KIM KITSURAGI: "Not being hungover helps too."

I don't drink anymore. Or at least I don't drink with the apocalyptic fury I personified around a decade ago. No dramatic event catalysed this change and there are few stories worth telling. Relative abstinence is solely and boringly a decision made on the terms of self-preservation. No more creative life choices, no more inexplicable injuries, but most of all no more hangovers. Being forced into consciousness the morning after the night before is, for reasons of age and obligation, an experience I am no longer equipped to handle. Moderation prevails because I am plagued by a genuine if disproportionate fear of the hangover of once again finding myself, in the words of Kingsley Amis, "spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning."1 More than physical sickness, it's the spiteful eeriness I dread: the embodiment of debilitation, that glacial misery of which nothing good materializes and everything remains slow and horrible.

On first playthrough, the opening sequence of Disco Elysium clarified my probably overblown fear of hangovers with all the force of bilious reflux: the reptilian desire to remain in warm, primordial blackness; the limbic disgust that accompanies physical sensation; and ultimately the inability to remember, an overwhelming psychical burden of a "known unknown," a sinkhole in memory so frequently attended by The Fear. Waking up face down on stained linoleum, clothes strewn about in a chaos so powerful it must have been deliberate, and unable to perform the simplest of tasks at risk of a death as horrific as it would be stupid: to have first met the game's protagonist, my avatar, on the other side of a three-day bender was to inspire an empathy so powerful I could just about feel the nausea, the headache, and that gnawing if inarticulate sense of regret. "All recollection of the person you are," says the mirror as we confront the previous night's damage, "the people in your life and even the world you're in has drowned in a sea of blood alcohol. This was no mere night of drinking; it was a deluge. Of world-ending proportions." With awkward traversal mechanics and an elliptical narrative that finds its only literary equivalent in the novels of William Faulkner a writer intimately familiar with the inebriate blackout Disco Elysium presents us with a perfect, painful distillation of the hangover.

While contemporary works across multiple media have grappled with the affective singularity of the hangover from The Weeknd's early mixtapes through a world-spanning film trilogy starring Bradley Cooper and Zack Galifianakis to the autobiographical novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard perhaps this shared preoccupation goes beyond mere narrative content. Perhaps the acute and irreplicable experience of the hangover reflects a world in which we find ourselves waking up, day after day for weeks and months and years on end, having to (in Adorno's grim construction) "feel the rough shake of morning."2 What, we might ask, is the allegorical content of the hangover within our historical moment and how might the hangover serve as allegory in the first place? If, as Fredric Jameson insists, "meaningful narratives today, in late capitalist globalization, tend to find their fulfilment in structures that call for allegorical interpretation," whereby allegory proper transmutes into the self-referential mess of allegoresis, I want to speculate on what the hangover, or what this hangover, might signify within our moment.3

Having made it out of the room alive (now on my second attempt, with my avatar otherwise garrotted by the ceiling fan), players soon learn that this hangover befalls us in year 51 of the Current Century, in the city of Revachol. There are some clues about what happened, what's happening, and who we are in the constellation of words that seem to haunt this exceptional placename. Revachol contains within itself the ghosts of both revolution and revanchism. It suggests both the dramatic and forceful overturn of a social order as well as thermidor plots and reactionary revenge. As though having exerted a kind of nominative determinism, this political fissiparousness is the prehistory of Disco Elysium, the social grounds on which its narrative takes place.

Half a century before the events depicted in the game, the Antecentennial Revolution a civil war was waged by the Communards against a coalition of the liberal-centrist Moralintern and the superannuated royalty, under rule of the profligate King Filippe III. The events hold close to the Paris Commune of our own timeline. On 7 March, 02, the Revachol Commune proclaimed itself to world governments, and would be defended militarily by the Insulindian Citizens Militia. Coalition forces soon moved to suppress the communists, shelling the city and invading with ground troops, fulfilling what they termed Operation Death Blow. As we learn in the game, forty million were executed during the revolution and the reaction. The communists, we are told, "all got shot in the head," and the anarchists, too, on the scale of genocide, in a barely fictionalized version of the Jakarta Method. They were shot "so well one forgets they even existed," all to be piled "in mass graves in Ozonne and, well that's the last anyone heard of those people."

