Disco Pandemonium: The Gotterdammerung of Ideology

A few days ago I beat what is among the best games to be released in the last decade: Disco Elysium. The title functions on so many levels of nuance it’s disgusting, as many as the game itself does, and hits them all straight on. I won’t be delving into what makes it a great game. Better and more prominent (and actual) games journalists have pried into that subject with more depth and expertise than I have any desire to match. Rather I want, like the narcissist I am, to explore how the game made me feel.

But first, a brief explainer: You are Harrier DuBois, a washed-up cop who was once a Rock Star Supercop, a Disco aficionado and creature of the night, renowned for your legendary benders and borderline insane commitment to The Truth. But that was many years ago. Now you’re like an aged bloodhound: You’ve still got the nose, but not the get-up-and-go. You need copious amounts of speed for that, and alcohol to bring you back down to earth. That sordid tumble from cocaine-fueled stardom has led you to Martinaise, as much of a backwater of a town as you are a wreck of a man, a filthy port town in the nation of Revachol. Martinaise’s geography is not one that many in America have to look far to find in the Real World. For those in the Rust Belt, it’s right outside their door. People struggling, hanging on; buildings decaying; trash collecting but never overflowing; just the right side of dismal to keep from collapsing altogether. In essence, a ghoulish behemoth struggling on if only for the fact that its muscle memory reads no other way.

Martinaise, and Revachol with it, however differs from your standard post-industrial American shithole in one key way: It was once host to a revolutionary vanguard. The communards of Martinaise overthrew the local syphilitic monarch and so invited the wrath of the MoralIntern, the game’s stand-in for the IMF/UN/Globalists, who proceeded to annihilate the upstart militiamen in search of a new world and a new future for themselves. To anyone with a glancing knowledge of history, particularly lefitst history, this is a tale told again and again and again. South America is rife with American interventionism in its leftist movements, frequently precipitating violent crackdowns from right-wing factions. Both Russia and China saw foreign intervention in their civil wars in pursuit of a communist state. I’d also be remiss if I did not mention the many movements crushed by domestic police violence a la the Paris Commune of 1871.

This is something we do not know or rightfully understand in America. The protests and organizing of the 1960’s and 70’s pale in comparison to these others, who came far nearer the sun than we could ever have dreamed. To have achieved something, only to see it laid waste by some vast and insurmountable power, is a pain we perhaps will never know. Only this most recent primary can conceivably come close and put that pain into perspective, this massive upswell of organized power only to be dashed by legally illegal election rigging and party apparatchiks. The only way we can truly experience this feeling of defeat and dread, outside Bernie having won and subsequently shuttled off by a military coup, is through media. And Disco Elysium, like Les Miserables before it (yes, I went there), captures this perfectly.

It presents the sort of ideological vacuum that takes hold in the aftermath of the destruction of a popular movement. That sense of directionless, a mindless plodding onward without any heading but that which the bare necessities of life obligate you to pursue, shelter and sustenance, brilliantly exploited by a capitalist system. A void is opened in the heart that any light struggles to escape: We had come so close and were struck down. How do you recover from such a blow? How do you rally the people when charge upon charge of “Look what happened before…” may be levied against you? I don’t have the answer. Disco Elysium did not have the answer and that is perhaps the most poignant, sorrowful note of the game. At the end of all this soul-searching, this uncovering and confronting the ghosts of the past, both your own and the city’s, you are left only with the simple and grim clarity that comes after realizing a thing cannot be put right again. The old wars are lost, and a terrible peace was sown a long time ago despite all your fighting. There is simply the present, wan and plodding, and you simply must get on with it. No amount of amphetamines or alcohol will transmute this washed-out landscape back to its fresh glory. It’s over. They’ve won. And here you are.

