Revolution, death, and heroism in 2019’s best RPGs

RPGs, more than any other game genre, attempt to create a logical and consistent world. One of the defining elements of any believable RPG world is how it deals with violence. What kind of killing constitutes a murder? What about self-defense? Who do we consider a murderer and how do we treat them?

The answers to these questions constitute the game world’s norms around human life, and how the writers push us to interpret this world constitute the game’s values. And this is important to examine because games are culture - and culture is a reflection of what our society believes. We learn about ourselves via the stories we tell.

Two GOTYs, many bodies

Consider two of this year’s best RPGs, Disco Elysium and The Outer Worlds. Both games deal with political struggles and put the player in the position of investigator and instigator. Both start from left-wing positions of deep suspicion of corporations, governments, and the wealthy overlords who run them.

Disco Elysium is set in the post-reactionary counter-revolutionary city of Revachol on the Insulindian archipelago. Fifty years ago, the Revacholian workers rose up in bloody communist revolution, which was put down by an international coalition of nations that now rules the country. Decades later, the city is still in ruins, particularly in the slum district of Martinaise where the game is set. The Outer Worlds is set in the planetary colonies of the Halcyon system which is ruled by a corporate oligarchy. Much like our own world, these are places shaped by violence.

However, Disco Elysium deals with the human fallout from a single murder, while The Outer Worlds allows you to be a mass murderer by about the third hour. While TOW grapples with governmental corruption, it rarely critiques the player’s choice to employ force to solve problems.

Meanwhile, in DE you play a cop who has lost his gun and badge before the game even begins, and its violent incidents are rarer, more gruesome, and more harrowing, in both portrayal and consequences. Both games make strong arguments for leftist change, but I would contend that DE’s case is far stronger because of the value the game puts on human life, how its hero is portrayed, and the way it uses violence.

FYI, spoilers for both games below.

A disclaimer

For the record, I’m not against violence in games. The Last of Us is one of my favorite games of all time, and violence helps drive home the desperation in TLOU’s setting and narrative. The game wouldn’t be the same without its bandit attack and brutal ending. Violence and combat is one of TLOU’s strengths because of how it builds ludonarrative consonance, reveals character, and drives the story.

Nor do I think that the portrayal of violence in games is inherently bad. I don’t believe in bowdlerizing games for the benefit of pearl-clutchers. Rather, I believe that ugly things - fascism, murder, authoritarianism, hypocrisy, and war - should be portrayed in an ugly way. Nor do I think that video games “make people violent.” We live in a violent world; our games reflect that. Instead of making infantile accusations (that are rarely leveled at violent books, TV, movies, or other forms of culture), I think that we are better served by trying to understand how games deploy violence and when the game tells the player that it’s acceptable.

And before you get your pitchforks out, I think both DE and TOW are wonderful games and absolutely worth playing. I just think that DE’s use of violence is far more effective in conveying its values, ideas, and themes. 

Revolutionary violence and The Outer Worlds

Player characters in RPGs are almost always purveyors of violence. Whether you’re saving the universe from the Reapers, closing rifts to the Fade, protecting the Bhaalspawn, or fighting the Master, you’re probably killing a lot people or things in the process. Games try to justify this many different ways. Your enemies are non-sentient, abominably evil, inhuman, or they simply attack first and never retreat. But when a game demands violence in order to progress and never critiques your actions, it is making the statement that some folks just need to die, and killing them doesn’t make you any less of a hero.

But is this sort of mass violence compatible with a progressive / leftist worldview that values collective solidarity and individual human dignity? (Mao and Stalin would say yes, but screw those guys. TOW and DE don’t have time for hypocrites who drape themselves in populist drag while abusing others, and neither do I.)

DE and TOW have a leftist agenda. Both games explore the evil inherent in abuse of power and unequal distribution of resources. In Revachol and Halcyon, authoritarian governments and megacorporations crush normal people underfoot and strip decent folks of their dignity. Wealth isn’t something you have as a result of virtue or work ethic - it’s something you either lucked into or exploited someone to get. In both of these games, if you take the “good” path, you struggle against these forces.