If there is something amnesiac about all of this, if political suppression is countersigned by historical repression, then perhaps the narrative blackout experienced by our avatar is something other than encephalopathy. Perhaps it even serves some greater, allegorical purpose. Indeed, if Revachol suggests both revolution and revanchism, it also rhymes with alcohol. In one of Slavoj Žižek's better analogies, the opposition between the exalted energies of revolution and the subsequent creation of a new social order is figured as the sobering experience of the hangover. "In the revolutionary explosion as an Event," he says, "another utopian dimension shines through, the dimension of universal emancipation which, precisely, is the excess betrayed by the market reality which takes over 'the day after.'"4 Beyond the ecstasy of utopian fervour is another material reality that requires its own economic coordination, elaborate statecraft, and military defence. Revolution is never just the momentary detonation of enthusiasm that overturns aristocratic and bourgeois rule. It is also the painstaking process of sustaining the new social order within itself and against the confederated forces of reaction. It's as gruelling as any hangover. And yet, the people of Revachol would endure a similar fate to my avatar on first playthrough, with their revolution ending before anyone could make it out of the hotel room alive.

This narrative tendency does not belong to Disco Elysium alone. In recent years, the bloody subdual of revolutionary social change has served as a world-building tool in many popular games. From Night City through Blackreef to the Lands Between, civil war against a decadent and decaying ruling class is not just the stuff of foundational lore; it also shapes the world entire, sedimenting in the narrative, visuals, and gameplay.5 Here Gramsci's definition of crisis is a useful description of these interactive, inhabitable worlds. "The crisis," wrote the Italian communist in his prison notebooks, "consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." Or, as others have translated that final clause, working up a metaphor that would help populate any number of game ecologies, "now is the time of monsters."6 Within Revachol, like those other worlds, the forces of reaction won out against the revolution, and so we are all doomed to live out the day after, to inhabit the ruins of the future, to experience those morbid symptoms and stand face-to-face with those monsters, and that is the first thing we encounter upon stumbling out of our apartment in the Whirling-in-Rags: a place and a people frozen in both space and time.

Turn left up the Martinaise Waterfront, stumble through the ice and snow, and be greeted by the looming, locked gates of Terminal B of the Greater Revachol Industrial Harbour, a logistical chokepoint said to handle 8% of global shipping, whose dockworkers are now two months into an increasingly violent strike. The mood on the picket line is reflected in the setting, where a ruined streetscape melds into a deindustrialized wasteland at a scale and detail worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. The scene is accompanied by either pulsating machine noise or indecipherable chatter, depending where you stand. Some of the pickets argue with a scab, others mill about in the cold, a few more are passed out in the nearby bar. There are interactions to be had, but these branching conversations don't progress the narrative by way of fulfilling objectives; they only clarify the nature of the dispute and the fact that it, like the narrative, is for now at deadlock, with neither the Dockworkers' Union nor the Wild Pines Group willing to cede territory. "This part of town is a fine clockwork puzzle," one part of our mind thinks. "Disturb its peace and it will start breaking down uncontrollably." To paraphrase a well-known media theorist, here the malaise is the message.

If, as literary critic Alex Woloch suggests, "minor characters are the proletariat of the novel" if those named and unnamed characters who serve but ultimately stand aside for more rounded protagonists are "subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while performing a function for someone else" then perhaps NPCs are best described as the surplus population of the video game world.7 They are, in other words, an underclass of disposable beings whose sole purpose is to prop up the lives of the elect, to affirm or condemn the actions of our avatars, to make it all feel just that bit more alive and, well, populous. Revachol abounds with such figures, and as in the novels of Austen or Dickens with their division of major and minor characters, here we find a rigorous homology between social class and character system, which extends beyond the small army of union workers guarding the harbour gates. From Klaasje Amandou, aka Miss Oranje Disco Dancer, an underemployed immigrant working multiple contingent and insecure contracts; or a dicemaker living in the chimney of an abandoned coal plant; through Cuno, the amphetamine-blasting psycho child; to those whose very being is indexed to their economically-sanctioned place in the world, like the Gardener, the Cleaning Lady, the old Washerwoman, both Working Class Woman and Working Class Husband, and many more besides: these characters all live at a remove from the larger social and political processes that determine their being, subsisting individually alongside or subsumed within the conflict between organized labor and the freedom of capital, in many cases literally occupying cracks within the city's design.