It is not so difficult, then, to read this as the dirge of leftism as we have come to know it in the real world. What are all our wars but ones that were fought long ago, with surer hands and many more besides, and still lost? I’ve asked already how we recover from such a blow, but a more brutal question is perhaps how do you build upon ruins? How do you hew a new edifice when the foundations are already cracking beneath you? You can’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise has his hand in your pocket. It’s so very hard to see by the light of the sunset, let alone the dawn. But if we hope to see the full brightness of another day, we’ve got to let the dawn come. We’ve got to realize the sun is setting on the old days and all that the old days entail. We’ve got to embrace the dawn, even if that means embracing the night. We’re living through the twilight as it is–the gotterdammerung of ideology.

If I were to attempt to accurately sum up this current predicament, I’d say modern leftism is the Disco Cop. Run-down, tired, clinging onto the bright tapestry of the past in hopes that it will impart some magnificence to our lives today. And so this is a moment in time with only two outcomes: Either we transcend this crisis point and forge ahead with a new path, a new heading; or we descend, squabbling amongst ourselves and the world around us, into Armageddon. But trying to remain where we are will destroy us. Like the Disco Cop, failing to move on and acting against inertia will only exacerbate the agony when the world chooses for us.

I am of the mind, after all the shit we’ve gone through from 2016 to now, that an entirely new approach needs crafted and pursued. No Democratic Party, no Green Party ticket. Throwing our lot in with either is to embrace the old, the old that hasn’t worked in decades and by no discernible logic looks to work in the future. It is tantamount to willingly take on baggage that isn’t yours. I’d go so far as to abandon the DSA, the SRA, the PSL, and all acronyms in between. Throw the colors in the trash and forget all the thinkers and writers, themselves whales beaching themselves on the shores of history. Retain the theory, reject the fountainheads that only encourage infighting and factionalism. If it casts aspersions or burdens us with iconography that does more to dissolve than to adhere, leave it in the dust bin. The cause is all, and everything is a tool and means to facilitate that cause. Nothing else and no more.

There’s no time or choices left but the one, as near as I can tell. We’re at the finish line, if not as a movement then as a species. This is a war, solely ideological at present, but that does not change the fact that we need to treat the cause as such. All our resources and machinery and infrastructure must be retrofitted to achieve the aim of a socialist state, whether electorally or otherwise. If we don’t right the ship soon, we’ll be living in the same nihilistic hellscape the Russians are right now. Our sense of individual reality will be courted and manipulated by an ominously nebulous state that exists beyond the bounds of electoral action or organizing, in which need to enforce a police state with open brutality is almost nonexistent. Indeed, a political landscape so efficiently managed and crafted to vent frustrations without resulting in substantive change that popular uprisings simply will not occur. I fear, like the Disco Cop, we may be at the precipice already.

So, which way are you gonna jump?

Where Is Everybody?

Ok. State of the Union here. 1 book published, 1 book in the can, 2 nearing completion (I hope). A lot of revision to be done. And where am I? Not very far, but then I didn’t expect to be much farther. I *hoped* I would be much farther, but didn’t expect it. In fact, I expected exactly what I’ve got.

What I did not expect was how cloistered the author community is on social media. Authors buying each other’s books, lifting each other up, and soliciting each other’s support. Which is good. Or would be good, if it wasn’t for the fact that it wasn’t just to other authors. Which is an inherent problem, as they have their own books to sell and trumpet. And let me tell you, there are enough authors out there or people trying to become authors that their followers are frighteningly stacked with each other. Again, which is fine. We need each other. I support each and every one of you.

But the problem yet remains. In sum, we are selling books to authors trying to sell books to authors trying to sell books to authors trying… And so on. It is an ouroboros of grift. And when I say grift here, I don’t mean it (not entirely anyways) in a negative fashion. There is a level of grift in any job. I grift any time I jump into someone’s group self-promo thread. I grift when I post a book announcement. I grift when I try to sell myself so that I can sell my books. Few of us, I think, are *really* (or ubiquitously) interested in one another or in one another’s work. It would sincerely become tiring if we maintained that level of interpersonal investiture. And besides: why should we?

