Disco Pinball: Declining Games and Depression in Disco Elysium

Disco Pinball: Declining Games and Depression in Disco Elysium
Words by
Photos by
Disco Pinball: Declining Games and Depression in Disco Elysium
Graphics by
Disco Pinball: Declining Games and Depression in Disco Elysium
Published on
June 11, 2024
Updated on
June 11, 2024
Read time:
No items found.

Image Gallery

Editors note: This is a bit of a different article for us. It's an authorized reprint of an essay from Ryan Banfi, which was originally published in March of 2024. It contains an analysis of the use of pinball-related storylines in the 2019 RPG game, Disco Elysium. It helps to have played Disco Elysium before reading this, but don't think it's absolutely necessary, either. Having spent a lot of time reading about and studying the pinball industry, I found it interesting to see how the story of the pinball industry was used to inform creative and storytelling decisions within an unrelated gaming project. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we did!

Spoiler warnings for Disco Elysium, too.

Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019)1 centers on the fallout of capitalism in the fictional district of Martinaise. Players control Harrier “Harry” Du Bois2 as he interrogates citizens and objects (Kłosiński, 2021) to solve the murder of Colonel Ellis “Lely” Kortenaer. In Du Bois’ quest to find the killer, he is equipped with 24 different skills (such as “Logic” and “Endurance”). Each skill represents a part of Du Bois’ unconscious mind. The skills speak to Du Bois and in doing so they often advise him on how best to handle situations. Disco Elysium’s gameplay mechanics revolve around rolling digital dice which influence Du Bois’ stats. By developing Du Bois’ “Logic” skill players will have a higher probability of executing a successful dice roll in that category and thus unlock pathways for Du Bois to follow. This type of gameplay reflects tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) as well as computer role-playing games (CRPGs). According to Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium’s lead designer and writer, the game is “an isometric CRPG–a modern advancement on the legendary Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999) and Baldurs Gate (BioWare, 1998)” (Kurvitz, 2014, p. 9).

The stakes are high for Du Bois and his skill set to find Lely’s executioner as Martinaise is on the verge of an all-out war. Lely was a mercenary sent by the conglomerate group The Wild Pines to dismantle the Dockworkers’ Union’s strike. The Wild Pines developed Martinaise after a failed communist revolution which resulted in an indiscriminatory bombing of the district to murder any dissenters and to further allow for capitalism to overtake the area. In this way, Disco Elysium presents a representation of the famous quote by Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth… than the breakdown of late capitalism” (1994, p. xii). While Elysium (the world where Martinaise resides in) is imagined, the game’s artist, Alexander Rostov, claims that Disco Elysium reflects his past reality. Rostov “grew up in the post-apocalypse. Amid the ruins of the Soviet Union, a newly born land of arms deals, rapid financialization, and cowboy capitalists killing one another in public squares” (Rostov, 2021a, p. 19). These ruins mirror the fictional world of Martinaise—a place designed by a non-traditional team of game developers. Kurvitz, a novelist, wrote Disco Elysium and Rostov, an artist, illustrated the game. Avid tabletop players developed Disco Elysium rather than wasting “their waking hours … improving a retail management system’s efficiency” (Raidma, 2021, p. 25). Moreover, these developers made Disco Elysium in Estonia which also distinguishes the game as video games are commonly designed in the U.S., Japan, South Korea, or China. Because of the game’s world-building and its unconventional development Kurvitz and academics describe Disco Elysium as “fantastic realism” (Kjeldgaard-Christiansen & Hejná, 2023, p. 5; see The Crate and Crowbar, 2018).

Given Disco Elysium’s fantastic realism, and its reliance on “socio-economic depth” (Kurvitz, 2021a, p. 9) this essay examines the influence of the American pinball industry’s3 late twentieth-century decline on the game’s narrative. Gleaning from academic work on ZA/UM’s text, archival research, pinball history, and by using formal narrative analysis this paper explains how the downturn of the pinball industry conveys Disco Elysium’s political strife—namely capitalism’s detrimental influence on Martinaise and how the clash between commercialism and socialism (namely unionized labor) further destroys the district. The history of pinball’s decline and how capitalism ruined its industry are caught up in Martinaise’s destruction. Characters such Du Boi’s police partner, Kim Kitsuragi, misread pinball’s significance in the game’s central mystery of “who killed Lely?” and this paper will explain how commercially failing games such as pinball contribute to the theme of sadness in the text. Before explaining pinball’s importance in Disco Elysium, this essay will further summarize Martinaise’s economic and political turmoil to orient the reader.

