The Psychology of Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium is a role-playing game chronicling the journey of an amnesiac detective trying to solve a murder case. You play as Harry Du Bois, stumbling through a fictional city that has been subject to war and political upheaval. The murder mystery has the chance of reigniting old conflicts and setting alight the tension that hangs in the air.

The themes of the game are chaos and redemption: how the events of our lives can break us, and how we can heal, putting the pieces back together again.

It also raises two important questions. Can video games be a form of art? And if so, what can they teach us about the human experience?

This is the psychology of Disco Elysium.

Disco Elysium starts with Harry Du Bois waking up in a hotel room in the city of Revachol (RE-va-shol). Everything in the room is broken: the window, the cassette player and Harry himself.  In an all-night bender, Harry has destroyed it all, wiping out his memory in the process. He does not know who or where he is and must discover this over time. He does so with the help of his trusted sidekick, Kim Kitsuragi.

“Where are we, Lieutenant Kitsuragi?”

“In Elysium,” he replies, “Behind our eyes. Like all human beings, detective.” He looks around and sighs, “The world is what it is. I’m glad to see you’re stable. Keep it that way.”

Waking up, Harry is also confronted by a cacophony of voices inside his own head. The voices are pushing and pulling him in different directions. They are personifications of certain parts of his personality. This includes the part that remembers being a cop and a team player, or the part that remembers the drug-fuelled rampage o the night before. As the player, you get to choose which part to listen to.

When Harry is confronted by a hotel manager demanding the bill for the night, for instance, the “Drama” part of his personality might suggest doing something theatrical – like jumping across the room, while the “Authority” part might suggest doing something aggressive – like giving the man a good talking to.

The effect of hearing each part of Harry’s personality is profound. This is a character at war within themselves. No matter what choice you make, you are disobeying certain parts of Harry’s personality. In making decision, you are picking sides in that war.

In Disco Elysium, the self that is constructed is always burdened by the mistakes of the past. Harry is running away from his memory. His amnesia is intentional. He has suffered from heartbreak and tragedy and would rather burn down those bridges than walk over them. As one character tells him in the game:

“You are a violent and irrepressible miracle. The vacuum of cosmos and the stars burning in it are afraid of you. Given enough time you would wipe us all out and replace us with nothing – just be accident.”

To represent his flight from himself, the game has a “morale” meter, where discovering memories of the past depletes one’s morale – equivalent to losing health, and eventually leading to a kind of death. The symbolism is clear. Our past can catch up to us, our past can destroy us in the present and we can never run far enough away from who we used to be.

But there is hope.

Despite his fractured self, Harry is on a murder case. He has a job to do. Like all heroes, he is on a journey. He must solve the case, and in doing so, he has a chance to rebuild the various parts of himself, to construct a new self entirely. (The game’s skill tree allows you to invest points in the various parts of his personality). By acting in his defined role, Harry can become a new man. By committing himself to action, he can create new memories, and therefore, a new life.

There are many layers of psychological ideas underpinning this. In psychology there is the idea that there are many parts of the self, pulling us in different directions. The well-adjusted person accepts the totality of themselves, creating a full integration of past and present. This is more difficult than it at first sounds.

The psychologist Carl Jung discusses this as a confrontation with the ‘shadow’ part of the self:

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

The shadow – that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors.

Harry Du Bois is such a character, doing anything he can to avoid his own past. And yet it is only through the full integration of his past with his present, that he can move on and become a new man.

Out of all games that I have ever played, Disco Elysium seems to settle the argument of whether games can be a form of art. The answer is a resounding yes. Through the exploration of deep themes and ideas, it proves so.

Disco Elysium is also beautiful.

It is beautiful in the way that it combines personal tragedy with redemption in a narrative arc. But it also beautiful in the traditional sense. The art of the game is depicted in watercolors, so that Harry and the other citizens of Revachol exist in a surreal space unto themselves, like memories of washed-out figures of the past or distant future. The art is inspired by Rembrandt, Saville, and Kandinsky – not aiming for realism as such, but a confronting boldness and playfulness of colour and light.

Revachol is a place with higher contrasts than the real world. Colours clash in the sky and on the water, in the backstreets and in the middling alleyways, playing across the spectrum of light. It is in this contrast that we find a form of truth. All art is a representation of reality, but Disco Elysium seeks to confront us with the opposites in life: the pull and push, the collapse and the rebirth, the bright and the dark. The contrast is intentional and almost painfully so.

Ultimately however, the message is hopeful:

No matter how broken you may be, there is always a way back. No matter how hard you get knocked down, you can start again by getting to work on the things that you can control in your immediate surroundings. You can be the ripple effect that flows outwards. Small actions have big consequences – consequences that can shift and change the course and shape of other peoples’ lives.

This is, of course, the lesson of all roleplaying games. Unlike other mediums, games give us the chance at both interaction and repetition.

We can try out various lives, various personalities, various ways of approaching the same situation – and through trying out different selves – we can ultimately decide who we want to be.

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