It’s a strange thing, and it happens no less in traditional publishing. Outside of a few big names who draw their own self-sustaining audiences, the rest of the culture relies on itself to pass the same list of names around in hopes of striking some imaginary gold mine. As if this award or that feature or interview will be the magical one to draw in that readership we all lust after. Sometimes it is. We certainly have our success stories in this regard. But we must regard it at some point as something of a myth. The “overnight success”, the “meteoric rise”. It often comes, when it comes at all, at the end of a long road or with the helping hand of a patron already in the scene. Even then the principle remains. We rely on outside factors to gain success. At best, we are Johnny Come-lately’s to the game. At worst, the game was rigged to begin with.

And it’s turtles all the way down.

The reviewers are tied in with the authors, the former relying on access to the latter to maintain the longevity of their relevancy and the latter relying on the former to maintain access to something resembling a prospective fanbase. But here again, that fanbase is largely other reviewers and authors! It’s why a fair few writers pick up award after award and you will never hear from them without tapping into this underground of online communities and review blogs. I have cruised the Speculative Fiction section at bookstore after bookstore for about as long as I’ve been alive and in recent years I have begun to only very rarely stumble upon anyone who, upon further inspection, is actually pretty big name or up-n’-comer in the genre. They simply do not exist in physical space much of the time.

Which is not to say any of this is necessarily bad. Any way to get ahead, I guess. But it does create a system of connections in which each individual relies upon the other so completely that their objectivity is called into question. It is hard to overstate how problematic this becomes when concomitant with a lack of any really invested fanbase or community beyond the authors and reviewers, even more so when we take human nature into account and the conflict that can bring. There’s a kind of tension. Things go unquestioned. The issues of the day are relied upon to draw an audience that otherwise fails to show up. Placating, pandering, whatever you want to call it, has become the mode of creating an audience and maintaining relevancy in some cases, submitting oneself to the dominant narrative and losing one’s originality to it.

But that is a much larger question than I can answer, if at all, in a blog post.

The larger issue is how do you not necessarily circumvent the above–which I don’t endorse, I enjoy being involved in this community–but tap into this kind of faceless readership that buys or otherwise consumes without interacting. There’s some bridge I’m missing, I feel. Some gap that I see, but can’t identify. It’s sad because I really want to try and connect with a readership, to make some tangible effort in this regard, as opposed to casting a net out into oblivion and hoping someone stumbles into it. Which is all that the above really is as far as I can see. Possibly. I’m not one to sift for gold or even really lace blasting charges across the landscape. But I am one for doing the work. Oh, man, I’ll do the work. Until my fingers bleed. But I’d really like to know what work to do.

In short, tell me where to find you! I hope I see you out there.

The New Metric

Increasingly I feel like the only number that matters in game reviews is not the Metacritic score, but the amount of hours the player can sink into the game. There are as many AAA heavy-hitters in this category as there are indie games. A game can have the most beautiful environments, the most intuitive gameplay, or the most thought-provoking story and a chorus of Dorito-scented wails will decry it as trash if the length is less than 20 hours. Conversely, a game can employ sprawling empty environments or horrible and unskippable dialogue if only it stretches the gameplay out enough to accommodate players who would grind out in the real world if their ass still fit through the door. I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2.

