Video Games as Political Education: A Review of The Outer Worlds and Disco Elysium

Screenshot from Outer Worlds

By Ben D

Last month at the Academy Awards, a film on class warfare received Best Picture, while the winner of Best Documentary quoted the The Communist Manifesto before a hall of Hollywood luminaries—Jeff Bezos included. While the Oscars are far from a barometer of average American sentiment, Parasite and American Factory’s triumphs reveal that even the most bourgeois media institutions are beginning to recognize that acknowledging class struggle is necessary to maintain cultural relevance.

But the film industry isn’t alone in experiencing this cultural shift. A few months before the Oscars, at the Game Awards, writer Helen Hendepere thanked Marx and Engels “for providing a political education” after the video game Disco Elysium won the Fresh Indie award. Disco Elysium was one of two highly-acclaimed video games released in 2019 predicated on the shortcomings of capitalism–the other being The Outer Worlds. And while its adherence to industry conventions hampers The Outer Worlds’ revolutionary potential, Disco Elysium offers the possibility for video games to more fully embrace the realities of the working class and the strategies of mass political movements. 

The Outer Worlds

Described by The Guardian as “a treatise on unencumbered space capitalism,” The Outer Worlds imagines company-town politics expanded to interplanetary proportions. The setting is Halcyon, a solar system bought and governed by a handful of corporations collectively known as “The Board.” Under the promises of unparalleled opportunity and individual freedom, residents of Earth volunteer to enter suspended animation and make the years-long voyage to Halcyon. Upon arrival, the majority spend their life toiling away in alien tuna canneries, soulless retail jobs, and planetary gulags.

The scale of The Outer Worlds is vast, and there’s something undeniably fun about captaining your own spacecraft to fly between planets. But the game is at its best in the myriad small interactions that occur in Halcyon. Speaking with residents and interacting with computer terminals, the player experiences a society in which corporate ethos has penetrated every aspect of life. Citizens regularly weave marketing slogans into their conversations with you, consciously or unconsciously. Every item in the game, from urban streetwear to a grenade launcher, has a brand association, and the player quickly becomes adept at separating the prestige brands from the generic ones while interacting with shopkeepers. Plagued Factory workers refuse to accept treatment because they are convinced their illness is caused by poor work ethic. Suicide is considered destruction of company property.

The critiques of late stage capitalism particularly in The Outer Worlds are brilliantly delivered, often with a touch of humor. Early in the game, the player travels to a lab that tests alien animals which, Jurassic Park-style, have broken loose. In between battling feral aliens and stepping over mangled corpses of workers, the player meets the head of the lab, who remains convinced the massacre was a necessary sacrifice to bring the lab’s product to the market: diet toothpaste—a product no one asked for, and no one needs. Later, the player meets a good-hearted, meticulous factory manager who consistently meets quotas and keeps worker morale high. Hacking into his computer reveals he is consistently denied promotion because he is unable to replicate the corporate garbage language required for higher management.

Hard choices confront the player throughout the game: Is cutting off the power to an exploitative factory worth the immediate damage it might do to workers’ livelihoods? Is it better to side with a progressive manager who wants to change the system from within, or with a group of anarchists who want to tear it all down? The issue with the decisions The Outer Worlds offers isn’t in their complexity or real-world implications, but that they are given to the player in the first place. The concept that such society-altering choices can be made singularly reinforces the false and frankly reactionary notion that revolution can be achieved by the actions of a singular heroic Übermensch—an all-to-common trope in video game narratives. The player begins The Outer Worlds literally falling from the sky.

The issue with The Outer Worlds, ultimately, is not a narrative fault, but that it’s limited by industry conventions. Like the Fallout and Bioshock series before it, the game is an RPG/Shooter hybrid that offers players an ever-expanding arsenal and a cumulative point system that can be applied to various skills to keep them engaged. Under such a formula, every interaction in The Outer Worlds begins to feel like a means to an end: This person will give you a mission so you can reach a new level; that person exists to be killed and looted. The underlying contradiction of The Outer Worlds is that in order to oust the Board, the player must embody its capitalist ethos: starting from nothing and individualistically working your way up.

But is it possible for a game to operate on a more realistic approach to working class politics and still be engaging? One that accepts the relative powerlessness of the individual before capitalism, and makes the building blocks of organizing—relationship building—enjoyable? In Disco Elysium, the answer is a resounding yes.

