Early in Disco Elysium, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi arrives at the Whirling-in-Rags, the hostel where the player character, Harry Du Bois, has just emerged from an alcoholic spiral so intense as to produce total amnesia. During their first conversation, Kim provides some context as to the player character's occupation as a police officer, the unusual case to which they have been assigned, and several avenues by which the player might begin (or resuscitate) their investigation. Finally, Kim says "after you," and a staggering number of diverging narrative possibilities become available at once. The player might elect to speak to any one of dozens of NPCs, each time deciding exactly what to say to them through long and complex conversation trees. The player might shift their skill investments in order to customize the strengths and weaknesses of their character during the playthrough, which will in turn inform the chance of success or failure in critical moments. The player might use the unusual thought cabinet system to further unlock narrative possibilities and context. Disco Elysium only has six endings (and one beginning), but between these points such high variance is engendered that it's unlikely any two playthroughs will be exactly the same. How is it then, with such apparently granular and abundant player narrative agency, that Disco Elysium produces consistent and cogent narrative outcomes, with clear rising action, complications, climax, and resolution firmly in place? And how is it, regardless of the sequence and nature of narrative components, any narrative outcome can be immediately and confidently recognized as the story of Disco Elysium?

Narrative agency, which Bettina Bodi and Jan-Noel Thon describe as the "extent [that] the player is afforded opportunities to influence the overall order of [prototypically narrative] events" and narrative consistency are paradoxical.1 The more complex the narrative elements, the more paradoxical agency and consistency become. If a player has true narrative agency, they have the ability to fail to create a narrative or to create a partial or truncated one. If a game has a complex narrative component, a player cannot be trusted to reliably shape it because, at any moment, they may subvert or sabotage it. Still, Disco Elysium furnishes both, creating a "game aesthetic" per Patrick Jagoda, one "formed in significant part by the concept of choice" by presenting the player with many decisions which may directly impact the narrative, while simultaneously controlling for narrative outcomes enough to produce cogent narratives in every playthrough.2

Marie-Laure Ryan observes that the best way to avoid "confusion, frustration . . . as well as . . . logically inconsistent sequences of events" in video games is to "place limits on the agency of the user."3 And indeed, these limits are the secret to Disco Elysium's narrative success, but they must be camouflaged within the fiction and gameplay mechanics in such a way that players don't sense exactly where these limits fall. In the end, the player may even feel as if, in some way, they have written the complex narrative their playthrough has expressed. The narrative outcomes of a Disco Elysium playthrough are not, however, player-written stories; rather, they are expressions of a dense narrative superposition which includes every potential Disco Elysium narrative. This narrative superposition subordinates interactivity to narrative, making interactivity itself a narrative device.

Narrative superposition is a phenomenon native to video games, but it is not present (or desirable) in all of them. It can only be achieved by fostering a sense of perceived narrative agency disproportionate to the actual narrative agency available. Games which allow the player complete agency to create narratives, what Bodi and Thon refer to as "player stories,"4necessarily allow the player to fail to create a narrative or to create a narrative which is partial or unclear, leaving the second goal of narrative superposition unsatisfied in favor of sandbox environments, emergent storytelling, and true open-ended outcomes. Games like this (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Animal Crossing, The Sims, etc.) can be pulled from a wide range of genres, but they always invest the player with narrative control to a degree where narrative may not form. Inversely, if narrative outcomes are too limited, the player won't experience a feeling of narrative agency, leading to the loss of game aesthetic. This sort of game might include the visual novel subgenre, where the player senses the limits to their involvement in narrative outcomes. If that illusion isn't satisfied, then the narrative is likely multi-valent but not complex enough to achieve superposition. In superposition, some narrative components must become non-sequential, interchangeable, or unessential. Though the superposition surely includes multiple end states and narrative forks, the level of complexity in games like Disco Elysium is an order of magnitude above that of a visual novel. This complexity is necessary for the game aesthetic to fully bloom.