There was a time when the words ‘online’ or ‘open world’ sparked joy in my then-young gaming mind. I’d freak if it was both. But, more and more, this is sliding into strange territory. The industry is offering less experiences and more simulations. Unlimited, recurring play is creating frenetic lifetime customers. In any other game, especially if there’s voice chat, you would regard these people with the same type of wariness and separation from reality as you would the guy screaming at random people in the street. Maybe they were strange to begin with, but the ability to stay inside all day with an endlessly recycled slot machine experience is probably not helping. For instance, just let this sink in: There were players lobbying for Bungie to remove whatever feeble controls they’d put in place for Destiny 2 to prevent people from playing all day, every day. The idea of playing another game just never occurred to them, a fact that is pretty easy to track these days with the deployment of player profiles and playtime counters.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. You can come at this from so many different angles that your head will literally start to vibrate like a tuning fork. I don’t want to delve into the impending societal collapse making people want to stay indoors with fake realities or depriving them of the opportunities to do much else. Walk that road if you must. I encourage it. Neither do I want to get too deep into the idea that this manner of play creates a cycle of disassociation that feeds into itself and creates hostile, if not fatal, levels of community toxicity. I truly believe there is something emotionally wrong with a fair few of online/hardcore gamers, especially those who settle into one game for thousands of hours (yes, they exist); but there’s quite a lot to unpack there.

No, the simple thrust of my argument is this: length and scope, for the sake of themselves, do not a good game make. If you’ve substituted your real life for a digital one, I guess it makes sense to rate a game according to how long you can divorce yourself from life by playing it. I say divorce and not ‘immerse’ or (the always favorite) ‘get lost in’ because that’s not what these games do and not what these gamers are after. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I got immersed or lost in these experiences. Games like RDR2 and Kingdom Come: Deliverance are profoundly boring art projects. This only becomes apparent, of course, if you’re A) not paid to say otherwise or B) don’t have such a wealth of unallocated free time available that you can afford to ride a horse across a mostly empty landscape for thirty minutes. These games don’t provide immersive experiences; they provide expansive simulations that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Armed with narratives tacked on to make use of the environments and that would put an angsty teen to shame with their quality and emotional resonance, these games certainly don’t offer anything in the way of compelling plots or characters. And don’t get me started on the gameplay. If it isn’t so stilted and clunky that you’ll die from hitting a tree going slightly faster than a snail, they present beautifully designed combat systems that you will literally never use. Outside the tutorial and first hours of the game, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve fought in RDR2 and Kingdom Come that I did not deliberately seek out and pick fights with. “You always have to do this”, you might say. And I’d call you a sad, pedantic fuck.

Skyrim, a game that I very rarely have any cause to praise, is overflowing with enemies to fight and tasks to accomplish that aren’t boring as fuck. Sure, there’s a fair amount of ‘go to cave X and kill bandit Y’. But there’s also more than a few detailed quest lines associated with multiple dungeons at many different progress intervals in the game. The plethora of sidequests I’m currently treated to in Kingdom Come? Some shit about a wedding, courting a miller’s daughter, getting a horse for some dude, etc. I have a quest to go box some people and another to clear out a bandit camp, but I know from prior experience that this will be it for some time. There’s simply nothing to fucking do.

And why? “It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of life in the Middle Ages/Wild West,” is a common refrain. People died all the fucking time in both time periods. The Crusades were started to get all the shithead knights out of Europe because they were killing too many peasants. Banditry was rife. The history of the American West is filled with some of our only “legends”, filled with racism and ethnic cleansing though they may be. Things happened is my point. These reproductions play as though someone designed a giant, avant-garde extrapolation of the play No Exit. And, assuming it’s an accurate portrayal to create a giant extrapolation of No Exit, what the fuck is the point? My answer: to waste as much time as humanly possible in order to distract myself from my miserable kissless virgin existence.

Scene Geography

Where things are is almost as important as the things that are being said. Oftentimes it is enough to address objects or terrain or the layout of a structure as these are met by the character who is moving through them; sometimes, it is even necessary. Detailing the scene in sum before the characters have started moving through it can lead to the reader getting lost among all the corridors and rooms that the movement has not reached yet. Conversely, the same hiccup occurs if a writer does not efficaciously—if not succinctly—lay out one of those rooms or corridors in a manner conducive to the flow of the narrative and the movement of the characters. I like to call this “scene geography”, which I’m sure someone else has come up with in a much more thorough and technical style.

Usually it’s a slip of the mind, committed in the first draft and corrected in the second, but chances are if you’re reading this: you might not know yet to look for it. So let me do your work for you. Let me live your pain.