Disco Elysium   

Like The Outer Worlds, Disco Elysium describes itself as an “open-world RPG”—but its approach is entirely different. Rather than traversing a solar system, the player in Disco Elysium is confined to a few city blocks. Rather than having a veritable arsenal at your disposal, the player gets a revolver with two bullets, fairly late in the game. Rather than a constant barrage of nameless monsters and “marauders” to shoot down, Disco Elysium offers only two battles—one with a nemesis far more sympathetic than threatening. 

Screenshot from Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium takes place in Martinaise, a bombed-out slum and site of a historic communist insurrection that was quashed by, as one character describes, “the combined might of international capital, all at once—all the greed and terror in the world.” The game opens in the midst of a labor dispute between the dockworker’s union and the shipping company. One of the mercenaries hired by the company to break the strike is found hanged from a tree. 

The player takes on the role of Harry Du Bois, a police officer investigating the crime who, after a particularly rough bender the night before, suffers from complete amnesia. In investigating both the crime and Harry Du Bois’ own past, the player spends the majority of Disco Elysium interacting with Martinaise vis-à-vis dialogue trees determined in part by a variety of skill checks the player is required to make (“Rhetoric,” “Empathy,” “Composure,” etc.). 

In a genre often predicated on the promise that the player can eventually reach Godlike status, Disco Elysium is remarkable in that it renders the player nearly powerless throughout the game. Harry Du Bois begins the game poor, repressed, and weak, and by the end he’s not much better off. Unless the player wishes Du Bois to spend the night on a park bench, the investigation is regularly interrupted by the constant need to pay the day’s motel bill, usually by spending a game hour collecting and returning bottles or begging. The police force for whom Du Bois works has little authority. He is, simply, a working class nobody trying to do his job in a hostile system. By the end of the game, no empires have fallen, no worlds are saved, no disasters are prevented, no historical injustices are vindicated. Winning Disco Elysium means solving what ends up being a fairly mundane murder case and keeping your job.   

In stripping Du Bois of any real agency, the player becomes reliant on the Martinaise community. To solve the case, Du Bois is required to talk to practically everybody: union members, the company representative, government officials, the various fascist, racist, communist, and centrist residents of the neighborhood. With a word count above 1 million and superb voice acting (some provided by the various members of Chapo Trap House), Disco Elysium might otherwise be labeled a “conversation simulator.” This, more than anything else, is what makes the game most engaging. Critics have noted how the game’s well-crafted and regularly hysterical dialogue options are as addicting as any shooter, and Twitter accounts exist just for quotes from the game. 

The superb writing personally invests the player into each of the characters in the game, all of whom complicate any political conclusions that may come easily in other video games. The head of the union is undeniably corrupt and manipulative, but is still essentially working for the betterment of the dockworkers he represents. The company representative seems genuinely generous, while at the same time displaying little guilt for bringing in a mercenary force likely to massacre unarmed union members. 

Du Bois (and the player’s) growing connection with the residents of Martinaise are reinforced by the few cutscenes the game offers. With a single exception, these scenes are not employed to serve the plot, nor up the adrenaline. Conversely, they slow down the narrative with long pans, dwelling on moments completely irrespective of the investigation, when Du Bois grows closer to the people in the neighborhood. In one scene, he musters the courage to sing karaoke in front of patrons at the motel bar. In another, he dances with local punks after helping them establish an underground dance club. The “climactic” cut scene consists of a shared silent motorboat ride with Kim Kitsuragi, Du Bois’ partner who has shared every moment of the investigation. Despite being surrounded by death, addiction, poverty, and tragedy, such moments make Disco Elysium one of the warmest games ever made.

Disco Elysium is a game based on building relationships, and in creating it, ZA/UM (who prefer to describe themselves “as a cultural movement in the vein of Dadaism or Fluxus” rather than a game company) have depicted what may be the most accurate depiction of working class politics ever presented in a video game. While the majority of “political” games reinforce alienation—presenting the player as either a singular supreme leader tasked with managing the masses, or a singular hero with more weapons than allies—Disco Elysium demands that the player communicate, collaborate, and get to know other people. It’s honest about the inevitability of failure, recognizes the value of incremental progress, and celebrates moments of social communion. It is, in other words, a game that intimately knows what’s entailed in organizing mass progressive political movements. Because ultimately, Detective Du Bois’ day-to-day existence is not dissimilar from the work of canvassers, union organizers, and coalition builders. One hopes the success of Disco Elysium opens up the industry’s recognition that such figures of mass movement building can become video game protagonists just as easily as the tired archetypes of the lone gunman perpetuated in The Outer Worlds.

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