Disco Elysium and the death of art

It is 2007 and it is a cold day in Estonia. Robert Kurvitz is writing a book.

He was born in a country that no longer exists, a piece of the USSR nominally with its own self-determination. The correct term used by the Soviets was “administrative division”, but it can also mean “vassal state”. Throughout his life, he watched his homeland and its people change around him, read Strugatsky and Dostoyevsky, struggled with the feeling that he was completely, irrevocably at odds with the changing world around him. Robert and his friends, who call themselves the ZA/UM Cultural Association, have been working on something for years: a tiny, idealized, glittering miniature of overlapping systems that unite and divide people—the world of Elysium, a mirror of ours; even if cracked.

In year 2013, Sacred and terrible air, Kurvitz’s novel and first work of art set in Elysium is published in Estonia. A critical failure, it failed to sell more than a thousand copies, and its poor reception sent Kurvitz into an alcoholic spiral.

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ZA/UM pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again. 2019 sees the release of Disco Elysium, an RPG set in Elysium, to rave reviews. ZA/UM have made the turn from a warehouse art collective to a semi-functional video game studio with grace, and despite their modest budget, there’s a kind of power that’s captivating in the art design, writing, and way the world organically responds to the player. thousands. Disco Elysium, a game very deliberately steeped in the dark politics of Kurvitz’s Soviet-era youth, nevertheless finds global success, both commercial and critical, and puts ZA/UM on the map.

This, of course, is where the problems begin. Taking advantage of its new unexpected release, ZA/UM released an update Elysium discotheque in 2021, adding new content and finishing the game’s initially weak voice acting… and then it went silent.

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In 2022, it was announced that the ZA/UM Cultural Association was disbanded, leaving only the ZA/UM video game studio. To make matters worse, the new investors pushed the top talent from the former Culture Union out of the studio, including Kurvitz himself – the people largely responsible for the game’s success and the creation of Elysium long before ZA/UM even existed. they promoted monetization schemes that went directly against the anti-capitalist sentiments of the original ZA/UM and even Elysium discotheque on my own.

It’s just too cruelly ironic and deeply, deeply sad. To quote the game itself:

It’s that simple. One can dye one’s hair green and wear one’s grandmother’s coat all one wants. Capital has the ability to absorb all criticism. Even those who would like to criticism capital ends strengthening that instead.

Disco Elysium was a beautiful moment in time, a real breath of fresh air in a gaming industry inundated with annual streaks and microtransactions. It was a very strange game, but one that had something to say, one that transported you to a world very similar to our own, but different enough to draw its lessons in allegory and metaphor when subtlety was called for. Disco Elysium was a unique work of art, a true masterpiece… and the moment it turned profitable, the vultures descended to cannibalize it. Kurvitz and the rest of the original ZA/UM are fight their eviction in court, fighting tooth and nail to preserve their life’s work – and while I remain optimistic that their fight can end in victory, it’s hard not to foresee the future Disco Elysium 2 which comes with its own battle pass and nickel and darker character skins.

Pre-order today for three more paragraphs of existential boredom!


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