The most expensive thing you can buy in Disco Elysium is a streetlight. It sits in the corner of the pawn shop on Rue de Saint-Ghislaine and has been modified to plug into a wall. The street lamp is purely decorative, and costs 700 reál.

There are dozens of lamps around Martinaise just like this one, your partner Kim remarks when you see it. There's no reason it should be this expensive. In fact, you can see its sodium-orange glow at night when you walk down the street toward the harbor, sometimes flickering in and out of heavy snow. They're everywhere, but Harry still expresses a strong desire to buy it and keep it in his living room, which, as a drifting cop, he doesn't have. If you save up enough to buy it, a task that requires you to spend little else, sweet talk the owner, and ignore other important things like the ongoing murder investigation, you can't actually take it with you: it's too heavy. You have to leave it in the pawn shop and come to visit it, your sawed-off piece of the city, whose immovability seems to mock the idea that the city is something you could ever own.

Detective Harry DuBois is a stranger in a city which becomes a mirror for his loneliness. Through his alcoholism and his role as a cop, he becomes a figure of alienation, tasked with taking on the burden of other peoples' problems while being profoundly disconnected from them. At the same time, the city itself welcomes Harry and becomes one of his strongest investigational assets.

Disco Elysium's clear debt to the detective fiction tradition is in evidence at its in-universe bookstore, Crime, Romance and Biographies of Famous People, which carries titles like the Dick Mullen series of mystery novels. Both the bookstore and the game, however, have broader literary interests. All the genres that appear in the store, from self-help to naturopathic medicine to over-the-top pulp fiction, appeal to the clientele in Martinaise who are searching for solutions to their problems. They provide customers with ways to deal with the alienation they experience, whether through medication, escapism, or immersion in the city that has caused them pain. Disco Elysium itself operates in much the same mode: using different genres and narrative techniques to identify potential solutions to the state of alienation Harry, and by extension the player, exists within. Whereas in the bookstore, customers pick a literary genre to solve their problems, Disco Elysium asks you to pick a genre of response to build who you are from preconstructed archetypes with each response you make.

Disco Elysium is not just a particularly literary game, but one that uses a multiplicity of genres to make its main character's alienation from other people a crucial tool for his connections to the city and, ultimately, the success of his case. Harry's distance from others serves to drive him closer to identification with the streets that his investigation takes place in, a process which causes many of his profound realizations about the case to come from the city itself rather than from individual people. In detective fiction, Raymond Chandler famously saw the detective as a man who "is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid . . . a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man"; such a person impacts their surroundings while remaining apart from them.1 Harry certainly comes across as unusual, but strives to be both common and complete. As he tries to fit in among the working class in Martinaise, many of his possible conversations are about trying to find a shared connection with strangers sometimes for the benefit of the case but just as often for personal curiosity.

Chandler's hero Phillip Marlowe, it's worth noting, spends much of his time drinking and involved in seedy activities, despite the author's description of the detective as "the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." Harry similarly begins the game's narrative from the vantage point of a drunken week in a trashed hotel room. He is an open wound of a person, and as with the dead body he is supposed to be investigating, those around him are drawn to the "excitations of the torn and opened body, the torn and exposed individual, as public spectacle."2 Interest in Harry's collapse, though, doesn't mean interest in Harry as a person. He often struggles to connect with others, though he holds a deep connection to the city itself. (As Kim puts it, though in a different context, "No matter what a mess you make, you never *stop* being Revacholian.")

Disco Elysium translates this dynamic into its gameplay, making Harry's alienation the player's responsibility. The player of Disco Elysium co-creates Harry's misery, his interpersonal choices, his professional success or failure. If Harry's actions are a selection of genres to choose from, the player nudges his personality in a particular direction based on their role-play. However, the familiar ludonarrative dynamic of a "relentless series of demands" through which players make choices that legitimately change the trajectory of the game is modified in Disco Elysium so that the player "fails forward" through missed skill checks or offensive dialogue options.3 This creates a situation where in most cases, failure exists but does not present a stopping point for the player.4 Just as with losing, winning is largely impossible; instead, the player navigates skill checks by conversing at random, a process of character-building through conversation (rather than skill selection) which Reid McCarter identifies as "essential to Elysium's inalterable argument that defining a personality is based on human interaction, not just endless internal reflection."5

Such interaction demands correction against Harry's erratic, sometimes offensive possible responses, but that strategy is itself is satirized and disincentivized. Anyone too cautious to occasionally say something out of left field will be labeled a "Boring Cop," encouraging responses that underscore that Harry is a short fuse who can't be careful with the feelings of others. Choosing options that make Harry a "moralist" is similarly fraught, as Ruth Cassidy argues, serving more as a distraction from his drinking and relationship problems than a genuine political stance and therefore fundamentally a cover for his undeniable self.6 Even if you always pick moderate options, you will still sometimes have no choice: Harry speaks for you, his essential character out of your hands. The player can't embody Harry completely, no matter how hard they try: Disco Elysium's depiction of urban alienation inevitably makes the player feel alienated too.

