In an RPG, it is no surprise to be given a “blank slate” character- a character who has a very open backstory, or at the very vague enough for you to fill it in as you make choices- be it at the start of the game or while you actually play it.
Its not typical to play an RPG where most of their story has been set in stone, in ways that are very specific or not open enough for you to interpret yourself. If the character's personality and backstory has been heavily pre-determined, then it may feel like you are forcing the hand of your main character when making decisions. Its important that RPGs give options that can feel suitable to a character you're building as you go, or ones that let you project yourself into the character easily. Feeling like that character is you in some form, makes the journey more personal, and more in character.
Disco Elysium manages to have a blurry line between some of these ideas, while still managing to technically give you a blank slate... At first, I took the game's position on Harry (the player character) having memory loss as a funny way to give you that 'blank slate' start. If Harry doesn't remember anything, then you can ask all kinds of basic silly questions you otherwise wouldn't ask. And I am sure that was one of the main points of the memory loss, it makes this game work as an RPG. But it also started to occur to me that as I played, Harry's memory loss is an integral part of his character arc and the message I think it tells. That is, ability to be reborn through your choices and giving him an attempt at a second chance.
Before I get into the core of this video, let me explain how this game works in case you're not familiar. If you're watching this with no knowledge on the game, or just a little, you may not be aware the extent of detail this game goes into with your character's thoughts and choices.
The game plays very similarly to what you'd expect out of a tabletop RPG. I would compare it to D&D, but its not exactly like that aside from the dice rolls and skill checks. Disco Elysium is an isometric RPG focused heavily on narrative and dice rolling. You are given 24 skills all based around the character you play- Harry Du Bois. These skills play a heavy part in the narration as you continue through the story. Not only do you deal with specific rolls for actions, but also passive skill checks that may sprinkle in more details during the gameplay depending on what skills you have more points in.
Of course outside of those skills, you'll be making decisions all the time. Picking dialogue choices and seeing where it takes you are obviously the key aspect of any RPG. But its important to know there isn't any combat in this game,in the sense that you're not likely to run into choices that will lead to getting hurt or even dying [but they exist]. And due to the nature of the game and dialogue being the biggest part, you'll find that saying stupid shit is actually a good thing to do in order to learn more! The consequences are likely to just be secondhand embarrassment.
Whether or not you know the character, its important to establish who he is... I mentioned that Harry is a blank slate due to his memory loss, but of course that memory loss is just that- Harry lost his memory, but by no means did he not have a past before you got there. Before I can even talk about the idea of his character being born again through the loss of his memory and your actions as a player, and the opening for him to have a second chance at life, it's important to see where he came from before the start of the game. It may be easy to be sympathetic, but context still means a lot no matter how nice you play him.
When I played DE for the first time I played him with my own thoughts in mind. Going in blind, I had no real bias towards the characters or the character I played, so it was mainly done with my own first impressions. I didn't want to be horribly mean to people, I avoided some dialogue out of awkwardness or would pick one purely because it was funny and wanted information, and I did back off on certain character out of sympathy. I didn't exactly try to get Harry's shit together intentionally, but I played with an emotional build and so I made him more caring and empathetic. But now after starting a second play through, I realize that even my own choices kind of kept me away from recognizing the worst of Harry before I took the reigns at the start of the game.
Harry is an alcoholic, he's aggressive, he depressed, he abuses drugs, and overall can just be horrible to others no matter the reason. As you play you will naturally become aware of his situation whether or not you try to, but if you don't open up certain branches of dialogue, you may not hear about everything that implicates how he acted prior to his memory loss.
At the very start of the game, you can have a picture painted for you quite easily if you seek out the employee Sylvie, who worked at the Whirling in Rags the days before, when Harry had been actively drinking and destroying his room. She describes him harassing people at the Whirling, waving his gun around, describing the incredibly gorey details of his hopeful suicide, and further sobbing and crying to strangers... so on and so forth...
Of course, you can hear from Klaasje too (at the start as well if you pass a check) about what she heard. But what she states more so gives details to Harry's depression rather than the violence and aggression Sylvie described. For my first playthrough, I had only heard Klaasje's dialogue and not Sylvie's so the side of Harry that was more violent and angry was gained through other dialogues- but it was much less detailed in comparison to the one I missed with Sylvie.
In some ways, it was easy to forget the shitty things when you play the game as a man who's outcome was memory loss, with little impression on his past actions, and its up to your first impressions to pave the way forward. But just as Harry was, I too was on the journey of discovering Harry's past as the player- and digging a little deeper brought all this to the surface eventually- Harry was a shit guy up to the very moment you start playing. People didn't like him, no matter how good of a detective he was- they just tolerated him... Of course, now as the player in control, you him in your hands, and
its up to you to reroute his life in this week long murder investigation.
