Will Amazon's Disco Elysium Show Be Good?
Disclaimer: All blog posts reflect the opinions, analyses, and interpretations of their author, and as such do not reflect the viewpoints of any past or present employers.
Capitalism doesn't have the most elevated moral high ground to stand on these days, does it? Perhaps it did back when the alternatives were feudalism or fascism, but people my age and younger are seeing fewer and fewer reasons to believe in it as the increasingly-monopolised 21st Century trudges painfully towards a profit-driven climate apocalypse. Progressive opposition movements are being gutted and betrayed by their right-leaning members, conservative media gets away with publishing apocalyptic creative writing about how bad it would be if we didn't elect a duplicitous sexual predator, and absolutely nothing has been done to drive the far-right back into the darkness of shame where it belongs.
It is perhaps because of the general sense of political ennui that permates this century that so many of us bleeding-heart lefties fell in love with Disco Elysium, indie studio ZA/UM's immersive narrative role-playing game. Set in a fictional world similar but different to our own after the fall of a communist regime, Elysium is technically a dialogue-heavy adventure in the Planescape Torment vein; where you navigate its setting with nothing but your wits, imagination, and the voices in your head. All of that is true, but let's not beat about the proverbial bush: this game is a love-letter to, and scathing criticism of, the political left.
Like many role-playing games, Disco Elysium is about making choices that define who your character is. The difference between other titles and this one, however, is that its writing is very much concerned with political ideas and their impact on society. Of course, choice being the name of the game, you don't have to play as a socialist. You can be an authoritarian racist if you want, but it's not going to endear your East Asian-coded partner to you. You can be a literal fascist, if for some reason you want to, but the game's mechanics communicate that doing so can't make your character happy. Whatever you choose, however, the story remains mostly the same: a tale of the clash between big companies seizing control of a broken-down city while a powerful union, mourning the dead dream of a communist utopia, pushes back against them.
Even if you do your best to avoid left-wing ideas at any cost, the story being told around you is very clearly about them, their merits, and their shortcomings; just in case the developers thanking Marx and Engels for "providing [them] the political education" in their Best Narrative award acceptance speech didn't tip you off. So, with that in mind, a company like Amazon, which is perpetually up to its eyeballs in employee abuse scandals, seems like an ill-fitting choice to bring a series explicitly about the struggles of working people to life. It would be like if Square Enix, after writing The Game about the importance of protecting the environment from corporate greed, suddenly tried to sell Final Fantasy VII NFTs, climate consequences be damned. Thank God we live in a world where nobody misses the point that badly, said Sam, sarcastically.
Of course, Amazon profiting off of progressive ideas is nothing new. The Boys is a surprisingly relevant show that makes many valid points about the dangers of commercialisation and how radically progressive statements are watered-down into catchy, establishment-friendly slogans marketable to the undiscerning. It's also a series whose own creators have admitted exists because of "[T]hat sweet, sweet Bezos money." However, The Boys has the advantage of being an edgy, ultra-violent superhero parody. If you don't want to think about the social commentary, you can turn your brain off and enjoy a story about Karl Urban trying to blow up Evil Superman. It'd take a remarkable amount of wilful ignorance but it's not completely impossible, as demonstrated by the worrying number of conservatives who openly identify with the series' Trumpian villain.
Disco Elysium , on the other hand, is a different beast. You can't not talk about the politics of the story because the politics are the story. It is explicitly about the tensions between a union and a bunch of uber-capitalists, and how things rapidly go from bad-to-worse as what little relationship they have utterly disintegrates. People are explicitly killed because of the systems they represent, and a primary character genuinely wants to start another communist revolution to retake the city from its would-be monarchs. It is unquestionably one of the most beautifully provocative scripts the medium has ever seen, which sincerely begs the question of just how much of its iconoclastic spirit is going to survive the transition to corporate television.
I would love to be proven wrong about this but I'm just not confident that Jeff "Union-Buster" Bezos is going to let the adaptation fly its freak flag as high as its source material does. No, I'd put more money on them adapting the script of the liberal centrist route and writing the Detective protagonist as a kooky weirdo with a generic Hollywood drinking problem. One imagines his arc will involve a lot of zany antics because Alcoholism is Funny(TM) and his arc will end with the declaration that the world is basically fine and nothing has to change, because anything that so much as implies that billion-dollar companies should tone it down so we don't wind up in the Mad Max future is apparently "too woke" for some audiences.
Speaking of routes, the other problem with adapting a game like Disco Elysium is that it only really works as a video game. It's technically a murder mystery, if you feel you must stick to the linear narrative, but that's barely scratching the surface of what it is to experience the setting of Revachol and its citizens. You're supposed to go out on the town, get lost, sleep in a bin, sing some karaoke, collect bottles for money, spin-kick a racist in the face, ask people how they know they even exist in reality, and repeatedly argue against your own subconscious, and that's barely scratching the surface of the surface. Such a slow unravelling of the world works perfectly for an RPG, where you're expected to take your time drinking everything in, but probably wouldn't work as well for a TV show.
I suppose one way you could represent the game's many different ideas is to do some sort of Groundhog Day loop, probably by having the protagonist relive the same events making different choices every time. I doubt that'll happen, though. Audiences generally expect TV episodes to have a beginning, middle, and end; a logical story that proceeds from A-to-B in a way that makes sense in a linear format. I don't think whatever Amazon executive greenlit this thing is going to approve of an episode script where the main character gets completely distracted from the case to go have an oblivious conversation with his first gay crush, all to the amusement of his also-gay partner.
This brings me to another thing I'm sceptical about: the representation. Between the main character implied to be unaware of his own bisexuality, multiple gay NPCS including the story's deutertagonist, to the way in which the voices in your character's head seem to lampshade anything that even resembles homoerotic flirtation with an almost Carry On level of awareness, Elysium is a pretty fabulously gay world — and I mean that quite sincerely. Its sense of humour never feels mocking and its characters are treated with the kind of love and respect many writers still don't have the guts to bestow. The game's views on love as as inclusively left-leaning as the rest of its politics, and I doubt even half of what I played through will make it into a show spearhead by a company whose support for LGBT+ rights ends the moment it threatens their bottom line in countries with homophobic laws.
Again: I would love to be wrong about all of this. Disco Elysium is a narrative masterpiece, and it deserves to be appreciated by the bigger audience that television can provide. However, the fact that said televising is going to be done by a company run by a man who literally flew into space on a phallic rocket, in what has got to be the world's most expensive act of compensation, doesn't exactly thrill me — but hey, maybe I'm being too cynical. It's not like Bezos himself will be directing. It'll be another company that owes the existence of the show to his sweet, sweet money and streams it exclusively on his platforms. I'm sure there won't be any conflict of interest whatsoever, just like how I'm sure there wasn't a searing heat wave this summer and the future of British politics isn't completely doomed.
[Rolls a Deception check]