Shivers come when the temperature drops and you become more keenly aware of your surroundings. It enables you to hear the city itself, to truly belong to the streets. It is a supra-natural ability; old wrongs play out in present time, scenes across the city happen in front of you. But who is speaking to you?

At high levels, Shivers may make you seem mad to the outside worldas you listen to the city, you don't listen to others. Your superiors may begin to worry. With low Shivers, though, you will seldom hear the city speaking to you and if you cannot hear it, how can you ever save it?

Disco Elysium

Replaying Disco Elysium, I was struck by how much the game invests in using the city as its own kind of language through which class struggle can be articulated. I was reminded of Charlotte E. Rosen's reading of Mike Davis's City of Quartz (1990) in another Post45: Contemporaries cluster: "Central to Davis's project is getting his readers to view the spaces and geographies around them as products of intentional political decision-making, as evidence of metropolitan elites' corrupt priorities and material investment shoring up their profits through the police-backed maintenance of racial and economic segregation."1 Disco Elysium does much the same thing with the district of Martinaise in the city of Revachol: the setting manifests the political legacies of the gameworld's history. The game's protagonist, Harry, and his partner Kim Kitsuragi, are officers of the Revachol Citizens' Militia (RCM).2 As such, they participate in the enforcement of their own city's racial and economic segregation even as Kim, in particular, suffers its effects.3 The question of whether the RCM is indeed a citizens' militia is contested in-game: it was "allowed" to form by the aggressively bureaucratic centrist Moralintern government that took power following a failed communist revolution some forty years prior. As Kim says of their work on the first night of gameplay, "[they] are stooges of the world's biggest bourgeois organization." Just as Davis lays bare the class war built into the very architecture of Los Angeles, Disco Elysium compels the player to interact with the political and economic history and present and anticipate the increasingly bleak future of Martinaise by navigating the buildings and locations of the district.

Disco Elysium's role-playing element involves levelling up various aspects of Harry's person, from the relatively self-explanatory Rhetoric and Hand-Eye Coordination to the more abstract and nebulous Shivers and Inland Empire. During the dialogue that constitutes much of the gameplay, these skills are subject to regular checks, the results of which unlock alternative narrative pathways. These checks can be active, in which the player decides to roll a pair of virtual dice and, combined with the modifier of that skill's level, can pass or fail the check (although "success" and "failure" in Disco Elysium are by no means static concepts, as Hayley G. Toth shows elsewhere in this cluster through a critique of "good" and "bad" reading practices). There are passive versions of these checks, too: based on its level (plus any modifiers), a skill may interject in the dialogue unsolicited, potentially offering alternative options which the player may or may not act upon. 

            The skills offer a customization aspect to the game that enables the process of the storyworld's unfolding to take place in many different ways. While the broad trajectory of Disco Elysium is fixed and has various set pieces and bottleneck moments through which the player is directed, this text-heavy game's interactivity is the key factor that distinguishes it from, say, an (audio)book. This can be said for video games more broadly. Writing about embedded narratives in video games, Henry Jenkins argues that

one can imagine the game designer as developing two kinds of narratives one relatively unstructured and controlled by the player as they explore the game space and unlock its secrets; the other pre-structured but embedded within the mise-en-scene awaiting discovery. The game world becomes a kind of information space, a memory palace. [ . . . ] We may have to battle our way past antagonists, navigate through mazes, or figure out how to pick locks in order to move through the narratively-impregnated mise-en-scene. Such a mixture of enacted and embedded narrative elements can allow for a balance between the flexibility of interactivity and the coherence of a pre-authored narrative.4

How the player chooses to level up Harry's skills shapes the order in which the sprawling tasks of Disco Elysium are completed. These choices also change the process by which the storyworld's history gets revealed to the player. Even to access the opportunity to read the game in a particular way, specific requirements must be met and certain choices enacted and, in some cases, you've just got to get the dice rolls. While Revachol's and Harry's histories are fixed and don't change, the relationship the player has with them will differ depending on how they are revealed.

