In Kogonada's debut feature film, Columbus (2017), two librarians take a brief moment away from the Dewey Decimal system to talk about reading and gaming. Considering their bookish nature, one librarian wonders if their easy absorption in reading might be no different to that which a video gamer experiences when playing. For the bookish individual, it might take tremendous effort to concentrate on falling tetrominoes or marching goombas. But a gamer might similarly strain to follow a Dickensian narrative or track Joycean syntax. Rather than claiming that "good" art requires attention whilst "bad" art asks only for mindlessness, Kogonada's aside suggests that there are only different forms of active engagement. Our relationship with artworks is determined by the different modes of attention we pay to their forms, our different modes of reading. The implication is that there might be something gained by the reader who can move between genres to bring the gamer's eye to the literary text and vice versa.

I anticipate resistance to this suggestion amongst my readership. I play games, am a gamer, but I keep both facts close to my chest, particularly as an academic, knowing that, at best, my interest might represent a dull, voguish novelty and, at worst, a serious lack of good taste. Historically there has been little love lost between literary and gaming cultures. In 2010 Roger Ebert declared famously that "video games can never be art," that "no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."1 Novels have shown similar convictions. In Alex Garland's The Beach (1996), a pristine Thai paradise is under threat from modern globalization. Its harbinger is the video game: Garland's utopia is ultimately undone when characters seek out batteries for their Gameboy. In Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), an era of roleplaying storytelling in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons is brought to an end by the rise of a new card game, Magic, in which "all narrative is flensed from the game, all the performance, just straight unadorned mechanics."2 It is a commonplace that games, particularly video games and their mechanical play, are at a remove from higher brain functions, that they are busywork for eyes, thumbs, ears, twitch-reflexes.

Accordingly, if someone is trying to sell you on a video game, they will most likely call it "cinematic": a word charged with implications of gawping, open-mouthed spectacle and graphical visual fidelity. (The cinema they speak of is James Cameron's rather than, say, Edward Yang's or Claire Denis's.) Similarly, video game marketing seldom declares that a game is "literary" or "novelistic" in the way that prestige TV is sometimes spoken about. Yet, in spite of that fact, there has been a growing trend in gaming to eschew the cinematic for the literary. In What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), players navigate an abandoned house in which, with each newly opened room, they play out (or rather play through) the experience of its former resident. So unfurls the generational tragedy of the Finch family. Close attention to the bookcases in the home reveals intertexts that underscore the game's own literary form: there sit Borges, Márquez, Basile, Danielewski, Wallace, writers of tessellating and/or puzzling sketches, often of unhappy families. In The Stanley Parable (2013), the titular player-character's actions are narrated seconds before they are performed. The game turns on the tragicomic meta effect of the player defying the narrator and unravelling not only the rules of the game-text but also ultimately any possible freedom from it. What captivates me about games like these is not in the stories they tell or even in the unique way that they tell stories but in how they ask for attention, how they elicit a manner of reading that is paradoxically both unique to video games and linked to literary forms. Disco Elysium, developed by game studio ZA/UM, best exemplifies this type of game: it shows how games can uniquely frame reading.

Scholars have argued whether the meaning of a game resides either in the aesthetic qualities of its play mechanisms or in the narrative possibilities of an interactive medium. Mapped against "the debate about primacy of game play (ludology) over storytelling (narratology)," Disco Elysium's complex narrative structure invites interpretations in the manner of the latter school.3 It is a game with an enormous branching narrative, molded by unique combinations of simple player choices and virtual dice rolls. Will my punch knock down the racist henchman who bars my way or will I humiliate myself by swinging wide of his chin? Unlike many games, the outcome is not determined by the player's skillful manipulation of gameplay mechanisms that involve dexterity and snap reflexes. Instead, the game is decided by the probability of its digital dice and their irrevocable consequences shape the branched and branching story that follows. The result of this mechanic is that, as my fellow contributor Hayley G. Toth notes, Disco Elysium is "one of those RPGs that it feels like you alone have played." My own impression of the game, however, is much less about its narrative complexity, which like a good unbookish reader, I find hard to hold in mind in all its multiplying breadth. Instead, I am more engaged by how its narrative overload and the form of its play required me to read it.

Players of Disco Elysium are asked to do a lot of reading: the game's script is reportedly more than a million words in length. Beyond the sheer heft of its verbiage, however, Disco Elysium makes the attentive reading of words its core gameplay mechanic. The game begins with a black screen. Text appears and indicates that an unidentified "you" is in dialogue with "ancient reptilian brain" and "limbic system." "You" can choose between responses which in turn shape the texture of the dialogue. Consequently, you (the player) attend to words carefully as, thus far, the sole medium of the game. There is nothing else in this early moment to draw upon: no cinematic spectacle, no clearly discernible character, no clear game rules to determine success or failure. This opening introduces the crux of the game, a formal conceit in which the player-character is confronted by the externalized voices of his thoughts and internal bodily-cognitive faculties. This includes "spinal cord," "don't call Abigail," "volition," "shivers," "homo-sexual underground," "jamais vu" and so on. The early release of Disco Elysium rendered this core element purely as text, whilst later releases offered the choice between a fully voiced version or a "psychological" mode in which the thoughts that shape the game are solely written text. The introductory scene comes to a close first with a sound of abrasive static and then with gradual lights-up on a setting that reveals the player-character but, by beginning by withholding what "cinematic" qualities Disco Elysium could be said to possess, the game underscores the primacy of reading. It tells us that to appreciate what it has to offer we have to play the game as readers. 

