"Your shit is apart, and it's rather unbecoming of a cop and a human being. It's supposed to be the opposite of that: together." So says the diegetically ambiguous voice of "Volumetric Shit Compressor," the first Thought that occurs to Disco Elysium's player character Harry Du Bois during his investigation of the murder of a military contractor in the strike-clogged seaport of Martinaise. Du Bois has just tried and failed to endure the smell of the three-days-rotten corpse that has been hanging outside of his hotel, a task rendered all the more challenging by his amnesia-inducing hangover from an apocalyptic bender the night before. "Volumetric Shit Compressor" is Disco Elysium's way of introducing an important game mechanic, the Thought Cabinet, which allows the player to spend accumulated skill points working out ideas that occur to Du Bois as he explores Martinaise and unravels the mystery of the Hanged Man. It is also one of the first of many ways that the player gains access to the inside of Du Bois's mind.

Most simply, though, "Volumetric Shit Compressor" is a humorously elaborate way for Harry Du Bois to say to himself, cognitively: Get your shit together. The player is required to spend thirty in-game minutes exploring the neighborhood, having conversations, or seeing the scenery while Du Bois works up the resolve to confront the smell of death and examine the victim's body. Du Bois's nausea his intense, embodied resistance to the sensorial assault of the rotting corpse in this pivotal early scene of Disco Elysium highlights a feature of the hard-boiled detective novel identified by Tzvetan Todorov: an emphasis on "the vulnerable detective" whose body is bruised and battered by the work of investigation.1 For Todorov, the detective's corporeality and physical vulnerability are the reason he is "integrated into the universe of the other characters, instead of being an independent observer as the reader is."2 It is fitting, then, that this breakdown of Du Bois's physical constitution leads to an explicit prompt for the player to take in the surroundings of the city: to strike up conversations around town, and perhaps ask for help, during the thirty minutes of in-game time before the player is allowed to try again.

Disco Elysium is a prototypically Todorovian detective story, one which highlights Du Bois's (often self-induced) physical and psychological vulnerabilities at every turn. One of the game's central conceptual innovations is the mapping of this generic convention onto a detailed neurological schema that explicitly frames detective work in terms of the brain, nervous system, and embodied cognition. But as the Thought's text about Du Bois's fitness as "a cop and a human being" suggests, the stakes of this neurophysiological shit-compression go beyond solving the mystery. It is also up to the player whether Harry Du Bois will continue the pattern of self-destructive behavior that has literally destroyed his sense of self in the days leading up to the events of the game.

Through both its neurological character system and its abundance of side-narratives, Disco Elysium links the task of solving the case of the hanged man with the task of recuperating Harry Du Bois or, at the very least, finding a way to prevent his psychological and neurological issues from compromising the investigation. There is thus, within this widely acclaimed detective CRPG, another game, a "therapy simulator" in which the player can either work through or exacerbate Harry Du Bois's trauma, addiction, and relationship problems in a controlled and morally simplified environment. As the player follows these threads, a tension emerges between the game's materialist model of embodied consciousness and the practical and medium-specific need to locate the player's therapeutic decisions within a system of pre-scripted, moralistic choices. That is, a potentially radical conception of mental illness and the meaning of therapy or "self-care" falls away in favor of a familiar model based on self-discipline and personal responsibility. But this tension may ultimately prove productive for the game, which is interested not only in the material and sociohistorical determinants of consciousness (and thus of Harry Du Bois's personal and psychological issues), but also in the political problem of what we are supposed to do when we learn that our individual actions largely do not matter.


