Psychiatrist Marie Rudden describes a private, internal space her patient would withdraw to whenever he became anxious and confused when the interpersonal reality insisted upon by others in his life seemed obdurate, relentless and alienating. The patient a classical musician would emotionally withdraw and to try and find solace in a complex mental space where he could protect himself. He called this space his "secret cocoon": a place he could be alone, safe, but also in hiding.1 Disco Elysium (2019) begins in this space:

There is nothing. Only warm,
primordial blackness. Your con-
science ferments in it no larger

than a single grain of malt.
You don't have to do anything
anymore. Ever. Never ever.

1. Never ever ever?

2. (Simply keep on non-existing.)

These are the words said to Detective Harry Du Bois by his Ancient Reptilian Brain. Soon, his limbic system will also engage in this exchange as he decides whether or not to wake up to the conscious world. Harry struggles to conceptualise his own reality; he is at odds with the world around him and faced with alcohol-induced amnesia. The onus falls on the player to construct Harry's reality for themselves while they work to investigate a murder in the fictional city of Revachol. This style of gameplay is common to those familiar with role playing games, where players typically are expected to "level up" attributes of an in-game character to perform tasks or unlock gameplay options. Skills in Disco Elysium, however, become characters in themselves. They engage with the storyworld, feature in the game's dialogue system, talk and even argue with each other. The "Encyclopedia" skill will feed you with contextual information about the world around you (with varying degrees of relevance). "Rhetoric" will help you to navigate discussions and arguments so that you seemingly always come out on top. "Electrochemistry" will make you like drugs (a lot). Lead Designer Robert Kurvitz says the team wanted to simulate the way the mind works through internal monologue.2 In Disco Elysium, it is the interface that gives rise to this interaction.

Like many computer role-playing games (CRPGs), Disco Elysium constructs its story and gameworld through its interface. Setting it apart is how its interface subverts player expectations guising itself as a benign, functional tool while actually being an interlocutor that actively undermines the reality it purports to mediate. What typically acts as a mediator between the player and their virtual environments becomes its own actor one with agency and intent to deceive. I want to dive in to how the game constructs reality (or rather, what it proposes as reality) through the modulation of various elements facilitated by its interface, but there are a couple of terms we'll need to clarify before getting underway. Firstly, we'll broaden the definition of "interface" via Adam Kubiak to mean the combination of visual elements that are displayed on the screen. The key distinction here is that Kubiak refers to the interface as a "means of narration" not just as a "means of interaction" (a classic ludic stance) or "means of presentation" (the graphical techniques used).3 Secondly, in places, I will refer to objects on the screen as points, or point-potentials, adapting terminology from Vilém Flusser.4 In Euclidian geometry, a point is something with a position in 3-dimensional space. On our screens, it's also the location a mouse pointer is located. This terminology offers both a way to view objects as being interactive but also implies in an active sense how they might be interacted with. Therefore, I will describe them as having point-potentiality, the idea being that these interface elements not only occupy an area of the screen but also contain the potential for action.

In Disco Elysium, convergences between Harry, the player and the interface culminate in the creation of what Flusser calls the "digital apparition,"5 in which the functions of the interface are present, felt, and capable of deception. The game doesn't distinguish between characters, object or surface, implying that these are of equal value and effect. This kind of agency might chime with readers familiar with object-oriented ontology, or OOO. OOO maintains that objects exist independently of human perception and are not merely defined by their relationships with humans (or other objects). In short, OOO advocates for the individual agency of human and nonhuman actors and subsequently their relationships to one another. Importantly for OOO-ists, the private lives of both humans and nonhuman objects exist on equal footing (I'll leave the question of whether this is actually a useful lens to interpret our concrete reality to r/metaphysics).Disco Elysium works by producing an affective gameworld where objects have agency: objects are cognitive, detailed, sometimes even sentient. Between the player and Harry Du Bois exists the digital apparition, the distribution of point-potentialities that plays out the tension between the player's perceived autonomy and the phenomenological experience of objects in the gameworld.