Harry's near inability to connect with anyone forms the systemic challenge of Disco Elysium, in which conversation prompts often have no good answers, and bad ones result only in becoming further isolated from the people Harry needs to communicate with. This thematically structures the game itself, an investigation in which you must leverage a job that makes people distrust you and bully, bribe, or flatter them into telling you their version of the truth. For a significant part of the game you must struggle with reluctant narrators who view Harry negatively, a conception you can only sometimes change.

Some residents are immediately welcoming, like Lena, the wife of a cryptozoologist and one of the only people to treat your alcohol-induced amnesia with concern. Right after Lena, assuming you prioritize investigating the body, you find Cuno. Cuno is a skill check in human form, a challenging person with trauma you can't even discover until you build up enough empathy (and insult him enough) to find it.

Cuno posed a challenge for my version of Harry in particular. When creating Harry at the start of the game, you can minimally change his character by investing in Intelligence, Psyche, Physical, and Motorics skills to various levels. In my most recent playthrough, I created the most nakedly direct figure of alienation the game would let me make. My Harry's Psyche was 1, "terrible," leaving him sorely lacking in the building blocks of social interaction: Empathy, Suggestion, and Authority. He was even worse than his general default, which is not good, unable to pass most of the basic checks for supporting others and understanding their emotions.

This came to a head about halfway through the game, when discovering an accidental death on the boardwalk in the south of Revachol. The man has fallen while drunk and hit his head on a bench, and his library card has the name of a local woman, his wife. When my Harry went to tell her about her husband's death, I had the chance to deliver the news in a way that was more sensitive, if not easier to hear. Instead, I failed the check, blurted the news out, and left her to digest her sadness alone. This effect repeated again and again over the next few days: I would get Harry into social situations that he just couldn't summon enough empathy to handle.

On the other hand, there were times when Harry's skills conformed, but my own intuition as a player was what let me down. In the middle of a questline about cryptids, I shattered Cuno's soul. I told him I knew about his collection of locusts, which he called Night City, his last real concession to childhood. Seen through my eyes, it became incredibly lame; his dreams were crushed. This conversational collapse wasn't a failure of Harry's skills; in fact, it was only possible to have this conversation because Harry had previously, miraculously, passed several checks requiring emotional intelligence. It was rather my own decision as a player that another more important investigation required me to dismantle Cuno's made-up city, the smallest and most harmless crime ring in the game. 

Harry's cruelty can expand based on your choices, and the earliest opportunities for this include several options to be cruel to women about sex. In the first twenty minutes of the game, you have at least two opportunities to either sexually harass a woman or bother one until she admits you sexually harassed her, as well as asking the hotel manager if he thinks women are "mentally inferior to men." Later, more innocently, you can try to convince a single woman in the fishing village to go out with you, with the game explicitly telling you that "she needs to go out with another drunk right now." Again, these avenues are skippable and mostly come down to your choice of dialogue options, not a skill check. Between them are many opportunities to talk about the cruelty of women, how they let working men down, and a repeated association of upper-middle class women with psychic suffering.

However, as the thought "Inexplicable Feminist Agenda" says, "before you became a joke, you were an actual feminist." On a basic level, negative thoughts about women, some of which you can choose and some of which occur no matter what, are tied directly to Harry's breakup and his subsequent loss of self. Once again, your ability to decide what Harry really thinks becomes more of a costume for the current Harry than a statement about his intrinsic character. While the Harry of the past might have been a feminist, what the player can control is how far to take his default suspicion of women (and as Half Light, your self-protective skill, can chime in, "the malicious entities are *always* women").

This is one place where Disco Elysium converges more directly on detective fiction. Harry becomes a heartbroken, work-obsessed detective exploring the city to distract himself from his own brain. Yet those attempts at self-distraction are undermined by a revelation of their genre debts if you purchase one of the most popular books at Crime, Romance, and Biographies of Famous People, called Dick Mullen and the Mistaken Identity. The serial detective, usually perfect in every way, is suddenly accused of murder. You can pass time by reading the book, and the game prompts you to try and guess the murderer. Trying to read to the end, you bend the spine and break the book, losing pages everywhere. Suddenly, the materiality of the page becomes clear, as you "cease to read the story on the page and see the book for what it is, a collection of cheap, brittle pages, held together by glue made from the hooves of horses." You can't figure out the mystery, and if you try reopening the book, the narrator just notes that "in your hand, you hold four-fifths of Dick Mullen and the Mistaken Identity."