Harry Du Bois is created twice at the beginning of Disco Elysium. First, in a way that will be familiar to RPG players: selecting the attributes and skills that will determine what sort of detective Harry Du Bois will be. Each point that the player puts into a skill will add a bonus to various probabilistic scenarios they will encounter during the game. Gesturing back to its ancestors in tabletop gaming and older CRPGs like Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, Disco Elysium literally represents its skill system using a pair of six-sided dice that appear onscreen to determine an action's success or failure. Here, though, the time-tested attribute and dice-roll system is mapped onto a neurophysiological schema. The intelligence, people skills, physical fitness, and know-how of detective work are presented as processes of the brain, the spinal cord, the central nervous system, the hairs on the back of one's neck. In the character creation menu, each attribute is visually represented by an abstract painting, most of which include unnerving and surreal imagery of the head, spine, and hands, distorted in a style reminiscent of the British painter Francis Bacon. The player has a small number of skill points to distribute across four attributes (Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics), effectively determining what strategy they will be able to use to acquire clues and unravel the game's murder mystery. Though the player may not know it yet, they are effectively choosing what kind of body and mind their version of Harry Du Bois will have: dextrous, empathetic, brutish, rationalistic, or somewhere in between.

A screenshot of Disco Elysium's character creation menu. It is a 4x6 grid of labeled paintings corresponding to the game's 24 skills. The rows of paintings are color-coded: Blue = Intellect, Purple = Psyche, Red = Physique, and Yellow = Motorics.


In the early moments of the game, these neurophysiological specializations offer the player some satisfying rewards. Intelligence-focused players will be able to determine the number of people present at the hanging through visual analysis of the footprints surrounding the corpse. Motorics-focused players may have a breakthrough during the initial autopsy, using their superior tactile sensitivity to locate a bullet lodged in the back of the corpse's throat. The work of the detective and, as we will see, the work of the amnesiac and the recovering addict is thus linked to the body as a lived repository of knowledge and skill, which reside in and manifest through the operations of the brain and nervous system.

After the player has selected their preferred neurological attributes, Harry Du Bois is created again: This time, out of the darkness of his own drug- and alcohol-induced oblivion.  Against a black screen, a thin column of text appears, read out by the gravelly, cockney-accented voice of a character named ANCIENT REPTILIAN BRAIN. "There is nothing," it says. "Only warm, primordial blackness." ANCIENT REPTILIAN BRAIN informs the player that they have reached the end of all responsibility, of existence itself. When other voices including LIMBIC SYSTEM join in, it begins to become clear that the column of text is fulfilling the role of the narrator or game master, with a neurological twist. Throughout the game, this column will allow each of the above-mentioned attributes to speak to the character, reacting to situations and occasionally making suggestions about how to handle a problem or conversation. The game thus consists of a top-down isometric view of Du Bois walking around Martinaise and a quasi-stream-of-consciousness text panel allowing linguistic access to a variety of embodied abilities, instincts, and neurological systems.

A black 16x9 screen. On the right side is a column about ⅓ the width of the screen with white text reading


Disco Elysium's double-beginning centers two understandings of what it means to make, and be, a character. The first will be very familiar to role-playing gamers: a character is a bundle of skills and abilities, traveling from one probabilistically balanced scenario to the next. Dice-rolls, enhanced or hindered by the player's investment in or neglect of the relevant attributes, determine one's success or failure in the task at hand. The game's second beginning, a neurological awakening from mock-Cartesian "reptilian" darkness, reflects a fascination with the brain which has been stimulating the minds of philosophers and scientists for several centuries. Here is what it seems like we know: A character, a person, is a chorus of interlocking neuro-electro-chemical systems. These systems are distributed throughout the body and relay information through the brain, accreting layers of signal and response, brushstrokes of sensory and affective and haptic detail, until a self emerges. That is what Harry Du Bois is, and it might be what we are, too.

Near the end of the game, in a remarkable depiction of how thought coexists with our perceptions of the world, how we sometimes see both what is around us and what is happening in our mind's eye simultaneously, Du Bois uses the Visual Calculus skill to map the possible trajectories of a murderer's bullet. Blue and orange lines and measurements are overlaid on the isometric display; on another part of the screen, these lines are mapped onto a diagram of Martinaise, showing Du Bois's inferences about the places where the shot might have come from. But if detective work can be captured and systematized by Disco Elysium's neurological idiom, so can everything else in Harry Du Bois's life. When the player needs to interrogate a young woman named Klaasje, Du Bois's attraction to her scrambles his instincts; the chorus of neurophysiological voices start contradicting each other and making incompatible suggestions. And when the player encounters alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes, these voices interject to talk about how nice those things sound, attempting to lure the player away from the task at hand with the promise of physiological rewards.

