Disco Elysium and Mental Health 08/09/21

I’m going to write about a video game. I used to be prejudiced against them. I felt that spending your time playing Xbox or whatever was a complete waste. I heard friends talk about how this or that video game helped their mental health, but figured that was bullshit.

It’s not!

I’ve written here in the past about how Dark Souls helped me to better understand narrative. I even did a whole episode of 301 about it! But now I’m playing Disco Elysium, having taken a break from Bloodborne. I did this with DS as well: I stopped playing for about a month when I was very near to the finish line, in the Tomb of the Giants, about to fight Gravelord Nito. I picked it back up and finished the rest of the game in a matter of days. That’s probably what will happen with BB.

But I got sucked into the world of DE.

Disco Elysium’s world is similar to ours. There are cars, radios, guns. There’s booze and magnesium. Where it differs is in its history and geography, which differ from ours in many, many ways. It’s a fun way to approach a narrative, in a world much like our own, except for the ways in which it’s not.

Your character is a cop who, at the start of the game, wakes up naked on the floor of his hotel room. You’ve smashed the window, broken your tape player, and you can’t remember shit. You’ve also lost your gun and your badge.

You’re in the district of Martinaise in the city of Revachol. The area is deeply impoverished. Bullet holes pock mark busted statues. Strange crab men climb the rafters of abandoned churches. The Union is on strike, and you’re not sure which is worse, them or the scabs. There’s a hostel, a pawn shop, a bookstore, an apartment complex, a fishing village, and the body of a man hanging from a tree.

That’s what you’re here to investigate. You and your partner, a straight-laced dude named Kim. He likes shiny rims and, in a past life, was an undercover pinball wizard.

It’s an RPG, so you wander around the city, looking for clues and talking to its denizens. You’re also trying to piece together who exactly you are, and the closer you get to an answer, the more your head seems to come apart.

You have a health meter and a morale meter. Health goes down when you get hurt. One time I died from kicking a mailbox. You’re an alcoholic, and your heart is on the fritz. Your morale meter goes down when someone hurts your feelings. A shithead kid throwing rocks at the corpse called me a f*g, and that was enough to make my character throw in the towel.

The game is masterful at weaving lore, ideology, and characterization into the world. You get deep into it. The script is said to have totaled a million words. I believe it.

So how does this game help?

Two ways: first, there’s the “Thought Cabinet” mechanic, which I think is brilliant. As you move through the game, your character will be introduced to concepts from other characters or completely on his own. Using XP, you can unlock slots in your “Thought Cabinet” that allow you to develop (over time) certain ideologies. You can become a feminist, or a racist. You can convince yourself you’re a superstar, or experience permanent jamais vu, where everything you’re seeing, you see it for the first time (more XP!).

This made me consider creating something like my own “Thought Cabinet” through journaling. Too much social media and news leads to scattershot thinking, in which you’re constantly trying to put out different fires in your head, constantly stuck on the spirit of the staircase, having shower arguments with people you’ve never meant. It’s great at leading you down paths that end up going nowhere.

But what if I was more deliberate with my thought patterns. What if I wanted to develop a certain idea? What if I had my own webs of thought, that I added to as I went along, and kept nearby for reference? If something crosses my mind that I don’t want in there, or that doesn’t serve the goal of developing that thought web, I can discard it. It doesn’t matter if it’s “important” or not. It matters if it’s important to me.

In this game, you can’t become everything all at once. You have to develop a character with certain stats, and that’s what you’re stuck with. This is like life. Similarly, I can’t be everything at the same time, either. I can’t be radically focused on c*vid one day, then Marxism the next, then Black Lives Matter the day after that, then whittling the day after that, and so on and so forth. I have to decide what goes in my Thought Cabinet, what I choose to develop. I have to decide who I want to be, and move toward something like that.

So that’s how I’m journaling, now.

The second thing has to do with chance. The game functions like D&D, where you roll for “skill checks,” meaning whether or not you successfully complete a task. Say you come upon a barred-up door. The game presents you with the option to break it down. You have a 3% chance of success. If you equip a prybar, it goes up to 27%. Put some more points into strength, and it goes up even more. This system is in place for everything from lying to people to counting footprints in the mud. Everything has a chance. You could knock out the enormous physiognomist blocking your way to meeting with the Union boss…but your odds aren’t good. And if he gets the better of you…well, your heart isn’t in great shape, as I mentioned earlier.

I’m done with anxiety, as much as I can be done with it. It simply doesn’t make any sense from the perspective of rolling a dice. Every time you get into a car, you’re assuming a 3% risk that you’ll get into an accident. Every time! And yet, with a 97% you won’t get into a wreck, we go about our day. I took my son out for a walk, and someone was mowing the lawn. I thought: I wonder if he’ll be allergic to those grass clippings…maybe I should go back inside. But no. The odds of that are low, and if he did turn out to be allergic to grass clippings, I have measures in place to address that situation.

Basically, everything is the roll of a dice. There are odds that are in your favor, and odds that aren’t. Everything in life is like this. If you stand on the roof holding an umbrella during a thunderstorm, your odds of being hit by lightning are, what would you say? 10%? 20%? Either way, the risk is a little too high to do something so foolish. And for what?

Disco Elysium has made me start thinking of life like this game. It sounds weird, I know, but it has. How do we arrange our thoughts to develop our personalities? What parts of ourselves do we put experience into? What do we spend our time developing? How does luck and chance factor into all of this?

What begins to happen, once you accept the things you can control and give up on the things you can’t, is that the world stops being this amorphous, frightening thing. It becomes a lion in the wild: beautiful, dangerous, maybe not something to get too close to. But tangible all the same. Something you could paint a picture of, or maybe write about.

Which reminds me! I’m off. Have a good one.

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