I think it’s particularly relevant to critique “good” endings, which is to say the endings that result from heroic choices. These endings are usually considered both default and desirable, and the devs’ writing choices push us toward these endings. Thus the content of “good endings” and the roads that lead there are emblematic of the game’s norms and values.

However, TOW follows a more traditional RPG path, complete with cannon fodder enemies. Many of your enemies are marauders, a faction of nameless, faceless bandits. You cannot communicate with them, and if you approach them, they turn hostile instantly. But they maintain their weapons, feed themselves, fight in groups, and hold territory. Some of them are folks who abandoned the abusive life of indentured corporate servitude and decided to get by via raiding.

We may not like them or the fact that they raid settlements, but they’re definitely still human. There are even optional quests that involve killing them, cutting off their fingers, and returning this trophy for a bounty. There’s never an option to try to reform marauders, discuss their humanity, or ask if killing them is ethical.

Late in TOW, we find out the colonies of Halcyon are slowly starving to death due to vastly unequal resource distribution. It’s not that the colony can’t feed itself; it’s that it can’t support the vast excesses of the corporate ruling class. Rather than re-distribute resources in an equitable way, the corporate Board’s solution is to permanently cryo-freeze thousands of working class colonists and allow their towns to disintegrate. TOW’s “good” ending involves fighting back against this vicious chicanery.

Near the end of TOW, one of the head corporate officials demanded that I wipe out the entire town of Edgewater. She argues that Edgewater consumes more resources than it produces (because I turned off their power - oops), plus the entire colony is starving, thus genocide is justified. She likens this act to amputating a gangrenous limb (she doesn’t consider that her home, the corporate capital of Byzantium, is so ridiculously rich that it could employ, feed, house, and clothe every resident of Edgewater ten times over).

By any metric, this is morally repulsive. However, by this point in the game, I had probably killed ten times more people while completing quests and wandering the worlds of Halcyon. TOW is either unaware or unwilling to address this incongruity. Even Parvati, the softest-hearted member of my crew, doesn’t seem to notice the triple digit body count my PC had by the end of the game, and will enthusiastically add to it with her giant hammer.

After refusing to undertake a mission of genocide, this corporate executive tried to kill me, so I killed her and all her guards, then accidentally went downstairs to the lobby of her office building and killed all the guards there, then returned to my ship and proceeded to go to a prison planet and kill even more people. A few hours later, I had beaten the game, and in the epilogue I was running the colony and overseeing a massive redistribution of wealth as well as a recovery from corporate malfeasance.

TOW’s good ending’s core message, that we can thrive together if we are fair and just, is one that I can get behind (and seems self-evident, really). But the road to get there is littered with bodies. In TOW, mass killers can make great leaders.

Furthermore, TOW portrays many of the working stiffs of Halcyon has hopelessly brainwashed by corporate propaganda. Many of them are played for laughs (this humor is a remnant of the Fallout series, TOW’s ideological and mechanical antecedent). The working class of Halcyon are people without agency that require a revolutionary vanguard like your player character. This makes the people of Halcyon less human and less sympathetic. They are object, not subject - a hapless populace for the player to enact their hero fantasies upon.

Until recently, your PC was a cryogenically frozen colonist from Earth, not a Halcyon native. NPCs repeatedly mention that you come off as an outsider, different from the usual residents of Halcyon. The working class of Halcyon are not portrayed as people who can liberate themselves without you. I understand that empowerment is a huge part of the RPG genre, but this is disturbing. You aren’t just the hero - you are superior to the people that you are liberating. Near the end of the game, your character has the option to say, “I’m the only one in this colony who can get anything done.”

Life in Halcyon is cheap. Many of the colony’s residents have swallowed the propaganda that the well-being of their company towns is more important than their individual survival. If there was ever a setting ready to accept a mass killer as their savior, it’s Halcyon. In that way, the setting is consonant with its mechanics. But Communist Punisher is not and should not be a reassuring figure.