A partial screenshot of Disco Elysium's text column during the player's interrogation of Klaasje. The skills called VOLITION, COMPOSURE, REACTION SPEED, and ELECTROCHEMISTRY argue about their relative trustworthiness in the face of Klaasje's allure.


It is in these latter scenarios that the game's simulation of the therapeutic process comes into play. It is made clear to the player throughout the game that Du Bois's reputation for antisocial and self-destructive behavior precedes him even if his amnesia-inducing bender has erased all memory of it. He is like a mutton-chopped Jason Bourne, awakening with fresh eyes into the wreck of his own life and identity. Harry Du Bois is haunted by rumors of corruption, by his constant desire for drugs and alcohol, by persistent reminders of a traumatic divorce, by his own inclination to say monstrously harmful things to the people around him, all of which he experiences (alongside the player) as if for the first time. Amnesia is thus a neurological plot device, a chance to encounter every bad habit anew, and to encounter them all as choices: Yes, I will keep doing this, or No, I will not.

From "Volumetric Shit Compressor" on, alongside the central narrative of solving the mystery of the hanged man, Disco Elysium prods the player to decide what their attitude will be toward Harry Du Bois's old habits, and to decide whether they will try to make him a better person than he was in the events before the game begins. Other entries in the Thought Cabinet give the player the option of making Du Bois reconsider his preoccupation with other people's sexuality ("Homo-Sexual Underground"), work through his fixation with his ex-wife ("Apricot Chewing Gum Scented One"), and confront his past mistreatment of women ("Inexplicable Feminist Agenda"). Meanwhile, the player is repeatedly prompted by neurological voices in the text column to say rude, outlandish, or harmful things to the people around Du Bois, or to consume drugs or alcohol while on the job.

In this way, Disco Elysium places the player in a gamified scenario of self-help, presenting a character in desperate need of care and stability whom the player can either nurse back to mental and physical health or conscript into a mediated fantasy of indulgence and self-destruction. The game's neurological character system heightens its attention to the body as the site of affective and psychological phenomena, implicitly arguing that the distribution of Du Bois's consciousness across various neurophysiological systems requires a corresponding attention to his various material needs. And while I can't speak to the pleasures of letting Du Bois destroy himself (I have never managed to bring myself to pursue this strategy across the four times I've played the game), there is a real satisfaction to the process of fixing him up this is part of what Hayley Toth, elsewhere in her contribution to this cluster, identifies as "ethics" in the practice of "save scumming," or reloading the game after a mistake or failed check in order to reach a more desirable outcome.3 It feels good to help Harry Du Bois act like a good person, even if the only reaction it gets from other characters is cynical familiarity: Sure, I've heard that one before. But the player knows that as long as they're in control, Harry really won't take amphetamines or take any bribes or scream about his visions of the apocalypse. He will say he's sorry when he sees that someone is hurting and he will choose not to share every stray nasty thought that comes into his head and he will put the needs of others before himself. We know this because, at least while we're playing the game, we've got the power to make it so and why not? As the player, it's as simple as clicking the right thing for Harry Du Bois to say or do.

