Inland Empire: DETECTIVE
Esprit-De-Corps: ARRIVING
Authority: ON THE SCENE

Disco Elysium (2019) is an open-world roleplaying video game that opens with a familiar premise: the player character wakes up in a motel room with no memory of who he is. Downstairs, he meets fellow detective Kim Kitsuragi, who accompanies the player throughout the rest of the game whilst they try to resolve the mystery of who murdered a man whose body is hanging in the courtyard of the motel. As the player interacts with the individuals around them to solve this mystery, they begin learning facts about the world around him, and about themselves. Early on, we learn the basics of our identity we are disgraced detective Harrier "Harry" DuBois, who has, it seems, been getting drunk and causing chaos instead of doing his job. It is year '51 of the Current Century in the game's world of Elysium. Harry has woken up in the city of Revachol, and more specifically, he's in its impoverished district of Martinaise. Revachol itself is located on an "isola," the game's word for the isolated areas of land and water that make up the world of Elysium. Isolas are connected by "The Pale," a mysterious mist that promises madness and death for those who dare to enter it.

So far, so detective story/murder mystery/urban fantasy. But what separates Disco Elysium from these more recognizable, often narratologically stringent generic forms is that the element of chance itself helps to form the player's identity. Much as in such predecessors as Baldur's Gate (1998) or Planescape: Torment (1999), in which gameplay was based on the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, Disco Elysium's main mechanic is one of virtual dice-rolling. The outcomes of encounters with characters, objects, environments, and challenges in the world are determined by dice rolled against Harry's skillsetopening up new branches of the story or closing them off entirely. The four main political ideologies of the game's world communism, fascism, moralism, and ultraliberalism inflect and are contested within these encounters and, depending on the player's strategy, can influence future interactions and outcomes with others in the world. Neha, a Novelty Dice Maker who works in the Doomed Commercial Area of Martinaise, sees this as fundamentally cruel mechanic. She tells Harry that "there's something inherently violent even about dice rolls. It's like every time you cast a die, something disappears. Some alternative ending, or an entirely different world..."

To read in Disco Elysium is, therefore, to read through a dice roll to read through chance. This cluster addresses the problem of Disco Elysium as a text. It's an interactive video game whose player experience relies not on action, puzzles, or combat, but almost entirely on reading vast swathes of text; it's a roleplaying experience that constantly oscillates between player control and futility through its dice-rolling mechanic; it's a detective story withoutat least by the conventions of that genrea truly "satisfying" solution to its mysteries. The essays contained within this cluster address both Disco Elysium's problem of classificationformally, ideologically, politically, mechanicallyand its problem of being "played" as a traditional game.

Our collection springs in part from a well-worn question about whether games can be "read" in the way that more traditional media forms novels, films, poetry can? Sadek Kessous kicks us off with a blistering essay that breathes fresh life into this discourse, picking up on terms like "cinematic," "literary," and "novelistic" in order to engage with Disco Elysium's enormous amount of stuff to read. The game is mainly a game that's readone of the core mechanics is simply the requirement to read great walls of textresulting in what Kessous calls "a formal conceit in which the player-character is confronted by the externalised voices of his thoughts and internal bodily-cognitive faculties." This conceit, Kessous argues, in fact emphasises and underlines the "primacy" of reading as a playful and interactive experience.

Hayley Toth continues this discussion of the essential interactivity of reading by looking directly at the playthrough or, as our writers come back to again and again throughout this collection, the halting first, second, third, and half-playthroughs that every Disco Elysium player encounters. The game's constant closing and opening of new chapters can frustrate some players, especially when their failed dice roll, or poor dialogue choice, can result in their inadvertent construction of the "wrong" Harrya racist, lecherous loser rather than a hero detective. Hayley Toth addresses this question of constructing the "wrong" Harry in an essay on "save scumming" in Disco Elysium. Toth sees save scumming as a form of reading practiceone that allows her to analyse "[w]hat happens we recognize saving and reloading the game as a practice that sustains, rather than suspends, roleplay." Taking the concept of "bad reading" as a starting point for her analysis, Toth argues that save scumming in fact constitutes an active, discursive engagement with the text that Disco Elysium both thrives upon as a text, and metafictionally points to throughout its narrative(s).