The interfaces of video games themselves have the potential to create their own internal realities through the emergent properties of objects in their environment. These "envelopes of power," as James Ash describes them, shape how space and time appear as modes of potential for players that engage with them and become a useful tool for designers to modulate the relationship with player's memory and anticipation.6 Extending the work of Bernard Stielgler and Ian Bogost, Ash argues for the objects of the interface as a composition of "inorganically organised objects," allowing objects to bear significance based on their position in the gameworld and not necessarily how they are experienced in real-life.7 Objects on the interface are denoted by green dots, indicating additional context usually provided as floating text on the screen. Such text works to define details of the gameworld, often descriptions of signage or finer details not represented by the game's art (fig. 1). As points of interest, these are placed intermittently in the movable space of the gameworld and contain narrative details that may help players to better understand their environment. While these objects do not represent concrete elements of real-world functionality, they serve to assign spatial significance to elements; it's not so much about where a player can move but how they might move through the environment. Mechanically, these only appear within the limited range of the player-character (and their sensory field), encouraging movement within that space to open up the potential for further exploration. Because objects in Disco Elysium exist in this way, they attribute significance to the space the player currently occupies as well as recursively generating potential object interactions, assigning significance to game space not yet explored. Other elements, such as those denoted by a green outline, indicate that the object can engage with the games dialogue system. Since the game does not distinguish between character, object or surface (implying these are of equal value and effect) it manages to avoid reducing objects in the interface to mere images or representations instead forming relationships amongst various elements according to how they may have been organized by the game designers.

A screen capture from Disco Elysium. Three figures appear against a decaying urban background. Two figures are outlined in green. Green and yellow dots mark objects in the scene.
Fig. 1: Screenshot from Disco Elysium demonstrating how different in-game objects are denoted.

Objects in Disco Elysium cannot be understood through their materiality or real-world functionality alone; rather, they are conceptualized through an emotive engagement by the player and their relationships through an affective object world. The game's affect is defined by the player's choice of character traits at the start of game and how these subsequently form encounters between objects, allowing players to construct their ability to affect and be affected based on a series of attributes. Putting points in the "Empathy" attribute, for example, not only allows Harry to be more empathetic in his encounters but also affect subjects more empathically. Rather than be defined by their substance, size or species, human and non-human entities can be compared through their affects e.g., a horse shares more affects with a sports car than a cow due to its capacity for speed and ability to manoeuvre.8 Through this lens, Harry Du Bois shares more affects with a mailbox than with many human beings he encounters:

[Medium: Success]
A faint sticker on the
side reads: "RCM Emergencies
Desk no 8-100-2", with a slogan:
"Mankind, be vigilant!"

YOU "Good mail delivery box."
(Pat the box.)

The box seems happy.

[Easy: Success] "Eat shit, pig!",
"Saint-G" with a crown have been scribbled on it.
"Jennie is a WHORE" and "*Baise cette* mailbox!" also.

YOU Been there, *Poste
L'Aventurier* mail collection
box . . . been there.

collection box seems cathartic,
thankful even. So do you. You
shudder. Then you swallow.

This kind of encounter in the game conditions players to anticipate surprising interactions with human and non-human entities at the same time as allowing for a temporal experience of the subject/object relationship through the literal act of play. The Disco Elysium player realizes the equalized status of humans and objects through the interface and what it nudges them towards. Is there more significance in this mailbox than first thought? Not exactly, but that's the point(-potentiality), so to speak.

Such a mode of interaction is again reinforced by the game's skill system. Typically, the choosing of skills is a procedure of interaction that allows the player mastery over games systems, allowing for a predictable form of personalization (e.g., "I prefer stealth play, so I won't put my points into combat"). However, in Disco Elysium, no one skill guarantees mastery over any encounter. Occasionally, interactions, story or dialogue options are blocked by red or white checks that players must attempt to "pass." Red checks can only be attempted once while white can be attempted again, provided the player-character passes a certain criterion. These interactions have a percentage likelihood of success depending on the player's affinity in one particular attribute. Even so, no matter their skill level, there is only ever a maximum of 97% chance of success: double one on the virtual dice roll is always a miss; double six is always a pass. With the ever-present chance of failure (and the unpredictability of what "success" might even look like), levelling a skill does not guarantee mastery over any of the game's systems. Instead, these interactions are immediate and present, with their consequences having an instantaneous impact on gameplay conditioning players to anticipate surprising outcomes in the present through an active engagement with the form of the gameworld, and not just through its content.