A screenshot from Disco Elysium depicting Harry Du Bois standing in a cafeteria. The text column reads: — That sugary black rum stain on the counter makes you teary-eyed with joy. It's almost touching how syrupy and sticky it is.  How long have you been up already? // 1. An hour? // 2. Two hours? // 3. Pretty long. It's drink o'clock. // 4. Not Now." class="wp-image-23205"/>

This simplicity, however, ultimately complicates the game's attempt to grapple with the causes of mental illness and the political meaning of the therapeutic process. For one thing, there is a tension between Disco Elysium's continual focus on the distributed, embodied dimension of cognition the chorus of voices speaking to and through Harry Du Bois from within various circuits in his nervous system and the game's decision-tree-based system of player choice. The game autonomizes these embodied traits (Electrochemistry, Perception, Visual Calculus, etc.) by giving them names and a place in the narratorial text-column, presenting consciousness as an aggregation of various physical systems and their interactions with the environment. In this way, it approaches a model of selfhood (and of addiction) in line with that proposed by anthropologist Gregory Bateson in his analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous:

the "self" as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting, and deciding. This system includes all informational pathways which are relevant at any given moment to any given decision. The "self" is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking processes.4

Bateson is attempting to use the language of systems to show how a social phenomenon like alcoholism can appear to be the result of individual failures or isolated pathologies for ideological reasons while actually resulting from failures at the level of a wider system or infrastructure "whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly called the 'self' or 'consciousness.'"5 Alcoholics Anonymous, he argues, succeeds for many people in part because it understands that a change in consciousness is best achieved through a change in the environment. "Trying to use will power," he writes, quoting an AA pamphlet, "is like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps."6

Disco Elysium seems to reach for a similar conclusion.The game wants to show how addiction and other potentially self-destructive drives place pressure on an individual from within the historically and politically situated bodyan echo of Todorov's argument that "vulnerability" indexes the detective's "integrat[ion] into the universe of the other characters," the social and political world of the text.7 But the player can only interact with these drives in an ultra-simplified fashion: Now choose whether Harry Du Bois will do the Good Thing or the Bad Thing. For all of the game's efforts to wrest mental illness and trauma from the paradigm of individual self-discipline and personal responsibility, it paradoxically reduces the therapeutic process to a series of pre-scripted choices. What's more, while it wants to imagine these pressures as material, the decision to represent them as lists of textual options for the player to choose between makes the process strangely disembodied and rationalistic. In real life, it is surely much harder to say Not now to the desire to take a drink at 8:49 in the morning than it is to simply click the impulse away.

To be sure, this tension probably arises from the limitations of the video game medium itself, which, in the case of Disco Elysium, requires these options to be narratively pre-mapped. That a game of this size is able to contain such a kaleidoscopic range of possibilities in its matrix of choices and outcomes is truly remarkable, though one wonders what possibilities could emerge if Harry Du Bois's therapeutic process were playing out in, say, a tabletop system with looser narratological restrictions. Translating the time-tested RPG skill system into narrative terms makes its detective components, certainly the main thrust of the game, exciting and fresh. But in the context of Harry Du Bois's trauma and addiction, it's almost disappointing how the game's investment in an innovative neurological idiom ultimately yields to a familiar model of individual choice, a simulation of will-based autonomy over the bodyeven if the game simultaneously undermines and ironizes that model through its persistent tone of cynicism and hopelessness.


If Disco Elysium's decision-tree based model of trauma and recuperation highlights the limits of its ability to transcend ideologies of individual self-discipline, that may be part of the game's political vision, which is directly concerned with the possibility of change or agency in a world ruled largely by multinational corporations and pro-corporate governments a world which, as Mark Stevens' contribution to this cluster helps us see, the game wishes to help us see afresh through the allegorical figure of the hangover. Whether the player chooses to play out a therapeutic simulation for Harry Du Bois seems not to matter to the actual outcome of the game's narrative, which follows a fairly rigid set of bottlenecks and checkpoints regardless of what side quests the player has taken on (though, as Joseph R. Worthen's contribution to this cluster reveals, the game's narrative urgency can break down in the face of utter inaction by the player). The main effect of the player's choices with regard to Du Bois's mental health comes in a conversation during the final scene of the game, in which Lt. Kitsuragi delivers a report on Du Bois's behavior and methods to their superiors who have arrived from the station. Kitsuragi either praises Du Bois for his efforts to improve himself over the course of the investigation or chastises him for his self-indulgence and lack of regard for others; what might happen after the game ends is left for the player to imagine. And while it is possible to alienate Lt. Kitsuragi with racist remarks enough that he abandons the investigation, his reactions to the player's good or bad behavior are largely unimportant to the narrative. The pleasures of Disco Elysium's therapy simulator seem to be in the journey, rather than the destination.

