Disco Elysium‘s Harry DuBois does not know who he is. I assumed at first that his amnesia was a simple narrative conceit by developers ZA/UM, a way of making him a blank slate for the player to turn into whoever they would like to roleplay. This isn’t quite true: the protagonist is far from silent, and although the player shapes him to a significant extent, we also, through the ways we learn about his past and through the ensemble cast of voices in his head that speak on behalf of his various skills, get to know a man who has already been shaped by his circumstances, and yet has lost himself to them.
By the time we start trying to mould him, it is to some extent too late. But player choices do have an effect on Harry’s character, accounted for by the game’s system of allocating points to different “cop-o-types” and political philosophies, as well as a structure called the “thought cabinet” that gradually builds an inventory of ideas that influence Harry’s skills and dialogue. In addition to the multiple fragments of Harry’s internal world, there are multiple possible external Harries that can be enacted; their seeds can be found scattered through the game’s quests, and it is up to the player to allow them to flourish or wither. This motif of multiplicity is underscored by the moments when the player can choose from multiple names that Harry might go by.
While you’re at it, you can dress Harry up in some rather nice jackets. This was going to be a simple essay about one of those jackets, but then things got very complicated. What follows is messy, and contains spoilers as well as discussions of racism and homophobia.
Part one: F****t
F****t is the only curse word that is censored in Disco Elysium, a fact made glaringly obvious in the existence of a jacket with “PISSF****T” written on the back, which sits alongside another jacket bearing the message “FUCK THE WORLD” – piss and fuck are spoken freely, but f****t is different. Some players have whinged about this censorship on forums, asking how they can turn it off, even wondering if there is some side-quest they can do that will prove their entitlement to hear this word. I think it would be a mistake to assume that this word is censored solely because of a desire to avoid oppressive language. Oppressive language is indeed handled in a way that signals a degree of respect for the consequences of hate speech, but f****t has been singled out for unique treatment, a special kind of distortion and a loud kind of silence. The word is never displayed visually without censoring, and the audio is replaced with noise that hisses in your ears, as though Harry’s senses cannot take it in.
Racial slurs are handled very differently, with ZA/UM choosing for the most part to come up with fictional slurs that get across the hateful intent without the game itself directly becoming a vehicle for hate speech. I don’t feel equipped or qualified to unpack this fully, but Disco Elysium‘s portrayal of fictional racism is pretty messy, in a way that is well-intentioned but still centres whiteness. There is a lot of scope here for in-depth writing by people of colour about how the game handles racist language, the consequences of racist behaviour, and Harry’s white privilege. The game gestures at the possibility that racist police violence is rooted in weakness, by making it almost always happen as a result of failed authority checks, and always makes racism an unpleasant thing to participate in; Steven Scaife has written favourably that Kim’s displeasure in response to racist speech is an effective deterrent, giving the players meaningful negative consequences to their actions. However, I think this overreliance on dialogue with Kim can give the game’s treatment of racism a detached, didactic tone. I’ve seen Harry die of a heart attack because he sat on an uncomfortable chair, and experienced “game over” screens due to catastrophic loss of “morale” (another health meter alongside physical health), yet when I as the player was left reeling after seeing a failed authority check result in him yelling racist insults at Kim, Harry’s own morale loss was perfectly survivable.
I think it is unfortunate that, in my playthroughs at least, racism ended up having less material consequences for Harry than bad office decor, but one could certainly argue that this is a realistic portrayal of white privilege. The point I want to make here is that racism is portrayed in a relatively detached way, as a fictional feature of the worldbuilding that Harry and the players can learn about, and even participate in, without being directly affected by it.
In contrast, homophobia seems to be handled with a strong sense of interiority – it seems to matter directly to Harry himself, though he isn’t sure why. This is consistently brought home in mechanics, dialogue, visuals, and even haptic effects such as the noise sound that blocks out “F****t”. This visual and auditory layer makes the effect of the word seem to resonate in the body of the protagonist. Homophobia is linked to the composure skill. Insulinde is a world with patriarchy, feminism, and a “homosexual underground”. In the context of a society haunted by sexual shame, f****t points to a figure that may or may not be lurking in the shadows, hiding underground. Unlocking the “homosexual underground” thought requires passing a composure check with an arrestingly attractive man – Kim quietly mocks Harry for being unable to make sense of his own attraction to this suave smoker on the balcony. This connection between sexual shame and composure plays out again after acquiring the PISSF****T jacket, when it is the voice of composure that celebrates, “did you just graduate from the École normale supérieure de badassery?” Composure could be intepreted as similar to pride, but it carries with it an extra valence connected with emotional regulation. Composure is what is needed in a space where pride never goes unchallenged. Kim’s composure seems to be endless – it must be, for him to keep coming back to work with Harry each day.