"Who doesn't love pinball?"

Depression and Conflict in Martinaise

Disco Elysium begins with Du Bois inspecting Lely’s hanged body. In his search for answers, Du Bois encounters Joyce Messier, a representative of The Wild Pines who thoroughly explains the battle between the interests and the dockworkers. Sitting upon a docked boat, Messier informs the detectives that The Wild Pines intend to send more soldiers to escalate the struggle between the union and the conglomerate if Du Bois and Kitsuragi do not solve the murder and bring justice to Lely and the three other mercenaries (Raul Kortenaer, Phillis de Paule, and Ruud Hoenkloewen) who occupy Martinaise.

Messier asks Du Bois and Kitsuragi if they “Have … ever seen a hornet invade a beehive?” The “Encyclopedia” skill informs Du Bois that “The Seraise Giant Hornet, the world’s second-largest insect, can kill forty honeybees a minute while a group of 30 can decimate an entire hive of 20,000 bees in less than four hours.” To reiterate this point, Messier tells Du Bois and Kitsuragi that the soldiers who will arrive in Martinaise to discipline the workers “work in tandem using semi-and fully automatic firearms. Their armor is virtually impenetrable to muzzle-loaded weapons–even yours. Most Union workers don’t have guns at all” (Messier’s emphasis). The docked boat that Messier rests on and her comments about the differences between the dockworkers’ and the mercenaries’ equipment highlights the imminent threat in the text: “The Mercenary Tribunal.” During the game’s unofficial court hearing (the climax) members from both parties die. Thus, for the people of Martinaise to survive, they must adhere to The Wild Pines’ rules, and this current conflict echoes the bombs that fell upon the district to dissuade the denizens from retaliating against commercialism.

In short, labor and commerce are at Disco Elysium’s core. If the dockworkers refuse to work for the Wild Pines—and the workers are central to them because the conglomerate is responsible for “moving eight percent of the world’s [(Elysium’s)] cargo” (Messier’s emphasis)—then they become dispensable. Much is at stake with the strike. For Karl Marx, striking is one of the most effective ways for the proletariat to fight back against the capitalists (Marx, 1978, p. 520, 1996, p. 523). Such an attack is especially dangerous for The Wild Pines because it may inspire copycats.

While Disco Elysium is fictional the story reverberates real events such as Amazon’s, Starbuck’s, and Tesla’s tactics to halt labor walk outs (Eddy, 2023; Scheiber, 2023a, 2023b; Streitfeld, 2021) as well as the downfall of enterprises such as the pinball industry.

Declining Games

Disco Elysium is self-referential in that it discusses the nuances of the gaming industry: namely dice-rolling RPG games and pinball. Two references to the former game genre are found in a space titled the “Doomed Commercial Area” (or Building B) which is locked off from the establishment’s bookstore. Plaisance, a bookseller, sealed the wing to protect her business from any superstitious contamination. In the secret area, Du Bois can find a chalkboard with notes and drawings detailing the production schedule of a failed revolutionary radio RPG titled Wirrâl Untethered. Fortress Accident, a now-defunct game company, made the game. Unfortunately, Fortress Accident ran out of funding, and they became unable to release Wirrâl Untethered. Fortress Accident is a reference to ZA/UM’s initial company name: Fortress Occident (Chilton, 2016). Du Bois’ “Logic” skill claims that “There is no way a little basement studio working here could pull anything like this off” (“Logic’s” emphasis). Such a metacommentary is a joke about ZA/UM’s own development which is unconventional for the reasons detailed earlier in this essay. They produced a monumental CRPG as Disco Elysium is considered to be one of the best games of all time (IGN Staff, 2023) as well as academically important (Apperley & Ozimek, 2021). And ZA/UM produced Disco Elysium with less resources than the triple-A studios (Gekker & Joseph, 2021, p. 23).

