In 2009 Steven Porfiri was accused of never having played a video game before by someone on a GameFAQs message board, and the insult has haunted him ever since. Now, as the Senior Games Writer for Merry-Go-Round Magazine, he’s finally been given a platform to prove that not only has he been playing video games, he writes about them as well. I Played a Game Once is an inside look into what he is playing, and how it has any bearing whatsoever on our current moment. It’s basically like Carrie Bradshaw’s column but with more discussions about save-scumming.
It would be an absolutely lukewarm take to simply say that DISCO ELYSIUM is a great game. If you’ve happened to glance at this column you’ve probably heard of the game, believe it is great, and know that the general consensus is that it is very good. Cool, column over, see you in a couple weeks.
The first time I played through I wasn’t actually able to get very far before the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune demanded I turn my attention elsewhere. But I was able to get through a good amount of it, and I can say very certainly that DISCO ELYSIUM deserves the praise it gets. But again, we all figured that. But with the release of DISCO ELYSIUM: THE FINAL CUT I felt it was a perfect excuse to get back to Revachol and see what new features and aspects had been added into the game. I felt that this was the time that I finally crack open what makes the game so special and why it continues to draw me in.
As I was gently chided by various personifications of my more primitive brain functions, I wondered if perhaps this approach to the human mind is what does it. It certainly doesn’t hurt; now that every aspect of your personality has been given a voice you’ll certainly be hearing from yourself more often, especially as you level them up and give them more credence as you go about your police business in Martinaise. The gameplay aspect of this truly is a stunning concept, giving an interesting new twist on the adage “you are who you choose to be”. With my more recent runthrough I made my detective a somewhat-frail intellectual with middling reflexes who struggles with empathy, and as a result my Encyclopedia sense began to constantly chime in with information about the world in which DISCO ELYSIUM takes place.
Or maybe that was what truly ensnared me in the game, was how detailed every aspect of the fictional world was. You may have heard a while ago that there is a TV series planned based on the world of Elysium, the world in which the game takes place. Aiding this endeavor is the fact that before DISCO ELYSIUM was a game it was a novel, and before that it was simply a homebrew Dungeons and Dragons campaign. In 2013 the game’s director, Robert Kurvitz, published SACRED AND TERRIBLE AIR, which contained everything Kurvitz and his art collective had dreamed up about the world of DISCO ELYSIUM in an alcohol-smudged haze of fervent creativity. By most accounts the novel took five years to write, so one can imagine how much lore is packed into those pages, and then programmed into the video game.
But the world itself is a curious invention, at once modern, retrofuturist, and completely alien. DISCO ELYSIUM creates a world that I’ve always been curious to explore, which is what happens in the future of high fantasy novels; when the lich king is slain and the kingdoms are united, how do future generations look upon those struggles and how do they percolate through the sands of time to the modern day? DISCO ELYSIUM explores that, taking place 50 years after a failed revolution that deposed the king of Revachol and left it in the hands of a callous Coalition government, which in turn made the player a puppet of conquerors. There’s a rich history and culture popping up in the game that is starkly different from many imaginings of fantasy and future-fantasy worlds. Maybe because this one has communism.
The game’s use of ideologies that are cribbed in part from our society might be that extra special sauce that makes it stand out from others like it. I guess what I’m saying is I’ve just never encountered a game that uses ultraliberalism as a stat bonus. What I admire about DISCO ELYSIUM, I think, is the way it uses its fantasy veneer to satirize and examine these political leanings, and how they affect those that subscribe, struggle to subscribe, or ultimately ignore them. It’s a fantasy realm that had all the mystery and wonder of its medieval equivalent stripped away by the trappings of a modern society, making it a masterful pastiche of our own modern world.
The art and graphics reflect that sense of smeared pastiche, as Aleksander Rostov’s surrealist imagery and use of color and backgrounds makes every character seem like they’ve just sort of blearily awoken from the ether. The representations of the main characters’ mind–the Encyclopedia, but also his sense of Half-Light, Conceptualization, Logic, et al– also fit this dreamy-bordering-on-nightmare perspective, and the images one can see that make up the Thought Cabinet look like someone tried to draw a representation of something they saw in one of those dreams. The surreality of the images go hand-in-hand with the similar-but-different feeling of the world itself, further cementing it as a reflection of our world in a warped mirror caked in amphetamines.
My effusive praise of the game makes it all the more baffling that I can’t seem to crack it. I don’t know what’s keeping me from diving into the game as fully as it’s dove into my psyche, but there are worlds in there yet unseen by me. I’ve yet to find a smoldering take within it and return to the internet like Prometheus, but I feel as though my innards are being nibbled on anyway. One day I’ll dive into the pulsating heart of DISCO ELYSIUM, and blast it all, I’m going to do it somehow. I’ve got to see what else there is.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I haven’t gotten all the way through a game I’ve written over 800 words cheering on, but it’s true. I think that there are certain things that we don’t have to fully experience to get a major taste of what they have to offer, and I think that with DISCO ELYSIUM I’ve gotten that first lingering sampling. I am compelled to finish it entirely.