Amnesia is a frustratingly convenient plot device in games. It’s a nifty gimmick for sure: the amnesiac hero provides a clean slate for the player to embody, with their memory loss a state that’s either quickly abandoned after you discover the goings-on in their world, or introduced as a final, grand plot twist after they embark on a self-imposed identity recovery quest. You see this in a variety of protagonists from iconic games: Geralt from The Witcher, Darth Revan from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and well, all the white male protagonists from Bioshock. It can feel rather trite after a while.
Not Disco Elysium, however—incidentally my Game of the Year of 2021—which cleverly turns the amnesiac hero trope on its head, incorporating it into its very essence. You play as an amnesiac cop, Harry, who has more than just drunk himself into a stupor; he has inhaled so much bloody alcohol that he has forgotten who he is. He barely even remembers his own name, or what he’s supposed to do in the extremely run-down city of Revachol. Dude’s just a dead beat cop who, to his increasing horror, will eventually find out more about the havoc he has wrought on this city in the days before he completely lost his memory.
In fact, the amnesia plot is core to Disco Elysium: it’s what propels the story, your self-expression as a player, and the unraveling of Harry’s identity. His memory loss forms the basis of his interactions. As a player with barely any knowledge of the world, you’ll soon learn to rely on Harry’s intellect, base instincts and even athleticism—aptly broken down into a dizzying set of 24 skills that ranges from logic to composure—to navigate your circumstances. Each skill becomes an inner voice that will pipe in, at opportune moments, for a quick run-down of your situation and surroundings, while also adding multitudes to Harry’s gaudy personality; he may have lost his memories, but his identity as a bizarre, fucked up cop obsessed with disco and in search of his lost youth remains.
Incidentally, it’s also an opportunity for Disco Elysium to reconcile your narrative choices as a player with Harry’s personality—you can play as a woman-hating fascist or a very Sorry Cop, and all these strings of decisions will still tie in neatly with his fractured psyche, regardless of who he was before his memory loss. Equally potent is Disco Elysium’s Thought Cabinet, which lets Harry internalise new stimuli in Revachol and recall old memories from his past life, with entries that are at times both amusing and relentlessly heartbreaking.
Of course, Disco Elysium has taken some liberties with alcohol-induced memory blackouts—such an affliction doesn’t really last for days in real life, even though temporary amnesia is pretty common when you down entire gallons of alcohol very quickly. But it’s used to demonstrate just how much alcohol Harry has imbibed (which is a whole fucking lot), highlight his rapidly debilitating mental health, and reframe his trauma in a sympathetic, distinct manner. It’s also one way you’ll get introduced to characters. Your first meeting as an amnesiac with your ever-reliable cop buddy, Kim Kitsuragi, for instance, begins with the voices whispering hints about the stoic man standing in front of you, and ends with Kim remarking in quiet disbelief and slight exasperation that you’ve lost your memory, as if this is all in line with your personality and reputation as a bizarre disco cop.
Disco Elysium begins with a compelling case for an amnesiac hero, but it also concludes its tale with an ending that barely revolves around his memory loss. Having solved the police case you’re in Revachol for—perhaps more, if you chipped hard enough at specific narrative threads—most of the loose ends in the game can be tied, independently of his amnesia. In one option, you can even suggest that Harry was pretending to have an episode all along, and that he remembers everything—he just doesn’t want to confront his traumas at all. More than just adding another layer to Harry’s eccentricity and character, it’s also a smart nod to returning players who are coming back to the game a second time. After all, you really do remember everything.
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