The emphasis on Disco Elysium's literary qualities should come as no surprise given that its lead writer and designer, Robert Kurvitz, is an Estonian author whose untranslated novel The Sacred and Terrible Air (Püha ja õudne lõhn) also (reportedly, alas for this non-reader of Estonian) connects to the world of the game. Narratively, Disco Elysium draws immediate comparisons with speculative detective fictions by China Miéville or Thomas Pynchon. Its amnesiac detective is tasked with solving the murder of a brutal mercenary strike-breaker as dystopia rages around him. The game takes place in Revachol, a once-great global capital which has passed through many hands feudal, communist, capitalist to sit eventually on the precipice of political, economic, and potentially nuclear obliteration. The obvious resonances with the history of formerly Soviet satellite states are apparent: Kurvitz owns a bust of Lenin that sits on his writing desk and was once owned by Juhan Smuul, a Soviet-era Estonian novelist. The game's development team gave Marx and Engels a shout out at The Game Awards. Perhaps (marginally) less obvious is the relation between this history and the noir detective genre to which the game belongs. The films noirs of the 1940s and '50s were also characterized by violent changes to the world-order: many of their directors were Germans and Austrians, like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak, who fled fascism to Hollywood;  the genre's first critics were French film journalists who coined the term after seeing these films in the years following the Nazi occupation; its later manifestations, such as The Third Man (1949) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), registered the Cold War era of post-war urban devastation, political instability and nuclear threat. In noirs the detective is a consummate reader: he (and in this period it is almost always he) laboriously reads the codes of this social confusion in an effort, ambivalently, to negotiate, resist and / or leverage the violence of the new world. Noir, however, doesn't explicitly tell the story of this violent history but it demands that it be read in light of it.  It aestheticizes the experience of history without having to narrate it.

So too does Disco Elysium. Miéville and Pynchon evoke the conditions of late capitalist life through images of weirdness, such as paranoid networks of administratively bifurcated cities and a Jacobean revenge tragedy that discloses a secret postal service, and ZA/UM's game offers similar bursts of weirdness: an unseeable character whose hyper-affluence causes light to bend around him, a global miasma called "the pale" that breaks down all laws of physical reality for those within it. It may be possible to draw these diverse elements (which may or may not feature in any given playthrough of the game) into a frame that makes sense of them in a systematic fashion. I, however, can only read them intuitively, imperfectly, as part of the game's textual fabric. And yet I'm not apologetic about that fact. The game's core mystery of the murder of a fascist enforcer demands that players solve 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? Few of these are ever clearly settled. Thoughts like "inexplicable feminist agenda" can be conceived but there is also a mechanism for them to be forgotten. The result feels less like a text comprising vital components and more like the ongoing process of messy meaning making that reading entails. Rather than plodding along a Kindle progress bar from 0% to 100% completion, reading is circuitous, incomplete, individual. The eye flicks back up the page rather than the finger turning it. The mouth voices a particularly resonant phrase repeatedly. The mind drifts after pursuing an associative chain of thoughts. These intrinsic reading acts are formalized into the game's fabric: we get lost, circle back, repeat conversations, find strange asides. Disco Elysium's readers are invited to be like those children who play a game with their food: rather than simply consume the text, they nudge it around the plate to make weird and wonderful shapes and patterns from it. By resisting ostensible functions and meanings, we might call this a form of critique.

These kinds of play are almost always private and it can be hard to articulate their value to someone else. The most characteristically literary aspect of Disco Elysium is how it turns noir's private "eye" inward, how it prioritizes interiority and thought over exclusively external actions. Games have long marketed themselves on freedom of action, whether that's the freedom to frequent sex workers or "obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto 5."4 Disco Elysium does not spurn choice but it complements freedom of action with freedom of thought: thinking in a particular way changes what you can do but doing certain things affects what can be thought. This resists the kind of uniform blankness typical of traditional video game characters, particularly those who commit acts of violence. This fact was best observed by Sean Vanaman, co-writer and co-director of Firewatch (2016):

If we did a game where you had a gun and shot somebody then the words that came out of your character's mouth would be all over the map. The character would be completely bewildered. Like, what have I done?

If it was something dark like Firewatch it would be somber and awful and quiet. That gun shot would echo through the valley for a whole minute.5

It is in this regard that Disco Elysium most intensively rejects gaming's "cinematic" models and instead favors a literary emphasis on interiority: the Shakespearean soliloquy, novelistic free-indirect discourse, stream of consciousness. It is through this particular emphasis on interior play that the game reframes reading.

