Disco Music as the Vestige of a Failed Revolution: Disco Elysium
22. 12. 10.
- This post contains a significant spoiler of Disco Elysium. Please read at your own discretion if you haven't played the game. -
**You can see a Korean version at this URL: https://gamegeneration.or.kr/board/post/view?match=id:91
The title of Disco Elysium, a highly controversial role-playing game that came out in 2019, does not tell you much about what kind of a game it is or what it's about. In fact, it's not easy to deduce why the word "disco" is included in the title of the game when its story centers around a derelict alcoholic detective investigating a murder in the port city Revachol, a place of mixed industrial prosperity and dilapidation.
In the game, disco seems to be a metaphor for the somewhat outdated mindset of the hero. In Revachol, disco represents retro music and a culture of nostalgic sentiments about the past, similar to what it is today in the real world. There are times when the middle-aged detective enjoys some disco music from his glory days with fond reminiscence, but the current trends in music have long since moved on from disco, as evidenced by a certain event in the game.
At a glance, disco seems to have been used as a trivial prop to highlight the generation of the hero. Then, why is it included in the game's title? As "Elysium" means some kind of a plane of existence or universe, the game title can be interpreted as "the world of disco." What does this game about uncovering the murder at a decrepit harbor have to do with disco?
Revachol, the City of a Failed Revolution
The events of Disco Elysium mainly take place in the harbor city of Revachol, and a wall in the Martinaise district of this city features a lot of bullet holes. The player has the option to visualize the scene of a mass execution of communards against this wall, which is a reference to the Communards' Wall of the Paris Commune.
In the game, Revachol is a city state that saw great prosperity as a central hub of trading and finances in the whole world of Elysium, comprised of various groups of islands. With the Dockworkers' Union dominating the city, the rapidly growing economic disparity and similar problems led to a massive communist revolution. While the revolution successfully took over Revachol, its victory was short-lived when outside forces formed a Coalition of Nations to suppress the revolution through military conflict as they recognized the value of Revachol as an international trading hub.
In sum, the former world capital of Revachol had been liberated through a significant revolution and was promptly conquered by outside forces. As a result, you can see both parts of its former glory and the devastation of conquest in this city. This revolution by the people quelled by external military forces seems to mirror the Paris Commune, a real-life example of such a movement during the era of imperialism in our own history. The events of Disco Elysium take place against the backdrop of remnants from a failed revolution. Thus, Revachol is presented as a city of a failed revolution where old royalists and republicans who used to fight each other in their youth now play ball together, and the Dockworkers' Union, who played a central role in the revolution, has become an oppressive mob in cahoots with the government.
The music of the 1970s, disco
At some point in the middle of the game, you can encounter a group of kids hanging out in a tent near a ruined church building. The ensuing dialogue with these druggies listening to hard-core music reveals just how much the hero loves disco music. To understand the significance of disco as an old-fashioned genre of music against the background of a city of a failed revolution, we should first think back on what disco in real-life means to us.
Disco is a genre of music that was popular in the 70s and 80s of the 20th century. The name comes from the French word discothèque. In English, it means "library of phonograph records." This genre gained much popularity as dance music as disco came to refer to a place where you could dance to recordings of music when traditional dance venues generally involved live music. By offering a more economical space for dancing, discotheques quickly became popular in marginal areas like the slums and slowly rose to become the dominant dance music genre, replacing go-go and swing dancing.
Disco's popularity reached its peak in the mid-1970s, of which a prime example is the movie Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta. Travolta's disco dance moves, which were later reprised as the human male dance in World of Warcraft, became an icon of the heyday of disco in 1977. This popularity of disco even reached South Korea, manifesting in particular dance venues called discotheques and their distinct variants colatecs. For teenagers who weren't allowed to enter such clubs, roller skating rinks provided disco music with roller skates instead of alcohol. (Hence, a compilation album of 80s disco music in Korea is named "Memories of Skating Rinks.")
Disco and the Fall of the Individual and Economic Prosperity
After reaching the climax of its popularity in 1977, disco fever started to cool off. The decline of disco even led to a rally of Disco Demolition Night in 1979. From its emergence at the end of the 60s to its heyday stretching into the 80s, the history of the rise and fall of this genre contains many aspects that seem relevant to society as a whole at the time.
