Essay Proposal: Disco Elysium

Here’s my proposal for my research essay for my interactive storytelling class, on Disco Elysium:

Research Question:

Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game about an alcoholic amnesiac detective who’s tasked with solving a grisly murder amidst an ongoing labour dispute at the local docks, all while trying to recover his forgotten identity (or construct a new one). Upon release, the game was immediately lauded for its nuanced deep-dive into politics and its intricate skill system and how said system tied into the game’s dialogue and character development.

For the essay, I am interested in analyzing the game’s character creation, skill and dialogue systems in order to understand how they allow the player to create a rich and intricate player character with a comprehensive character identity that encompasses personal history, personality and political ideology.

Discussion of Primary Source:

The primary text will be the videogame Disco Elysium, released in 2019 by Estonian studio ZA/UM. The game was met with critical acclaim upon release and was placed on many ‘Best Games of the Decade’ lists by critics. Disco Elysium’s character system is mechanically defined by three main systems: the skill system, dialogue system and the thought cabinet. The skill system directly affects the dialogue system, allowing for incredibly dynamic conversations. The thought cabinet allows for character identity to be defined along defined lines like ‘communist’ or ‘nationalist’ or ‘homosexual’, allowing for richer player characters as well as exploring the tension between player freedom and moral perspectives on certain ideologies.

Expected Findings and Contributions

In Disco Elysium, conversations are not just the words that are spoken between interlocutors. Conversations are constructed out of social rules, and the ability to break or bend them provides a means by which character identity is revealed. Furthermore, every conversation in Disco Elysium is rich with internal commentary provided by the player character’s mind. The internal commentary provides rich and varied interpretations of conversations that reveal the player character’s opinions and perspectives on the world around him.

Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet does not exist in a vacuum. It’s deeply linked to the conversation system. The thoughts that can occur to the player character are spawned and prompted by conversations. If the thought cabinet is a codification of the character’s identity, then the conversations are expressions of that, and it is through consistent expression of perspectives or ideas that prompt these thoughts that come to form identity.

Through player-driven conversations and cognition, Disco Elysium shows us expression forms identity.