In addition, time in the gameworld only flows when Harry moves around it and when in conversation, reinforcing the idea that (temporal andspatial) reality only exists as far as our active engagement with it when we experience the intentional acts of the protagonist giving rise to time only as far as Harry's encounters with objects. Disco Elysium presents a version of Mark Currie's A-series and B-series time in narrative fiction of a tensed and untensed experience of time respectively.9 A-series time involves the attention of the moving present of the player (and of a more direct interaction), and B-series time views the narrative as a block in which the sequence of events could be understood as having "before" and "after" relations. The mailbox is a historical object, bearing markers of the past damage in the graffiti a sequence of events having before and after relations. The moving present of the player gives rise to an empathetic relationship: both the player and Harry are "moving" or "progressing" through the gameworld. The character Cuno is seen behind the Whirling-in-Rags hotel in a programmed loop of throwing rocks at the hanging body again, existing as an objective sequence of actions seemingly in stasis. It isn't until the player-character interacts with him that this interaction becomes tensed and present (and game time moves forward). Of course, in narratological analysis, it would be impossible to prevent the merging of these two strands and impossible as a player to navigate through the gameworld without them doing so. Crucially, it is the modulation between these two states that gives rise to a temporal subject/object relationship.

Harry himself is an object of untensed time a narrative block of sequenced events and the result of a before and after. Though these details are not evident to the player (nor Harry) early in the game, they are conceptualized through an interaction with objects that are more aware of Harry's behaviors, actions and identity than either Harry or player. It's important to note that this is a common narrative device in the genre Planescape: Torment's (1999) protagonist similarly has no memory of their identity, though the world they exist in has already felt the impact of their presence and actions. Importantly, both in Torment and Elysium, relationships between and with objects are mutual and reversible as much as player engagement of the object engages in the unravelling of present and tensed time. Harry's amnesia at the start of the game is a narrative device to justify his lack of awareness toward his own actions (or even his own name). The effects of Harry's drunken rampage in events prior to the start of the game are pieced together through dialogue interactions with non-player characters (NPCs). Where this is given an extra dimension is Harry's conversation with the hanged subject of his murder investigation an exchange that takes place entirely in his imagination.

YOU Why do I feel like I've forgotten something terrible?

you *have*.

YOU Is my name Roonie?

you're no Roonie.

YOU Roonie is obviously not
who I am.

you and me, your name is probably Harry.

YOU - I felt like I've been getting a
lot of Harry lately . . .

be on to something there.

Prior to this moment in the exchange, The Hanged Man (once a living thing but now an inanimate object) correctly identifies Harry as a cop. Even more curiously, he reveals to the player Harry's name, which at this point in the game may not be known to either Harry or the player. For the player, and for the most part Harry, the world is unfamiliar, if not alien. For the world, Harry is not. His history, actions and abilities are already in place and the environment and the objects that populate it are much more aware of his presence than himself or the player.10 Returning to OOO, then, it is important to recognize this existential shift toward objects as partners and equals this relationship is mutual but as a gameplay device lets the character experience their own otherness. The parameters of the relationship are computed by the interface, considering the previous actions of the player (namely in assigning skill points) in relation to Harry. Harry is merely another object consisting of a modulating affect, based on its current ludologic and narrative significance to the player calculated and facilitated by the interface. This results in a subject/object relationship, tethered to the present experience of the player, facilitated through the interface.

If you've followed this far, you probably understand that the interface is the only mediator between the player, Harry, and the gameworld. You have probably also figured out that it can never fully be trusted. In fact, the interface actively obstructs Harry's grip on reality. This becomes clear at a pivotal moment where the player interviews Klaasje on the rooftop of the Whirling-in-Rags. Klaasje is both a witness and a victim in the various events of the games plots and players and Harry may choose to interview her to attempt to learn more about the case. The players skills and attributes as usual will attempt to interject in this dialogue to help Harry get his head around this interaction. Important in this moment is how our understanding of the interface (predominantly as a means of mapping reality through interconnecting relationships with objects) becomes contentious. Suddenly, the interface does not just tell us what is real. It attempts to deceive us:

EMPATHY: Something in her demeanour has changed. She's tired, consigned to her fate to being here with you and what's to come.

VOLITION: Soft, light brown eyes look back at you, directly into the space behind your eye sockets. You see the smoke rise from between her painted red lips. She's beautiful . . . I have some bad news for you.

YOU: What?

