What the Epic of Gilgamesh can tell us about Disco Elysium’s most troubling character, the Deserter
contains spoilers for the Epic of Gilgamesh! (also Disco Elysium)
It’s an old story. The oldest we know of, in fact: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Having been confronted with the terrible reality of death, our archetypal hero Gilgamesh embarks on a quest for the legendary figure of Utnapishtim, who holds the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim was rewarded by the gods with eternal life after he built an ark to save life on earth from a great deluge (if this sounds familiar, it is because the story of Utnapishtim was more or less copy-pasted into the Old Testament). Gilgamesh finally succeeds in finding this immortal from a bygone age, but Utnapishtim dissuades Gilgamesh from his quest, and the hero returns empty-handed and still mortal.
Roughly 4000 years later, as I finish my second playthrough of Disco Elysium, I catch an echo of Utnapishtim in one of the game's most troubling characters: the Deserter.
On my first playthrough, I couldn’t make heads or tails of him. He comes out of nowhere, a kind of deus ex machina unconnected to anything we’ve found out about the murder case in the dozens of hours that led up to this moment. It’s not how a “good” narrative is supposed to work. Finding the murderer feels almost incidental, as do his motives and means: a bitter, deranged old man happens to see something he doesn’t like and pulls the trigger on a whim. Murder solved, I guess. It’s not an unsatisfying conclusion, but even in a postmodern game that embraces the incidental and fragmentary from the very beginning, our encounter with the Deserter stuck with me as a powerful and puzzling moment.
What has any of this got to do with the Epic of Gilgamesh? The ending of Disco Elysium both recalls and subverts some ancient storytelling tropes, and the tenuous kinship between the Deserter and a mythical figure like Utnapishtim may shed some light on it. Structurally, the Deserter mirrors Utnapishtim; he is an ancient, distant figure waiting for your arrival at the end of the quest. Like Utnapishtim, the Deserter is a relic and a keeper of a lost era, the survivor of a great cataclysm. Despite his brokenness, there’s something mythic and larger-than-life about him; as the last survivor, he shoulders and nurtures the historical trauma of an entire lost generation. There’s even a hint of immortality in his stubborn refusal to be swept away by the tides. In spite of a world that has long moved on and a mind that slips, the Deserter clings: to his grudges, to a forgotten past, to old loyalties and enemies.
But the Deserter is also nothing like Utnapishtim. He is not a wise man bestowing his wisdom on the quester. He is not a legendary figure people tell stories about. He is a bitter, confused and pathetic old man, forgotten long ago and left behind by the times. And most importantly of all: he never was the object of a quest. Or rather: he’s the object of a quest only insofar as we’re looking for a murderer, who – according to detective genre tradition – we expect to find among the cast of characters already known to us. But no one knows the Deserter. Apart from the children playing in the decrepit fishing village, no one in the entire game ever mentions or even alludes to the Deserter’s existence. Even the game itself doesn't refer to him by name. When we finally find him, it's little more than an accident, the culmination of neither an epic journey nor a thrilling manhunt. The Deserter had been there all along, separate but close-by, utterly disinterested in and detached from the murder investigation we’ve been conducting.
I’m not suggesting that the Deserter has been explicitly modelled after a figure in the Epic of Gilgamesh. And yet, the Deserter both echoes and subverts some of the oldest narrative tropes in recorded history. 4000 years after the epic, countless movies, books and games – especially RPGs – still adhere religiously to the literary trope of the quest. Writers working in all media still routinely turn to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the hero’s journey for guidance and inspiration. In Disco Elysium, however, our meeting with the Deserter turns the story into an anti-quest and anti-epic by both recalling and subverting these ancient tropes.
But that’s not what makes the Deserter noteworthy. After all, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a self-consciously postmodern game like Disco Elysium challenges and plays with old tropes. What sets the Deserter apart is how the game uses the subversion of the trope to drive home the tragedy of this character and the world he lives in by emphasising what he isn’t like, what the world he lives in isn’t like. His world is messy, cruel, arbitrary, full of grudges that are never resolved, injustices that aren’t redressed, and grief that keeps on festering. This is not a world defined by heroes, divine purpose or grand narratives.
By being kind of like a mythic or epic figure, but also nothing like it at all, the Deserter doesn’t simply throw shade on tired tropes, but paradoxically makes a strong case for their enduring relevance and worth. And ironically does so more convincingly than the countless narratives that replicate the template without much thought or inspiration. Disco Elysium isn’t just being clever or contrarian when it toys with the epic mode; it knows how to use these tropes meaningfully in the context of its postmodern story and with them created one of the most compelling and memorable encounters in any RPG.