Disco Elysium is a text with a staggering amount of layered, intersecting, and contradictory narratives that the player may interact with. Joe Worthen picks up from Toth's piece with an essay on narrative superimposition and agency. Arguing that "Disco Elysium furnishes narrative even in its fail states and these failure narratives buttress the superstructure," Worthen demonstrates the ways in which the game superimposes contradictory, incomplete, and unsatisfying narratives on top of each other, arguing that this speaks to the necessity of a player's "non-trivial" engagement with the text. Worthen looks closely at the games' six possible endings, surveying Disco players to discern the most common, or popular, ending. He ultimately uses these results to assess the game's hard and soft narrative restraints that both encourage and influence interactivity styles and levels. Reading, as Kessous, Toth and Worthen demonstrate, is central to Disco Elysium but on the part of the player, reading is ultimately figured here as a mode of creative play.

Expanding on this concept of "reading" the game, Dylan Davidson looks more closely at Disco Elysium's engagement with genre and the political. In his essay Therapy Simulator 2019, Davidson reads Disco Elysium as an interrogation of the logics of contemporary self-help narratives  namely, Davidson argues that the game addresses the essential difficulties of gaining individual autonomy over socio-politically engineered phenomena like trauma or addiction. Davidson contends that the "tantalizing hope of individual self-improvement is part of the game's deliberate play with the illusion of autonomy," and that the game invites us to play through helplessness as a way of interrogating contemporary discourses on self-care and autonomy coping as a (gameplay) mechanism.

In a cluster that repeatedly discusses concepts of chance and imagination, Saad Maqbool at first appears to take a left turn by reading Disco Elysium as "hard-coded" a narrative that is static, encoded, and pre-existing. Maqbool contends that the game "imposes upon us a new anthropology one that equally forces us to understand ourselves our 'self' as digital distributions." He reads the game through its representation of the subject/object interface, arguing that the game's interface deliberately obfuscates the distinction between Harry and the player.

Mark Steven's essay, "Inebriation and Allegory," invites us to read Disco Elysium through the lens (or, rather, the mist) of the hangover. Steven draws comparisons between the game's countersigning of political repression and its protagonist's alcohol-induced memory repression, moving his analysis ultimately into the game's space and worldbuilding. Revachol (which, Steven wryly notes, itself rhymes with alcohol) is a city and a history build on cracks in the foundation, on missing pieces, and whose identity only survives because of its inhabitants' collective inability, or unwillingness, to recollect the great carousing in the miserable aftermath. Self-help, to recall Dylan Davidson's essay, is self-destruction. Steven's treatment of the hangover as political allegory is urgently useful because it questions whether the political allegory is, as a narrative device, truly helpful, interactive, or fulfilled at all.

Carl White directs our attention to Disco Elysium's treatment of space, architecture, and the city as a kind of language in itself a productive and multi-faceted articulation of the class struggle that underlines Revachol's and Martinaise's histories. If the literal cracks in the foundations of the city speak to the cracks in its history, then they also let the light in. White argues that the "Shivers" skill is what encapsulates this sense of creative gap-filling best, because the skill itself "charts a relationship between Harry and the city." White close-reads two scenes of the game that articulate Shivers' intertwining of individual and cultural memory, its role as a world-building skill, and its essential literary qualities.

In a cluster so marked by questions of reading and interactivity, it's only fitting that we exit through the bookshop. Emily Price rounds off our collection with an essay built around Crime, Romance, and Biographies of Famous People, the game's in-universe bookstore. Taking the bookstore as a microcosm of the game's treatment of genre and narrative structures a piled up mishmash of potential solutions to Harry's, and the player's, isolation within the game world Price uses this as a jumping-off point to talk about alienation and its treatment within Disco Elysium. As she notes, the game's "[m]oments of connection often come from the city, and they come against the intentional background of disaffection that the narrative has set up from the very beginning." Price uses the notion of the bookstore, and what it represents, to speak to the game's essential contradictions in terms of how it models Harry, and by extension the player, as an individual who is both isolated from the game's wider world and figured as vital within its processes.

Subdue the regret. Dust yourself off, proceed. You'll get it in the next life, where you don't make mistakes. Do what you can with this one, while you're alive.


Jess Anderson received her PhD in American Literature in 2023 from the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on violence in American popular culture, particularly in true crime writing and crime photography. She works in Research Culture at the University of Leeds.