Don’t Let the Spirit of This Beloved Indie Game Die With Capitalism

From this point on, when you hear anything about ZA/UM Studio, you’re no longer hearing from the original minds and hearts behind indie game Disco Elysium. In fact, there’s probably going to be no mind or heart in this series ever again, at least under its original IP name. Since October 1, the original creators—Robert Kurvitz, Aleksander Rostov, and Helen Hindpere—have been ousted from the studio. Rostov confirmed this in a tweet:

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And ZA/UM, having received intense backlash over this, released this statement, which is more like a non-statement in totality:

Like, come on. What is this shit?

Yes, it can be said that by and large, the devs still remaining at the studio are innocent and, as usual, capital is to blame for this development. But regardless, it’s still incredibly disappointing and heartbreaking, since Disco Elysium was the product of several years, decades, of profound imagination and creative passion.

To clarify something, there were technically two ZA/UMs: ZA/UM Studio, the game-making side (founded in 2016), and the ZA/UM Cultural Association, which has existed since 2009 and, by and large, was the creative backbone to this whole operation. The cultural association has dissolved as of late, with this statement from co-founder and organizer Martin Luiga:

I, Martin Luiga, a founding member and Secretary of the ZA/UM cultural association, as well as the assembler of most of the core team, am hereby dissolving the ZA/UM cultural association (not to be confused with the ZA/UM company, on which subject I would note that neither Kurvitz, Hindpere nor Rostov are working there since the end of last year and their leaving the company was involuntary. Which would seem like bad news for the loving fans that are waiting for the Disco sequel.)

The reason for dissolving the cultural organization is that it no longer represents the ethos it was founded on. People and ideas are meant to be eternal; organizations may well be temporary. I find that the organization was successful overall and most of the mistakes that were made were contingent, determined by the sociocultural conditions we were thrown into. I still encourage people to organize, and I would say that one of the qualities that the ZA/UM cultural organization sorely lacked was pretty much any formal structure.

For a while, it was beautiful. My sincerest thanks to all that have rooted for us.

Luiga, 10/1/22

Unfortunately, this is what happens to organizations that are founded based on anything outside of capitalistic merit. I’m speaking from experience when I say that it’s a painful thing nobody can really comment on, unless they’ve felt it themselves.

ZA/UM Studio, as it exists now, is the result of what happens when investors get too excited about a project and assume more control than they rightfully deserve. These investors, “money people” as Luiga put it, saw Disco Elysium’s critical success and decided they needed to jump on it and make it their own before anything big happened. In doing so, they allowed the game-to-film production company DJ2 Entertainment to obtain the rights to any adaptation Disco Elysium might have, and further gave Amazon “first dibs” on the potential production of a TV spinoff.

If any of this sounds entirely counterintuitive to basically everything about Disco Elysium, it’s because it is. The former cultural association members have been relatively quiet about all of this, but I completely understand why they left.

Elysium, as a world, was an entity years in the making. Kurvitz first started developing it when he was in his teens, going on to debut it in tabletop games with friends, which were loosely based on Baltic and Soviet sci-fi mythos. As it grew and expanded with the efforts of Hindpere, a core writer, and Rostov, the artist behind the iconic oil-painting look of the character portraits, every part of Elysium was a product of passion, not a desire for capital. In fact, the team is pretty well-known for leaning to the left. Kurvitz has a bust of Lenin on his writing desk, and Hindpere gave a shoutout to Marx and Engles at The Game Awards.

Moreover, you only have to play Disco Elysium once to understand what sort of a game it is. It’s a political game, as well as a human one. The two are interlinked, and the original devs understood this and wanted to make it clear without being overbearing—a sign of good, empathetic writing. Disco Elysium is rich in every meaning of the word aside from the literal: The world is original and fascinating, yet beautifully and painfully reminiscent of our own. Its characters, its themes, its everything … you can’t put that into a two-bit TV show just for the sake of having that TV show.

More’s the pity, then, that the original devs were in the process of putting together a sequel. There’s still the chance that they could—I am just one of many who would happily donate to a kickstarter to get this going. And ultimately, this isn’t the first time a product of such gorgeous passion has been overtaken by businessmen who couldn’t even fill out a coloring book with any degree of originality. The devs could hypothetically still rise from this, still go on and create something in this world else that’s beautiful, like how the original team behind Harvest Moon went on to keep the series’ spirit alive with Story of Seasons.

But the rub here is especially prickly, considering the ideological clash between the game’s heart and what has happened with its IP. Hence why I felt the need to write this article.

Unless anything changes (which, knowing media capitalism, it won’t anytime soon), you ought to know that anything released under this particular IP will henceforth be a hollow recreation with no real meaning. And considering how near and dear this entire world has been to Kurvitz and the others, it ought to be criminal that these conmen were able to whisk it away the way they did. But they didn’t make it, they didn’t create it, and they don’t have the power to snuff out its spirit just by wishing it.

So to every other fan of this game, I implore you: Remember what Disco Elysium is all about. Don’t just treat it like any other name in a series, because it’s more than that. It’s one of the most human video games to be made in recent memory, coming straight from the hearts of brilliant and passionate people who deserved better than this. And on the chance that it ends up going down the path of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines 2… just remember that that’s not Elysium. It’s just an imitation.

(Featured Image: ZA/UM Cultural Association)

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Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).