The word f****t is thrown at people in Revachol, and whether the word sticks seems to be down the person’s composure. A person can make you into a f****t just by calling you a f****t. It is a word that has the power to shape the world. This power is on spectacular display in the PISSF****T jacket, which is shown in a pair with another jacket that has “fuck the world” written on the back. It is a classic use of slur reclamation – mark yourself before anyone else can, to take the power back. Harry tries to persuade Kim to wear the two matching jackets together – the immaculately well-dressed Kim refuses, of course.
My original idea for this blog post would have had me go into a bit more depth about the “homosexual underground” thought cabinet, which deliberately denies the player’s desire to figure out whether the protagonist could be queer while also underscoring the fact that, yes, people are gay in this world – resolving this quest leads Harry to declare that he will no longer “obsess about sexual identity”, and also leads to some dialogue that reveals that Kim is gay. Actually, I thought writing this post would just be a thinly-veiled excuse for me to gush about Kim Kitsuragi, and swoon about how much I would like to see him make breakfast. But then I did a bit of digging around the PISSF****T jacket, and learned something astonishing. The jacket is referred to in the game’s code as “jacket_pissflaubert”.
According to the asset’s file name, if not the visual appearance of the jacket itself, f****t isn’t the real-world homophobic slur that I recognise – it stands for “Flaubert”.
Part two: Flaubert
I think it’s reasonable to guess that “Flaubert” refers to Gustave Flaubert, a 19th century French writer who is considered by some to be the inventor of the modern novel and of literary realism. I’m very far from being a literary scholar, so my account of this will be pretty flawed, but I think Flaubert fits very well into Revachol’s vibe, despite the anachronism – he would be right at home in a post-revolutionary society that has failed to live up to its ideals.
Harry DuBois shares with Gustave Flaubert a tension between the ideal of an ascetic art life, and the lived reality of debauched misadventures. Flaubert’s belief in the artistic denial of bodily passions led him to a period of abstinence starting in 1843, and still his colonialist pleasure tourism led him to contract syphilis in 1850, passing the disease on to multiple sex workers in Egypt and the Middle East. His writing is praised for a deep narrative empathy with marginalised others, while his biography suggests a tendency toward profoundly selfish behaviour, compounded by a context of racism and sexism that empowered him to do lifelong harm to women whose voices cannot now be heard. In Disco Elysium, Harry is haunted by the memory of a woman whom he has hurt in ways even he cannot remember; all he can remember is that he longs for her. A thought cabinet quest that appears early on means that he can quit alcohol and drugs in order to become a feminist, giving him a boost to his empathy – or, he can continue to indulge, hurting his connection with others in exchange for temporary boosts to other skill checks.
When people write about Flaubert, they generally seem to go all one way or all another, either sanitising his horrific behaviour or focusing on it completely. Roland Barthes sanitises by treating Flaubert’s writing from a universalising, formal perspective, and focusing on how the crafting of words and signs and sentences points to a common human experience. “Style, for Flaubert, is absolute suffering, infinite suffering, useless suffering,” wrote Barthes in “Flaubert and the Sentence”. “The Flaubertian sentence… is like the gratuitous arrest of an infinite freedom, in it is inscribed a kind of metaphysical contradiction: because the sentence is free, the writer is condemned not to search for the best sentence, but to assume every sentence.” Barthes’s notion of the Flaubertian sentence translates into a kind of Flaubertian narrative design in Disco Elysium‘s dizzying number of possible sentences, of which the player only experiences a handful. Harry’s inner dialogues also demonstrate this narrative multiplicity, a constant tug-of-war between “infinite freedom” and a sense that the split self is “condemned” by the need to “assume every” possibility.
