By Jacob Becker
“There is no city in the world with more contrasts than Revachol.” That’s what they say, but I didn’t read the guidebook, so my knowledge of the region is basically non-existent. I’m in Revachol for an indeterminate amount of time, and I have to rely on what the city reveals to me as I shiver in the cold Insulindian winds. I hear the constant honking from cars unable to enter the main gate due to the dockworker strike, and I see clear signs of bombardment from the failed revolution that leaves buildings with hastily-patched gaping holes. Even so, there is a perverse beauty in Revachol’s contrasting patchwork of functional and pre-revolution architecture dwarfed by piles of shipping containers. While it’ll be two days before the bridge to the western part of the city is fixed, I can make out a massive church flanked by a small fishing village and the warehouse-like FELD building. While my investigation may take me there eventually, I don’t mind the delay as it might give me time to find my left kitten-heeled, green snakeskin shoe. I don’t fancy walking through the snow barefoot, but then again, what does it matter? I’m the Cop of the Apocalypse after all.
Disco Elysium is the first video game from Estonian Developers ZA/UM and a game that has won more BAFTAs than Cate Blanchett has. I should mention that the above sequence in the Disco Elysium city of Revachol didn’t actually happen to me. It’s simply a pretentious first person gonzo narrative from the imagined perspective of the Disco Elysium detective protagonist named <REDACTED>. Like many classic Role Playing Games (RPGs), you take the role of a character in a world not our own. He has amnesia and thus can’t remember his name, which is why it is redacted above. Throughout this article, I will avoid spoilers wherever possible, but some very minor spoilers for the setting and characters are inevitable.
So why am I writing about this game in a journal focused on planning? Disco Elysium has one of, if not the, most fully realized cities of any game I’ve ever played. This article isn’t a review of Disco Elysium (the review: 10/10), but a case study of Revachol to explore what makes a fictional city seem real in a video game, or in any medium.
History, Style, and Layers
In terms of square footage, the area of Revachol you are able to explore is dwarfed by AAA titles such as The Witcher 3, Grand Theft Auto, or Spiderman. Visually, the latter two are based on real cities, while Revachol is completely the invention of Robert Kurvitz and the other writers and artists. Spiderman, or the programmers working for him, can simply digitize the buildings of real life Queens to create an organic looking city (not to discount the skill and work required to do that), but Disco Elysium’s world was built from scratch. Part of what enables Revachol to feel real is the fictional history the city grew up around. Without going into the pages of detailed lore you learn throughout the game, Revachol has been a colony, a kingdom, a commune, and a warzone. Currently, it is a semi-independent free market administrative region controlled by foreign powers. Not only do you learn this history through conversations and other game features (pictured below), but all of these layers are clear as day in the physical architecture and layout of the city.
Games with robust fantasy worlds often have interesting architecture and layouts, but these cities are often singular in style. In Warcraft or The Witcher, there is a style for elven cities, a style for northern human cities, a style for coastal human cities, and so on, but within each of those, there isn’t much variation. Revachol’s layers, distinct districts, and somewhat chaotic layout make it seem lived in.
And it is lived in. Non-Player Characters (NPCs) are commonplace in games and are used to flesh out a world. What is not common is the depth and connection to the city that Disco Elysium’s NPCs have. In larger games, several generic models are often copy-pasted to fill in the space. Even in games like The Witcher that are deservedly lauded for their story, characters tend to lack depth or options to talk about things unrelated to the main character or quest.
In Disco Elysium, like real people, the NPCs can be found in different places on different days and at different times. The characters move around with purpose, have opinions, and can talk about things that may or may not be related to what the player character is working on. They have political views, but they are not stand-ins for a monolithic political belief. I could go in depth about any of the characters, but part of the fun is getting to discover them and how they view Revachol for yourself. All of this is to say that a key part of making a realistic fictional city is having realistic inhabitants. After all, there is no city without people.
In many games, you take the role of a chosen one, and it seems like the entire game world centers on you and exists solely for the purpose of your adventures (think Harry Potter). Disco Elysium makes you feel as central to the world as you want to be. With the myriad of dialogue choices, your version of <REDACTED> could think of himself as anywhere from a superstar cop whom the world revolves around to a sad sack just wanting to slink by unnoticed and maybe do his job. While some people may give you a bit more time of day since you’re a part of a powerful organization, ultimately, the world is not your oyster. Like real life, many things are beyond your control, and the structure of the city as a whole is beyond your grasp as an individual. Not only are there internal politics that may affect you as the player character, but there are external politics and the history of greater Insulindia Isola that you may hear or read about.
Unsurprisingly, what makes a city believable in a videogame isn’t dissimilar from what makes a city real in other forms of fiction or in life. It may also be why planned developments sometimes seem fake; their appearance has no real rhyme or reason beyond a single entity’s decision to make it so. Real cities have layers and are the product of many decision-makers throughout time who have held different views about what should be built.
As far as video games are concerned, Disco Elysium’s writing and expansive dialogue system allows it to flesh out people and places far beyond its contemporaries with realistic conversations. Not only can you converse with people, but you can have an internal dialogue and reflect on your experiences, which gives you a more personal view of Revachol. Arguably more than any other piece of media, a video game can put you right in the shoes of a character and by keeping things personal, you develop a relationship with the city.
Note: The author probably spent a bit less than 36 hours in Revachol to complete one playthrough.
All images are taken from the game and are owned by ZA/UM
Jacob Becker is a third-year master’s candidate pursuing a dual masters in City and Regional Planning and Environmental Sciences and Engineering. His research interests include mapping air pollution, climate change adaptation and transitioning to clean energy sources. For fun, Jacob takes his mind off the slow heat death of the planet by hiking around it and indulging in improv and sketch comedy. Jacob received his undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Chicago.