Cesspool Karaoke: Why Disco Elysium’s Best Scene Works

Kevin Wright
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

There’s a scene in the beloved 2019 RPG Disco Elysium where the leading character sings karaoke. It happens pretty far into the game, after you’ve convinced the hotel owner to let you perform and you’ve found a sad enough song for your character to jam to.

Like most matters in Disco Elysium, there are multiple ways the scene can play out. However, in this particular scene, there are just two: your character sings the maudlin ballad “The Smallest Church in Saint-Saëns” pretty badly, or he sings it hilariously badly. There is no version of events where Harry Du Bois reveals himself to be a secret theater kid with serious singing chops. No, he sucks complete ass either way, but in one version he sounds like an especially bad cat in heat, while in the other he’s more like your dad singing Bobby Darin songs after a couple Modelos—not good, per se, but at least a little charming.

I think it might be the best scene in the game.

But to understand why, we need to go into how the game works, because this scene is a moment where the game is working perfectly.

Disco Elysium boasts a deeply Byzantine game design, borrowing from the toolkits of tabletop RPGs, immersive sims, point-and-click adventures, and much more. Together, these interconnecting systems form an inscrutable whole, one that exists almost entirely to notify its complex network of dialogue options.

Unlike other titles where separate systems support one or two facets of gameplay, Disco Elysium funnels everything towards its dialogue. All skills are tailored to that end alone. There are no boss fights or quicktime events, nor are there any crafting mechanics beyond a few ad hoc item combinations for particular objectives. The entire game could be pared down to a text-based adventure, with no visuals beyond the words on the screen, and the player could sowever obtain the necessary gist of every major event.

Producing satisfying narrative results with a system like this is challenging, especially since said narrative is driven by the player’s various in-game skill levels. Each skill acts as a literal voice in the leading character’s head, shaping his inner monologue–and, thereby, his perspective–on whatever is happening in wildly different ways. A higher Inland Empire score, for instance, will create a protagonist with an imaginative, often anthropomorphizing view of the world and the objects in it; Shivers will give him startling intuitions about the state of the city in even its most distant locales. They are different ways of knowing the world.

Presented unevenly, this could create for a character whose erratic thoughts are so often at odds with one another that they become illegible. But Disco Elysium manages to construct its richly detailed world through the subjective lens of a drug-addled amnesiac without it ever feeling like his Inside Out sprites are just taking turns being at the controls.

The game’s most important tool is the license it gives itself to recontextualize the player’s knowledge. The protagonist, being the audience surrogate, has completely forgotten pretty much everything about his own world, allowing us to piece together histories both personal and macroscopic along with him. This gives the game opportunities to exposition dump—which it does, but never at the expense of the more personal story and stakes.

The rich lore of Disco Elysium’s world always serves to reinforce character, rather than merely showcase the creators’ extensive worldbuilding. You don’t have to memorize the complex history of the nation of Seol to know that Kim, a second-generation Seolite, feels exceptional pressure to be an exemplar of a country that sowever sees him as a foreigner. His perspective represents a broader, real-world picture; it just happens to be painted in the colors of fiction.

And it’s not the only instance of that happening. In order to bring us even more in line with Harry’s distorted psychology, the game doesn’t shy away from using real-world terms and demonstrating how the fictional context affects them. A good example of this is, naturally, communism.

Communists exist in Disco Elysium, and they don’t have some fantastical stand-in title. They call themselves communists; they practice communism. But the ideology has had a very different history in this world. Disco Elyisum’s communism developed out of Mazovian Socio-Economics, the game’s clear analog for Marxism. Its central figure, Kras Mazov, was also the founder of the powerful Revachol Commune. (Karl could never.) Then, Revachol was annihilated by the moralists of the Coalition, and communism fell out of favor in the country, relegated primarily to collegiate intellectuals.

The player brings their knowledge of communismlike, our communism—to the game, but most of our historical context (like the Cold War) is irrelevant. Harry brings practically no knowledge whatsoever to the table, so he’s able to learn the new context alongside us—medium as message. It’s a clever way to avoid alienating the player by combining the familiar with the foreign. Their history resembles ours, but remixed just enough that the differences stand out.