Another reference to tabletop RPGs is Neha, the “Novelty Dicemaker,” who works adjacent to the “Doomed Commercial Area” (thus complicating the accuracy of the curse). She is a nod to analog games that require dice such as Dungeons & Dragons (TSR, 1974). Neha makes dice for the role players in Martinaise; thus, she is still relevant due to limited competition and because these games are cheap and the people of Martinaise are poor. The dicemaker’s reasoning for why the businesses have failed is not due to a curse, which Du Bois’ “Shivers’” skill suggests, but because of Martinaise’s failed economy, which is caused by political disunity. Despite many failed businesses, the citizens of Martinaise still play games for entertainment to distract themselves from the district’s decay.

While tabletop RPGs remain popular in Disco Elysium’s diegesis, and outside of the text as players must play a CRPG to comprehend Disco Elysium’s story, pinball is not as commercially prominent within ZA/UM’s narrative, and Disco Elysium explicitly references pinball’s extradiegetic downfall in doing so. The Whirling-in-Rags, Disco Elysium’s hub/hostel, contains a secret space behind the kitchen, guarded by a blue door.4 Remains of East Delta Pinball5 lives there. East Delta Pinball is a reference to Data East Pinball. Data East (1976–2003) was a Japanese video game/arcade company that operated a pinball division in the US from 1986 to 1994—all its pinball games were developed in America, and some titles were shipped to Japan. Data East Pinball represents one of the few pinball companies that was not solely American, which reflects ZA/UM’s foreign profile. While Data East Pinball was short-lived, it did control 25 percent of the market, and it was “the second largest pinball manufacture” at the time (GamePro, 1994, p. 284). Gary Stern founded Data East Pinball in 1986. During his tenure, Data East Pinball produced some of the most advanced games which was a primary reason for why the entire pinball industry declined in the mid-to-late 1990s as games became too expensive to produce and they were not generating enough profit. Amidst this downfall Stern sold Data East Pinball to Sega in 1994.

In the Disco Elysium Art Book, a full page showcases Rostov’s pinball machine concept art which mirrors Data East’s cutting-edge pinball games. The book displays numerous inventive pinball games as well as the evolution of pinball cabinets. One of Rostov’s notes in the margins of his drawings categorizes the futuristic pinball games as “modern machines” (Rostov, 2021b, p. 85). Like Rostov’s vision of high-tech pinball machines, Data East Pinball pushed the technological limits of the industry. Laser War (1987), their initial game, was the first machine to include “a system specifically designed for digital stereo” (Data East: Laser War Flyer, 1987, n.p.). Checkpoint (1991) was the first game to contain a dot matrix which allowed for designers to showcase animations. This feature offers scenes that could better explain pinball narratives (Banfi, 2022, p. 942). Maverick (1994), one of Data East’s final releases, was the earliest game to include a large dot matrix. Data East advertises Maverick by writing that it was “the company that brought you the first mass produced pinball machine equipped with a Dot Matrix Display brings you their revolutionary High Definition–High Quality–Generation Three–Wide Screen–Display … more than 75% larger than our competitors’ display” (Data East: Maverick Flyer, 1994, n.p.). Despite Data East’s contributions to the progression of pinball, the company died out along with the core companies in the late 1990s. Most notably Williams, the largest and last manufacturer of pinball machines of the twentieth century, became defunct in 1999. A decade prior to the collapse of Williams’ pinball division, Williams acquired Bally/Midway, the only remaining pinball business other than Data East.

Ken Horowitz describes the closing of Williams’ pinball division as “the darkest year in the history of Williams pinball and perhaps coin-op amusement to this point” (2023, p. 723). Before shutting down their factory, Williams attempted to save pinball by creating Pinball 2000, an advancement that combined video images with the physical components of the pinball playfield. Such a progression was meant to bring pinball into the new millennium. However, the machines became too costly to produce and Williams sold their pinball department for a tax write-off. Moreover, they wanted to focus on designing slot machines because electronic gambling was more lucrative than pinball and Williams soon became one of the leading slot machine companies. Their decision has had a monumental effect on gambling addictions as modern companies design slot games to addict players and these machines contribute to the problems of unchecked capitalism (Schüll, 2012). Horowitz writes that “The staff at the legendary factory [(Williams)] had poured its heart and soul into Pinball 2000, and many believed that they had found the lifeline pinball needed to hang on” (Horowitz, 2023, p. 723). When asked about Neil Castro’s (Williams’ CEO) decision to dissolve the pinball division to save money and to move the company in the direction of electronic gambling, George Gomez, a creator of Pinball 2000, teared up in an interview and claimed it “was a bad bad thing” (Maletic, 2006). Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, a documentary about Pinball 2000, includes a scene where one of the Williams employees writes “R.I.P. pinball 10-25-99” on a whiteboard at the Williams factory to showcase the death of not just an industry or game but of an art form (Maletic, 2006). The closing of Williams’ pinball division meant that all the employees had to look for jobs elsewhere, thus many became unemployed. In that way, the employees did not have a chance to strike. They lost all their rights.

