Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019) is an isometric role-playing game where the player finds themselves as a detective (be warned – spoilers abound in links) in the midst of a murder mystery in the worndown Martinaise district of the city of Revachol (pronounced ‘Re-va-shol’, as an in-game load screen helpfully points out). A major handicap of your investigation is that the narrative starts as your player character wakes from a blackout, having no memory of where you are, or what you’re doing in town, or even who you are (in fact, the player character’s name isn’t even known at the start of the game).
While this amnesia ostensibly serves as an opportune entry point for the narrative and setting — making it not at all unusual to point out to everyone around you that you’re gonna need a little more explanation about “Insulinde”, “radiocomputers”, and HARDCORE TO THE MAX “Arno van Eyck” — the amnesia also serves as a blank slate by which to develop your character. As the player, you are able to define the detective outside of most influences of the character’s past through the way in which you have the detective interact with the world.
In order to explore the inner psychic workings of your detective avatar, the player benefits from a small supporting cast of systems, stats, and skills that are anthropomorphized with their very own perspectives and personalities.
The journey into the inner psyche begins — as every psychic adventure should — with meeting the Ancient Reptilian Brain and the Limbic System. The quick and easy explanation here is that the reptilian brain refers to the most basic structures and instinctual functions of the brain, while the limbic system connects those instinctual functions with complex thought processes through filters such as emotions and memory.
From an evolutionary perspective/hypothesis of human brain development, the brain is thought of as having developed up from the spinal cord, with the physical parts of the brain responsible for more and more complex bodily/neurological/psychological processes developing last and residing farther from the brainstem. The thinking is that the brain grew more complex as humans evolved (or, alternatively, as humans develop from birth) — neanderthals or (babies) essentially operating much like animals and surviving only according to fear/pleasure responses, then becoming more complex as they develop emotional responses and begin learning as they record external responses to memory, until they are eventually doing calculus or painting masterpieces or what have you.
From a more psychoanalytic perspective, the functions of the reptilian brain relate pretty heavily to the psychic structures of the ego (base instinctual drives) and the superego (the restrictive filter of memory, emotion, and understanding of the world that provides a limit-providing conscience that directs our behavior). As the ego and the superego provide constricting limits to the world, they provide space for more complex thought constructs to arise as the individual begins to interact with and react to the world around them. So like a newborn child, emerging from the stupor of the three-day binge your character had before the game starts, the player begins Disco Elysium coming to know the ego and superego, and beginning new patterns of interaction that bring new opportunities for your detective supercop (and/or hobocop?) to define himself within this world.
Volumetric Shit Compressor
While the Ancient Reptilian Brain and the Limbic System are the most significant (and vocal, literally) parts of the player-detective’s psyche, there is also a wide array of other internal voices that offer guidance (or misdirection) and opportunity. While character creation may have presented the player character as being a grouping of attributes in which the character has a stronger weight in intellect, psyche, physique, or motorics, the player quickly finds that the six skills within each attribute often have their own dialogue with which to color your perspective of Martinaise.
While it might seem strange for attributes to be divided up into four attributes (my inner tabletop nerd initially bemoaned the lack of the standard six attributes of STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA), the unique skill trees for each attribute make the distinction clear. The intellect tree is made up of skills that rely heavily on reason and deduction (logic, rhetoric, visual calculus, as well as encyclopaedia, conceptualization, and drama). Psyche, on the other hand, contains skills based on sympathy and emotional intelligence (suggestion, empathy, volition, as well as the imaginative inland empire, authority, and espirit de corps [spirit of the group, i.e. the police corps in particular]). Bodily skills are divided into the reactive physique skills (electrochemistry, pain threshold, endurance, the bodily sense of physical instrument, emotional body senses of “shivers”, and the ‘danger sense’ of half light) and the active motorics skills (hand-eye coordination, interfacing, perception, reaction speed, composure, object manipulation in interfacing, and the physical stance of acting socially appropriate in “savoir faire”). Each skill tree helpfully contains sets of skills that interpret either internal or external stimuli, resulting in an archetypal psychological foundation that is both representative of the player’s embodiment as a law enforcement officer in Martinaise but also helpfully familiar to our own embodiment within the real world (you know — whatever that whole IRL thing is).