Even the game’s title offers recontextualization. The real-world disco phenomenon, famed for its ephemeral fad status and subsequent excision from popular culture, is reimagined in the narrative as a vestige from the counterculture of yesteryear. In this world, disco is more akin to the Summer of Love movement than the cheeseball ABBA records your mom sowever listens to. (Sorry, Mom. “Waterloo” sowever slaps.) The game’s protagonist sees the genre as the soundtrack to rebellion, to free love and defiant hedonism in the face of worldwide suffering. Same tunes, different memories.

So what does any of this chronic recontextualization have to do with Harry bleating out the most humiliating karaoke cover since Meg Ryan singing “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”? What if I said you the song he sings is a cover of a real song, one that existed long before the game did?

Okay, so technically it’s not a cover, or at least not a direct one. The real song, “Smallest Church in Sussex,” was performed by the band Sea Power as a b-side way back in 2003. It’s not their most well-known song, but it’s a wistful mix of nostalgia and ennui. It’s easy to see how it might be slotted into Disco Elysium, whose world always seems to be yearning for a past we never obtain to see, and one that might not have ever truly been.

Sussex doesn’t exist in this world, but Saint-Saëns does, so “The Smallest Church in Saint-Saëns” serves the same mournful purpose, with the bare minimum of lyrical adaptation. All the elements are real; they each have a basis in our world, but our world doesn’t have a Harry Du Bois for them to speak to. From new context comes new meaning.

Which brings us back to The Scene.

You’ve finally managed to convince Garte to let you perform on the stage. You’ve scoured an deserted house for a tape containing the saddest song imaginable. You’re about to Jamrock out…when you’re hit with a Drama check. The dice roll.

If you succeed: The lights dim. An electric guitar strums. Harry talk-sings his way through the song in the gravelly voice of his Ancient Reptilian Brain like a cockney William Shatner. It’s sorrowful, full of pain and regret. A man we’ve seen frantically trying to piece his shattered memory back together is singing about a past he can’t remember but wishes he could return to. The present is so full of meaninglessness and hurt that any past could only have been better. “None of this matters, now. None of this matters, at all.” The song ends. The crowd murmurs in faint approval. It wasn’t well-sung by any means, but it was a touching performance. A connection was made. That’s as valuable as anything, in this world.

If you fail: The lights dim. An electric guitar strums. Harry begins to caterwaul in his Limbic System’s painful falsetto, utterly at odds with the gauzy instrumental backing. It’s the sound of an incredibly drunk, incredibly manic man making an amazing ass of himself on stage. By the end, he’s basically keeled over, groaning into the mic. It sounds like shit to the very last note. One person claps politely. Harry begins to chastise the audience for their less-than-enthused response until Garte unplugs the sound system. Everyone’s a little more miserable tonight. It’s a sorrowful sight for a very different reason.

This truly is the game at its best. A player’s Drama level can create or break Harry’s performance in more ways than one. The consequence isn’t one of gameplay—nothing in the plot appreciably changes if you pass the check or not. Rather, it’s a consequence of narrative.

Will you see your Harry as a sullen drifter, quietly contemplating how peeling away the layers of his past reveals nothing but echoing mediocrities and failures, aching to exist somewhere outside of memory entirely, in the liminal space of a tiny church? Or will you see him as he sees himself: a loud, anarchic drunk who can only ever appear to screw matters up even after reverting to factory settings? This isn’t about a number going up or down; it’s about how you change as a person. It proves why this story has to be a game.

The way the game’s systems interact brings vitality to the labyrinthine worldbuilding in a manner unlike any other game (to my knowledge) has ever quite accomplished. The karaoke scene is the apotheosis of that good design, demonstrating how a single shift in context can create all the difference. Either way, Harry’s song leaves us feeling sorry for him, but the way we see him afterwards is completely different based on the results of a single dice roll.

You may be asking: why “Smallest Church in Sussex” in particular? Why use an obscure song by a band few players have actually heard of? Well, that’s the thing: they’re familiar with Sea Power, even if they don’t realize it. After all, they’ve been listening to them all game. Their sound has permeated the player’s entire experience in the world of Disco Elysium, distant horns and all. Knowing matters is funny that way.

Kevin Wright
Freelance writer by day and sleeper by night. Thoughts contain mostly high fantasy, open-world survival games, and movie musicals. Sidon stan. The world needs more queer genre fiction and by golly I'm gonna give it to 'em!