There’s a lot to love about Disco Elysium. In my review, I called out its technical issues and the problems with an overly niche style of gameplay in an experience that should be welcoming to all, especially given its themes – but aside from that, I couldn’t find a fault. Even then, I appreciate that one is an objective flaw, while the other is more of a personal problem with the presentation. It’s such a complex game that I feel I need to replay it – or at least let my first playthrough digest – in order to tackle some of its themes, but there was one thing that stood out to me from the start: Disco Elysium respects the working class.
I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled. For the working class to be characterised as drunk, stupid, and violent. As worthless creatures unable to better themselves. Other media, some willingly and others subconsciously, reinforce these stereotypes around the working class at every turn, sometimes even while trying to create affection. They see the working class as something separate, something the audience could no sooner relate to than a sickly alley cat with mangy fur and only three legs. Sympathy? Sure. It’s easy to pity helpless, disease-ridden things. But empathy? Not a chance. Disco Elysium is different.
Some of the working class are drunk, stupid, or violent, of course. One mini investigation involves a working class man who has gotten drunk and slipped on the boardwalk, hitting his head off a nearby bench. But it never feels mocking, or even pitying. It just… is. “Poverty is just poverty,” Lt. Kim Kitsuragi says in the game. This man is not a stand in for the working class as a whole, nor is he supposed to represent anything insidious about the nature of the working class, or to offer a way to blame them for their situation.
Disco Elysium is not a game that ‘both sides’ it. There’s nuance in its themes, and you may get something different out of the game depending on both what you bring into it and what choices you make, but it’s a game with a point of view. Nowhere is this clearer than with the working class. There’s range within these characters, and they feel bigger than their class. They feel like real people.
I’ve written previously about punching Cuno in the face. This was one of my first ‘oh, anything goes in this game’ moments, and I thought that was all it was. Want to punch a child in the face? Sure thing! But then the conversation unfolded. Cuno has had a violent upbringing, with an abusive, drug dealing father, and after being punched by you, he begins to respect you. Every interaction is thoughtful in Disco Elysium – okay, maybe not when he kisses the doorbell – and as a result, it’s not a game that can get away with lazy character archetypes. When you first meet Cuno, he’s funny, but he seems like a million other characters you’ve met before. The poorly educated, dirty, born nasty poor kid. Right now, he’s a nuance, but he’ll grow up into a criminal. It’s what the working class do – it’s in their nature. Disco Elysium peers beneath the surface, and examines the reasons for every character’s behaviour. It’s never as simple as it seems.
So it goes with Cuno too. ‘It’s not his fault, it’s because his father beats him’ is hardly a ringing endorsement of the working class; it just shifts the blame from Cuno’s nature to his father’s. But on top of this, Disco Elysium explores the structural causes of poverty and crime within the working class. ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ has become something of a rallying cry in recent years, with the wealthy, typically right wing politicians, telling the poor to fend for themselves. To innovate and launch themselves out of poverty; the flip side of this message being that those who are stuck in poverty are deserving of such a fate.
That they have failed to make use of the tools provided to them, either because of ineptitude, laziness, or a predisposition to criminality. Therefore, those stuck in poverty are not deserving of help. They have already squandered their chance while others have thrived. But the phrase began as a metaphor for the impossibility of the act – one physically cannot pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Disco Elysium understands this, and while there are some working class characters given depth, personality, and agency, it’s the institutions around them, the businesses and the police and the authorities, that is to blame for the poverty they find themselves in.
We see a righteous anger within the working class in Disco Elysium. While some are trying to get by with what they have, others are fighting the system however they can. Subversion and punkish rebellion are rife within the youth. Will this smash the system? Probably not, but of all the different sides you can take in Disco Elysium, the people against the power is the one that makes us want to jump in with both feet and both fists.
The characters are sympathetic, but they’re not there to elicit sympathy. They’re balanced characters; some are irritating, or mean, or cold, while others are warm, naive, and hopeful. The working class is not a monolith, but it’s not separated into good and bad either. They’re all just people trying to get by, and the game respects them in a way many other forms of media does not. Poverty is just poverty.
Next: Everything We Learned About Lady Dimitrescu In Our Resident Evil Village Preview
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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