Disco Elysium and the intersection of interactivity and interpassivity

by Seunghyun Shin

Its interactivity has been the focus of admiring reviews of Disco Elysium after it was released in 2019. Though varied in their approach—some of them, like Andy Kelly’s, attend to the game’s conversational system which allows players to determine the protagonist’s personality, morale, outcomes of quests, and reactions of other non-playable characters (NPCs), while the others, like Christopher Byrd’s, attend to the game’s open-world elements and exploration system—what unites virtually all reviews of the game is their primary focus on the virtuosity of the game’s interactivity.[1][open notes in new window] The reviewers all assume that Disco Elysium consists of interactive experiences of being a police officer and interactivity seemingly allows players to exercise control and agency over the narrative of policing.

Focusing on the game’s garrulous protagonist, Harrier Du Bois, I wish to extend and challenge assumptions that underlie such an approach, i.e., that Disco Elysium provides an interactive experience. Rather, I argue that Disco Elysium purports to reveal the illusion of an agency derived from interactivity so that it exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called interpassivity—a condition in which either a piece of art or technology acts on behalf the audience.

I will locate the game near the borderline between two seemingly incompatible modes of experience—interactivity and interpassivity—not to propose eradicating that border but to suggest the game’s twofold achievement. First, it challenges the mainstream matrix of contemporary gaming culture, which has centralized agency and interactivity. In fact, interactivity has remained a frontier for game studies in the last two decades—especially for scholars such as Espen Aarseth, Janet Murray, Thomas Apperley, Gonzalo Frasca, Jasper Juul, Olli Leino, and Jaakko Stenros who shifted the central concern of game studies from the traditional “do-games-induce-violent-behaviors-studies” to the establishing the relevance of the video game as a new medium. However, an assumption that gaming is an interactive experience and therefore allows players to exercise control and agency over the narratives has been over-applied in relation to the proliferation of video games in the 2010s and onwards. Second, the illusion of interactivity illustrates the dominant power of capitalism as an underlying ideology, not simply by shaping a game’s narrative but by turning certain interactions of the player into an interpassive experience. (The psychoanalysts I have in mind—Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, and Robert Pfaller—make brilliant theoretical distinctions about interpassive experience to which I refer in order to describe this achievement in the later paragraphs.) But I am getting ahead of myself, referring loosely to terms such as interactivity, agency, and interpassivity without indicating such properties and implying that the idea of interpassivity has yielded a unified body of thought and writing, as manifestly it has not. In the following sections I try, respectively, to traverse multiple video games and theories in order to mark the intersection between interactivity and interpassivity in Disco Elysium.

The illusion of agency and interactivity in video games

To begin to appreciate Disco Elysium’s interactivity, we should first look at what interactivity itself signifies in video games. Historically, interactivity has made a demand on game theorists to analyze the textuality of video game beyond the dimension of literary and film studies. Ever since pedagogues, psychologists and sociologists explored the impact of video games on players in their fields of research, thus creating the dominant methodologies to study video games, their studies often aligned with a conservative perception of mainstream culture in which video games were held responsible for keeping players socially out of touch, notwithstanding the games’ popularity.[2] However, scholars effectively shifted the field’s central concerns by analyzing video games as a new medium in contradistinction to literary and media texts. Such a shift starts in the late-1990s with Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.

In Cybertext, Aarseth explains the video game as so-called “cybertext” and “ergodic literature.” He claims that the cybertextual process includes physical interactions and semiotic sequences beyond any concept of “reading”—which is performed all by our movement of eyes and imagination. A concept of reading does not account for the ways in which players interact with the imagined objects, items, puzzles, enemies, NPCs, and other in-game contents. He uses a term, “ergodic,”in order to describe this cybertextual process in consuming the video game content.

“This phenomenon I call ergodic, using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”[3]

Although such neologisms have been challenged, the interactivity they presuppose has become a significant feature of the video game as a “text” compared to literature and other media. This conception of interactivity has inspired many game critics and aggregators to explain why certain video games were necessarily developed as a video game, not either written as a literary text or visually staged as a theatrical performance. Though not every game is either interactive or ergodic, from the 2000s onwards, this conception of interactivity and the nonlinear narrative structure have formed the matrix of gaming experience. Here are some examples: players decide to be either the Sith Lord or prodigal knight in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, have to be deliberate on what kind of choices they have to make in order to save the crew members of Normandy in Mass Effect 2, or enjoy 81 different finales of The Witcher 3. The sprawling sense of agency and interactivity in such games exemplify that interactivity and agency have become important aspects of gaming in terms of appealing to contemporary consumers.

