Grief is everywhere in Disco Elysium. It lingers in the detective’s mind in the Mazovian Socio-Economics thought, which states that even though “0.000% of Communism has been built” and “evil child-murdering billionaires still rule the world with a shit-eating grin”, all the detective could manage to do to rebuild communism in the year ‘51 is to make himself very sad. The detective carries a grief so monumental that he has drunk himself into amnesia, as he drags around the abyssal depth of his despair, barely able to carry out his responsibilities as a member of the Revachol Citizens Militia. Then there’s the very city of Revachol itself, a place barely recovering from the atrocities of a civil war that took place decades ago. Disco Elysium doesn’t shy away from serving grief in platitudes, embodied by the crumbling city and its broken protagonist.
But these aren’t the only major moments of grief in the game. A particularly searing instance involves an incident involving a working class lady at a bookstore. The detective had, in his trademark bumbling manner, decided to take it upon himself to look for her husband, only to later chance upon a dead body on a boardwalk that greatly resembled her description of her partner. Her reaction to the news was so heartbreakingly raw, that all she could do was to look at the two cigarette butts he had left behind just a few days ago. Privately, your empathy skill was only able to remark that, “he was just here. Alive.”
What makes these depictions of grief so resonant is that they go beyond grand displays of devastation like shelled cities, but present themselves in smaller, quieter moments. These can be seen in mundane objects and keepsakes in the game. Take the cigarette butts, which were a reminder of the lady’s husband and his life, an indelible marker of his presence. Then there’s the tale of the fanatical royalist ex-soldier, Rene Arnoux and his friend and arch-rival Gaston Martin. Only an old photo of a smiling Rene, Gaston and a lady named Jeannie—someone they’ve fought over for decades—would allow Gaston to finally confront his feelings for his friend and mourn his death. The detective’s discovery of an apricot-scented chewing gum wrapper, hidden in the pocket of a pair of labourer jeans, would conjure in him a deep, lingering memory of his ex-lover Dora, with him internalising this moment as one of great treachery and betrayal.
Such grief, too, can be brought out through instances involving close proximity and long distances: Rene, who had spent his days snapping at the throat of his friend and arch-rival Gaston, suppressing and smothering his feelings of love for his friend till they emerged as regret and unresolved pain in a very brief, fleeting moment. The wretched long-distance phone call that the detective himself would make to his ex-lover Dora, who has moved a thousand miles away to Mrova.
In the end, these vignettes become an accumulation of painful details, becoming threads and forming textures on a bigger fabric of grief. What a sad, sad world this is. That’s why Disco Elysium’s elegy on death and loss can be unbearably heart-wrenching, even verging on cliche at times, but it’s hard to deny that this very grief is the raw, authentic, and unmistakable emotional core of the game.
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