I’m not naive, nor am I a pacifist. I don’t believe that the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world will relinquish that power and privilege without a fight. But games that handwave the violence that can accompany popular revolutions make me almost as uneasy as the most gung-ho FPS war simulators.

Disco Elysium and the truth behind a single murder

Meanwhile, Disco Elysium is centered around a single murder and how it throws an entire community into chaos. When the game begins, dockworkers are striking against their bosses, who have hired private mercenaries to help break up the strike. It looks like the dockworkers may have murdered one of those mercenaries and left him hanging from a tree as a message. You play as a disgraced, drug- and alcohol-addicted police officer who is attempting to solve this murder.

The consequences of this single death, along with your investigation, ripple outward and affect dozens of people - folks with names and faces, anxieties and fears, hopes and dreams. There are no nameless or faceless NPCs on the streets of Revachol.

A strikebreaking mercenary is not a sympathetic figure in most leftist stories. But Disco Elysium is not most stories. During the course of your investigation, you learn a great deal about the victim - who he was, how he treated the people around him, and how he deployed crude, racist, and misogynistic language to normalize and cope with the horrific things he’s done as a soldier. We learn the most about him from Klassje, the woman he was sleeping with, who sits at the center of the investigation. Her view is inherently sympathetic. Maybe he was a monster. But he was her monster. And now he’s gone.

Eventually, the murdered mercenary’s friends show up looking for revenge. By now, you’ve peeled back enough layers of the mystery that you know that the union workers who have taken responsibility for the killing aren’t actually the killers, and if you don’t intervene, innocent people are going to die. Despite your best efforts, decent people die, and the formerly populous hostel at the center of your investigation clears out. Violence leaves a wasteland, and no one thinks this makes you a hero.

The protagonist of DE is both subject and object. You investigate the crime and explore the world, but are no superhero. Bad things happen and you can’t necessarily prevent them. You act on the world and the world acts on you.

While DE’s actual body count is very low, political violence is the sculptor that shapes the Martinaise district of Revachol where the game takes place. Its residents still live in the near-ruins of bombed-out apartment buildings. Revachol has no sovereignty or self-determination of its own, and is ruled by foreign powers against its will, years after a brutal war that crushed its communist revolution. Since the war, poverty has plagued Martinaise, grinding people to dust in its own slow-chapped fashion. Violence exists on an interpersonal level as well. Parents beat children, children kill other children, and racism and racist violence abound.

While the game’s complicated skill system includes several abilities that you could call “combat skills,” there is no combat system in the game. Fights are dealt with via the game’s immense dialogue trees. There are no cool powers, badass weapons, or slow-motion gun fights. In DE, violence is not awesome or fun (though punching a crude, mouthy Cockney teenager is played for laughs).

DE doesn’t pull any punches. Capitalism, moralism, fascism, and communism all take their share of satirical jabs and rhetorical drubbings. The game’s writers poke at the shortcomings in all of these philosophies, taking them to their most extreme and absurd conclusions. Communists execute people as counter-revolutionaries, monarchs are excessive and gluttonous, capitalists care about nothing but their wealth, and moralists don’t care if their better world arrives in a thousand years as long as the status quo isn’t interrupted. Fascism is mostly portrayed as the racist, monstrous, anti-intellectual clown show that it is, no additional absurdity required. DE has little tolerance for ideologies, but great empathy for its characters.

Even Rene, the elderly, broken down monarchist who still wears his threadbare military uniform from the fallen army of a now-annihilated kingdom, is portrayed as a man who has endured a great deal of pain and lost much. He may’ve been on the wrong side of history, but he’s still human and worthy of compassion.

Evrart Claire’s dockworkers union manufactures and sells drugs, but does so to help support strikes that increase his workers’ power. Your by-the-book partner Kitsuragi is willing to die for you just because you’re his partner, but also tolerates your more extreme pecadillos, like giving amphetamines to a kid (or punching said kid). These are not disposable people, and the game doesn’t allow you to kill them on a whim. The only nameless, faceless marauders in Revachol are Despair and Indifference.