As an RPG, Disco Elysium very clearly has you making choices through the entire game. There's no doubt about it- you're controlling Harry, and you get to mold him into whatever kinda guy you want- as long as its within the boundaries of the game of course.
I didn't think hard about the fact I was making all these choices for Harry, as its just part of the game. But stewing on my thoughts after playing it for the first time, it hit me that it felt like a little more than making choices were just part of a typical mechanic. Making choices as Harry continuously shaped his character arc, one unique to your actions. I feel the game is special with how it does this, because unlike most RPGs, Harry isn't a self-insert type of character. You aren't Harry and its very unlikely you are just like Harry. You didn't get a character creator, you didn't name him, you didn't get a vague backstory to insert your ideas into. Harry is just Harry... but you can also influence that- at least now you can. Because the week that Harry woke up without his memories, it was up to you to make the rest of his choices.
But aside from your deductions on his character, the city of Revachol encourages Harry through out the game. It does not know Harry, much like yourself. It sees little of his past, and despite all of what Harry has been up to this point, there is this inherent need to see this through no matter your outlook. For Harry but also the player, Revachol is left as one immediate present. Your only present. Waking up encased in the walls of what will be all you know in this one single week, no memories, no intent other than to solve a murder. Your ability to experience Revachol for the first time is basically as pure as Harry's, and it allows you to project through the otherwise un-relatable middle aged drunken detective.
With having a character written out in a way that allows you to witness a life you could never have yet find empathy with, I feel like it becomes more and more clear while playing that Harry's arc isn't just about learning about his past... but also the chance to be reborn through your actions and fresh eyes.
To lose your memory down to the shittiest things you did a mere 24 hours ago, and to get up that morning and be sorry for it, to apologize, to get sober that week, clean up your act- they are drastic changes of character to the point that his transformation in Revachol could seem almost out of character if he hadn't lost his memory.
As you learn about Harry's past, it almost feels like another life- not just as I learn of things I was unaware of, but for Harry as well- as he slowly recalls things he doesn't remember and even shows surprise to. Even if you play a route where you make bad decisions, you've developed a version of Harry that did not recall his behavior regardless and decided to continue it even thought he could've had more awareness after his last bender. Whatever version of Harry you play, its still one influenced by your impressions on the world without any memory of who he used to be. If you decide the world is too cruel for Harry to be kind to, then so be it. All Harry has immediately within the game is himself and the city of Revachol, and because of you, his fresh impressions on the city will shape him into something new- perhaps something better than before.
As much as I raise this idea of second chances for the depressed alcoholic I sat with for the last thirty hours... as much as I feel the game supported this narrative idea of second chances, the end of the game shows you something very important despite all the changes you made-- the fact that no matter how much Harry may have had some personal improvement during his time in Revachol (so long as your choices permitted it), it doesn't cancel out everything he had been just before that week. Harry is still presented with Jean at the end of the game, berating his behavior from before and having no better impression of him. He can't imagine Harry has improved at all, and its not like he was there to witness it. Of course, you are kindly given support by Kim, but it doesn't change the fact that you should be bluntly reminded that outside of your choices, other characters do not recognize all the work you went through. They know Harry more than you, actually... perhaps it was foolish to think he could be any better after all this?
Its funny because, after all that talk about choices, it does make it seem kind of pointless, right? Why does it matter that I took control of the shitty depressed alcoholic, if those choices didn't impact those around me? If they're going to doubt that this character managed to get better? Well. I think it speaks to a bigger picture in a way thats no doubt realistic. I think its important that the writing puts Harry in his place and gives a reminder that years of damage can't be solved by one week of good. But I don't think that effort was a waste simply because you didn't get immediate satisfaction for your good deeds. No matter what, the narrative that you put yourself in Harry's shoes and decided “I am going to be better today” does not need to be important to anyone but yourself and Harry. The fact that many players likely started up this game and let their emotions drive them, make empathetic choices, and tred with caution... shows your inherent goodness, and that it can still shine through a character like Harry.
Being unable to recall his memory is not just a convenience to the new player, but a device for the narrative- allowing players to find ways to step in the shoes of a character that is otherwise not much like them. Your lack of impressions on those around you while you play leaves you to your raw first choices, and projecting that through the character as well.
There is so much more that could be said about Disco Elysium's writing that can't be captured in analyzing this one point, but it stood out to me that you in a way share your views of the world with Harry because you don't know the world either.
You aren't Harry, not really- he has a past, you just don't know it. But Harry doesn't know it, either. Yet you go along for hours to solve a murder, all while actively choosing what you could do better for this man who had a shit time right before you started your game. Whatever actions you take, the week ahead of him will bring a chance at something entirely new, a second chance, a rebirth of self- all because of your choices.