There's a resonance between your own story and Mullen's, of course, one played upon by Mistaken Identity's title: everyone in your station refers to you as him when making fun of your case-solving failures. Despite being a simple and corny action story, the novel Harry reads also paints Mullen as a specifically alienated, abandoned figure: he gets involved in a love triangle with tragic consequences, he is reviled and has to hide from others. Here, in contrast to his other appearances, he is trying to defend himself, not concepts of justice or democracy. He's an individual with the benefits of detectiveness taken away, trying to re-establish himself as himself.

Dick Mullen and the Mistaken Identity is the book Disco Elysium presents as a reflection of Harry's character. Its dissolution even reminds him of his old life as a gym teacher, which otherwise only comes up at the very end of the game. Even though at this point we're primed to look at the series as pulp detective fiction which is definitively non-serious, this installment induces doubt about Harry's own identity and about the reportedly beloved Mullen's true nature. We don't get the release of a conclusion, but end with a multiplicity of options. Through the book's parallels with the plot of the game, we also get a suggestion: genre fiction is potentially the source of extremely important realizations about oneself. Rather than finding out about himself by speaking with someone or uncovering a clue, Harry identifies with a character and in doing so applies that character's qualities (if sometimes reluctantly) to himself. As the player chooses a "type" of cop for Harry to be, Harry chooses a self to identify with that's outside the player's hands, a genre that is also a statement about how a disconnected person tries to reclaim his life a description we could also use to describe Disco Elysium.

Disco Elysium is a work of detective fiction whose detective can't conform to the stereotypes the character creation screen presents. By giving you archetypes to choose from, it gives the illusion that you can be Chandler's "complete man," the genius or the empath sometimes giving you moments where you are but the foundation no matter what you choose is someone almost destroyed by depression and substance abuse, whose police work requires human connections he can't bring himself to make. The times those connections are possible are most frequently when you distance yourself from your identity as a policeman, though you run the risk of people seeing this disidentification as phony. Any attempts to convince Cuno that Harry is a cool cop fall through quickly, for example, as does trying to bond with any of the teenagers Harry later finds camping on a sheet of sea ice, revealing Harry to be even older and less cool than he seemed before, and probably failing a skill check in the process.

In the last few days of in-game time, failures to connect become even more visible. Apart from conversation, your second most continuous opponent in Disco Elysium is time itself. At first, the snow that falls on Martinaise does a pretty good job of preserving the body upon which the case centers. As the days go on though, it putrefies, and so does your evidence. Over seven (or eight, or ten) days, some of your informants leave or become inaccessible. Sometimes this is because you said something in a previous conversation that offended them, or failed a check that stopped the conversation. Other times you've just run out of things to say. Though Harry begins the game alone, he ends it with a record of those he failed to get through to, clearly visible in dead-end conversations and failed skill checks on your map screen, a visible reminder of the alienation that still follows Harry and, by extension, the player.

The conversants of the endgame become those you haven't yet alienated through mistakes or failed skill checks, and your skills themselves. Shivers, your communication with the city, becomes much more important. So does Inland Empire, the psyche skill that puts you in touch with the sublime. Frequently you are just talking to the city, or to yourself yet you often feel you're talking to everyone, all the time, and communicating something vital. The ravers in an abandoned church reach for the same realization in their pursuit of "true Hardcore": they are always just a single beat from transcendence, from music becoming the thing that can fix disaffection and class war and bring everyone together. So do the communists discussing Infra-Materialist theory in their book club: if we can learn how to shape the world with thought, then we can make the conceptual real. In all of these moments, though, transcendent connection always remains one step away; the theorized changes function more as escapism than as concrete plans. Your conversation with a cryptid you find at the end of the game makes this conceptual path literal through a discussion of the Pale, a world-spanning anti-matter which the cryptid tells you is in fact human-made. Human beings can bring conceptual ideas into the world, yes, but they seem to be ultimately destructive rather than connective.