Disco Elysium uses the Shivers skill to mediate between Harry's personal experiences and memories and the historical memory of Revachol itself. Through offering the ability to level up the skill, the player can choose the intensity at which this mediation occurs. Replaying the game for this piece, the academic (read: perfectionist) in me was desperate to pass all the Shivers rolls. A critical reading of a text needs to unearth all the possible content, right? But, inspired by other contributors to this cluster particularly Hayley G. Toth and Joseph R. Worthen I re-evaluated my expectations of what critical engagement in this context might mean. If I "failed" the roll, yes, I missed out on some text, a dialogue option, and/or a particular branching path of the game's narrative. What struck me this time around, though, were the times when I failed a roll that I'd passed in a previous playthrough. While I couldn't remember exactly the alternative scenario, I knew there was one, and that I'd experienced it before. My experience of this moment of failure, of narrative absence, was informed by a past that I felt precisely through that absence. This created in me the very feeling of "Jamais Vu (Derealization)," a bonus stat-altering thought that Harry can acquire upon discussing the nature of reality with Joyce Messier, the strike negotiator representing the Wild Pines Group. An inversion if not quite a precise mirror of déjà vu, jamais vu manifests as the feeling of not-knowing despite rationally being certain of one's knowledge. It's an epistemological crisis, that "tip of the tongue" feeling. It was at these moments that the Shivers skill made the most affective sense to me as a player, mediated through the (replayed) form of the game rather than its plot or story. The echo of my previous game informed my affective response to the new iteration, the cold wind of the past playing out in present time.


The first encounter a Disco Elysium player has with the Shivers skill comes when they initially step outside the Whirling-in-Rags, the bar-hostel that Harry is staying in. Standing in the Martinaise town square, a red thought icon pops up, prompting Shivers to introduce itself into the narrative:

SHIVERS: All around you, rain falls on the great city of Revachol. Rain drips from the caves and floods the gutters, washing the filth away. The spring thaw must be here. The snow is melting . . .

YOU: What am I doing?

SHIVERS: Looking up at the sky, cold water dripping from your hair.

YOU: What do I see?

SHIVERS: Grey sky like great battleships, clouds colliding with one another. Rain falls down on the world.

YOU: How does it feel?

SHIVERS: Your shirt sticks to your chest. The shoulders of your disco blazer grow heavy. The cold finds its way in under your skin. You shiver, and the city shivers with you.

This moment is indicative of much of the gameplay: Harry is either talking to different parts of his personality, to other characters, or even to inanimate objects. Shivers informs Harry how he's feeling based on the world outside and mediates his reaction to the rain. However, unlike other skills, Shivers definitively and specifically charts a relationship between Harry and the city. In declaring that "the city shivers with you," Shivers plays with the idea that Harry can feel the city itself.  For the player, Shivers almost acts as a dedicated "world-building" skill. It reveals what is happening in the rest of the world, beyond the frame of the virtual camera that the game fixes on Harry. Everything that it reveals, however, remains contextually tethered to the immediate action the player is engaged in.

While Disco Elysium has branching paths that lead to variations on the same conclusion, the Shivers skill perhaps best encapsulates the degree to which the game's narrative(s) can resonate historically and politically beyond the individual. Shivers is an interactively rewarding skill; the moments of reverie where Revachol is fleshed out grant the player access the historical and geographical context of the gameworld. Gaining that access means forgoing investment in other skills with greater immediate narrative prominence, such as Logic, Conceptualization, or Empathy. Gregory Whistance-Smith writes of "video game environments as designed spaces, ones that shape human action and offer frames for understanding what takes place within them," arguing that this "architectural perspective [ . . . ] direct[s] our attention to the core of spatiality itself: the interaction between a body and an environment."5 It becomes apparent while playing that Shivers' primary function is to expand the player's knowledge of the world in relation to Harry. In this sense, the "supra-natural" nature of Shivers is registered both thematically and formally: it mediates not just between Harry and Revachol but on a metatextual level between the player and Disco Elysium itself. The supra-naturalness of Shivers provides an avenue for Harry to progress in the investigation at certain points. More importantly for the purposes of my engagement with it, however, it's also a distinctly literary skill. By this, I mean that Shivers provides such sprawling context for the world in which the characters inhabit that it creates the conditions for a relationship with that world. Encyclopedia, another of the game's skills, provides bare facts in a vacuum, but Shivers narrates the relationship between Harry and the city.