But perhaps this is part of what the game is trying to say, or ask, about the purpose of self-help and the meaning of trauma or mental illness within the political parameters of its world. If the player's decision to help or harm Harry Du Bois ultimately doesn't matter to the material circumstances of life in Martinaise, that would be in keeping with many characters' attitudes towards other efforts to improve life for oneself or others. There is a widespread feeling in Disco Elysium that a better world is not possible, that various social and political projects are doomed to fail because of the unrivaled power of capital, because of political corruption, or because supernatural forces are pulling the universe itself into chaos and disorder. By limiting the scope of the player's agency to a handful of therapeutic lifestyle decisions, Disco Elysium may be emphasizing the role of broad socio-historical processes in delineating what meaningful choices can be made in the first place. The game thus walks a line between a nihilist edgelordism in which "nothing matters because there are no good options" and an earnest reckoning with the feelings of impotence and meaninglessness brought about by the dominant geopolitical order.

Whether the game is hopeless or merely about hopelessness is difficult to say. Its setting, the seaport district of Martinaise, is explicitly presented to the player as a backwater abandoned by capital, a source of political intrigue only because its corruption-addled dockworkers' union has shut down the flow of goods in the name of making "every worker a member of the board." The attitude throughout the city is that this non-starter bargaining demand is really a way for the union's leaders to tighten their grip on the local drug trade. Inquisitive players can ask around and learn that, decades prior to the start of the game, Martinaise was the center of a failed communist revolution that was brutally crushed by a coalition of capitalist countries who now rule most of the world through an "ultraliberal" political faction called the Moralist International (or "Moralintern"). And while the player can explore and interact with various nationalists, trade unionists, monarchists, liberals, and communists, Disco Elysium's political positions are essentially aesthetic choices whose primary function is to stave off boredom rather than to improve material conditions in a city where meth-addicted children throw rocks at hanging corpses and geriatric veterans play boules in half-century-old artillery craters. Liberal capital has won, and nobody aside from a smattering of fascists who make snide comments about Lt. Kitsuragi's ethnicity and a handful of communist students who hold a late-night reading group believes that the existing institutions that structure daily life in Martinaise hold any political potential whatsoever.

So what if, to take a cue from Bateson, it is simply not possible to intervene at the level of the larger system, the sociopolitical environment out of which phenomena like addiction and trauma emerge? Confronted with all of this, one might take a bit of comfort in the feeling that it's at least possible to improve the life of a single person. This tantalizing hope of individual self-improvement is part of the game's deliberate play with the illusion of autonomy, what Worthen identifies as "a sense of perceived narrative agency disproportionate to the actual narrative agency available"; and as Stevens diagnoses: "the act of 'building' [a political project] is mostly absurd, but it nevertheless offers rewards by opening up the branching pathways of narrative."

Disco Elysium's pervasive feeling of helplessness is poignantly illustrated by the resolution of the game's main narrative. After scouring the city for evidence of a connection between the strike, the drug trade, the sexual relationship between the victim and a witness, even potential supernatural or metaphysical phenomena, the killer turns out to be an aging and neurologically damaged veteran of the decades-past communist revolution, a bitter old man who claims to be that conflict's last combatant, single-handedly keeping the doomed class war alive. A leftover from a dead historical and political moment, a shocking and extraneous actor in a narrative that seems to have no place for him, even he has lost hope in the possibility of a better world, believing that the material conditions for proletarian self-governance have passed. "There is no flame to fan," he says. "There is nothing left. Of the world, of our dreams."And while that doesn't stop him from spitting his last drops of bitterness into the world by taking potshots across the bay with his antique service rifle, it is clear that he sees no material or political benefit from the killing. He is history, hurting.

