Disco Elysium: Hope in the Face of Despair

Harry's life is a thematic chiaroscuro where we find what makes Disco Elysium such an affecting and moving work of art

Disco Elysium: Hope in the Face of Despair
That's Disco, Baby. Source: PC Gamer.
This story contains minor spoilers for Disco Elysium.

Disco Elysium is a game about regret. Even from the outset, we are presented with a man who regretted his past so powerfully that he annihilated it through a quasi-mystical self-abnegation fuelled bender.

As we come to terms with who Harrier de Bois actually is, we are subjected to a cavalcade of disappointments and life-tragedies. Here is a man haunted by the departure of his wife, Dora, to the extent that his psyche recontextualizes the separation with such melodrama as to place it on par with the setting’s own quasi-messianic myth of Dolores Dei.

Six years on from the separation, Harry has been undergoing a tumultuous emotional spiral, turning to substance abuse to alleviate his pain.

However, Disco Elysium is not purely a game about misery. Even amongst the wreck of Harry’s life, we are treated to the occasional glimmer of hope. It is in this thematic chiaroscuro that we find what makes Disco Elysium such an affecting and moving work of art. Even in the dregs of despair, there is still hope for Harry.

Rays of Hope

A Sensitive Soul. Source: NME.

The Date of Birth Generator, accessible in the Thought Cabinet, places Harrier’s age at a robust 44. Not young, but certainly more towards the beginning of middle age than the end of it. It is here that we begin to see a microcosm of the powerful hope-suffering juxtaposition.

Once the thought is completed and Harry is able to recall the year of his birth, we are treated to the following insight:

You were born in the year ‘07, in the last year of the Commune of Revachol, right before it fell. In the Old Military Hospital, on the ground floor where people usually came to die, during a snowstorm. The Revolution had about one year left to go and the fires were still burning bright. There were explosions in the blizzard. This was 44 years ago. You are 44 years old. The bloating might never leave your face, but beneath it -- you still have some years. You still have some hope.”

In this paragraph we are treated to what we might call a Vertical Slice of Disco Elysium’s thematic structure. The revolution, still in full swing in ‘07 is doomed to failure, yet Harry was born in a place of death and trauma – in defiance of the toll of the revolution and the snowstorm that framed his birth. 44 years later, Harry may look like a bloated wreck, but he is still alive and, potentially, has plenty of time left to live his life. Despite the pain and the trauma, Harry could well still have half of his life ahead of him. There is, as the thought tells us, “some hope”.

A Friend

Shine a Light. Source: Fanbyte.

There’s a reason why everyone loves Kim Kitsuragi. He is a rock; a stoic, unflappable man with hidden depths and buckets of resolve. As they say: still waters run deep.

From the moment we meet Kim in the game’s opening act, a low difficulty Esprit de Corps check informs us that, upon meeting Harry, Kim would be willing to take a bullet for him if they were to come under fire. It is not something that every player will get to find out on their first run, but it is a big deal. Disco Elysium’s opening has Harry emerge from a literal and figurative pile of his own filth, tracking down trousers, a shirt and shoes so as to drag himself out of his ruined hotel room to the ground floor of the Whirling in Rags.

Then, he meets Kim. Within minutes of meeting him we, the players, come to crave Kim’s approval. In Harry’s chaotic, amnesiac world, the emergence of a stoic, driven and goal-oriented figure like Kim is earth-shattering. Here is a man who can keep us on the straight and narrow. He has tolerance for our shenanigans, but always does his best to keep us on mission. He understands the sorts of traumas that might drive someone to the kinds of places where we find Harry during Disco Elysium’s prologue. He only judges us when we really, truly deserve it.

If you play your cards right, Kim opens up. He admits to being a “torque dork” and adores his motor carriage. He listens to Speedfreaks FM, he loves crosswords and he permits himself a single cigarette a day. As a child he dreamed of becoming an Aerostatic pilot, and has the jacket to prove it.

He is a well rounded, supportive, sympathetic and flawed man, but, above all that, he is, from the outset, a friend to Harry. It is through this dynamic that Disco Elysium eclipses the misery of its premise to provide something more. We, as Harry, having emerged from our ruined hotel room and evidence of our own trauma and misfortune, are provided hope and the promise of genuine human connection. Kim represents a very real and tangiable path forward.

It is this contrast that helps give Disco Elysium its sincere emotional resonance.

Towards the Future

A Pale Future. Source: Critical Distance.

Unfortunately, no matter how resolute and admirable Kim might be, the world of Elysium, in which our story takes place, is doomed.

The inhabitable world of Elysium is divided into Isolas separated by a dangerous anathema: The Pale.

As Joyce Messier puts it:

"Achromatic, odourless, featureless. The Pale is the enemy of matter and life. It is not *like* any other -- or *any* thing in the world. It is the transition state of being into nothingness."

What’s worse, The Pale is constantly expanding:

"The pale outweighs reality two to one -- there is more pale than there is matter. And the ratio is slipping."

No matter what Harry and co do, their world is doomed.

Though in universe interpretations of what The Pale actually is vary, the Dialectical Materialists and the Insulindian Phasmid believe it to be a form of “human pollution” consisting of a physically manifested past which confuses and distorts the memories and temporality of any who are exposed to it. The Phasmid develops this theory, claiming that “There is an almost unanimous agreement between the birds and the plants that you are going to destroy us all.”

In Elysium, the end of the universe is rooted in the frailty of human thought.

Still, even though this information is freely available to influential figures like Joyce, the inhabitants of Elysium who are aware of this truth don’t simply lie down and die. Expeditions are mounted to try and understand the phenomenon, and people carry on with their lives.

In a very real way, the people of Elysium attempt to escape the literal, burdensome anathema of the past by pushing on to the future, even though the future is, by nature, a limited and fleeting space.

This is Harry’s story, written across the world. Despite the trauma he’s faced, we, as the player, are invited to make that push towards the future so as to lift Harry out of his own personal Pale and back into the world.

It is here, between the grit and the grimness, that we find the kernel of hope that makes Disco Elysium so compelling.

Worn, tired and doomed to oblivion, Harry de Bois gets up, and puts one foot in front of the other. In a way, there is nothing more human than that.

Cat Bussell is a Games Journalist and Grad Student. She didn't put enough points into Savoir Faire.  


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