Disco Elysium Brought Back a Classic Gaming Staple: The Idiot Hero

Disco Elysium is a phenomenal game, perhaps both because of - and in spite of - its many homages to the classic adventure games of the 90s and early 2000s. Its mechanics, its approach to storytelling, its spirit is clearly looking back at old games like Planescape: Torment, but the truth is there’s a part of its DNA that goes back even further; to the pixel-pimple games of LucasArts, Sierra and Delphine.

Many of those old adventure games had a recurring trend: namely, that the main character was some level of inept. They were sometimes actively stupid, but at the very least they weren’t very good at whatever task they were supposed to be doing. Guybrush Threepwood is a wannabe pirate who can’t even swordfight at the start of Monkey Island. Roger Wilco is a bumbling janitor pushed into the frantic cosmic nonsense of Space Quest. Larry Laffer is a scrawny sleazebag who aspires to be a stud. Half these characters you wouldn’t trust to open a door in less than an hour, but in these games, they’re presented as the only hope in a desperate situation.

Sure, part of that is just the limitations of the genre. If Roger Wilco were a pioneering badass flying into unknown depths on the final frontier, they’d have had to make an action game. Why fuss about with pieces of string pulled from a dumpster when you could just blast a hole through the obstacle ahead?

But it's this very kind of limitation that often makes characters more likeable. Hypercompentency is dehumanising because it’s not something most of us can really comprehend. We don’t really understand Marcus Fenix’s struggle to cut a parade of aliens in half with a chainsaw, but we can damn well understand the guy who sneaks around the battlefield altogether to avoid getting mowed down. The power fantasy works as a visceral experience, but not as a way to connect with the hero.

Disco Elysium Expression
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The main character of Disco Elysium finds life so difficult that just changing his expression proves near-impossible at times.

Disco Elysium recognises this and runs with it to its logical conclusion, presenting a main character who’s struggling to keep up with the basics of day-to-day human existence, let alone doing his job well. Sure, it’s implied that you were a competent detective in the past, but that was then and this is now. The pile of booze-soaked meat and hair that staggers out of the Whirling-in-Rags in the game’s intro has to spend the majority of the first day wondering how to get a corpse down from a tree, remembering where they left their gun, or just trying to find their shoe, all through the filter of an apocalyptic hangover. And depending on your choices, you could really drive your life into a ditch and run off hooting.

Some other games clearly recognise the appeal of imperfection, though struggle to keep it consistent. Nathan Drake totters about, getting hurt and pulling funny faces, and that makes sense to me. After all, I would also find it difficult to stay suave in a burning castle or while hanging out of the back of an aeroplane. But then he’ll climb sixty feet of brick wall, kill a couple of dozen armed mercenaries, and escape on a speedboat with armfuls of treasure, occasionally breaking out into spontaneous history lessons and Latin. Be frank with me, is this guy meant to be James Bond or Johnny English?

Disco Elysium makes me realise how much we need the occasional useless mess to set things straight, not just wisecracking supermen and dead-eyed, gun-wielding thugs. Sure, horror games will often place an everyman in the fray for added tension, and it’s a staple of the all-too-rare comedy game, but honestly, I think we need to recognise that it can go further than that, that a well-meaning idiot can be a lot more lovable than a haunted sharpshooter.

For more articles like this, take a look at our Disco Elysium and PC Gaming page.