VOLITION: You know these guys?


AUTHORITY: Yes, you. He's talking about you, you grovelling sycophant.

VOLITION: You too.

AUTHORITY: Me? Get outta here, I'm solid.

VOLITION: These guys are compromised. She's got them singing along to her tune. The little bleeps and bloops you trust for info you can't trust them anymore.

YOU: Oh my god.

VOLITION: Believe it.

YOU: Which ones exactly are affected?

VOLITION: There's no way of knowing. At the moment I'm afraid it's best to assume . . .
. . . *all* of them.

Harry's skills and attributes become interlocutors that modulate his subjectivity between absence and presence, highlighted in instances like this where he comes othered within the order of his own psyche. In this entire exchange, Harry is mostly absent as the objects of his psyche are in conflict. His own subjectivity is only acting in reaction to the revelation that he can neither trust his sense of self nor his understanding of reality. Like Jacques Lacan's subject, the self in Disco Elysium is one that is constituted both inside and out, one that does not exist in abstraction from others, but rather a subject that is mapped out as a set of relations of absence and presence relations within itself, and with others and interface.11 The Self in Disco Elysium is an antimonious tension between Harry's own fractured sense of reality, and a reality conceptualized by the player to navigate their playthroughs. Disco Elysium's character creation is an involved process where players choose their skills for their playthrough through literal fragments of subconscious self. The game replicates the contingency of real life simulating an object-oriented abstraction of reality where its skills and attributes are only important as far as their ability to affect and be affected. It's an oversimplification to suggest the game borrows thematically from Lacan or psychoanalysis. The influence of such ideas is clear narratologically; however, the game explores them ludologically through the role of the interface as a mediator between the game and player.

 History, time and identity are emergent of this dialogical interaction active in assemblages of objects, and the processes of material repurposing and remediation but, importantly, seemingly autonomous in their ability to do so. In the game, autonomy is not just a function of hidden code but explicit in the behavior and expression of objects. Nothing is as it seems. Flusser claims that either alternative worlds are as real as the given one, or given reality is as ghostly as the alternative ones,12 but as Yannis Zavoleas points out, "Any inability to distinguish between elements of the real world and of any apparition may be attributed to the realization that materiality cannot be a sole criterion for such a purpose."13 A chair is no longer a chair described or experienced through its function. Nor is a mailbox a mailbox but instead an element conceptualized through the intermingling of point-potentialities, creating new emergent reality a material shift arising from the temporal and sensory experience of the object and how it changes in our perception. The dead man is not dead. The mailbox is still a mailbox. And, frankly, fuck you, mail delivery box.

Disco Elysium imposes upon us a new anthropology one that equally forces us to understand ourselves our "self" as digital distributions, as literal digitized fragments of the human psyche. Harry, the player, and the object world are digital distributions so densely packed with modulating point-potentials that they are practically swirling and indistinguishable. Extending beyond the self, the game's ideologies, politics and identity are situated in the (gooey?) real,14 not just because of its narrative composition but due to its aesthetic composition an invitation to create a new reality as we bounce between point-potentiality and point-potentiality, with each surprising new interaction a result of their affects.

Unfortunately (and I might upset some of my colleagues in this), as the only game designer in our collective, I would be at a remiss to not to highlight that much of this is possible in direct consequence not just of intuitive game design but of technological advances in storage, memory, graphical processingin the creation of a more detailed, more immediate simulation of real-world systems. It's not just the affect of its virtual objects that give rise to an alternate reality in Disco Elysium but how densely packed the game is with elements that do so. It's an aesthetic composition that is cohesive at every level it's difficult to say something unique about the game when the game itself is so self-aware of its limitations. It's so self-aware of the systems that created it that it knows it can only exist in a medium that replicates a postmodern logic. Roleplaying video games are all (to some degree) built on a principle of nonhuman actors having agency: lore, world-building, skills, relationships with NPCs, etc., all operate on this illusion. What Disco Elysium does is reveal the illusion and becomes effective as an experience of it by existing in a medium that can literally embody it.