Shivers is particularly resonant in specific locations in the game's map. These locations are those in which the echoes of Revachol's fictional history are most apparent. As stated above, the first encounter with Shivers is one that doesn't detail Revachol's history but its present: the player is presented with a network of perceptions that are dictated by choices tethered to space and direction: "1) What is in the west? 2) What's in the east? 3) What's in the north? 4) What's in the south? 5) 'Motherfucker.' [Finish thought]."

However, although the options are directional, the answers that the skill provides are temporal; what Shivers is doing here is folding history into the present, with Harry not necessarily finding out information about locations but instead acutely feeling the ripples of time. This reverie emerges in the Martinaise plaza, a place in which there are still bullet holes in the walls and craters caused by artillery fire from the failed revolution. Through Shivers, and through feeling the city's present, Disco Elysium presents the legacy of these events. The failed communist revolution led to the domination of the multi-nation Coalition, whose bureaucratic economic liberalism has exacerbated the decline of Martinaise. In the west, "beyond the Bay of Revachol, ghosts rise into the sky"; these ghosts are "the skyscrapers of La Delta, the financial district. Faint golden light seeps from the office windows." When the player responds, "will I go there?" Shivers replies "No. You are just one of the hundreds of thousands who watch them rise across the bay from Martinaise every day." In the wake of the failed revolution, the conditions have been created for excessive finance capital. The majority of people are excluded from this new wealth, watching from a distance as the "ghosts" of financialization take hold of an economy that holds them at arm's length.

Richard Terdiman argues that the transition from (objective) history to memory as the culturally dominant mode of understanding the past happened during the French Revolution.6 Disco Elysium is a working-out of a similar political process.7 Faced with the ruins of a failed revolution, history is superseded by memory. Representation takes over action following action's failure. How the game understands the past isn't primarily through actions but through interactions and the production of memory through representations and interpretations. Shivers mediates this. It's at once the voice of the city, a history that comes directly to Harry, but it's specifically one that feels it's bodily, as much part of Harry's nervous system as it is Martinaise's, Revachol's, and the game's. As Dylan Davidson writes elsewhere in this cluster, Disco Elysium is committed to the structuring motifs of neurology, the brain, and the nervous system. With Shivers, the game uses the bodily and the interior to represent the relation to the exterior, to the bodies built through other forms and architectures.


SHIVERS [Challenging: Success] - On the coast of the Martinaise Inlet, in a small weather-beaten stave church built 380 years ago by settlers from the Occident, most likely to guard against an anomaly at its centre, an officer of the RCM is contorting his body into idiotically rigid shapes, as he invents the future of dance music . . . It's the *hardest* anyone has ever danced.

Perhaps the most affecting Shivers encounter in Disco Elysium comes at the climax of one of the game's supposedly-side-but-actually-integral quests: the establishing of a hardcore nightclub with some teenage "'speedfreaks" in an abandoned coastal church occupied by a strange, philosophical man who squats high up in the rafters and a software engineer monitoring a (not-unrelated) "2mm hole in the world." Towards the end of this storyline, following negotiations with the current occupants and repair of the mechanical equipment, the nightclub (and/or front for a drug operation) which may or may not be christened "Disco Elysium" by the player is established. The music's anything but disco, though: it's "anodic dance music," repetitive and stabbing with pulsing, wobbly bass. As Egg Head, one of the speedfreaks, insists, it's "HARDCORE." Even though part of this narrative includes the player finding the component parts to make the track that plays on loop in the church, that the music is "anodic" betrays the idea of this being a singular four-minute sonic capsule. As Simon Reynolds writes of hardcore electronic music, "It's a mistake to appraise Ardkore in terms of individual tracks, because this music only really takes effect as total flow. Its meta-music pulse is closer to electricity than anything else."8 This music isn't only electronic, but it's the flow of electricity; it's anodic, charged, spilling electrons out into the world.

With the scene set and the anodic dance music pumping, Harry starts dancing. After cajoling Kim and the speedfreak ringleader Andre to dance too, an active Shivers check offers the chance to "Turn on the hyper-drive!" It's curious that this would be a Shivers check rather than, say, a Savoir Faire or a Hand-Eye Coordination check the skills for style and dextrous motor function. By this point in the game, Shivers has been established as the contextual, world-building skill; its function is predominantly as metatextual immersion for the player rather than specific intra-storyworld use for Harry the character. Better engage the hyper-drive and see what happens, then.