This characterology isn't one with the proletarian armies once prophesied by Karl Marx, an historical communist the game fictionalizes as Kras Mazov; it is, instead, what the Endnotes collective describe as the surplus population, those men, women, and children capital has no need, capacity, or desire to exploit, but who nevertheless still need to work in order to survive and who are "thus forced to offer themselves up for the most abject forms of wage slavery in the form of petty production and services identified with informal and often illegal markets of direct exchange arising alongside failures of capitalist production."8 These are end times and the people are living out their common ruin. Importantly, however, immiseration is not exploitation, and it does nothing in the way of forging those revolutionary combinations Marx once suggested were coming to life on the factory floors of the nineteenth century's industrial boom. "Far from representing the emergence of a coherent agent," Endnotes describe this underclass, "the expansion of the surplus population marks the tendential disappearance of the previous revolutionary horizon."9 It is this, a world that is all too familiar because it is our own, that has come to a standstill on the streets of Revachol. 

The genius of Disco Elysium is that it short circuits this entire character network, with its protagonist serving as the (initially unnamed) placeholder for a jostling multitude contained within. Circumscribed by the manifold impairments of the hangover, our avatar is a socially disenfranchised and economically impoverished subjectivity that, with all its competing parts and personae, each with their own voice and own urges, is an aggregate of that social surplus with whom we share the world. "This is a character at war within themselves," writes journalist Joshua Krook. "In making decisions, you are picking sides in that war."10 Indeed, for all its psychical intelligence and emotional infrastructure, this element of the game is still a fundamentally social matter, that to arrange a complex, multivalent inner life into a "thought cabinet" is to speak in the language of collective political sociality, all of which subjoins the civil war that rages within our sovereign being. To engage in any kind of character development is, in Disco Elysium, a process of recomposing into one loosely unifying form the disaggregate and atomized stuff of social class in the present, and of then setting that form loose on a microcosm of the very world we are all forced to inhabit. It is, in short, to personify an entire social milieu. What's more, because this aggregate being or composite form is our avatar, a controllable extension of ourselves into the game world, he can do something that not one of the scripted NPCs can do: that is, and alternating between deliberation and spontaneity, he can act.

There is, to be sure, a political compass that corresponds to how we choose to play the game, how we inhabit our avatar, a mechanical log of all the decisions we make and the actions taken. My avatar became the ludic embodiment of communism, the only good political tendency. But, importantly, it is decisions made and actions taken that accumulate so as to determine political tendency, not the other way around, and only then does political tendency direct the gameplay by opening some and closing other narrative pathways. In this way, the narrative just about opposes what Walter Benjamin once described as the "most repulsive feature of the old bourgeois society," namely "its separation of theory and practice," a disconnect between ideas and action - or, in order words, a debilitating synthesis of ideology with inaction.11 This is another way that the medium really is the message. The irreducible necessity of gameplay or "gaming," which functions as a kind of Heideggerian synthesis of verb and noun ensures that practice is at the core of this allegory, and that allegory obtains within an interactive form no less than its narrative content.