Gomez’s reaction to the closing of Williams’ factory conveys the sadness of capitalism and how it weighs on game production. If games cannot generate enough profit, then they are dispensable. This meant that not just a genre of games was disposable but rather an industry and the people who worked in that enterprise were nonessential.6 The Wild Pines’ treatment of dockworkers parallels Williams’ (and other pinball companies such as Data East) sale of an entire division thus laying off numerous employees. While I understand that Williams was not using the gangster tactics of The Wild Pines, they were behaving in a manner that did not consider the well-being of their employees as the workers lost not only their salaries but also their health benefits. This, in turn, influenced the community of the greater Chicago area (where Williams resided) in a negative way as many families depended on their parents’ incomes to live. This is reflected in Disco Elysium as the fallout of East Delta Pinball and Fortress Accident contributes to the decline of Martinaise as it is evident that there are few jobs in the district, and these companies can no longer offer people salaries.

It is not a coincidence that ZA/UM created a defunct pinball workshop for the player to examine—it exists in Disco Elysium’s diegesis as an effort to push players to think about capitalism’s influence on not just Elysium, but the real world. Moreover, Fortress Accident’s failed game also displays a depression tale of game development. When examining the chalkboard Kitsuragi comments: “just look at all those details. So much effort.” Du Bois’ “Empathy” skill states, “and for what? All gone.” The “Empathy” skill acknowledges the heartbreak of a failed game. In the pinball workshop, Du Bois can find and wear the “Pinball Maker’s Coat.” This jacket belongs to “M. Nyflox,” a laid-off laborer. Wearing the garment increases Du Bois’ “Empathy” by +1, thus the game explicitly empathizes with the fired workers.

Williams’ effort to save pinball by pouring their soul into remaking the game (it did not work financially, despite their best efforts) mirrors Fortress Accident’s endeavor to modernize the tabletop RPG. Their inability to produce enough money is the death knell of capitalism.

To further reveal the reference point of the closing of pinball factories and its connection to Disco Elysium, Kurvitz claims that the “Production on Disco Elysium began in 2000, not in 2014. For 14 years we built the world and the organization” (Kurvitz, 2021b, p. 186). Thus, Kurvitz’s decision to compose the game’s narrative in 2000 coincides with pinball’s fallout. Within Disco Elysium’s text, it is evident that the pinball games are further reimagined to communicate Elysium’s politics.

Disco Pinball

East Delta Pinball is a failed business that represents not only the destruction of an industry because of late capitalism, but also Elysium’s culture and lore. One of the unsuccessful games is Royal Pinball which can be found in the Whirling-in-Rags' cafeteria room. It is out of order and no one in Martinaise can service it. Not much can be discerned about Royal Pinball other than its generic theme, which is one reason for why it was unpopular. The current pinball industry outside of Disco Elysium’s diegesis is dependent on licensing games. My research shows that almost all the contemporary pinball manufactures base their games on popular licenses (films, TV shows, and popular music), except for American Pinball, which has released several non-licensed games (Banfi, 2022, p. 935). Within Disco Elysium’s diegesis, two of the more popular games do have explicit themes although they are tied to the text’s lore rather than being based on well-known intellectual properties. White Deora and Cornelius Gurdi and the Mountain Goats are such examples, and they can be found in the defunct pinball workshop. Finding them will trigger the “The Doomed Hostel?” task which will position Du Bois to review if the Whirling-in-Rags is connected to the “Doomed Commercial Area” which further links pinball to the failing Fortress Accident company. Once Du Bois investigates the pinball studio his “Interfacing” skill comments: “all these mesmerizing machines, just waiting to be plugged back in and played.” The pinball games that exist in the Whirling-in-Rags were obviously designed for public consumption, whereas today the pinball industry caters to individual owners as Stern Pinball and Jersey Jack Pinball, the two largest manufactures, sell most of their games to “homes” rather than to bars, restaurants, and (b)arcades (Banfi, 2022, p. 933). Detective Kitsuragi explains to Du Bois that he used to play some of these pinball machines, including Cornelius. Via his dialog with Du Bois Kitsuragi describes a joyful time of playing pinball with his friends, each other trying to light Gurdi-Ball.7 But now that time has passed and Martinaise is a land of distress as two factions fight for control of the area and maintaining a pinball arcade/company is an afterthought.

