Dealing with my own grief in Disco Elysium

This isn’t a superhero story.

Content notification on suicide

Hi there! My name is Dave. I have something I want to tell you, but first we need to have a chat. You see the story I’m about to tell you has, I think, a wonderful lesson at the end. However, in order to get there, we need to talk about something awful. For a lot of you this will probably be sad and you’re going to feel a bit sorry for me. For others, particularly those of you who have been where I’ve been, this may be too much. If that is you, I completely understand if you tap out now. You have all my love and sympathy, even if you don’t know it yet. Now, the topic I need to talk about here is suicide. If you can stick with me through this, thank you for your time.

Two years ago I lost my best friend, my favourite person, to suicide. I’ve been told I have a way with words, but I’m sure you can imagine how much I’m struggling to find any that convey what that felt like. I feel like I’ve aged decades in the last two years, yet somehow this new world still doesn’t really feel real. I’ve made a lot of progress in learning to live with this, and it has taken those two years of learning to get to this point where I can write and talk coherently about it.

Grief is a funny thing, since there’s no time limit and no rules. Grief can ruin your day and sadly there’s no one to write a strongly worded letter to when it does. You don’t fix, but rather cope with it. As many do, I used video games to help me cope with my pain. I’ve written about video games for a few years now, it’s what I love to do. Games can be so many things to different people. During those first few weeks they distracted me when my mind went to dark places. They helped me ground myself in real life by giving me short breaks from it. They gave me goals I could achieve when life felt too hard. Gaming brought me and my friends together when the loss of our sister almost tore us apart. Destiny 2 was our unifying banner, and for the first few months it did a lot to keep us going. One of my closest friends was abroad when all this happened, but a few online sessions of Stardew Valley let me know he was alright.

I’m happy to say I’m in a much better place now. My friends and family kept me going through the worst times, and my old pal video games was always there to help out too. Now, are video games the cure for depression, can they fix grief? Of course not, but they play a big role in my life when things are good or bad. That’s why I’m writing this now, because one game has affected me so much that I needed to talk about it.

If you’re a cool kid who keeps up to date with all the hip new games in town, you might have heard of or even played Disco Elysium. If not, allow me to sum it up briefly. You’re a detective who has just woken up after the bender to end all benders. You’ve drank yourself into oblivion, almost literally, because you have no idea who you are or why you are here. You emerge from your ransacked hotel room and meet some people who fill you in on a few details. Key among them is Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, your partner for this particular murder case. What case? Who died? Why is your ugly tie talking to you? There is a lot you don’t know right now.

This is where you start, and from here you must attempt to solve a murder while putting together clues to determine who you are. It’s an excellent mystery story with all the twists and turns, local mobs, a worker’s strike, shady people hiding from their past, the works! Gameplay is in the style of an older RPG, albeit without the combat. I’ve taken to describing the game as the point where 90’s RPGs meet 90’s point-and-click adventure games. Where Baldur’s Gate meets Monkey Island.

The point is this game isn’t about being the best, it’s about doing your best.

There are “quests”, too, and you gain experience to level up. You have attributes to put points into, but rather than the usual skills they’re your subconscious abilities and cognitive functions. Things like perception, empathy and logic. Improving these gives you access to more information, more dialogue options and determines the odds of skill checks. Unlike other RPGs this process isn’t a power fantasy, more like a struggle to keep up. You gradually get better as you progress, but you’re never going to be perfect. The point is this game isn’t about being the best, it’s about doing your best. This is about as human a game as I have ever played, and that struck a chord with me.

Now that you know a thing or two about Disco Elysium, here’s my story. I played this game almost two years after the worst thing that ever happened in my life. During that time, video games had been my escape. Disco Elysium was a milestone in my life because it took me out of my comfort zone and reminded me to live my life.