In the 1970s, when disco boomed, the economic growth in the US was starting to slow down. The economic expansion in the US after World War II was wrapping up its golden age in the 1960s and came to a halt with the 1973 oil crisis, leading to a recession. As oil prices rose, the high-emission and poor-mileage cars of the US gave way to the high-efficiency and high-mileage cars manufactured in newly industrialized countries like Japan, which in turn contributed to the fall of cities like Detroit, which used to be the heart of the American automotive industry.
These circumstances greatly affected the lives of industrial laborers in the US. Automotive plants that had relied on highly trained laborers were shut down, and their former full-time workers started taking part-time gigs such as washing cars and flipping burgers. Labor unions became less and less influential in unifying the workers, and the overall quality of employment started to drop, ushering in new trends that were totally different from the 60s. The era of hippies, where people were vocal about their demands for tangible social changes, such as the protests of 1968, was coming to an end.
Those who had once supported and called for revolutions, anti-war movements, and peace donned immaculate suits and became businessmen. They must have looked like hypocritical boomers who only nominally preached revolution and ended up mingling with mainstream society in the eyes of the younger generations. With the living conditions becoming relatively harsher than in the past, the individuals grew more and more apart, and those in their 20s in the 1970s started to become more interested in their own individual lives rather than macroscopic social changes. This socioeconomic turn of events at the time might have played a role in ending the age of rock and ushering in the era of disco.
Revolution and Disco
Disco Elysium portrays how the changes in the socioeconomics and the working conditions of the young laborers in the 1970s were related to the rise of disco. The middle-aged hero is from a generation that grew up listening to disco music in an era of a failed revolution. Now, he is no longer in his prime, and even disco music is considered a vestige of the past. Having Revachol in the game be the place of a failed revolution where disco used to be popular but is no more demonstrates the relationship between revolution and music.
This relationship between revolution and music can also be found in the history of Estonia, where the game was developed. As one of the three Baltic states, Estonia had been annexed into the Soviet Union after World War II but consistently sought independence while suffering the oppression of the USSR. In 1989, Estonia joined Latvia and Lithuania to form a human chain over 600 km (about 373 miles) and sang songs to protest the Soviet occupation, an event called the Singing Revolution. Given this historical background, it is not surprising that this unique link between revolution and music is replicated in the game.
Thus, the disco in Disco Elysium is not a random prop but a central element of the worldbuilding of this game. Disco was the music that accompanied the era of those who fell apart as individuals after a failed revolution. The hero of the game is someone who spent his youth watching the previous generation after that failure and is now past the prime of his own life and moving on to be forgotten in history. In a gloomy city still full of remnants of the failed revolution, the passion of revolution must have looked like a distant memory of the past to the hero and those around him in the present.
The Revolution May Fail, but That Doesn't Mean It's Over
However, the game also offers a counterpoint by revealing the mythic creature Insulindian Phasmid, which had been the goal in a side quest at the end of the game. The side quest of going after the mystical, gigantic cryptid that nobody is even sure of its existence may at first seem to be an impossible task, like chasing a rainbow. However, the reveal and message of the Insulindian Phasmid at the very end of the game is a critical culmination of the theme of revolution and disco. Can you really call the efforts of the revolutionists who even sacrificed their own lives to change their lives and the world, which we've so far been calling the failed revolution, nothing more than a failure? The moment when the hero gets to see the fabled Insulindian Phasmid with his own eyes at the very end of the game poses this question: Are the idea humanity calls revolution and has been endlessly chasing even though we know we'll never reach it and the failed steps we've taken over the course really pointless?
To those of us living in the 21st century, the word revolution seems to be associated with suffering and failure. Numerous revolutions, including the Paris Commune reflected in the game and the Russian Revolution after it, and the more recent revolts in the Arab world and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, have failed in our history, where the people had to go back to their previous afflictions. However, we are also survivors who stand on the remains of all those failed revolutions over the course of human history. Also, disco may be a vestige of the dismay and frustration born out of the failures in the 1960s. Thus, Disco Elysium is set against a city of a failed revolution and deliberately includes this outdated genre of music called disco in its title to indicate that the central theme of this game is not the murder case but a history of a failed revolution. The inclusion of an old couple who devote their lives to a seemingly impossible task of discovering a mythical creature and the existence of that illusive cryptid at the end of the story asks us how we shall address the history of failure and frustration called revolution, which could also be considered an unattainable holy grail. Thus, Disco Elysium becomes a poignant question about our own era as the remnants of failed revolutions.
Thus, Disco Elysium becomes a poignant self-examination of our own era as the remnants of failed revolutions.