The following article contains spoilers for many of Disco Elysium’s quest lines.
I speak to a woman, Lilienne Carter, on the edge of a small fishing town. The town isn’t much to look at; only a few small houses that are mostly dilapidated and the rusting remnants of military hardware. Drunks have taken to drinking their days away in a crater near the town center. There’s only one other citizen of the village, besides Lilienne’s 3 children, an elderly woman who kindly offers a key to an empty shack for you to sleep in. These people all exist on the edge of the world; outside of the city of Revachol, outside of the impoverished district of Martinaise, on an abandoned coastline that was once thought of as a potential company town and once a target of gentrification. That construction rears its ugly head again, this time from the union that runs the district across the canal. The villagers have no idea you’ve been asked to get their signatures to approve new housing construction and how outside forces are planning on removing their town. Do you take matters in your own hands and interfere?
Disco Elysium poses a lot of questions surrounding the vulnerability of citizens without governmental infrastructure. The aforementioned Revachol is an afterthought to the wider government; after a communist revolution the outside “Coalition” government took back the city with force. Now five decades later it’s left forgotten as no government wants to take responsibility for it and has since handed citizens the keys to its own law and order. You character is part of the Revachol Citizens Militia (RCM), a former voluntary citizens brigade that acts as more or less the police. You are constantly being reminded that you in fact have very little power you have even though you were called there to investigate a murder. Doesn’t matter what badge you carry though, the real authority in Martinaise is the union.
Obviously the game does not shy away from politics. It’s baked into every setting and individual you come across. This is not a game about making grand political shifts though, the focus is much more on a micro level and the politics of individuals that inhabit the semi lawless system. You come across a wide swath of view points that are rooted in their privilege and experience. Plaisance for example, the local bookstore owner, represents someone on the more mild end of the spectrum as she believes in the capitalist system but blames the cursed building for the businesses failings. On the other side of the spectrum, you have someone literally named “Racist Lorry Driver,” who has a “foreigners are taking our jobs” vibe.
The game is in essence a strong critique of capitalism and it’s failing to protect vulnerable communities. The union in control of Martinaise only enforces law and order based on their own self interest. The body hanging from a tree that you’re tasked to investigate has been there for over a week by the time the game starts (partially due to your main character, but that’s besides the point). This murder mystery at the center of the game makes up only part of the games commentary; the side characters illustrate the much deeper message.
Cuno is a boy you meet who’s strung out on an unknown substance and throwing rocks at the aforementioned corpse. He has deep set eyes and refers to himself in the third person. He seemingly lives alone, in a cave behind the hotel Whirling in Rags. He’s a child who’s essentially been forgotten, an extremely foul mouthed kid who’s already seemingly lost his mind. There’s plenty of semi-open drug abuse happening throughout Martinaise. North of the fishing village, a group of ravers plan on creating a club within what they thought was an abandoned church. You meet them at the end of their rope, burnt out on the big city and trying to establish themselves a new haven. It just so happens that this new club is to be founded on a drug cooking venture. This crew proved to be so painfully accurate, drug burnouts on their last leg desperately trying to salvage together something legitimate through illegitimate means and finding the abandoned husk of the coastline a perfect place to try.
The vulnerable population also extends to the people who have acquired power within the district of Martinaise. The “Hardie Boys” are a group of enforcers acting out the “law” part of the union’s orders. At the head is Titus Hardie, a short fused bruiser who wants nothing to do with outsiders. He’s also smarter than he looks; he understands just how tenuous peoples positions within the district truly are. As you press farther into the mystery, his intentions become more clear. He wants to protect the people of Martinaise, whether he truly knows best or not. He opts in to following the union because it’s the only body representing power and protection within the district. His display of the mercenary as a hanging, albeit however wrong headed, shows that he doesn’t believe the union can cede any political ground to outside forces and that the display would warn intruders off.
Outside forces are much more powerful than the union though. Just like how the Coalition government wiped out the communist revolutionaries, so do the “Wild Pines Group” and their higher mercenaries threaten to enact retribution on the union. The history of Martinaise and the union’s interactions with Wild Pines paints large organizations something to be feared and obeyed. You must follow and work directly on their terms, lest you face vital consequences. These organizations are also largely indifferent to the actual well being of people; they only take interest in Martinaise when the union calls for a lorry driver strike. The strike’s call for “every driver a member of the board” only sounds threatening when you’re already a member.
The game avoids larger prescriptions though, what an ideal future would look like. It’s distrust in systems is valid, but it’s failings lie in its pessimism toward human experience. There is no better way or path forward, only the crushing inevitability of power. In the end, there’s nothing you can do. The tribunal between the mercenaries and the Hardie boys will end in blood and the Union will use it as an opportunity to seize the harbor. The citizens, employees, and the player are all just pawns in larger games that you can’t stop. To go back to the fishing village, the inhabitants won’t be able to survive there. Soon there’ll be a “Youth Center,” or more likely a factory, paved over where the dingy town once stood. It’s only a matter of time.