Cornelius Gurdi and the Mountain Goats

Disco Elysium describes White Deora’s backglass as showing “a female figure in mourning.” Kitsuragi mentions that the White Deora game displays “some kind of inane pinball theme–probably related to Messina during the Dolorian age. The history themes are the worst.” White Deora directly represents the colonial age or the “golden age of Elysium, named after one of the most famous religious figures, or Innocences Dolores Dei” (Trahan, 2020, n.p.). Multiple characters and locations reference Dolores Dei in Disco Elysium. She is often described as the most beautiful woman, perfection incarnate. Dei stands in as Elysium’s version of the Madonna. She was the “ruler of the known world,” people worshipped Dei. Most notably she is depicted in a stained-glass window at the Dolorian Church of Humanity in Martinaise. Du Bois also dreams about Dei at the end of the game, and he can converse with her in that moment. During their conversation the “Encyclopedia” skill informs Du Bois that he should “win her back.” Du Bois claims that they “need to have one more, massive epic showdown” which is a reference to the “Mercenary Tribunal” that leaves several people dead. Dei responds by stating that she does not want that to happen and that she instead plans to leave Elysium. She claims that Du Bois must remain “alone in hell, forever.” Such a commentary and Dei’s decision to flee communicates that she cannot belong in a world that is full of strife—the people who inhabit Elysium, and especially Martinaise are not worth saving. Elysium’s citizens cannot be redeemed because of the violence they inflict upon each other. Du Bois, being one of their only hopes to bring unity to Martinaise, and Elysium on a grander scale, is helpless in her opinion. Such nihilism translates to the politics of commerce in Disco Elysium. The game’s major conflict begins because of the fallout of capitalism and later because of the clash between The Wild Pines and the Dockworkers. This struggle over labor is evident on a smaller scale via the scrapped pinball industry.

The other pinball game that Du Bois can thoroughly investigate, and actually play is Cornelius Gurdi and the Mountain Goats. Du Bois’ “Interfacing” skill comments that it is “Not just any pinball machine. This is the pinnacle of pinball.” Kitsuragi confirms that the game is “a classic.” Unlike Dolores Dei Cornelius Gurdi does not have magical powers, rather he was a praised explorer who climbed Corpus Mundi, Elysium’s “tallest peak.” Gurdi’s legend motivated East Delta to create a pinball game “inspired” by him. Cornelius’ theme revolves around exploring “Gurdi’s climb through the perspective of goats, and to ascend to the top of the mountain in a time of trouble.” The pinballs in the game “have small goat icons on them and represent the goats as they race up and down the mountain.” Kitsuragi tells Du Bois that he “feels sorry for the goats. If they only knew the kind of guy who old Cornelius really was.” Du Bois’ partner expands upon his description of Gurdi by claiming that he was a racist, an avid huntsman, and an abusive man who often beat not just his wife, pets, and children, but other people’s kids as well.