In this regard, a controversy around Mass Effect 3 exemplifies the way that players of contemporary video games become disappointed if the narrative trajectory makes their choices and interactions within the game meaningless. By mid-March 2012, the players displeased by the ending of the game organized an Internet campaign called “Retake Mass Effect” to demand a better ending, part of which included a charity drive for the organization called “Child’s Play”; the drive raised more than 80,000 dollars in less than two weeks before it was stopped.[4] The other components of the game—such as the banality of such sci-fi narratives or its in-game bugs—were not as problematic as its linearity; players focused on their disappointment of their interactions seeming inconsequential because the game ended up having a linear narrative and singular finale.

Depending on the player's interactions and dialogue options in the Mass Effect, the players can read different stories; sometimes they either kill or save their alien friends.

But I find a problem in this mainstream trend which considers agency and interactivity as the matrix of contemporary gaming experience. When either The Witcher 3 or Mass Effect 3 offers different dialogue options to players, the players do not necessarily exercise control over the narrative and therefore relish a sense of agency. The sense of agency that players enjoy in such instances, many times, can be overlooked as real. That is, it relies on a presupposition that players have choices and their different interactions do bring out different consequences. This illusion is derived from the fantasy that players’ interactions bring out changes in the reality manufactured in the alternative world. In fact, such interactions that bring out different consequences give us a vaster fantasy that there are endless consequences of such interactions; yet this illusory sense of agency is literally illusory because interactions are always limited. In the one full-length treatment of the subject, Erving Goffman argues persuasively that everyday life is shaped by interaction, an active process, depending on the context of the actions and individual differences—such as gender, nationality, and ethnicity.[5] What we see, smell, taste, feel, and interact with is literally within the part of personal reality which surround us; the protagonist of every game always has limited interactions and they determine his capabilities. Because our interactions are always limited, the reality which comprises those interactions and the consequences of them inevitably has linearity.

In this light, the mechanics of Night in the Woods predates those of Disco Elysium in terms of engaging with the linearity of reality rather than fetishizing the illusion of agency. There is only one ending scripted; the developer excludes its important catchphrase, “choose-your-own-adventure” from the advertisement.[6] For example, the two choices offered to the player at the point when he could see the attached screenshot are different but both choices result into the same ironic phrase which reveals the fantasy structure of “choices-and-consequences”: “YOU ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE.” This tactic exemplifies many scenes in the game that do offer choices to players, while most of them either bring out the same consequence or does not significantly affect the reality rendered around the protagonist.

It is also worth noting that the dominance of capitalism in the alternative world of this game strengthens the linearity of reality by limiting the capabilities of the protagonist and other NPCs. The alternative world described in the game is Possum Springs, a mining city stagnated by the third industrial revolution. Here players interact with a reality which exemplifies what Mark Fisher has called capitalist realism—“the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”[7] There are young residents who hate the city but can never leave; laborers believe that they have no other choice than accepting a job which offers the minimum wage; and students who fall into the abyss of preparing going to college in order to get a job which does not require being highly educated. To describe this linearity of this reality dominated by capitalist realism more effectively, I refer to Raoul Vaneigem’s observation:

“Up to now surviving has prevented us from living. This is why much is to be expected of the increasingly evident impossibility of survival, an impossibility which will become all the more evident as the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution.”[8]

The unknown antagonist of the game, the Cult, apparently a band of former miners, seemingly seeks de-bureaucratization and de-centralization; yet, the neoliberal society will never allow them to return to their glorious past. In describing the people they deem sacrificial, the Cult members label them vagabonds, bullies, and drunkards as “lazy,” and immigrants as people who “steal [their] jobs.” Although they believe sacrificing such people will keep Possum Springs from losing job opportunities and citizens from leaving, the Cult are the ones who are labeled “lazy” by people who left the city. To the Cult, the decline of Possum Springs is not due to the capitalism itself but to foreign entities and immigrants; although changes in the mode of production caused job loss, it is Fascist rhetoric that seemingly has radicalized them. The game uses this neoliberal society for the players to move in as they explore the life of the protagonist, Mae Borowski, a figure who drops out of college and returns home. If Mae did not engage actively with the mystery of the city, she might have also been labeled “lazy” and therefore sacrificed by the Cult. As Fisher points out, “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness.”[9]

Night in the Woods is neither the first nor the last of this kind of video game which, instead of offering massive choices and interactions, emphasizes the linearity of reality with limited choices and interactions. This linearity of social reality limits Mae’s interactions as the capitalist realism ideologically dominates Possum Springs. These aspects of the game are the keys to understanding interactivity in Disco Elysium, which I will contextualize in the next section.