When change does occur, it tends to be on a smaller scale. While investigating the harbor, you can find a photo of three young people. One of them looks like an old soldier you've met, René. You can choose to give it to him and his friend, Gaston, who will start arguing about it, but you can also give it to Gaston a few days later after René has died of heart failure. By engaging with the city, you see an interaction you wouldn't have otherwise. Divorcing a moment like this from your skills also decouples it from any player-determined characterization; in other words, the essential Harry has at least the potential to commit this act of kindness, for no ulterior reason. Likewise, Gaston's reaction isn't up to a check, but the result of an action you decide to undertake. The petánque player's treasured memory is a small success that derives no gameplay benefit nor comes from the skills you chose but from you, the player's, exploration and thoughtfulness. Harry's actions and yours blend together to create this small moment of connection.

After the mercenary tribunal that sets the end of the game into motion and empties the city even further, you emerge from the hotel to find a message written in fuel oil and blood on the ground: un jour je serai de retour pres de toi "one day I will return to your side." If you put a pack of cigarettes in your hand, you can toss a lit one on the letters, setting them on fire. You can make one of several quips as the message burns or just stare seriously into the flames.

The message has been written by a character whose inner life you don't have much access to. Indeed, an initial conversation with her provokes Kim to say that Martinaise has "a shortage of people who talk to us in a normal, calm, informative manner." Cindy is an artist who is planning her masterpiece, an "aero-graffito visible from low orbit". When you speak with her, one of the few things you can find out is that this masterpiece is stalled. This conversation can inspire you to paint your own masterpiece, which turns out to be so artistically non-threatening to Cindy that she lets you borrow her brush to make it. Cindy's aero-graffito eventually makes it to a more explosive existence.

It's never confirmed what the burning message refers to, whose side Cindy is thinking of. For the player it conjures Harry's ex, and the memory that confirms no one will be returning to anyone any time soon. More generally, it's an appropriate reflection on Harry's few weeks in Martinaise. All the small relationships you've made have to contend with your mind's essential pessimism about your own existence, one nearly ended by the tribunal, in which life amounts to a bunch of apes on a huge ball, a bunch of people colliding but failing to merge in the words of the thought White Mourning, "a modern death." If the majority of Disco Elysium features people trying to find stories to help them deal with their alienation from their own lives, Harry's reminiscence of his breakup serves the same purpose, but with a difference: rather than engaging with the world, it lets him shut himself off from it.

But Cindy is also a communist, and her words reflect the Return, a second revolution in which Revachol will be returned to its pre-occupation existence. The je then seems to be Martinaise, the orphan district that you leave in its own ruin at the end of the game. But before you've left, while you've been sleeping, the city has once again enabled a combination its streets, directly, its artist, the fuel oil sitting in a rusty can on a roof and the blood of its unofficial police force mixed with that fuel oil in the street in order to produce this message, one that contains bittersweetness but also vulnerability, futurity, hope.

The moment you throw your cigarette, you can't indicate which option you, the player, believe to be true, and you also can't know which one Harry believes in. Your decision to throw it, though, represents two separate things: your desire as the player to see the action through, and Harry's capacity as a character to be the kind of person to light a street on fire in service of an undefined emotional response. That this emotional response can only surface through an interaction with the city emphasizes the blurring of individual and space that Disco Elysium suggests is the key to overcoming alienation and connecting with the most essential parts of yourself. Without telling you anything directly, Cindy's message communicates to you and everyone else how she sees herself as an artist, a communist, and an important part of the city she lives in. You see the message, and then you decide what to do with it: ignore it, read it, or change it.

Disco Elysium never promises a transcendental connection across class, profession, or species, but it does present the possibility for connection through a shared space. Martinaise is defined by post-revolutionary pessimism in which every possible future has receded into a mediocre present, where everything is always already falling apart and failing to materialize. Rather than being a place of wonder you are excluded from by your emotions or your personality, it's a place where wonder has to be built, piece by piece, from the wreckage of previous possibilities, by you and the game simultaneously.

One day I will return to your side.

Emily Price is a freelance writer and PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She writes a monthly column about games and art for Unwinnable Magazine. 


  1. Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," The Atlantic, 1944.[]
  2. Mark Seltzer, "Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere," October 80 (1997): 3-26. []
  3. Diego N. Arguello discusses the experience of failing forward on several checks (including one of the central ones, the examination of the body) as an iterative process where "it feels like my character has learned from past mistakes, growing in the process." "Why I Love Failing in Disco Elysium," PC Gamer, 2020.[]
  4. Matt Garite, "The Ideology of Interactivity (Or, Video Games and the Taylorization of Leisure)," DiGRA Conference, 2003.[]
  5. Reid McCarter, "The World is a Tough Place, But We All Live in It," Bullet Points Monthly, 2019.[]
  6. Ruth Cassidy, "How Disco Elysium's Centrist Path Observes the Player," Unwinnable Magazine, 2021.[]