This is history making: Harry is inventing "the future of dance music... It's the *hardest* anyone has ever danced." The appearance of Shivers isn't reflective of a time long past or a place in the distance; it's a moment that accentuates the importance of the present in its capacity for the production of future cultural memory. Ironically, this exemplary moment of "living in the present" is characterised through the anticipation of its later significance. But is the dancing all there is? What history is really being made here?

As YouTuber Rohlix shows in their clip of this moment in the game, once the check is passed the game's camera tilts upwards from the action and the screen turns completely black, save for the dialogue box on the right-hand side.9 It implies an imminent out-of-body experience. While Shivers has always been a skill that zooms out of Harry's immediate vicinity and stretches across vast geographical distances, here the blackness of the screen indicates that this moment transcends the physical. It's reminiscent of the game's dream sequences, in which Harry converses with his Ancient Reptilian Brain, Limbic System, and Spinal Cord. The only option the player has is to ask:

YOU: What is this strange feeling I keep having? This cold . . . even now.


YOU: What do you mean, * you are the city *?


The innovative dancing becomes the method through which Harry can verbally communicate with the city. The "spirit" of Revachol isn't (only) an external thing, either: it "also reside[s] in your lungs and vestigial organs. Everywhere there is space." As much as Harry is conversing with it as a seemingly outside force, it's also part of him and he it. The composition of the city as a force is tied to the history that Harry is making at this very moment, formalised in "the future of dance music." Such a moment recalls Jan Assmann's writing about cultural formations:

It is not just a matter of words, sentences, and texts here, because communication may also take place, as we have seen, through rites and dances, patterns and decorations, costumes, tattoos, food and drink, monuments, pictures, landscapes, and so on. Everything can become a symbol to denote community. It is not the medium that decides, but the structure and function of the signs. This complex of shared symbols might be called "cultural formation," and when this has been established and, above all, passed on, it corresponds to a collective identity. The cultural formation, then, is the medium through which collective identity is created and preserved down through the generations.10

Disco Elysium presents history-making, via dancing, through a (metaphorical) conversation with the city itself. The motion is the communication, and occupying space is worldly discourse. We can read Shivers as representing the impact of superstructure on base, of culture as it pertains to the material conditions of being. Revachol's aggressively centrist Moralintern government rose from the ruins of a failed communist revolution, but those conditions of being have led to this moment in the church. Here, the creation of new art forms however tongue-in-cheek their inception may be are the reinvigoration of a sense of one's time and place in the world. 


Carl White received his PhD in English Literature in 2023. His research focuses on representations of finance in contemporary literature and culture. He currently works at the University of Leeds.


  1. Charlotte E. Rosen, "Noir Politics in Mike Davis's City of Quartz," Post45: Contemporaries, 2022.[]
  2. The player can ignore the protagonist's "real" name of Harrier "Harry" Du Bois and instead assume the identities of, for example, Tequila Sunset or Raphaël Ambrosius Costeau. These each materialise through variations in the narrative paths taken. However, as fun as it would be to alternate between the names to show the game's variability, I'll be using "Harry" throughout for clarity. []
  3. Disco Elysium presents the racism of its world through abuse that Kim and the trade union lawyer Elizabeth both face, and through a possible fascist path in which the player aligns with Measurehead, the union's muscle and "Semenese supremacist."[]
  4. Henry Jenkins, "Game Design as Narrative Architecture," in The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (MIT Press, 2005), 682.[]
  5. Gregory Whistance-Smith, Expressive Space: Embodying Meaning in Video Game Environments, Video Games and the Humanities (Boston: De Gruyter, 2021), 4.[]
  6. Richard Terdiman, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).[]
  7. Disco Elysium has a distinctly French flavour in many aspects: place names, the accents of various characters' voices, and the Shivers itself skill speaking in French at some moments.[]
  8. Simon Reynolds, "The Wire 300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum #1: Hardcore Rave (1992)," The Wire, February 2013.[]
  9. Rohlix, Disco Elysium The Final Cut - Dancing with Kim and Speaking to the City of Revachol (Voiced), YouTube, 2021.[]
  10. Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 120.[]