It's useful to look at Disco Elysium as software its history and events already exist, hard-coded as a static entity. Its gameworld and embedded narratives are point-potentials that only become present as we manipulate the game's systems to do so, before they once again move away from our perception. Wendy Chun talks about the past in terms of machine code, how data stored in memory is always there until it is reconfigured to be present but it's always happening and always moving: "Software as a thing is inseparable from the externalisation of memory, from the dream and nightmare of an all-encompassing archive that constantly regenerates and degenerates, that beckons us forward and disappears before our very eyes."15 Crucial to Chun's analysis is the way source code becomes a thing that erases execution from view. It hides the labor of the machine, which becomes something like one of Derrida's specters. It makes the actions of the human at the machine appear as a powerful relation. Chun argues that "Embedded within the notion of instruction as source and the drive to automate computingrelentlessly haunting themis a constantly repeated narrative of liberation and empowerment."16 This implies that the interface, the digital apparition, convinces us of our own agency, all the while deceiving us. In Disco Elysium, it haunts us with the ghost of a failed revolution, the ghost of a lost love, the ghost of a lost self.17

Disco Elysium's constant (de)construction of its reality is perpetually in flux between that of the anthropological and the existential, facilitated through a violent regime of codification. Between the player and Harry Du Bois exists the digital apparition the distribution of swirling point-potentialities born out the tension between perceived autonomy and the driving forces of affect. There is a veil of free thought, of freedom and free will that extends not just to you but to the world around you as experienced by Harry. Between the construction of its environment, its interface and the machinations of the game's code exists a modulation between affect and autonomy. The impression is that these things exist beyond us and long after us, both enduring and ephemeral and, just for a moment, we are shining a light on nothingness from nothingness.

Saad Maqbool is a researcher and game designer. He currently lectures at the University of York.


  1. Marie Rudden. "The 'Secret Cocoon': Fantasies about the Private Self in the Absence of Consensual Reality." International Journal of Psychoanalysis no. 92 (2011): 359-376.[]
  2. When working on the in-game dialogue system, the game's UI designers were inspired by Twitter (now X), so the text tumbles up and is managed as a column. Kurvitz explains the team's approach to its design in Ellie Harisova "Disco Elysium: Working on UI Design", 80LV, 2020,> [accessed 20 January 2024].[]
  3. Adam Kubiak, "Narrative Interfaces, Identity of The Game and The Integrity of The Interface" in Panoptikum no. 24 (2020): 85.[]
  4. Vilém Flusser, "Digital Apparition," in Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, edited byTimothy Druckrey (London: Aperture, 1994), 242-245​​.[]
  5. Flusser, 242.[]
  6. James Ash, The Interface Envelope: Gaming Technology and Power (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).[]
  7.  In Technics and Time (1994), Bernard Stiegler discusses a Third Order of beings in between the physical and biological: "the technical being" which he describes as "inorganic organized beings" or technical objects. Ash links this to Ian Bogost's call for an object-centred account of affect and proposes a theory of "inorganically organised objects with inorganically organised affects." Bernard Stiegler, La technique et le temps, 1: La faute d'Épiméthée. [Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus] (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1994), 32; James Ash, "Technology and Affect: Towards a Theory of Inorganically Organised Objects," Emotion, Space and Society 14 (2015): 86.[]
  8. James Ash, "Technology and affect: Towards a theory of inorganically organised objects," Emotion, Space and Society no.14 (2015): 84-90. []
  9. Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).[]
  10. There's a striking similarity in this encounter to Franz Kakfa's Hunter Gracchus, an unfinished short story in which a boat carrying the long-dead Hunter Gracchus arrives at a port. The mayor of the town meets Grachhus, who gives him an account of this life and death and why he is destined to wander aimlessly and eternally over the seas. The work is presented as a dialogue between the dead man and his interviewer. The Hunter, much like The Hanged Man, remembers the name of their interrogator (though at this point in the game the player nor Harry himself may not).[]
  11. Jacques Lacan, "Le Séminaire. Livre IV,"in La relation d'objet, 1956-57, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 67-8.[]
  12. Flusser, 242.[]
  13. Yannis Zavoleas, "Real Space, Digital Perception. Experience beyond Materiality," in Architectural Design & Digital Technologies 2, (Salonika: Pendulum, 2007), 71-76.[]
  14. Nick Jones, Gooey Media: Screen Entertainment and the Graphic User Interface (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023).[]
  15. Wendy Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011), 18.[]
  16. Chun, 41.[]
  17. My apologies to the hauntology fans who had to wait to the very end of the piece for a shout out.[]