Beyond serving as the texture of Disco Elysium's gameplay, reading itself constitutes an activity that the player-character can undertake within the game's world. The bookstore besides "the doomed commercial area" has novels for sale such as the noirish Dick Mullen and the Mistaken Identity, pseudo-Soviet-era realism like Sixteen Days in Coldest April, and the crypto-fascist speculative fantasy Hjelmdallermann: The Man from Hjelmdall. Many games have textual elements - discarded letters in The Last of Us (2013), data terminals in Fallout 3 (2008), Norse poems in God of War: Ragnarok (2022) but these are supplementary to the game rather than a core element of it. Players can read them as world-building appendices or simply skip them. In Disco Elysium, books are integrated into the game's plot, albeit only as objects to trade: gift a book, gain an ally. But reading a book offers little reward in terms of moving the story forward: you gain only a modest amount of experience points (XP) the currency for gradually enhancing the player-character's skills in "logic," "authority," "encyclopedia," "empathy," and so on. Enhancing certain skills might change the course of the narrative a decent "savoir faire" score, for example, might improve your chances of jumping across a gap between roofs to reach an item but reading an in-game novel is not the only way to enhance skills. XP can be gained from "solving" elements of the game's mystery like talking to some cantankerous boules players or depositing the murder-victim's body in a fridge.

This does not, however, suggest that reading fictions is superfluous to Disco Elysium. Opening an in-game novel begins a new dialogue between you, the text and your alienated faculties. Whilst reading Hjelmdallermann, for example, you are invited to respond to the novel's images of bloody masculine violence with either:

1. Wow . . . they're in trouble now.

2. Seems . . . over the top?

Neither of these options is a sophisticated interpretation of the in-game novel but that's not the point. Reading the novel conveys the game's broader understanding of readerly acts. It involves the kind of disruptive interior conversations that characterize both the game and gamerly reading more generally, making a virtue of its scattered quality to unsettle ostensible meanings and emphasize the diverse effects of texts. The reader of Hjelmdallermann experiences interruptions from internal voices that jar with the novel's surface. "Hand/eye coordination" says, "this writer has *never* held a sword in their life." "Conceptualization" says, "this book makes a mockery of the very idea of good plotting, though something tells you coherence was never the point." The aim is not to develop a unified or stable interpretation of the text but rather to represent the chaotic process of reading. Chance determines whether the animalistic instinct "half light" kicks in and says, "that is what you came for, isn't it? A climactic bloodletting, where men are reduced to muscle and fury?" Probability might mean that it doesn't, that a different instinct takes hold or that a particular thought fails to form. Players of Disco Elysium experience something similar throughout the game they are overwhelmed by textual stimuli that cohere and diverge, that concentrate and distract their faculties. Isn't this just how it feels to read? A game, bound by chance and circumstance, that seems incomplete and incompletable. Mainstream games ask completionists to tick off every task and leave no stone unturned but this impulse conversely also suggests that games invite a form of engagement much like this cluster of essays about a 4-year-old game that extends well beyond any potential exhaustion. ZA/UM's game necessitates this sort of readership by defying completeness with a cascade of interpretive permutations. The pleasure the game offers emerges from how it renders reading a form of open-ended play. To paraphrase Italo Calvino, a classic is a game that has never finished what it has to say.

The other side to this pleasure of open-endedness, however, is that playful reading denies any conclusive sense of fulfilment. Indeed, though it grants XP, reading a novel in Disco Elysium is more likely to affect your circumstances negatively: a depressing read can drop your health and morale stats, just as it can in real life. The point is that neither novels nor games are simply neat clues that untangle a historical contradiction or solve the mystery of the grand narrative. Equally novels do not grant you additional skills, means or capabilities to respond to these challenges. The creators at ZA/UM illustrate the uselessness of literary texts via some characters named "the Hardy Boys" who, in contradistinction to the trite solutions of their namesake's fiction, are a key red herring in Disco Elysium's ostensible mystery. Yet nevertheless the play of reading as inconclusive as it has to be asks us to reflect on the nature of the attention we can give to the historical moment we inhabit and, in so doing, opens up new conversations about how to be in the world.

Sadek Kessous is a Lecturer in Combined Honours at Newcastle University. He works in Newcastle's School X, a centre for interdisciplinary innovation in teaching, learning and research.


  1. Roger Ebert, "Video Games Can Never Be Art,", 16 April 2010.[]
  2. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (London: Penguin, 2007), 269.[]
  3. Tison Pugh and Lynn Ramey, "Introduction: Ludology, Narratology, and Teaching Literary Games," in Teaching Games and Game Studies in the Literature Classroom, edited by Tison Pugh and Lynn Ramey (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), 4.[]
  4. Bo Burnham, "That Funny Feeling," Inside (Netflix, 2021).[]
  5. Colin Campbell, "A year after Firewatch," Polygon, 3 April 2017.[]