Most pinball games do not contain custom pinballs, rather they are generic to signify to the player that the balls are extensions of the Self (see Aarseth, 2004, p. 50). In my previous paper on pinball for this journal, I argued that pinball games grant players the ability to play as themselves. Pinball games do not depend on an avatar but rather pinball’s abstractness allows for the metal ball to represent the player interacting with the “various toys, lights, and ramps that represent aspects of a specific narrative” (Banfi, 2022, p. 937). Disco Elysium reimagines pinball not just by basing the games on legends rather than licenses but by asking the player to play as specific characters such as the goats. Instead of Du Bois playing as himself he plays as an animal, which is a recurring theme in the text. Klaasje Amandou, Du Bois’ neighbor in the Whirling-in-Rags, informs Du Bois that she heard him scream “I don’t want to be this kind of animal anymore!” before starting his investigation. Such a statement is indicative of the issues in the text, namely that many people in Martinaise are conducting themselves in uncivilized ways which has brought upon a war. While Du Bois is attempting to solve the murder, he too is behaving irresponsibly as he crashes his car, and he loses his gun and badge due to his drunkenness. Although his authority is often questioned, he is able to maintain some control over Martinaise in his quest to become more civil and bring peace to the region. Part of the irony in the text is that he must play as an animal (the very thing he wants to avoid becoming) in the pinball game to discover more clues about Martinaise’s downfall. According to Kitsuragi, the hero of the pinball game abuses the goats (and other animals) which means that the game champions a problematic icon. Furthermore, if the player plays the pinball game successfully, they can unlock the “Cornelius” ball which is essential to Du Bois earning a high score. In doing this, Du Bois plays as Gurdi and not the sheep. Disco Elysium describes Du Bois’ handling of the Cornelius ball as “violent.” It “immediately knocks the last goat into the abyss, then proceeds to bounce all across the board as if carried by some demonic other-worldly inertia.” Such an interaction signifies Gurdi’s abuse, he is a man who should not be worshipped, yet he nonetheless is as Elysium is a world filled with ironies and disunity. Hence why Dei, a true deity, leaves Elysium. Du Bois earns a high score and the “machine powers off.” Kitsuragi comments that his partner “didn’t just win. No one I know has ever beaten Gurdi’s goats.” Disco Elysium’s unnamed narrator claims that when the machine turns off it “Once again … becomes one with the dust and the darkness.” Du Bois’ “Inland Empire” skill states that “Life has left it [(the machine]), unlikely to ever return” which implies that no one will fix these games.

Throughout this interaction Kitsuragi acts as an expert on pinball. He gained his competence while being a “juvie cop.” For 15 years Kitsuragi worked on becoming “a pinball champion to infiltrate “a pinball ring” which is also a direct reference to pinball’s U.S. ban from 1942 to 1976 as pinball was considered gambling (Banfi, 2022, p. 933). Pinball became legal because the industry began basing their games on well-known licenses which allowed for the public to tolerate a controversial game. In Elysium, the games evidently became legal because they intersect with religion and myth, which people worship in one way or another. More importantly, the Dolores Dei-themed pinball game is not popular whereas consumers praise Cornelius Gurdi. While Kitsuragi points out that the game idolizes a racist, he nonetheless acknowledges that it is a great game which means that East Delta Pinball put their soul into selling a game based on a questionable person, which further reflects the narrative that Elysium is rife with issues.

Upon further inspecting the workshop, Du Bois’ “Perception” skill announces that “The maintenance card under the control panel [(of the elevator)] reads: Last Maintenance: 10 July 88.” The “Logic” skill announces that “this elevator must have been used to transport pinball machines to and from the upstairs workshop.” Care for pinball machines take up a large portion of the hostel, as well as expenses. Martinaise is in shambles and money in the district is scarce—it is hard for the player (controlling Du Bois) to collect money to buy things, for example. To play Cornelius Gurdi, it costs Du Bois 1.00 reál (the currency of Elysium). That is a high cost, and for that reason pinball is not a sustainable business. This was also the case outside of the diegesis of Disco Elysium, as video games and arcade games became more popular and less expensive than pinball games which hindered the sales of pinball machines. Furthermore, arcade games are much easier to fix, and establishments can offer customers a wider selection of arcade games because they are much smaller than pinball machines—two arcade games can fit into the space of one pinball machine. Kitsuragi surmises that “Martinaise North 22 [(or the Whirling-in-Rags]) used to be a pinball arcade before it became a hostel.” In this way, Disco Elysium’s hub becomes a tomb for pinball in more ways than one. As the machines found in the Whirling-in-Rags are coin operated and Kitsuragi informs Du Bois that “pinball went out of vogue,” it is evident that Martinaise cannot transition to a collector’s market like the pinball industry outside of Disco Elysium’s diegesis. The only character within Disco Elysium who could afford such an item is Joyce Messier. In actuality, pinball survives because wealthy people can buy the machines. For those who are unable to purchase their own game, they can use the Pinball Map app to locate pinball machines. Yet, pinball games are still expensive to maintain, and many locations forego purchasing them. While there has been a resurgence of (b)arcades in recent years they mainly exist in cities, and it is expensive for people who do not live in urban areas to travel to them to play pinball.