While these skills are useful in the game mechanic for engaging in skill-appropriate dialogue/narrative locks (such as coming up with a sensible argument using Rhetoric or delivering bad news to an NPC using Savoir Faire and Authority), many of these skills also offer helpful bits of narrative. Espirit de Corps, for example, often butts in to describe how the player character imagines other detectives or cops to be interacting with the world, often raising memories of particular individuals from the character’s home precinct.
Shortly after encountering another detective, Kim Kitsuragi, who assists the player character in the plot’s murder investigation, he points out that the player character has a very significant need to get your shit together and act like a real cop. This opens up a Thought for your “Thought Cabinet” – a place where thoughts can develop to pose solutions to problems. The problem of getting your shit together helpfully poses the Thought Cabinet solution of the Volumetric Shit Compressor. While this isn’t the first thought that can be developed, or even a necessity to begin use of the Thought Cabinet, it helps to present the use of working on mind-projects (referred to as mind-projects because each thought requires a project of concentration/research to develop a solution to the posed problem) to enhance the player character and focus your skillset. If your detective’s shit is so apart that he can’t handle examining the body of a murder victim without throwing up, the Volumetric Shit Compressor allows you to enhance your endurance and make new attempts at dialogue/narrative locks centered around endurance. The mind-projects of the Thought Cabinet let the player define the kind of cop the player character needs to be to move through the narrative.
While many mind-project thoughts are related to enhancing and defining your character according to certain skills, this evolution of the archetypal attribute skills also has the possibility for the player to create your character’s identity throughout the game. You may, for instance, research the mind-project of Hobocop so that your detective may embody the truly resourceful garbage-sifter that you know is deep down in his subconscious (and honestly, what kind of monster doesn’t make sure to loot every possible interactable object?).
The Thought Cabinet and its mind-projects are an ingeniously simplified way of supporting personality typology. Carl Jung’s theory of personality (primarily seen in Psychological Types but also incorporated throughout his works on archetypes and the unconscious) refers to personality in a holistic way that arises through the commonly used psychological functions (intuiting, sensing, thinking, feeling as well as the directional aspects of introversion and extraversion that is most known pop-culturally through the extra-reductive Myers Briggs types) as well as the relative unconscious functions. That is to say, it’s something of a misnomer to refer to a person as having one individual personality type because any one individual makes use of and is psychologically embodied by all psychological functions. While dominant traits might involve extraverted intuiting, that person’s unconscious functions will still include the opposite function of introverted sensing. These functions are most easily seen at play in dream analysis, because the archetypes at play within the unconscious are representative of the combination of psychological functioning.
All that is to say that personality is made up of the entirety of one’s psychic geography, including dominant and non-dominant aspects of the unconscious. Within Disco Elysium, the Thought Cabinet allows researchable mind-projects based on the collection of “skills” or psychic contents that make up the attributes of intellect, psyche, physique, and motorics. Specific mind-projects become available for research as a personality type according to the way you as the player character interact with and react to the world around you. Existentially speaking, if you prioritize interactions such as digging through dumpsters for treasure, that skill becomes more pronounced within your personality as the Hobocop thought. Hobocop itself is unlikely to become a sole aspect of your personality (though of course you have the option of doing so) because there is plenty of space within your Thought Cabinet to harness a multitude of mind-project thoughts that together as a group make up your detective’s personality.
It is through this method of constant self-improvement (or “enhancement”, perhaps? Let’s be real – not all of the thoughts are necessarily “improvements”) that you embody your detective and make him real within the world of Martinaise. You as the player have the opportunity to make the detective whole from the completely blank slate of the substance-induced blackout where the narrative begins. While the Ancient Reptilian Brain and Limbic System voice their unique perspectives and projects, even they themselves do not make up the player character in the same way that the id and superego alone do not make up a person. While the player has the true control just in terms of basic game mechanics, it is up to you and your intentions within the narrative that allow your detective to self-actualize.