I’ve run into this a lot while going through some old drafts the past couple months, and it’s left me chock full of examples for this kind of thing. In my own work, it often happens in passing. I’ll be in the thick of some bit of exposition—describing the movement of a character through an alleyway, say—and suddenly something appears.

But not in the way that you might think. I don’t mean a thug pops out from behind the corner or a cat darts into the gutter. I mean the character opens a door that they were not said to be looking for and steps through, takes or searches for something from the gutter that wasn’t shown to be there, turns that undescribed corner at random and gets plowed with a club.

These are instances where the geography of the scene was not sufficiently solidified before the action in the scene took place. Instead, highlight the cat running into the gutter and then show the character searching for something in it. Show the character keeping an eye over his shoulder, hurrying for the corner, then getting clobbered for watching behind him when he should have been more careful about his blind escape.

Scene geography is all about giving precedent to action. Your precedents act as highlights for forthcoming action in the scene. I’m not advocating to give an exhaustive rundown of every item in the character’s vicinity. But if there’s a knife on the table that the character will momentarily be picking up to stab an intruder with, then show me the knife. Show me the money, in other words. Then put it in your mouth. I guess?

End the Cycle of the Saga Chronicled by the Archive

Since the reintroduction and consequent explosion of the Lord of the Rings in the United States during the 1960’s, the vaunted trilogy is something that has haunted the genres of fantasy and science fiction. It became almost a rite of passage. You weren’t a serious practicer of the craft if you hadn’t a trilogy to your name or some other long-running series. Forget duologies, tetrologies, quintologies. It was three or as many as it took for you to die of natural causes a la Robert Jordan, then someone else steps in to finish your dirty work. How many narratives were structured – naturally or purposefully – by this unspoken rule, none can say. We may say with some certainty, however, that the trend has definitely shaped the market.

Historically an affectation of the fantasy genre, the trilogy has started to parasitize science fiction as that medium starts to take on more and more of the tropes of its cousin. Indeed, the genres themselves have seemed to start blending together and not in the healthy and interesting ways that lead to crazed tales of cybernetic trolls and spell-flinging bounty hunters. More than anything else, they’ve become conventional distillations of the all the worst elements of genre writing with the simple backdrop of this or that loosely-related piece of technologic or magical fabric. That’s a topic for another time, though. Right now, we’re talking cheap gimmicks and marketing strategies.

The structure has limped along through the years, surviving on waxing nostalgia for its place as a hallmark of the genre(s) and by changing its terminology. These days, you don’t see Trilogy much anymore. And, if you do, it’s something applied after the fact by critics or the community. No, more common are its failed offspring that are much more egregious for also being overwrought: Cycle, Chronicle, Archive, Saga, etc. In addition to this being a nice and cheap ploy to map out butcher-paper knockoffs, consistent repeats of the narratives we’ve been reading for 50 years, it’s also an easy way to grab an extra $30 off a prospective buyer. Some might just grab the first volume and call it a day, choosing not to continue with the tripe. But I’d be a rich man if I received the sticker price every time I heard or read someone detailing the experience of reading this or that trilogy in such starry-eyed language as “struggled through to the end; started the journey, so I might as well finish it; skipped over the boring stuff and the good parts were pretty entertaining”, and so on. You get the idea. It isn’t hard to miss.

Is this really the standard we want to hold ourselves to as readers and, dare I say it, writers? Is our time really so cheap that we can afford to throw hours and hours away on something we feel compelled to skip through? The answers should come easy. We all deserve good entertainment for our time and money. Let’s be honest: we only stand to gain when hacks are forced out of the medium and into some other corner of the creative tent. Give them a SyFy original series to ejaculate over the airwaves, if wasting our time is the height of their achievement. Throw them the doomed run of a sideline superhero to rehabilitate. Make them come back for more, if they want more. Make them prove they deserve the keys to the city and, for the love of God, make sure they don’t know the doorman.