The communist political pathway is initially set out before us by the rhetorical brain function who suggests, in conspiratorial whisper, that "word on the street is you're ready to start building *communism* again!" This delivery is the stuff of comedy but, as everyone knows, truth resides in humour. Here the satirical edge belongs to the fact that we are forced into a world without capacity for building anything on a grand scale, that this is indeed a time of morbidity and monsters, in which largescale mobilizations feel like pure fantasy; and so the act of "building" is mostly absurd, but it nevertheless offers rewards by opening up the branching pathways of narrative. As the old materialist saying goes, we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please, only "under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past."12 From the past, yes, but also from the game design: here the limited freedom of gameplay, the circumscribed because programmed capacities for action, form another homology between the medium and our prevailing social order, as well as another referent for our allegorical hangover. To build communism, in this game, is to enact revolutionary measures but without an actual revolution. It is to wage a war of position, to rebuild the shattered parts of a whole, which is both a city and ourselves: it is to experience the hangover but with no recollection of the revelry in whose aftermath we now subsist.

It's not much, but it might also be as close to meaningful political work as any video game has ever come. And the game seems to know this. One of the characters, Joyce Messier, a well informed and uniquely informative representative of capital's interests, explains the problem. "One may dye their hair green and wear their grandma's coat all they want," she says. "Capital has the ability to subsume all critiques into itself. Even those who would *critique* capital end up *reinforcing* it instead . . . " With bleak irony, a kind of gallows humour in the face of subsumption, screenshots of this dialogue began to circulate online in October 2022, when ZA/UM, the parent company of the "cultural association" responsible for creating Disco Elysium, fired its creative team whilst laying claim to the game and its content as intellectual property. Rather than a betrayal of the game's values, the historical override of a critique mobilized in the form of allegory, this instance of capitalist subsumption only proves the accuracy of the lessons contained therein. Selling out or being sold down the river was always the mostly likely outcome. If Revachol is indeed our world, then its lessons belong to us no less than its inhabitants, and they are lessons not only about the strength of our enemy, but also about the bounds of our critique.

"0.000% of Communism has been built," our brain function concludes. "Evil child-murdering billionaires still rule the world with a shit-eating grin." That we know this to be true realigns us with our avatar, socially but perhaps also psychologically, in such a way that the ensuing thoughts offer a reflection on the limits of allegory as such. "All he has managed to do is make himself *sad*. He is starting to suspect Kras Mazov *fucked him over* personally with his socio-economic theory. It has, however, made him into a very, very smart boy with something like a university degree in Truth. Instead of building Communism, he now builds a precise model of this grotesque, duplicitous world." An allegory of allegory, this is, and a painful moment of critical self-reflection, in which the homeopathic operations of allegory and critique shrivel from the tentacular reach of capital. That's the thing about gaming. For all the aesthetic and intellectual pleasures on offer, it remains a mostly insulated and isolated activity, a form of bowling alone for the digital age, a new comfort for those denizens of the Grand Hotel Abyss. Perhaps that is why it can only ever be allegorical. I've grown increasingly alive to this uncomfortable truth: while I don't drink so much anymore, gaming has replaced alcohol as my principal vice. It doesn't come with the hangover, but it's sure as fuck not going to build communism.

Mark Steven is the author of Class War: A Literary History, Red Modernism: American Poetry and the Spirit of Communism, and Splatter Capital. He teaches literature at the University of Exeter.  


  1. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (London: Penguin, 1961), 61.[]
  2. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), 175[]
  3. Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (London: Verso, 2019), 309. []
  4. Slavoj Žižek, In Defence of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), 194. []
  5. The respective settings of Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), Deathloop (2021), and Elden Ring (2022).[]
  6. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2005), 276. For the monster translation, which seems derived from passing Gramsci's Italian through French before its arrival in English, see Žižek, "A Permanent Economic Emergency" New Left Review 64, July/August 2010, 95. []
  7. Alex Woloch, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 27.[]
  8. Endnotes, "Misery and Debt," Endnotes 2, 2010, 30, n. 15. This thinking is not, however, a rebuttal of Marx; it is, rather, a clarification of what Marx, in Capital, described as "the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation."Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1992), 798. Italics in original. []
  9. Endnotes, "An Identical Abject-Subject" Endnotes 2, 2015, 276. []
  10. Joshua Krook, "The Psychology of Disco Elysium," New Intrigue, May 2021. []
  11. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: 1927 - 1930, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al, translated by Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 274.[]
  12. Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire," in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (London: Norton, 1978), 595.[]