Bodi and Thon conclude their insightful treatment of Disco Elysium with the observation that players of Disco Elysium will "never get to see more than a fraction of the possible ways their avatar's story can unfold, but that does not change the fact that all of these "forking paths" are fundamentally predetermined."5 Clues to this predetermined aspect, central to narrative superposition, can be seen in Disco Elysium's interface. Many RPGs that preceded and perhaps inspired Disco Elysium (such as Adventure or Zork) give the player the ability to input simple textual commands such as "get" or "use," which, by extension, allow users to write whatever they want into the playthrough of the game, even if the game can't recognize or respond to it. Games which utilize narrative superposition, such as Disco Elysium, must maintain a firm, deterministic grip on the textual performances which are produced and so the player cannot be allowed to write anything into the playthrough of the game; the player can only choose what to say from a determined list of options which are always in the voice of the game, the voice of Harry or one of his personified subconscious qualities. Interestingly, Disco Elysium allows for the flavor of unpredictable, subversive player interjection by baking that possibility into Harry's character. The very first dialogue option allows for the player to respond to the statement: "You don't have to do anything anymore. Ever. Never ever," with "Never ever ever?" At first this option seems like a snarky quip a player might have for a Dungeon Master or a sardonic text field ploy, a subversive response from a player. But this response is not furnished by the player. It is furnished by the game. Indeed, the game's response is "Never ever ever, baby!" This is not indicative of two distinct voices (the game and the player, for example) but a single voice, which is very much the voice of Harry and his personified mental aspects, the voice of Disco Elysium. In this way, the authorship of the textual performance is determined firmly by the text while providing an in-built patina of subversion for the user to pursue or ignore. Of course, this voice is important, adding uniformity to the narrative expressions Disco Elysium produces through playthrough, but what about when these choices affect the narrative itself? How does the game retain consistent and cogent outcomes with this possibility still on the table?

The game's narrative crux, initially at least, is that a mercenary from a group called Krenel has been murdered and hung from a tree, and the player-as-protagonist has been sent to find out who did it and make the arrest. This is a narrative goal, which implies that players will be given narrative tools (and the agency to use them) in order to "solve" the mystery and resolve the narrative. However, for the majority of any playthrough of Disco Elysium, the tools that would allow the player to solve the mystery are kept from them until narratively expedient. In plainer terms: the player doesn't meet the killer until the mystery is ready to be solved: in the third act of the game, after the climax with the other Krenel mercenaries outside the Whirling-in-Rags hostel, during the falling action of the story. Knowing that the mystery is unsolvable is not conducive to game aesthetic, however, and so the game furnishes plenty of distractions, complications, and, critically, outlets to exert narrative agency, in order to keep the player invested in the main storyline and their capacity to resolve it using their own deductive and gameplay skills.

Most actual narrative agency in Disco Elysium is confined to the game's first two acts. As Sadek Kessous notes elsewhere in this cluster, the game in these earlier stages furnishes smaller investigations: "a proliferation of mysteries that are banal, weird or both: where is my tie? What did I do last night? What is my name? What are my political views? Am I gay? Am I good at karaoke? Do I care about cryptozoology?" Disco Elysium uses spiraling red herrings and dead ends reminiscent of the postmodern detective novel to camouflage the fact that its central mystery is currently unsolvable. Indeed, as the player wanders Revachol, expanding their list of suspects and investigating clues, the mystery only widens according to the impulses of the player. This narrative responsiveness indirectly reinforces the expectation that the player will be able to solve the central mystery as soon as they've investigated enough to form a theory. In reality, the mystery will always be solved, by the player and Harry, during the denouement. But even early freedoms are mitigated, to some degree, by timed events, which control when certain characters appear in the story and fall under the scrutiny of the player. These events prevent the player from becoming too estranged from the central plotline until the narrative has progressed to such a point where its climax and resolution can be furnished. Unlike a book, the player can't even flip to the end and see who shot the victim.