The introduction of the Deserter concludes Disco Elysium with a vertiginous sense of the player's position in history. The political forces that operate within the world of the game are aftereffects of developments long past and locked into place. The military contractor's murder was a downstream effect not of present-day intrigues, not a boiling over of the mounting tension between the striking dockworkers and the capitalist coalition, but a random casualty of the last falling shoe. Bad luck. A player might ask why they spent so much time exploring the inner workings of the union, uncovering the drug trade, and discovering secret passages around the city when the actual events that led to the murder occurred before Harry Du Bois was even born. The answer may be that, within the world of the game, it didn't matter at all. If this is the case, the game's neurological therapy simulator begins to look like a kind of coping mechanism a way of creating a feeling of narrative progress while the player passes enough in-game time to activate its end conditions. In this light, the decision to improve Harry Du Bois's life, along with the decision to label oneself a communist or a centrist or a nationalist, looks like merely an opportunity for the player to cultivate a particular aesthetic sensibility, to perform the role of someone who speaks and lives in a particular good or bad way. To pass the time.

Why develop such an elaborate and neurologized architecture of coping when the real pathology is an immovable economic order?And further, once we apply the cold appraisal of critique to these practices of coping and see them for what they are, what are we left with besides an array of aesthetic choices masquerading as political projects?What do we do with our "awareness" that self-care won't make the world a better place? Maybe the game is highlighting or reckoning with the fact that, in a world ruled by exploitative, planet-burning multinational corporations, the disciplining of our inner lives and the cultivation of inner perfection is one of the only places where we feel a sense of autonomy, even if that autonomy is at times painfully limited and largely politically inert. If Disco Elysium doesn't solve this problem, it at least does a good job of being about it.

Todorov and Bateson, in their respective analyses of detective fiction and alcoholism, both offer models of embeddedness which link private vulnerabilities to broader social and historical contexts. They each suggest how the individual character or alcoholic can function as a lens which allows us to see, if not remedy, systemic failures that appear to us as isolated incidents of "crime" or "mental illness." With these analyses in mind, we can read Harry Du Bois's pathologies as manifestations of the collective ills of Martinaise, and of the global capitalist system for which it serves as a microcosm Du Bois is, to borrow Michael Docherty's description of Philip Marlowe, "the permeable detective, penetrated by the spaces he penetrates, permitting the universe to become integrated in himself."8 Disco Elysium heightens our awareness of the mismatch between collective problems and individual-based therapeutic solutions. If "vulnerability" is indeed a painful index of our "integration" or embeddedness in a broken and cruel political system, perhaps we ought to interrogate our desire to retreat from that vulnerability into the language of private perfection and self-improvement.

Dylan Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. He is working on a dissertation exploring American literary representations of brains.


  1. Tzvetan Todorov, "The Typology of Detective Fiction." In Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Longman, 1988), 164.[]
  2. Todorov, "Typology," 164.[]
  3. Save scumming, an almost irresistible technique once the player has had a few catastrophic check failures, adds an extra layer to the game's simulation of the therapeutic process it allows the player to test out the experience of failure and decide whether they're willing to accept it. Toth's essay brilliantly explores how the practice can intensify the role-playing experience by allowing the player to hew more closely to the outcome they desire. She comes to the compelling conclusion that "Save scumming Disco Elysium is a way of playing, rather than not playing, the game."[]
  4. Gregory Bateson, "The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism," in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000 [1972]), 331.[]
  5. Bateson, "Cybernetics," 319.[]
  6. Bateson, "Cybernetics," 313.[]
  7. Todorov, "Typology," 164.[]
  8. Michael Docherty, "Raymond Chandler's Spatial Interrogations: Relocating the Detective-Frontiersman." Crime Fiction Studies 2, no. 1 (2021), 84.[]