Barthes, of course, is the person one points to when keen to enjoy a work of art without thinking about the shitty person who created it. In “Death of the Author”, he says not only that the author is irrelevant, but that by creating something, the author has effectively erased themself: “[W]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” So whether he destroys himself through drink and drugs, or abstains in order to pursue empathy and art, Harry inevitably enters this negative where all identity is lost. He does not know who he is; his subjectivity has fragmented into voices that speak for skills, needs, desires, perspectives, so that there is no body doing or thinking, there is only a cacophony of voices speaking for things – things to be done to the world or perceived in it. In doing, in making a choice, in speaking or writing or painting, the player and Harry destroy every voice, every point of origin, all identity; the moment passes, and there is only action.
Disco Elysium has a depth of fascination with mundane objects, something that Roland Barthes associated with “the effect of reality” in Flaubert’s work – videogame types might say that an incredible level of detail in description of a large number of mundane things is one of the main techniques that makes this game feel “immersive”. Still, what we encounter in the game is not just realist, but surrealist and/or absurdist – it is a world with cryptids, intelligible talking objects, unintelligible ravers, and intense dream sequences. Even this departure seems to return us to a reading of Harry as Flaubert himself, who was prone to hallucinations, which is thought to be a possible symptom of his epilepsy. Among reports of his hallucations are a vision of the Virgin Mary as a child, which connects with Harry’s comforting images of the fictional holy mother figure Dolores Dei: ‘‘I thought I could hear Maria walking by my side…I knew very well that it was a hallucination which I was producing for myself, but I could not help smiling over it and I felt happy’’.
Happiness is not simple for Flaubert or ZA/UM. Madame Bovary is a novel whose starting point is the fact that happiness does not happen as portrayed in romance novels. In Disco Elysium, there is frequent mention of the fact that being a cop isn’t like it is portrayed in crime novels. Romantic disappointment is a key theme in both, but the deeper heartbreak in Disco Elysium is not about missing the person who Harry has lost, but about him grieving the versions of himself that have been lost – his fall from grace separating from him the promise of happiness represented by the hybrid figure of his ex-wife and the holy mother. Rather than reloading or respawning after a failure, Disco Elysium narrates failed skill checks in close detail, to underscore a theme of falling short, not measuring up to the literary ideal, failing to experience joy in the right way.
Part three: Fuck the World
Synthesising the Harry that I see through “f****t” and the Harry I see through “Flaubert” leads to a contradiction. “F****t” has an embodied effect on Harry, and a thematic connection to how the position of homosexuality in Revachol demands that one develop a high degree of composure in order to survive, and this pulls me toward identifying in Harry a special connection to queerness – but any attempt to form a specific sexual identity is troubled by the “homosexual underground” thought cabinet quests, which states that obsessing about sexual identity is not a helpful activity. “Flaubert” forces me to confront not only the deep emotional significance of Harry’s problematic relationships with women, but also the ways that the game formally and narratively portrays the obliteration of identity itself. Whatever “F****t” might point to, it cannot be reliably found in the subject himself, but only enacted through the performative speech act of using a slur.
The PISSF****T jacket turns that performative act from a denigration of the person in the eyes of society, to a reclamation of autonomy through the willful denial of identity. This jacket, and its partner garment “Fuck the world”, are encountered through two young men who want to join an organised crime gang that seems to also be an art collective. Talking with them about the jackets produces some very funny dialogue that generally reads like a parody of overly earnest theory nerds like myself – this is one of a few brilliant moments where the game makes fun of art speak, but somehow it manages to do this without suggesting that art is intrinsically bourgeois or inaccessible to working-class people, or that there is something false about working-class people’s engagement in artistic critique. This is also something Bong Joon-Ho achieves in Parasite, which mocks bourgeois people for being susceptible to fake art speak while also demonstrating that the working class protagonists have an authentic understanding, skill, and connection to both contemporary and traditional fine art.
“Fucking *philosophy* man,” says the wannabe gang member, “You can do aggressive shit with philosophy. Justify shit.” Asked why his jacket has PISSF****T written on the back, he gives a philosophical justification:
“Well, first off, it’s a statement and not *necessarily* something that characterizes me as a person, even though the statement has character. And I *do* like piss…
“The word PISSF****T epitomizes the struggle taking place in the world, things being defined as they seem, not as they are. And — I guess — it’s also about communal spirit, the future, and *truly* appreciating our differences.