If the solubility of the central mystery is withheld from the player until a preordained point of climax, that climax itself illustrates how the game produces a broad sense of player agency from a narrow set of player options. After the player has completed a few tasks for Joyce Mercer, a representative of Wild Pines, the company that originally hired the Krenel group to protect its interests in Revachol, Mercer will take Harry into her confidence. She informs the player that the Krenel mercenaries, who believe that the local dockworkers union killed their sergeant, are preparing for a (very informal) military tribunal through which they will decide "whether to execute one, some, or all of the Union militants." The player must prevent an impending "bloodbath." Joyce's urgent request for the player to "pin this on someone *good*and do it *fast*" forces the player to question the relationship of gameplay to time. This presents a narrative version of the ticking clock that occupies the bottom right of the user interface. Indeed, the player can ask Joyce "How much time do we have?" resulting in Joyce's vague response: "It's a matter of days not weeks," which can be further interpreted, if the player has prioritized a particular skill, to mean five days. There is in any case a real sense that after a certain number of days pass, the game will enter a fail state. But it doesn't.

According to an experimental playthrough by Reddit user htmlbanjo, who performed a "practically nothing" run, wherein he did as little as possible to pass time, there is no time dependent fail state. htmlbanjo eventually reached 14 days and found no indication that further waiting would produce narrative variation.6This makes sense from a narrative perspective because attaching major story beats to a hard timer would destabilize narrative outcomes. If the player didn't have the requisite information to understand what was occurring at the tribunal, for instance, the narrative qualities of the outcome would suffer. For this reason, the game doesn't actually enforce its own clock. Clocks and countdowns push the player to make choices and advance even when they might prefer to wander, maintaining narrative tension. The climax, however, is not triggered by timing but by progressing through several other tasks and mandatory story events that narratively build to it. Moreover, the outcome of those triggers is always the military tribunal foretold by Joyce Mercer. Though several permutations can occur within the tribunal, the player cannot, as Joyce hopes, "pin" the crime on someone in order to prevent it. This option is simply not available.

To achieve narrative superposition, a game's player-character must retain core characteristics irrespective of the player's choices, even as it maintains the aesthetics of interactivity and control that users expect from games. Disco Elysium navigates this tension, as do many role-playing games, through trope of amnesia, here brought about by catastrophic hangover. Lieutenant Harrier "Harry" Du Bois wakes up on the floor of the Whirling-in-Rags, an unknown to the player and himself, his UI portrait a smudge of oil paint. His name, let alone his backstory, is a complete enigma. In many games, such a setup prefigures the user filling in their own details, exercising control on the identity of their avatar. This is not the direction Disco Elysium takes. Though the character is presented as a blank slate (to some degree), the player's control over Harry is already mechanically and narratively limited. Harry is slow at first, holding his hand to his head, as the user directs him to collect his things, slowly uncovering (not creating) details about their avatar. Throughout this sequence (and the game as a whole) the player-as-Harry can't help but exhibit "clumsiness, discomfort, awkwardness, nonbelonging, and failure,"7a sequence of descriptors Jagoda deploys for the game Dys4ia, but which also capture the feeling of waking up in Harry's room. This section might be considered a tutorial in that it teaches the player that their control over their avatar is real but partial.

This gap between avatar and protagonist is useful in that it allows for the player to have an affective reaction to Harry, which might be diluted if they had total control over him. As it stands, the player is encouraged to relate to Harry as a character instead of an extension of themselves. Some choice is still available. The player can dress Harry up, choose dialogue options, or eventually drive him to suicide or death. The player is even allowed to conceptualize a new name for Harry, but rather than being chosen freely it is always Raphaël Ambrosius Costeau or later, for the bold, Tequila Sunset. Only as the game continues and the amnesia fades does the player discover, along with Harry, that he has a concrete past and a limited (if colorful) range of characteristic possible behavior. Indeed, as Carl White points out elsewhere in this cluster, both "Revachol's and Harry's histories are fixed and don't change," only that "the relationship the player has with particular elements will differ depending on the timing and method through which they are revealed." The result of this careful balance of character obfuscation and revelation is that Harry Du Bois will always be recognizable as Harry Du Bois, across any playthrough, even as users feel they are creating a bespoke iteration.

