Techniques of Thought: Cognition, Identity and Ideology in Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium begins in blackness. Words fade in against the emptiness. It is your ‘Ancient Reptilian Brain’ speaking to you. Soon enough your ‘Limbic System’ pipes up. They inform you “there is nothing” (ZA/UM, 2019). As your character (who we later learn is called Harry) awakens from his drunken stupor, we come to realize that this blackness is a representation of the unconscious state he was in. Because of his heavy drinking, he has lost all memory of who he was, down to his name and his job.

The first text we ever see in Disco Elysium.

Beyond being a memorable way of beginning a game, the blackness frames our perception of the game and our character in it. We enter this game not as an already established character, but as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Harry awakens from nothing and remembers nothing. As the dialogue with Harry’s own brain progresses, we are given choices as to how to respond to them. These dialogue choices become the means by which Harry, the character, is defined. The game’s dialogue system is its keystone. All other systems revolve around it. In this essay I intend to explore how Disco Elysium’s systems, with the dialogue system at its core, provide players the opportunity to create an intricately detailed character with a rich identity encompassing personal history, personality and political ideology.

Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game set in the city of Revachol, years after a failed communist revolution led to its current state of neoliberal capitalism and soaring inequality. We play 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 exploration of politics and its intricate skill system and how said system tied into the game’s dialogue and character development.

To understand Disco Elysium and its subsequent success we must first understand its systems. As a game inspired by traditional tabletop roleplaying games, Disco Elysium ‘begins’ even before it begins. Traditional tabletop roleplaying games require that players create the character they will play in the game. Disco Elysium is no different. In Disco Elysium, players must allocate skill points to various skills, which come to define their character and his areas of competency. There are four main skills, but these branch out into an overwhelming list of 24 sub-skills.

The skill system in Disco Elysium. Refer to here for the full list of skills.

It is important to note that unlike other role-playing videogames, Disco Elysium does not have any other mechanically heavy systems like combat, stealth or crafting. In Disco Elysium, Harry’s interactions with the world are almost entirely played through the dialogue system. This fundamentally means that all 24 skills available in the skill system primarily relate to and interact with the dialogue system, which suggests a textual richness and complexity in the dialogue system unmatched by other games.

One of the more interesting forms this inter-system interaction takes is the internal stream of consciousness monologues that occur in response to things said by other characters. In this context, each skill functions as a ‘voice’ in this internal monologue. Should Harry’s point allocation for a certain skill exceed certain invisible thresholds, that voice will contribute to the dialogue, adding in their own response to the topic of discussion.

In this snippet the Inland Empire skill allows Harry to ‘converse’ with a corpse while the Reaction Speed skill provides additional insight into the corpse’s response.

The above screenshot provides one example of this stream of consciousness. In this scene, Harry and his partner Kim Kitsuragi are inspecting the corpse of the murder victim, left to hang from a tree. After removing the body from the tree, Harry is faced with the victim’s visage. How he responds depends on the skill point allocation of your character. In this example, Harry has high points in Inland Empire and Reaction Speed1. Faced with the corpse, Harry asks who killed him and it responds, ‘communism’. Reaction Speed then causes him to have an instinctual response to this answer – a sense that the answer speaks to a buried truth. A different skill point allocation would have led to a different conversation. For instance, this imaginary conversation would not have taken place without enough points invested into Inland Empire.

This stream of consciousness means that skill allocations – choices that are made by the player throughout the game – have concrete and continuous impact on dialogue and how dialogue is framed. Information is introduced or concealed depending on the player character’s skill point allocation. Through this, the player character’s (and by extension the player’s) perspective of the world and of the unfolding plot is shaped by how the player built their character.

Stephen Trinh compares this stream of consciousness to the Kuleshov Effect in film, explaining that “the interjections act as the context shot, so that the dialogue choices [chosen by the player] can be the to-be-interpreted shot” (Trinh, 2020). This allows dialogue choices that more meaningfully and accurately reflect the chosen personality and identity of the player character. The subtext is no longer defined solely by the player’s perceptions, but the character’s perceptions as well. Furthermore, some dialogue choices are locked away if their character does not meet a specific skill threshold, thus players are guided into roleplaying their character more ‘truthfully’, choosing dialogue options that respond to Harry’s internal thoughts, further enriching and developing his identity.

Brent Ellision categorized conversation into two models: Branching and Hub and Spoke (Ellision, 2008), where branching conversations can expand but do not loop back, while hub and spoke conversations have central hubs where conversations loop back to2. Disco Elysium features both models of conversation but builds on top of these models. Each interjection from an internal voice functions like an invisible detour. At points in the conversation, detours are taken depending on the character’s skills, without direct control from the player. Players are not informed of possible detours if their skill points do not meet the threshold. Consequently, the structure of conversations becomes significantly more sophisticated. However, as detours always return to the main path, conversations continue to have well-defined scopes without branching out of control.

A diagram depicting the structure of the conversation from the previous screenshot. Dotted lines indicate invisible detours.

These invisible detours were developed with intention. In an interview with GameSpot, lead writer Robert Kurvitz explained that the mechanics of the dialogue system was inspired by Twitter (Kurvitz, 2020). On Twitter, a user can elaborate on a tweet by making a reply tweet, which is displayed just below the original tweet. Other users can also reply to the original tweet, elaborating on the point made or suggesting tangents, thus creating an increasingly elaborate cultural ‘hive mind’. In Disco Elysium, each interjection from a voice functions like a reply tweet. The voices create a tangled web of tangents, elaborations and contradictions – a ‘hive mind’ within a mind – allowing the game to reveal the richness of the player character’s internal state of mind.

