So Disco Elysium is an RPG, yes? And you have to solve a murder, because you’re a cop. Except you also can’t remember anything whatsoever, including your own name or where you badge and gun are (how are you supposed to hand them over to your chief when you break the rules to get results??) or even, initially, that you’re a cop.
This creates the blank slate, on which you can paint the kind of cop you are. Blank ish, anyway — you’re still a middle aged, overweight, late stage alcoholic man, but by gosh you can choose how that man solves crimes and views the world. At EGX this year, developers Helen Hindpere and Robert Kurvitz talked about how they wanted people to really get into the role play — to buy a pack of cigarettes, and smoke one every day in the same place at the same time, because that’s a ritual their character has. I developed a ritual. But it wasn’t as cool as smoking a lone cigarette, gazing off into the distance with a thousand yard stare. My obsession was not philosophical or well thought out, and it didn’t even really make sense. But let me tell you about my cockroaches.
To explain the cockroaches, I must first introduce you to Lena, The Cryptozoologist’s Wife — and this article spoils her storyline, so if you’ve not played the game, steer clear of reading this until later. But Lena and the cockroaches were what became my main Thing in Disco Elysium. She was the most empathetic character, the only person in the game you can’t find something to dislike about, and she made me want to fix at least something. To make one thing, just, better, in a world that was unrelentingly shitty.
I met Lena downstairs in the grotty bar/hotel that I woke up in, on the first day of the rest of my life. Everyone else hated me because the I of yesterday, a person I didn’t know as far as I was concerned, had done idiot things like waving a gun around, breaking taxidermied birds, and playing sad songs at full volume in the small hours of the morning. Prick. But Lena was nice to me. She was concerned about my amnesia, and gave me a green animal pen for answering questions correctly. I was immediately ride or die for Lena, lemme tell you.
Later on, Lena asked me to find her husband, who she hadn’t heard from in a while. He was off roaming around the coast somewhere, looking for a particular cryptid — a sort of big reed monster called a phasmid. Lena had seen it once, when she was a child. It was how she and her husband first met. Don’t you fuckin’ worry, Lena. I am on it like Sonic. I’ll get your husband back, or my name’s not probably Harry.
So me and my partner set of like a shot to the coast, and eventually find one (1) cryptozoologist and his assistant/mate. They were setting traps, y’see, amongst the reeds, for this nearly invisible reed creature. Sort of like lobster pots, filled will cockroaches (they weren’t sure what the phasmid ate, but were odds on that it was a carnivore). They asked us to restock a trap with cockroaches so they could go home. We did, and then ambled back to the Whirling In Rags for a joyful reunion with Lena.
Lena was delighted. I then spent several hours asking her about different cryptids, which sort of annoyed Lt. Kitsuragi, because in fairness cryptids aren’t real and also we were supposed to be solving a murder. It became clear that Lena should just be Lena The Cryptozoologist, because she was very knowledgeable indeed — more so, it seemed to me, than either of the weirdo men I had met scrabbling about in the sand dunes. I loved her.
Lena, my best mate Lena, was also a bit distraught over the lack of reed cryptid so far. She was worried that maybe she had imagined it. Maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe the basis of her marriage was sort of an untruth. She and her husband went home, and she was quietly sad. I said I would call her if I saw anything.
And from then on, I checked those traps obsessively. I was determined. I would not let Lena down. First thing every morning and every night before bed, I walked around the bleak coastline, peering into the little net traps. I imagined how bloody freezing an endeavour it was — the sea wind, the darkness, the damp sand. I moved into a little hut in the fishing village, a) because it was rent free but also b) because it was nearer to the traps.
Every time, I got the same description of dead and dying cockroaches. I repeatedly talked to the local kids to see if I could source fresh cockroaches from them, but there was no such dialogue option. I tried going at different times of day. I put more points into empathetic skills, but that just made looking at the cockroaches depressing. The metaphorical comparison between cockroaches and the character I was playing was not lost on me.
I didn’t stop checking, though. I used the green pen Lena gave me to write my case notes, and I tried to will a cryptid into existence. I spent the entire game convinced that the cockroaches had to mean something. That there had to be more to it than just heaps of dead insects. Because I didn’t want an older lady, who had been kind to me, to be sad.