: doi.org/10.26597/mod.0089.[]
  7. Wolfgang Iser, The Range of Interpretation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 151.[]
  8. Sarah Brouillette, Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 25.[]
  9. Evan Torner, "RPG Theorizing by Designers and Players," in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations,edited by José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding (New York: Routledge, 2018): 193, original emphasis).[]
  10. Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), 143.[]
  11. Torner, "RPG Theorizing by Designers and Players," 201.[]
  12. PainInTheAssInternet, quoted in [Multiple Authors], "Save Scumming and You," The Escapist, July 1, 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20231128190411/https://forums.escapistmagazine.com/threads/save-scumming-and-you.129541/ [accessed December 18, 2023].[]
  13. rodneyy, quoted in [Multiple Authors], "Save Scumming and You," The Escapist, July 1, 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20231201061404/https://forums.escapistmagazine.com/threads/save-scumming-and-you.129541/page-2 [accessed December 18, 2023].[]
  14. My articulation of the ethics of reading here is indebted to that of J. Hillis Miller in "The Ethics of Reading," Style 21 no. 2 (1987): 181-191 and On Literature (Thinking in Action) (London: Routledge, 2002), 81-82.[]
  15. On roleplaying as the performance of an "alternate self," see Sarah Lynne Bowman and Karen Schrier, "Players and their Characters in Role-Playing Games," in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations edited by José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding (New York: Routledge, 2018), 395[]
  16. Hayley G. Toth, "Spivak's Planetarity and the Limits of Professional Reading," Comparative Critical Studies 17, no. 3 (2020): 468[]
  17. John Guillory, "The Ethical Practice of Modernity," in The Turn to Ethics, edited by Majorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (New York: Routledge, 2000), 39.[]
  18. [Multiple authors], "Harry apologizes after calling Kim a racial slur," Reddit,September 24, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20230116151142/https://www.reddit.com/r/DiscoElysium/comments/iz4jdx/harry_apologizes_after_calling_kim_a_racial_slur/ [accessed June 5, 2023].[]
  19. On the relationship between immersion in digital media and the "doubly-deictic," see Alice Bell, Astrid Ensslin, Isabelle van der Bom and Jen Smith, "Immersion in Digital Fiction: A Cognitive, Empirical Approach," International Journal of Literary Linguistics 7, no. 1 (2018): 1-22, and "A reader response method not just for 'you'," Language and Literature 28, no. 3 (2019): 241-262.[]
  20. Bethan Benwell, James Procter and Gemma Robinson, "Not Reading Brick Lane," New Formations 73 (2011): 92; original emphasis.[]
  21. See Paul B. Armstrong, "In Defense of Reading: Or, Why Reading Still Matters in a Contextualist Age," New Literary History 42, no. 1 (2011): 95-96.[]