Existentialism. A word with baggage, and about it. Philosophers have deployed it to cover many different things, but they’re all concerned with the baggage of being alive. The urgent dilemma of existence, as beings without apparent purpose. The concept fascinates me. It’s what I get up for in the morning.
Based on the opening minutes of detective RPG Disco Elysium, so does ZA/UM. It’s clear from the moment your ancient reptilian brain laments your return to consciousness. “The limbed and headed machine of pain and undignified suffering is firing up again”, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“It wants to walk the desert. Hurting. Longing. Dancing to disco music.”
The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who denied being either, wrote that “there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”. He compared our lives to that of Sisyphus, doomed to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. A pointless, arduous, unrewarding task. You might call it a punishment, except that would imply purpose, and Camus would slap your wrist – or he would if he didn’t abhor violence. For him, purpose is fundamentally absent. Any attempt to construct meaning out of the absurd is, itself, absurd. By all means, view that boulder as a disco ball. Just don’t pretend it isn’t there, or that it doesn’t have the capacity to crush you.
To ignore or refute the absurd is to concede to it. This pressing pointlessness, and the importance he places on embracing it, is why Camus doesn’t identity as an existentialist. I called him one because I like being glib and I knew it would annoy some of you, but the distinction between Existentialism and Absurdism is a useful one to draw. Existentialists start from somewhere similar, recognising life’s lack of inherent meaning, but they wind up somewhere very different. Meaning can be created, they say, and in some ways Disco Elysium seems to agree.
Both schools of thought sound depressing, and at first, they totally are. They both involve an initial rejection of comforting delusions, and insist that external guiding forces are next to useless – or, for Camus, actively harmful. The idea with both, though, is that the only route to proper happiness entails accepting this. Existentialism allows for the kind of happiness that doesn’t need you to totally upend the idea that fulfillment is dependent on meaning, and certainly the ontology I’d prefer to be correct. At its core is a recognition of individual freedom, albeit one I don’t ultimately believe in because I don’t think Sartre pays enough attention to various constraints on free will that I don’t have the space to explore here.
I will say, though, that both trails of thought ultimately lead to places I don’t understand, and that I can’t help but view these from the bemused perspective of a philosophy graduate turned games journo who’s managed to trick his editors into indulging him. Let’s get back to videogames.
Tellingly, Disco Elysium starts with an un-making. You’ve drunk yourself to oblivion, removing every memory of who or where or what you are. A true tabula rasa, an entity that’s capable of creating – and has no choice but to create – themselves. This is one reason why Jean Paul Sartre might have liked Disco Elysium.
He’s not the father of existentialism, but there’s a sense in which he’s still the big daddy. He coined its catchphrase: “existence precedes essence”. Put simply, this is a rejection of the innate. A lot of this is bound up in very confusing metaphysics he expounds in one of his books, Being and Nothingness, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in that because then we’d have to deal with concepts like ‘object-directed nothingness’ and statements like “what being will be must arise on the basis of what it is not”. So let’s jump to one of its juicy conclusions, that we are “condemned to be free”.
Most every RPG reflects the self-shaping Sartre found so important, by allowing you to pump points into different stats. We’ve been choosing to charm rather than intimidate for decades, and this is indeed possible in Elysium. It goes one step further, though, by tying these thoughts up with specific ideas. Sartre would bloody love Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet.
It lets you voluntarily internalise identities. The first thought that occurs, potentially upon seeing your reflection for the first time in your hotel mirror, is that you might be a superstar. Destined for greatness, you are. You have the right expression. Once this thought occurs, you can choose to adopt it via a menu. You then get a debuff to your logic skill, but the cap on how many points you can pump into various other skills increases.
It’s crucial to my comparison that you’re free to reject this, because it ties into Sartre’s notion that we are all “radically free”. He didn’t refute moral responsibility, but he did emphasise the need to engage with it as an individual. He once wrote about a (possibly fictional) student who asked him whether he should stay by the side of his frail mother or go off to fight the Nazis, and used this as an example for how external moral schema often fails to be action-guiding. I wonder what Sartre would say about how Disco Elysium lets you become a racist in order to help you solve a murder.
One thing I know he’d say is that adopting a label like ‘racist’ is a bad idea, because he says this of every label. To think of yourself as a ‘racist’ or a ‘feminist’ or a ‘writer’ is to act in ‘bad faith’, by which Sartre means ignoring your freedom to be something else. Sartre would have loved Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet as an illustration of bad faith’s consequences, but he would have rejected its immutability. An authentically existentialist playthrough would involve ignoring the thought cabinet entirely.
Whether Disco Elysium is an Existentialist or Absurdist game is an interesting question I’m not yet equipped to answer, but I like that it’s already made me think to ask. Lead designer and writer Robert Kurvitz described it to Alice Bee as being “about reapplying for your job as a human being and as a cop”. Conceiving of life as a job, with all the crushing responsibility that entails, resonates with both.
But my mind comes back to that boulder, and what Camus thought we should do about it. For him there could be no ultimate meaning, but that didn’t make life unlivable. He didn’t advocate suicide, but revolt.
It’s revealing that the first person you meet is a woman called “Miss Oranje Disco Dancer”, and that she’s by far the most considerate. If you’ve the wits to ask, she patiently, with little hint of judgement, recounts how she heard your 4am yelling about how you “don’t want to live as this kind of animal anymore”. I’ve hardly stepped outside my hotel yet, so I don’t know what this reveals, exactly. But I bet she’ll return, and be an emblem of revolt. Revolt isn’t about objecting to absurdity, it’s about calmly smoking a cigarette while the animal next door asks you annoying questions.
For Camus, that was Sisyphus. On he goes, continuing his task. Embracing it. Owning it. Value without ultimate meaning seems an odd thing, until you think about disco.
“It’s his ball”, Camus emphasised. His disco.