Harry's amnesiac confusion and the contradictory nature of his thoughts and behaviors facilitate a veneer of player control but, in retrospect and aggregate, these are only aspects of a complex character, presented in such a way as to elicit affective response from the player supposedly controlling him. As Ryan says about Hamlet and Madame Bovary, "if we cry for them and enjoy our tears, it is because our participation in the plot is a compromise between identification with the character and a distanced observation."8 Such is the compromise of Disco Elysium. Players have access to all of Harry's thoughts, and make decisions on his behalf. But these decisions are made for him from a distance, and they are often contradicted by a bad dice roll or an unforeseen consequence. Players aren't simply able to select whether Harry fails or succeeds in his investigation. They must make many smaller choices, often unaware of their full ramifications, nudging the character along to his final redeeming victory or cathartic collapse into oblivion. Players are participants in the minutiae of Harry's thoughts and behavior but only witnesses to his fate. Ryan's prescription to "expand the rather limited emotional repertory of games and develop complex characters who undergo truly poignant experiences" suggests that games "may have to limit user participation to a largely observatory role, rather than placing the user in the role of the experiencer."9 Disco Elysium walks a narrow line, but its carefully calibrated avatar/protagonist design allows for both a sense of poignancy and a sense of participation.

Jagoda writes that "the ways in which . . . games formulate rule and controls relative to the quality of failure becomes a crucial element . . . that enables greater understanding of a designed system and its expressed values."10Indeed, how failure is handled by an individual game can tell us what that game values that other, non-essential components might obscure. Failure is present in Disco Elysium as well and, it should come as no surprise, this failure is narrativized, tipping the hand on the game's true investments. If the player's health or morale reach zero, Harry will die or give up. Harry can be electrocuted, arrested, shoot himself, be shot, and completely give up on life after sleeping in a dumpster. Harry can die from a heart attack within the first three minutes of gameplay if he turns on a light while hungover. This would normally seem like an abrupt truncation of narrative, like falling into a pit of spikes, but Disco Elysium leans away from that version of failure. For every fail state Harry can reach, the game includes a newspaper headline and article to narrativize the failure. For instance, if ever Harry's health drops to zero, a short internal dialogue will occur, the gameplay will end, and a newspaper article with the headline: "COP SUFFERS FINAL HEART ATTACK" will appear, followed by some quick narrative resolution.

A detective lieutenant of the RCM passed away yesterday. His death, though abrupt, did not come as a surprise to those who knew him. "He was the heaviest drinker I'd ever met," Captain Ptolemy Pryce, the deceased's superior officer, commented. "That ain't easy on the ticker."

"He loved his liquor, sure," said Detective Chester McLaine, friend and colleague. "But I think before he ever had a heart attack, his heart was broken."

According to an official statement given by the RCM, the officer was on the brink of solving a murder case.

The game teases the player into another attempt at the murder case, but the narrative of the alcoholic cop who died trying to turn on the light while hungover is in itself an expression of Disco Elysium's narrative superposition even if less substantial than as full playthrough. Disco Elysium furnishes narrative even in its fail states, and these failure narratives buttress the superposition simply by being possible. They lend a precarity to Harry's successes and narrative consequence to player action. As Bodi and Thon point out, "[failure] can in fact often lead to a richer narrative experience for the player"11 and Disco Elysium follows through on this possibility with a little ending for every failure, a joke, and the encouragement to play again to see another version of Harry's story. Indeed, fail states need not be hard endings to the story. As Hayley G. Toth argues elsewhere in this cluster with regard to the practice of save scumming, players may revert to a previous save "not because they as a player cannot proceed and complete the game (they can), but rather because they as a player-character do not want to complete the game on these terms." The use of a save file need not trouble the final expression of a narrative. They are a built-in function of Disco Elysium (and many other games) and therefore, as Toth argues, "ethical" and legitimate avenues of player interaction. Narrative superposition must always produce narrative when a complete expression or playthrough is concluded (when the option to continue is not available without restarting) and these fail states, whether hard (in narrativized endings) or soft (in the case of a game state that is not terminal, but simply unacceptable to the player, triggering a reload), satisfy this prerequisite.