As we have seen, past skills can affect current conversations, but Disco Elysium goes further than this. Current conversations can affect the future as well. Should Harry’s conversational responses consistently reflect a specific viewpoint, his Ancient Reptillian Brain speaks to him. For instance, should Harry constantly speak in defense of the working class, your brain might ask if you wish to be a communist. Answering yes unlocks a thought in Harry’s Thought Cabinet.

The Thought Cabinet is a feature unique to Disco Elysium. The cabinet consists of various unlockable slots and a catalog of thoughts. These thoughts could be ideologies like communism, information like the location of Harry’s home, or personality ‘styles’ like ‘boring cop’. Thoughts can be assigned to a slot. Once assigned, the thought is contemplated on by Harry. After some time has passed, the thought is complete, and additional information is revealed along with possible gameplay bonuses or penalties to Harry, which range from modifiers to his skills or new conversational options.

The Thought Cabinet in Disco Elysium

In many roleplaying games, the player character is placed in a position of power, and their choices have profound consequences for the entire world. Cass Marshall explains that this can frequently pose a problem. The character is defined largely by their actions rather than their internal perspectives (Marshall, 2019). They become heroic characters without any internal identity or personality. In Disco Elysium, Harry is powerless to change the world. The player’s actions are thus not directed to the external world, but to the internal. Your choices as a player are not about affecting the world but responding to it. In the example mentioned above, responding to economic injustice with sympathy for the working class provides the opportunity to identify as a communist.

The Thought Cabinet allows Harry to be defined by his internal identity, be it ideology or personality or memories. Traditional skill systems define characters by their competencies or lack thereof, and thus do not allow the creation of vivid characters with rich identities and histories. Some role-playing games, e.g. Wasteland 2, provide a blank text field where players are invited to write a backstory, but this backstory is merely ‘flavour text’ and ignored by the game and its systems. Disco Elysium avoids this trap. The Thought Cabinet systemizes personality, memories and ideology. Your character in Disco Elysium can thus have a richly defined identity, which is acknowledged by the game and which has consequences for Harry’s journey through the world.

These two systems, the Thought Cabinet and the stream of consciousness, form a cognitive loop within Disco Elysium. As Harry encounters situations in the world, his stream of consciousness responds. This response shapes the player’s perspective of the world, and they make dialogue choices based on their perspective. Based on these dialogue choices, thoughts are formed and added to the Thought Cabinet. Contemplating on these thoughts forms Harry’s identity, which then again shapes his perspective of the world, and his stream of consciousness by extension. Through this loop, Harry becomes more well-defined as a character over time.

However, it is important to note that this cognitive loop does not exist independently of the player’s interactions. Disco Elysium gives us ‘subjective access’ to Harry by revealing his ‘internal states’ (Smith, 2010) but like many other narrative works, players are expected to make moral judgements of the world and its characters – a process referred to as ‘allegiance’ (Smith, 2010). Disco Elysium does not force Harry to adopt any beliefs or identities that the player does not want him to. Thoughts are never automatically formed from the stream of consciousness. Explicit player choice is required. Even when a thought is formed, the player has a choice to reject the thought. In Disco Elysium, you are not defined entirely by your past actions. You always have a choice. Even if the state of the world and your own instincts tempts you towards certain viewpoints, there is always the ability to choose to believe differently. We see the ideas and perspectives through Harry’s internal mind, but we as players, with our own identities, form our allegiances to specific perspectives. We are then given the freedom to realign Harry to reflect our allegiances – to reflect us.

In conclusion, Disco Elysium systemizes thinking, whether it is conscious cognition or instincts and intuition. This systemizing, embodied by the stream of consciousness and the Thought Cabinet, allow our player character Harry to be defined in a concrete manner. He has a history, an ideology and a personality, all of which have meaningful systemic and narrative consequences throughout the game. But Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game. We inhabit the role of Harry. Through play we engage in a dialogue with his mind and decide who Harry is and who he becomes based on our own perspectives and ideology. Thus, Disco Elysium is not just about understanding Harry. It is about understanding ourselves.

Footnotes

1 – Inland Empire indicates an aptitude for imagining the personality of inanimate objects like corpses, allowing Harry to have imaginary conversations with said objects

2 – The corpse investigation is an example of hub and spoke conversations. The player is presented with different parts of the corpse to inspect, with each part acting as a spoke. Attempting to detach the corpse from the tree is itself a spoke within the conversation.

Bibliography

ZA/UM (2019). Disco Elysium [Computer video game]. Estonia: ZA/UM.

Ellison, Brent. “Defining Dialogue Systems” Gamasutra, 2008

Marshall, Cass. “You can’t change the world in Disco Elysium – and that’s why it’s great”. Polygon. 2019

Trinh, Stephen. “Why I Love: The Interjections [Disco Elysium]” Gamasutra, 2020

Smith, G. (2010). What media classes really want to discuss: a student guide. Routledge.

 [GameSpot]. (2020, Jan 12). The Feature That Almost Sank Disco Elysium | Audio Logs [Video File].

              Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X0-W5erEXw

Disco Elysium Wiki. (2019, November 16). Skills.

Retrieved from https://discoelysium.gamepedia.com/Skills