Side Quest

Bijan Stephen
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Non-exhaustive list of games mentioned:

  • Fable
  • What Remains of Edith Finch
  • Disco Elysium

I want to talk about endings. They can be a lot of things—wistful, wishful, demoralizing, canonical—but what they all are is final. The story ends, and then we’re alone again. In games, the end can differ based on how you’ve interacted with the world. You sometimes get to decide your fate. In the original Fable, for example, your morality helps decide what ending you get. Do you kill your sister to become more powerful? Your choices, in this way, can matter. In other games, endings are more defined. In What Remains of Edith Finch, you learn that your character is pregnant with the next generation of your cursed family; your quest has been to create a record of that world for your child. It reframes the experience. Suddenly, the stories you’ve been learning have a purpose. In games like Fortnite, endings happen quickly because they’re an emergent property of your skill and the skill of the other players around you—either you outlive the ninety-nine other people on the map or you lose. 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the game Disco Elysium, mostly because you spend a lot of time figuring out who you are. Probably the easiest way to describe it is as “a point-and-click role-playing game,” and while that’s mechanically true, it doesn’t capture the peculiar magic of the experience. Your protagonist is a cipher—to himself, mostly—and the game is as much about figuring out who you are as about exploring the grimy and bullet-scarred streets of Revachol, the fictional city that’s a monument to the desolation of war. It’s also a place teeming with life, and its inhabitants live shoulder to shoulder with a past they know they can’t outrun: a half century before the events of the game, there was a communist revolution that replaced the old monarchy, which buckled before an invasion of capitalist liberals called the Coalition, who now administer the territory. There are old soldiers you can speak to who remember the revolution and who seem scarred, in perpetual lament; you can find old, broken guns stashed in the walls of buildings, right where their dead owners left them. 

In the opening scene of the game, you awaken from a drunken stupor and find out, very quickly, that you cannot remember who you are. You set off on a quest: first for your name, and then to figure out why you’ve ended up in Revachol. Of course, the game allows you to run away from yourself. But you can die from a mortal blow to your ego just as easily as from anything physical. And I mean that literally. In the first few minutes of the game, you can struggle to grab your tie from the ceiling fan. If you fail often enough, your wounded pride will kill you. You’ll hit a game over screen. In Disco Elysium, morale is measured like physical health. If it drops to zero, you lose. Though in this game that kind of death is usually very, very funny.

One of the most striking features of Disco Elysium is how it handles character stats. In role-playing games, your capabilities are quantified: your strength attribute is a measure of how physically strong you are, for example, while your charisma statistic shows how you generally come off to other people. This has been true since Dungeons & Dragons; it’s one of the defining features of the genre. The idea is to model real life, however imperfectly. That quantified self is then put into situations where the player doesn’t know what’s going to happen—and that randomness is itself modeled by a dice roll. In this kind of game, when you make a decision about what to say or do, you roll dice. The game master rolls against you. If your number is higher, you succeed. If it’s lower, you fail. This is called a check. Oftentimes a failure is more interesting to a game master or player than a success.

In Disco Elysium, the self is quantified more mystically. The four main attributes that rule your character are Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. Those attributes are associated with different skill groups—Intellect, for example, governs conceptualization; Psyche rules esprit de corps; Physique controls the pain threshold; Motorics manages composure. And these skills talk to you, the player: they are the literal voices inside your head, and each has a distinct character. It’s yet another entrée into the game’s world. This is how you relate to yourself, here in Revachol. And the dice govern it. You roll two six-sided dice against the game at every turn. There are some rolls you can retry and some you can do only once. 

But the ending. Oh, the ending. The main question it poses is: How have you chosen to live, and will you be able to continue your life that way? The answers aren’t forthcoming, as they aren’t in real life. 

The last scene of the game is a reckoning. Your old police squad shows up, and you have to answer to them for your actions in the game: Did you solve the mystery? Did you clean up your act, or are you still a fucked-up failure? Can you move on from the end of the relationship that set you on this yearslong bender?

When my time in Revachol ended, I understood that I could come back, but that if I did, the world would have changed. Disco Elysium is, fundamentally, a game about life—every day, with every choice you make, you decide what kind of person you are. What kind of person would eat this kind of sandwich for lunch? What kind of person would be so rude to a stranger on the train? What kind of person would enjoy this kind of formulaic film? 

The logic extends from the small to the large. Only, the flow of decisions we make in real life doesn’t end until we do. That flow is different in places like Revachol, where you can have a happy ending only because the story has an end.

If you do the right quest, just before the end of Disco Elysium you have an encounter with a large insectoid cryptid—a creature of fiction within the fiction of the game that is nonetheless very real. You converse with it and it explains how it’s stayed hidden all this time; it explains to you some of the history of this world. But in the scene you also learn that it drove the person who sets the plot into motion insane. It is otherworldly and beautiful. And yet it’s unclear whether or not anything it’s saying is real or true. Its choices are so alien that it’s hard to say. It pities you, though it’s seemingly awestruck by your ability to continue living.

There is a similarly unbridgeable distance between us as humans: Can you really know what anyone else is thinking? Can you know that they’re feeling at all? This fundamental disconnect is, I think, a source of beauty; I get to be regularly surprised by how different other people’s perceptions of the world are. I can understand others only through what they tell me in their words and actions, but all that is filtered through the prism of my own subjectivity. Even so, we converse. We carry the stories we’re a part of forward, even after they end, because we want to better understand ourselves. And there are stories in real life that are delineated by their endings. There are also as many ways to end a story as there are to begin one. 

The end of that first formative relationship, for example. You think about her and why it ended. You draw lessons from the experience that you use going forward. Maybe the story starts again when you make dinner together over a video call during lockdown—but it’s a different story, and, anyway, you’re now different people. Or maybe a friend whom you haven’t spoken to in years dies unexpectedly. To you, not him. And you learn about it a few days later, from a different friend; you two get very, very drunk about it, and somewhere in the haze of memory and whiskey you realize that while your phone still autocorrects his name, you don’t have a record of those texts you sent each other years ago. You won’t forget him.

This is the world that a game like Disco Elysium aims to simulate. Fiction feels real when characters asymptotically approach humanity—when characters become a little more like the people you know, even as you know that barest sliver of distance is what brings them to life. When you’re playing a character in a game, it’s easier to give them a good ending because you don’t have to contend with the structure of the world as it is. Let me tell you something: your name is Harry, and you are an obliterated cop mauled by circumstance. You’re here in Revachol to solve a murder. Your base urge toward annihilation won’t go away, but maybe we can ignore it together. Maybe you can get better. 

And that, for me, is the seduction. The good ending, which is not necessarily the predictable one.  

For us, here, a good ending looks like someone making you a part of their story—incorporating what they knew of you indelibly into their subjectivity. A good ending in a game grants you one possibility—Harry gets better, maybe, and learns to go on despite craving the void—while leaving other possibilities for you to think about in those quiet moments when your mind stills for a second. What if, instead, you had continued like before? In any case, the possibilities ripple outward, with you at the center. After all, at the end of a game you can always start a new play-through where things are somewhat like they were before. Only this time you know they’ll end just a little differently. 

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