After inspecting the pinball workshop, Kitsuragi references the “Novelty Dicemaker” and he mentions that he agrees with her that the deserted area in the Whirling-in-Rags has “nothing to do with the case, I’m sure, but I do like a nice little connection” (Kitsuragi’s emphasis). Kurvitz emphasizes the word “connection” in Kitsuragi’s statement to suggest the link between the failed businesses and Lely’s death. Kitsuragi focuses on catching the murderer at the expense of seeing the larger picture. That grander image is best described by returning to Jameson’s quote: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth … than the breakdown of late capitalism.” Jameson also says in the same sentence that “perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination” (1994, p. xii). In the same way, Kitsuragi lacks this awareness; he misses the connection between Martinaise and the attempt to dismantle the corruption of capitalism by the dockworker’s union. Via that political struggle nothing can survive, including the bygone era of pinball. While the manufacturing of pinball is tied to capitalism as companies produce these games, it is an open question as to whether the game can exist in a socialist community (or an environment that presents an alternative to late capitalism).

Outside of Disco Elysium’s diegesis, Wonderville, an arcade in Brooklyn, New York City funds artists with grants to design singular arcade-type-games. Mark Kleback, the owner of Wonderville, designed a custom pinball game titled A Place To Bury Strangers (2018, developed by Mark Kleback). This game is based on the New York City psychedelic rock band A Place To Bury Strangers and the guitar pedal manufacturer Death By Audio. Kleback’s pinball machine is not licensed, so the creators did not pay for the rights to produce the game8 nor does Kleback charge people to play his game at Wonderville. Wonderville is a space that is open to the community. While Kleback offers his game to the community, most arcades do not allow people to play pinball for free as their establishments and machines are a part of their commercial endeavors.

In Disco Elysium, if Martinaise transitions into a socialist district, it might not remain in ruins, and someone can work as a pinball repair person. Maybe then the community will produce pinball machines. In its current state, however, the struggle between the dockworkers and The Wild Pines makes the city uninhabitable.

While this reading of Disco Elysium has been a harsh one, there is some optimism for pinball, local commerce, community, and justice. Outside of the diegesis of ZA/ UM’s text the pinball industry has resurged. Gary Stern bought back his pinball business from Sega in 1999 and he renamed it Stern Pinball, Inc. Stern Pinball remains the leading pinball company and while the golden era of pinball declined the pinball industry did not necessarily cease to exist, but rather it changed courses. Pinball companies rebranded themselves for the home market. Stern Pinball and later companies base their games on licenses, and they cater to individual buyers as there is still a demand for pinball games even after the crash in 2000. Many avid pinball players’ loyalties are a reason for why pinball stayed afloat.

In Disco Elysium, Du Bois brings justice to Martinaise by locating the killer, a man named “The Deserter,”9 on a remote island. The Deserter was not one of the initial suspects nor did he murder Lely because of the struggle between the dockworkers and The Wild Pines.10 Rather The Deserter killed Lely because he was jealous of Lely for having sex with Klaasje Amandou, a woman who The Deserter watched from afar. Regardless of the reason for Lely’s murder, the mercenaries, and The Wild Pines refuse to investigate. Instead, they choose to retaliate. At the very least, The Deserter’s arrest provides Martinaise with some closure.11

Regarding, the topic of commerce and community, Du Bois can ask the hostel manager, Garte, if he would consider including a pinball arcade in his hostel. Garte states “no. But we could diversify the entertainment options …. the machine we have in the corner is broken … It wouldn’t hurt to get a little life in here. Other than the hellish karaoke machine.” While the Whirling-in-Rags exists in a declining district, Garte mentions that the hostel “is beautiful in its own way–especially for this neighborhood.” Despite the bombed area, his establishment is still operating. An unknown real estate company owns the hostel. According to Garte “they are never around here; they just collect money from afar.” In this way, the real estate company is not unlike The Wild Pines. These corporations have no interest in fostering community, they exist to suck the life out of the last standing establishments, hence why Garte does not know who owns the hostel, he is allowed to work there if he continues to send them their share. Garte is optimistic that the pinball machines can help, as he too wants to offer more than karaoke and a disco ball.