There are six possible endings in Disco Elysium, two of which are only minor variations on other endings. These endings can be understood in Bodi and Thon's terms as prototypical narrative components: in-game cut scenes resulting from the complex series of player choices made throughout the game.12 The case, if the ending is reached, will always be solved. Harry will either accomplish this alone, with Lt. Kitsuragi, or with a surly local child named Cuno. If the mystery is solved with either of these additional characters, they can join Precinct 41, Harry's division of the Revachol Citizens' Militia, or not. There is also the possibility that, due to his unrepentant drug use and alcoholism, Harry will be terminated from his position with the RCM and wind up living in a shack. I posted a survey on Reddit, asking the community which of six possible endings they received on their first playthrough. Of the 334 players who responded, 289 (or about 86%) reported the same result, that their playthrough ended with Lt. Kitsuragi leaving his previous precinct to join Harry. From this result, a consistent dominant narrative can be inferred. The game always starts in the same place with the same protagonist, and this popular ending requires that, from that original botching of the case by Harry and the subsequent arrival of Kim for back up, Harry and Kim bond over policework, investigate a series of possible suspects, survive (or even defeat) the Krenel mercenaries during the military tribunal, solve the original mystery, and, finally, wind up in the same precinct.

This consistency points to the restraints, both hard and soft, which the game enforces for the sake of narrative cogency. Other options are available, but this central route is the most common. We might say this is a result of it being the most desirable ending, thus suggesting player narrative agency in selecting it. But this desirability is a conglomerate of soft restraints, native to the game's narrative superposition, which encourage players towards this outcome (be that the desire to redeem Harry, affinity for Kim, or curiosity about the consequences of the mystery). There are other outcomes with equal narrative clarity and of course even this dominant narrative has interchangeable components that add narrative complexity and variation to every playthrough the fate of the mysterious Klaasje, the lives of the union men and women, romantic options for Harry, political affiliations and allegiances, and so on. Narrative superposition is defined by the complexity necessary to create the illusion of narrative consequence in player choice even where there is none, and Disco Elysium certainly achieves a novelistic degree of narrative impact and consistent game aesthetic, a sense of player agency and avatar identification. As technology develops, more games will likely expand the horizons of narrative superposition, exponentially increasing the complexity of the asset database and the game mechanics with which the player can impose his own will. Narratives, however, remain defined by temporal and aesthetic limits, and the temptation to increase this complexity has the potential to drain individual narrative expressions of their consistency. After all, we play games like Disco Elysium to experience a narrative artwork that isn't primarily animated by our own creative input, our detective abilities, our mechanical skill, but our affective and interpretative participation, our reading. This artform, narrative in superposition, is nascent, but it may satisfy what Ryan calls the "difficult task" where an end product "take[s] advantage of its medium but also fulfill[s] the relatively rigid demands of narrative form and meaning."13 Disco Elysium perhaps accomplishes this, and in doing so makes a major advance for narrative fiction as it navigates the vast frontier of interactive digital media.

Joseph R. Worthen is an Assistant Professor of English at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina. He specializes in contemporary literature and the digital humanities.


  1. Bettina Bodi and Jan-Noël Thon, "Playing Stories? Narrative-dramatic agency in Disco Elysium and Astroneer" (De Gruyter, 2021) 164.[]
  2. Patrick Jagoda, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification. (University of Chicago Press, 2020), 129.[]
  3. Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 123.[]
  4. Bodi and Thon, "Playing Stories?" 182.[]
  5. Bodi and Thon, "Playing Stories?" 174.[]
  6. htmlbanjo, "'Practically Nothing' Run," Reddit [accessed March 11, 2024]. Note that htmlbanjo's original post has been deleted but the comment thread that followed it remains.[]
  7. Jagoda Experimental Games, 169.[]
  8. Ryan, Avatars of Story, 124.[]
  9. Ryan, Avatars of Story, 125.[]
  10. Jagoda, Experimental Games, 222.[]
  11. Bodi and Thon, "Playing Stories?" 172.[]
  12. ibid, 164.[]
  13. Ryan, Avatars of Story, xvii.[]