The game also isn’t one-sided pro-police propaganda. Yes, you can use your authority to push people around and beat on folks. But the game doesn’t pretend that your police brutality is anything but what it is: an abuse of power.

At the end of the game, you discover the truth behind the murder and something completely unexpected and beautiful: the Insulindian Phasmid, a cryptid that no one believed existed, that the game told you that you were foolish and pathetic for chasing. Even in a world as broken as Revachol, wondrous things exist and they are worth seeking out.

DE’s “good” ending isn’t radically different from its bad ending. Its main distinction lies not in the outcome of the murder investigation, but the route you took to the end and how it changed you. You’ve solved a hellishly complicated murder; you haven’t saved the world. But you have become a truth seeker, and in pursuit of that truth, you’ve refused to become enamored with bullshit. Your path back to the light requires seeing the world in all of its ugliness and still giving a damn, and while it’s smaller scale than TOW’s ending, it feels more real and compelling.

Mechanics, leveling up, and ludonarrative

Combat in TOW feels cool and fun. Your character can drop into bullet time, sight a perfect headshot, and every trigger pull gives you a satisfying bang. If you score a critical hit, your enemy’s body will explode into a shower of limbs. You can even purchase a perk where headshots cause AoE damage to everyone around your target.

Stealth gameplay is an option in TOW, but feels tacked on. While it can minimize your body count, it’s actively unfun, and slows your leveling. Killing guards and enemies provides XP. Stealth usage gives you nothing. The game’s combat and XP mechanics reward you for violence, and provide little to no mechanical incentive for utilizing stealth. There’s a sizable system built around the maintenance, improvement, and modification of weapons. In comparison, stealth is a bare bones mechanic that feels like a vestigial limb leftover from TOW’s Fallout DNA.

By about halfway through The Outer Worlds, you are nigh unstoppable. I’m no optimization genius or FPS pro, but absolutely nothing could stand up to me by the time I finished the main quests on Monarch. Anything I couldn’t talk through got shot in the face. The traditional RPG structure requires that PCs eventually become total badasses. You stomp through the landscape like a god, crushing human beings and Mantiqueens as if they were ants. You become something far more than human.

Disco Elysium is an RPG, but far from traditional. You never stop being vulnerable. Every skill in the game also represents a voice in your head, providing your character with a wealth of information and a rich interiority but also robbing him of mental stability. And even maxed out skills provide almost no protection from actual violence.

When things get violent in DE, it feels like a situation totally out of your control: desperate and harrowing. All you can do is throw yourself into the midst of it and hope that your skill checks work out okay.

You are a small man amongst great forces. All you can hope to control is yourself (and even that’s a tall order, because your character is an addict who recently tried to drink himself to death). You’re never better than the people around you, and are often significantly worse - DE begins in the aftermath of a massive drunken bender wherein you have violated the public trust, refused to do your job, terrorized the people around you, ruined songs with repeated karaoke, and destroyed fine taxidermy.

Both games are ludonarratively consonant, but Disco Elysium’s themes and compassionately drawn characters are far more compelling. TOW’s narrative functions as a fun bit of agitprop, but has serious problems. It’s the story of a leftist science fiction superman. And the reality is, we ought not wait for that person; we have a lot more in common with Halcyon’s working stiffs than we do with TOW’s protagonist, and we don’t have time to wait for his intervention. We need to save ourselves.

DE makes you feel for its characters, even at their most violent and hopeless. You start the game as the sort of worthless drunk that TOW’s protagonist would shoot or rob or shove aside in pursuit of their “higher” goals.

But that’s what makes the hero of DE great. He is of the world, not above it. He doesn’t change the world; he opens himself to the world and lets it change him for the better. You can’t fix all of Revachol’s problems in one fell swoop. But you can make a neglected, broken down part of town a little bit better. The difference boils down to this: at the end of TOW, the protagonist is in charge. At the end of DE, the protagonist is responsible.