Gone are the days of disco in Disco Elysium. Hence the title of the game. A disco ball hangs over the citizens of Martinaise when they come to meet Garte for a nightcap. Disco is the only real form of entertainment in the game which is a reference to the popular music genre of the 1970s. Disco is also Latin for gaining knowledge. The game revolves around learning about the history of Martinaise and determining who killed Lely. In that search, however, Disco Elysium offers a greater narrative. The player can see the downfall of an entire district and discern that there are various reasons for Lely’s murder—this did not happen in a vacuum. The Oxford English Dictionary, defines “Elysium” as: “The supposed state or abode of the blessed after death in Greek mythology.” In many ways, Disco Elysium is about discovering the afterlife of Martinaise. What is to come next? To understand the future, the game asks the player to investigate the district’s history, and a major find is that entertainment is dead. There is no longer a celebration of art; rather people are trying to survive. A defunct pinball company/workshop/arcade and a deceased game project, along with several other lifeless businesses makes that point all the more relevant.


This paper presented an original reading of Disco Elysium. To do so it focused on the declining businesses in the game, notably the failing of East Delta Pinball. In structuring this argument, I described how capitalism pushed Martinaise into the brink of destruction. I also argued about how Disco Elysium reflects upon capitalism’s extradiegetic influence on the pinball industry and how it negatively impacted the workers and the community in which they live in. Hopefully this essay will inspire further readings of Disco Elysium, and research on pinball and its impact on games and culture more broadly.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Ryan Banfi https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9198-9920


  1. All quotes from this paper are gleaned from Disco Elysium: The Final Cut which was released in 2021. For the sake of brevity, I refer to the game just as Disco Elysium.
  2. As Disco Elysium deals with the competition between socialism and capitalism, it is worth mentioning that Harry Du Bois is a reference to W.E.B. Du Bois–a prominent American socialist.
  3. The pinball industry was primarily American as most pinball games were manufactured in Chicago, IL. This is to say that unlike the video game industry where games are developed in numerous countries, pinball was mainly made in one. Yet, U.S. distributors such as Mondial Commercial Corporation distributed Gottlieb pinball games to Europe in the 1950s for example. Now Stern Pinball is the major manufacture and distributors who buy their games export Stern games to other countries. Foreign companies such Pinball Brothers now make pinball games as well, but they were founded well after the 2000 pinball crash.
  4. This location must be sought out by the player, it is not a part of the main narrative.
  5. East Delta Pinball is a clearly an arcade that contains a pinball repair shop. It is less clear if it is a pinball designer/manufacture. I do argue, however, that it is a pinball company that makes games given its reference to Data East Pinball which was a manufacturer of pinball machines. It is also worth mentioning that given ZA/UM’s budget it would be expensive to design a pinball factory that is connected to East Delta Pinball within the game.
  6. At least for a time as Stern purchased Sega in 1999 and became the only pinball manufacture in the world during the aughts. However, the company could not offer everyone who was laid off from Williams a job.
  7. “Lighting” a ball in pinball means earning an achievement such as an extra ball or free game.
  1. While A Place To Bury Strangers centers on a rock band, it is not a mainstream one like AC/ DC (Stern, 2012) or The Rolling Stones (Stern, 2011).
  2. The Deserter informs Du Bois and Kitsuragi that his name is Iosef Lilianovich Dros, yet the game continues to refer to him as “The Deserter” when he speaks. This design decision emphasizes the insignificance of Dros’ identity to imply that he is not the sole reason for the murder but rather a part of the many factors that contributed to Lely’s death, which this essay argues.
  3. The Deserter was a commissar of the Communist party.
  4. If Kitsuragi is shot during the “Mercenary Tribunal,” then Cuno, a foul-mouthed juvenile delinquent, will take over Kitsuragi’s role as assistant detective. Cuno helps Du Bois locate The Deserter on the remote island. While this plot point provides comic relief as Cuno repeatedly curses while aiding Du Bois, it also presents an opportunity for the troubled teen to earn a job that can lead to a career. Thus, there is some hope for Cuno.