Ideology in Martinaise and La Mancha
Much is made of the complexity of the world of Disco Elysium, but its setting is really nothing more than a distorted mirror of reality. It is a magical realist mythos in which landmasses called isolas are joined up by the mysterious pale, a kind of dreamscape wherein reality itself is undone. The various nations of this world are superficially divided into four ideologies: communism, fascism, moralism (which is a form of liberal-centrism associated with the Dolorianism faith), and ultraliberalism (which is just a form of opportunism). Dolorianism is itself associated with the worship of ‘Innocences’, who are held up (and seem to be) magical entities the reverence of which belies their seeming mediocrity.
The game itself takes place in a district of the fictional Revachol, named Martinaise, itself on the isola of Insulinde. Fifty years earlier a commune there overthrew the monarchy, but was then defeated by a capitalist coalition army and placed under their shared jurisdiction, but which delegates the upholding of law to a Revachol Citizens Militia (RCM). You play a member of the RCM who has been sent to investigate a murder, you have amnesia, but are aided by the resolute Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi.
The game is an isometric CRPG (computer role playing game) based on the old Infinity Engine D&D computer games. The setup of a character with amnesia, piecing together who he is while becoming entangled with a strange, trans dimensional reality has more than a few echoes of Planescape: Torment, where you are a man who seems to be unable to die, but who has forgotten various previous iterations of himself. As with Planscape, there is really nothing known about your identity at the start. Where Disco Elysium is perhaps unique is the degree to which the character creation is integrated into the entirety of the game.
Who you are and who you decide to be are inseparatable in Disco Elysium. You can (are encouraged to) identify with any of the four key ideologies, and to do so always becomes an example of what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has termed subversive affirmation. Žižek himself illustrates this idea with numerous examples, but in particular with his (typically contrarian) reading of the work and ideas of the pro-capitalist novelist Ayn Rand:
Subversive affirmation (or overconformity) then overemphasizes an ideology to such an extent that it breaks down its assumptions; that is, it constitutes a devil’s advocate example of reductio ad absurdum. A form a hyper-sincerity characterises this ploy; there’s no smugness when this is done effectively, and it works best (as with Ayn Rand) when the advocate is so strong a believer themselves that they are not in on the process of deconstruction. None of the ideologies of Elysium have worked, they have all produced a miserable world analogous to our present; one where belief in historical agency has eroded into abject cynicism.
Without the player really struggling against the logic of the game, the cop you play-act (seemingly while he also play-acts) is a creature of pure nostalgia. He is an alcoholic bemoaning a lost love, besotted with disco music, karaoke and glib ideas of fame. Belief itself seems to drive him more than the content of belief. That is, you play as someone inexorably bound in a world that can only be described in the language of hauntology in Mark Fisher’s sense, that of lost futures. But the person you play is differentiated from this by his very, often emphatically hopeful identification with such a hopeless state: you alone believe in the futures that were lost, act as if they were not lost at all, and in doing so expose a greater ideological chasm: that for all the ideological contestations that remain locked in place and justify much of the inhumanity of this world, very few in Martinaise seem to believe in anything.
Indeed, the longer you play, the more you get to know the various people of Martinaise and their part in your investigations, the more striking their lack of belief becomes. Everyone is cynically motivated, either enacting an ode to the people they were, the convictions they have lost; lying to themselves in a pretence of belief that is easily stripped away; or willfully pretending a conviction they do not have. This is (unsurprisingly) particularly true of the fascists (who often call themselves traditionalists or monarchists) and the communists, but only because for the moralists and ultraliberals the absence of belief is not even veiled. Only when you—in your limitless capacity to take belief seriously—become a moralist or an ultraliberal does either take on the aspect of a real ideology, something that supersedes yourself.
Kim Kitsuragi is another exception. He is, in all but the most extreme circumstances, resolutely on your side. He is a moralist, with a justified distaste for the fascists. But more significantly, while not a strong believer, he is willing to uphold the player character throughout his various choices, and without Kim it is improbable that very much could happen at all. Kim’s relationship to you in Disco Elysium is, in essence, Sancho Panza’s relationship to the titular hero of Don Quixote. And if this game has a clear narrative pedigree beyond Planscape, it is quite clearly with Cervantes’s early modern Spanish novel.
Don Quixote is also highly hauntological in its subject matter. It is a metafiction, with an epistolary framing narrative about the ‘archives of La Mancha’; references to false versions of part one written into part two; real life stories presented alongside fabrications. All of this riffs on contemporaneous story conventions, which presented fiction as reality. Alonso Quixano, our hero, is a devotee of chivalric romances to such a point that he imagines a knight-errant and his purpose the resuscitation of chivalric culture. He sets out with a nearby farmer, Sancho, on a quest, and along the way encounters a world ideologically saturated with chivalry, but without any belief in the ideology itself.
What Quixote does, attacking windmills and otherwise, often violently intervening in all kinds of bizarre circumstances, is what the hero of Disco Elysium does. He exposes two facts: first, that the belief systems and stories that sustain the social world around him are superficial pretenses, and second that there is not all that much else in the vacuum of belief. Quixote and Sancho suffer massively in the course of events (as do Kim and the hero of Disco Elysium). The very willingness to behave contrary to the cynical, under-conformity of the world about them makes them either figures of mockery or dangerous interlopers deserving of harsh rebuke. And the absurdity of Quixote and the cop are only possible because someone else is willing to sustain and believe in them, Sancho and Kim.
Why does Disco Elysium work so well as a game? It is because the story it is telling is intimately related to the functioning of the game itself. This is what Cervantes achieved, too; the very participation of the reader in absorbing the various accounts of Quixote’s adventures was bound to the mockery or the cynicism of the chivalric romances he was taking-on (replete with ideas about nationalism and selfhood), and arguably helped to bury as a popular mode of storytelling. Likewise Disco Elysium mocks a cynical nostalgia politics that dominates today. It undermines it by forcing the player to become an uncomfortably close participant in sustaining it, demanding a heightened subversive affirmation.
We are all waking up in Martinaise in an alcohol haze, and working around where we belong amongst the ruins (literal and figurative) of failed ideologies. The game insists that to get beyond this apocalyptic state, we must adventure through it.
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