A few notes on notes on Disco Elysium

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Comments: 2   (latest June 13)

Tagged: disco elysium, za/um, robert kurvitz, people make games, sacred and terrible air, faction paradox, doctor who, the molasses flood, collaboration, creativity

You probably saw this week's investigative video "Who's Telling the Truth about Disco Elysium?", released by journalist-bloggers People Make Games.

Or rather you probably saw people talk about the video, but maybe you didn't watch the video, because it's two and a half hours long! Mostly interviews! They've got even more interview footage linked on their channel! Half my social circles are asking, uh, is there a summary?

I am not going to write a summary. This is a messy situation and it doesn't end with tidy answers. It hasn't ended at all, in fact -- there's an active lawsuit which will run on for months to come.

Instead, I'm going to kick off in a different direction: the backstory of Disco Elysium. The game's setting grew from a roleplaying campaign run by Robert Kurvitz. Kurvitz's ideas -- or the collective ideas of the players, but nobody disputes Kurvitz's centrality -- formed a compelling creative setting. Around that nucleus formed a group of artists and writers who called themselves the "ZA/UM Cultural Assocation".

Or "Ultramelanhool", or "The Overcoats", or maybe all of the above. I don't pretend to understand the dynamics of the group(s). This history only really surfaced to public view in the aftermath of DE's release and the arguments, recriminations, and lawsuits that followed. In fact, the first I knew of any of this was a post titled "The Dissolution of the ZA/UM Cultural Association", written by Martin Luiga in October 2022.

(Not the same as the company ZA/UM, which is named after the same ideas but is a game company with paperwork and employees and everything. And now lawsuits.)

So this is the first thing. The only work I'm aware of from the ZA/UM collective, other than DE itself, was a 2013 novel by Kurvitz titled Sacred and Terrible Air (Püha ja õudne lõhn). If you go looking, you'll find that the book sold terribly and was never translated into English.

Except an English translation has now been released! Two translations, in fact.

Both translations are unofficial fan work by pseudonymous groups. (Ignore that one proclaims itself "fan translation" and the other "professional".) As far as I know, Kurvitz hasn't sanctioned (or sanctioned) either one. I don't want to jinx it, but given the lawsuit-festering climate of Disco Elysium, it might be worth grabbing the files just in case they're taken down.

I've looked at the first few pages (of the tequilla_sunset5 edition) but I haven't seriously dug in yet. Looking forward to it.

The idea of a countercultural group of writers collecting around a charismatic core vision... well, there are many examples. Thieves' World and Wild Cards. You can point at Lovecraft's collaborations if you like, or even (in a sense) the infamous summer at Lord Byron's lake retreat.

But the ZA/UM Cultural Association reminds me somehow of Faction Paradox, that peculiar spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff of Doctor Who. The Robert Kurvitz figure would be Lawrence Miles, whose idea of the Great Time War -- so much madder and grander than the TV show's eventual depiction -- inspired a series of self-published novels, audio plays, and comics.

(I hope neither Robert Kurvitz nor Lawrence Miles takes exception to this comparison!)

It's difficult to even explain how Faction Paradox relates to Doctor Who. It's not just a matter of "fan sequels with the serial numbers filed off." Miles wrote licensed Who novels in the 1990s. As the show was on hiatus, he felt free to introduce new concepts, including the "War in Heaven": a cosmos-consuming conflict between Gallifrey and... somebody. (Not the Daleks; that would be feeble.)

But Miles didn't like how the War storyline was handled across the licensed BBC novels. So off he went to do his own thing with his own... cultural association. They did in fact file off the serial numbers -- you won't see "Gallifrey" or a "TARDIS" named -- but somehow it comes off as an excavation of what Doctor Who should have been in the first place. Cameral or anarchic gods, surveying the currents of the universe, turning the course of history over in their fingers like Bilbo fondling a golden ring.

Happily, the Faction Paradox story doesn't end with lawsuits and layoffs. On the other hand it hasn't produced anything as wildly successful as Disco Elysium. Beware success, I suppose. Or maybe what FP really needs is a game designer. Hmm.

About ten years ago, I read several of the FP stories. I found them stylistically inventive but not all that readable. (The Book of the War ought to have been my favorite thing in the universe! A nonlinear collaborative encyclopedia-novel-sourcebook about a time-travel war! But it just never cohered.)

I see that the Faction Paradox gang has continued working all these years. I just ordered The Book of the Enemy and The Book of the Peace, just to find out where it's been going.

Why did I sit through two and a half hours about a company and lawsuit that will, in all likelihood, never affect my life?

(By all accounts, the prospects of a Disco Elysium 2 are slim.)

Well, I was laid off by a game company a couple of weeks ago. Nothing like the same situation; nobody's suing anybody. But the ZA/UM situation sure brought my own to mind.

And I wanted to know more. There's a lot of Internet flak right now around DE. (The documentary shows just a sliver of that: death threats directed against company employees, for a start.) It's easy to take sides, particularly when the very theme of DE is the undermining of society and solidarity by history. (One theme. A central theme. Themes. You know.)

I wanted to pick through more of the details than could be gleaned from a headline. Well, now my head is swirling with Estonian financial shenanigans and unhappy game developers. Go me.

At a minimum -- this is the summary I promised I wouldn't give -- Robert Kurvitz doesn't seem to have a good response to allegations that he caused a lot of personal problems during DE's development. And current ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus doesn't seem to have a good response to allegations that he and Tõnis Haavel engineered a takeover of the company, appropriating company funds in the process. And each of them jumps real fast to talk about the other's faults when asked about their own.

But, bad role models aside... there's something down there about the nature of creative teams. Which is every game company, as well as every overcoated Cultural Association. It was my experience taking part in fanfic projects. It was my experience at The Molasses Flood while I worked there.

I know perfectly well that if one person slaving away over a hot keyboard is hard work, ten people is ten times as hard. All the same problems times ten. Plus all the personality conflicts that arise between them, and the organizational work, and the paperwork and the meetings. So many meetings.

I want to believe, though. The Fertile Collective is this... archetype we have; and it's so much more appealing than Consumptive Artist In Garret! A creative ferment of Disco Elysium stories boiling out of overheated minds, spewing ideas that build on each other faster than people can write them down. Or mad evolutions of the Doctor Who mythos. Or Witcher stories by everybody, for everybody, not just one white-haired asshole with swords.

Sometimes it works. I've seen it work. Don't forget that.