“Also, you’ve got to admit, it catches the eye. And since the grand piper is slowly but steadily moving towards basing the economy on it — attention — it is imperative that the medium itself convey the message.
“What I mean by this is — we are *all* Pissf****ts. And that the world is inherently meaningless.”
There are a lot of ways to read this, some of which would risk missing the humour in this situation. Here I’d like to focus on how this explanation emphasizes that f****t is not something that the wearer of the jacket necessarily *is*, but something that they are seen as, and a role that they are adopting willfully in the specific context of a space in which one is aware of how one is seen by others. F****t is explicitly identified here within an attention economy, with the definition of a person based on the perceptions of others, and with the lack of any intrinsic meaning to a thing or person other than the meaning that is constructed discursively – any shame attached to being a PISSF****T arises from “how things seem, not how they are”.
This hyperawareness of how one is perceived is a key source of humour in the overall interaction with these two young men – they trip over themselves constantly because they want to be seen as badasses without getting in trouble with the police, and they want to be seen as potential members of a criminal gang without looking like they are trying to impersonate anyone. The exchange is mocking pretentiousness, but in a way that undermines the possibility of being authentic in the first place, and shows the power dynamics behind why someone might engage in pretentious behaviour.
While PISSF****T is about self-consciously using the perception of oneself as an object of shame to reveal the intersubjectivity of shame and the social construction of identity, FUCK THE WORLD is described by its wearer as mocking the subject-object relationship oriented around desire:
“Many men keep searching for *the one*. For so-called true love, which is actually just obsession masquerading as a kinship. The thrill of the chase, the hollowness that fills your chest cavity after catching it.
“To catch a fish you need to hurl the lure many times, and even then it isn’t certain that you’ll get anything. If you blow up the lake, though…
“…you get more fish in a shorter time. And, for time is of the essence and fleeting ever so quickly, one must think of a way to fuck the whole world — and not get caught up in fucking some *one*.
“Because when one fucks everything, he fucks nothing. And that, to me, feels glorious — sticking your dick into the void.”
As Kim points out later, this is a weaker statement than “PISSF****T”, but it is still interesting in relation to Harry’s personal separation from objects of happiness. By switching the orientation of desire from a specific object, to everything and nothing at the same time, it underscores the point made by PISSF****T – “the world is inherently meaningless,” and to blow it all up is to “stick your dick into the void”. It reads humorously as shallow teenage nihilism, and thematically as a sincere artist statement that it is directly relevant to Harry’s own nihilistic demise, which is closely related to his obsession with a woman who does not reciprocate his sense of kinship.
The interaction around these leather jackets all revolves around the idea that both the subject and the object of emotion (desire or revulsion) are empty of inherent meaning and ultimately unsatisfactory – and points instead to communal spirit, multiplicity, and a union with the everything-and-nothing of a world that is truly fucked.
There is no stable hero identity or guaranteed object of happiness to be found in Disco Elysium; instead, the game’s “effect of reality” provides an opportunity to experience a deeply interconnected world filled with a large number of things that provoke multiple, conflicting responses from the protagonist. It narrates failure in great detail because the point is not to be the best Harry DuBois, but to pay attention to whatever comes up through the lenses of his skills. As you put more skill points into various areas, Harry develops the sensitivity to be able to notice more of what is happening around him.
It could be that this is why, in the “homosexual underground” thought cabinet quest, the desire to make sense of Harry’s orientation is dismissed with the admonishment that it is unhelpful to obsess about sexual identity – the philosophy of this game is geared towards eventually letting go of being a particular sort of person with a specific object of desire, and instead just being with the whole of what is there. That’s in some ways a problematic statement to make, particularly at a time when gender and sexual minorities still have to fight for our civil rights, which requires that we reclaim autonomy over how our identities are defined, rather than giving them up entirely. But it’s a remarkable statement to make through a role-playing game, a genre which is so strongly reliant on character building, hero’s journeys and MacGuffin-chasing. Harry DuBois doesn’t know who he is, and ultimately, that’s because such a thing cannot be known.