One of the most powerful ways games let us escape real life is by giving us problems we can solve. Monsters to kill, goals to score, and when it gets too hard, there’s no shame in playing on easy mode. Real life is full of problems we can’t solve, most things are beyond our control. It’s easy to get weighed down by that fact, especially when the things we truly want are out of our reach. Gaming is uniquely capable of giving us the chance to just get something done. I’ve often heard that when suffering with depression, it can be helpful to set simple goals to get yourself started. Feeling like you have control in your life is incredibly important, and I’ve always had video games to give me a little boost when I’m running low.

When Disco Elysium presented me with the problem of solving a murder, I got stuck in. However, there’s a time limit and a volatile situation that meant if I didn’t get cracking more people were going to die. I didn’t always have the right skills for the job, but unlike other games, that didn’t mean I’d get to try again later. Nothing short of reloading an old save could fix these things, and for the sake of the game I chose to play it honestly. On top of that, there are skill checks in conversations, like Fallout or Elder Scrolls. As a result, even when you do all the preparation and say all the right things you can still lose on the roll of a dice. This is not a game where you get to be the big hero who saves everyone. If anything, you get to be a lucky hero who saves someone.

There’s a side case in the game that I think illustrates this idea well, because it certainly hit me like a truck. While exploring an old dock, I found another body. A drunk man fell, hit his head and died in the cold. After a bit of investigation I discovered he was a local, and although I had the option to let someone else do it, I agreed to inform his family. I went to his address and met his wife, a woman I had badgered the other day at the book shop.

Fully immersed, I began the unpleasant job of telling this woman her husband had died. In reality, this situation was all too familiar because I’ve lived it. I was taken straight back to the night my friend died, talking to the police outside our apartment. Now I was in the other role, and I knew there was no right thing to say. I did my best to be respectful and comforting, and soon it was time to leave her to make arrangements.

Speaking to Lieutenant Kitsuragi, my sidekick, I aired my frustration at not being able to do more. He told me what we would all say: this family had lost a loved one, but I can’t live their lives for them. I can’t take that pain away. In reality, I have an awful habit of putting everything on my shoulders. When the worst things happen, though, often there is nothing to do.

Disco Elysium isn’t really a game with good endings and bad endings, it’s a game that is just as brutal and wonderful as life. You have a responsibility, you have a goal, but not every problem is yours to carry. Sometimes, you’ll miss things entirely with no hope of retrying. Some of the side stories were dead-ends for me simply because I said the wrong thing, or failed a dice roll. There was one literal door in the game that I tried to open, but because I failed a perception check my character never saw it. While that one moment did take me out of the experience briefly, it was more like a curtain being drawn just enough to let me see. It was a reminder, intentional or not, that I have limitations and sometimes I’m just going to suck.

To tell you the truth, by the end of the game I had done my best, but not everything worked out. Decisions I made were laid out before me, and my faults were plain to see. I trusted people I shouldn’t have, I didn’t save people I could have, and ultimately I hadn’t found the killer. Things ended badly, and more people died. However, I didn’t. Nor did Lieutenant Kitsuragi, and we had each other to thank for that. Without spoiling the entire game for you, things came down to a final confrontation and, thanks to the fact that we had bonded through working together, my character and the lieutenant survived. This may just seem like a dramatic climax to a story, but I found more meaning than that.

Throughout the game, I did my best. I put the weight of this fictional world on my shoulders, as games often have you do, and I failed plenty of times. I wasn’t perfect because I’m not perfect. People died, but I didn’t kill anyone. I felt guilt for a death I didn’t cause, but I had to learn to live with it because however guilty we may feel, we can’t be responsible for the actions of others. We can only live our own lives, and do our best. The characters in the game survived because they cared about each other, and I can tell you from personal experience that is true in reality as well. I wouldn’t be here today without my friends and family. I survived losing one person I loved by sticking by the ones who were still here.

Disco Elysium means a lot to me. It feels like a genuine milestone in my life how, after two years of living in fantasy worlds, this fantasy reminded me to live in the real one. It reminded me that real life is hard, but it’s worth trying for the people around you.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply