Guerilla Games’ latest blockbuster for the PlayStation ecosystem, Horizon Forbidden West, received a lot of praise for its open world and story content. But playing through the initial section of the game, I found its plotline around the labor stoppage in Chainscrape to be pretty lacking. While Horizon Forbidden West wants to show a world with depth and social conflict, it doesn’t actually devote enough of its sprawling space to fleshing those interactions out meaningfully. They ultimately ring as hollow flashes in the broader narrative pan.
Chainscrape and its stoppage are the perfect example. The gate of this frontier town is the first major obstacle Aloy must overcome to reach the titular Forbidden West, as it quite literally stands between her and the post-apocalyptic remains of the American west into which she’s chasing her best frenemy Sylens. Upon further investigating the closed gate, Aloy finds out that a jerk named Ulvund is behind the labor movement in Chainscrape that has caused the city’s work to grind to a halt. He claims that the Carja are trying to exploit Oseram workers (in a way that heavily implies he only has his own interests at heart) and that he is championing the working people.
Predictably, Aloy does not look at this as the complicated issue that it would actually be. Instead, it’s just another annoying obstacle to deal with because the people of Chainscrape seemingly can’t or won’t handle local politics themselves. Thanks to her knowledge about the past and Elisabet Sobeck’s research, Aloy has a terminal case of “main character syndrome.” She considers the woes of the people around her to be silly inconveniences imposed by those more ignorant than her, rather than real issues people face in their daily lives. She’s a savior, there to quickly (and usually somewhat condescendingly) solve people’s problems and move on to her world-saving business.
Chainscrape is no different. Aloy quickly surmises that Ulvund is a corrupt leader and more-or-less writes off any need for a labor movement in the city along with him. There’s no further examination of the workings of this community, or how past relations between the Carja (an empire which led genocidal crusades across the continent just a generation ago) and Oseram might be at play. These things are mentioned and even discussed briefly, but they don’t play out with any more depth than “Ulvund is using the past to gain leverage now.”
How does that play with the Oseram workers in the city? Why is Ulvund the only one looking to organize? How did he get followers and clout in the first place if the rest of the workers don’t agree with him? We get gestures and mentions, maybe notes during related side quests, but Forbidden West simply doesn’t have the time or attention span to focus on Chainscrape. It knows as well as you do that this is just the door to the real goodies in the game: the open world and all it has to offer.
Horizon Forbidden West knows (or at least believes) that players are likely more interested in getting to see all the new robotic animals and dinosaurs this installment has to offer than they are in the political workings of a town that’s ultimately a blip considered against the enormous region. But without that time and attention, story elements like this simply don’t pack much, if any, punch.
Disco Elysium, on the other hand, takes a different approach. While there is certainly a lot going on in the world of this game, it focuses on a smaller area (just a few city blocks) and overall scale in its stories. The island your playable detective finds himself on is rife with issues, and the labor union there is no exception. Thanks to the space the game gives its setting and characters, however, Disco Elysium actually shows the nuance around a similar situation to that of Chainscrape.
The center of Disco Elysium‘s murder plot is a conflict between the Martinaise district’s local shipping union and the corporation they work for. The victim you and your partner Kim investigate throughout the game was killed as tensions boiled over between the company and the union, the latter of which also serves as the district’s own police force.
Revachol is a living community. That means its people and industry are all connected through an ecosystem of sorts. The murder in the middle of town that no one wants to talk about isn’t just a blip on the radar to grander adventures; nor is it the catalyst for some epic whodunnit. Instead it’s a window into the broader whole of life in Martinaise. Through interviews with pretty much everyone the central characters can convince to talk to them, Harry and Kim gain an understanding of how such an event has rippling effects on a community. Again, we see a corrupt union leader boasting of values they don’t actually maintain, but Disco Elysium doesn’t skim over that or reduce him to a bore who’s murderously negligent.
Evrart Claire is smarmy and clearly trying to simultaneously bribe and/or subtly blackmail you whenever you speak with him, but he’s also shown to be a frighteningly capable leader. The people who follow him are diverse, ranging from virulent racists with phrenological diagram tattoos to well-educated, passionate lawyers. These people are actively interested in the politics of their labor, and that bleeds into the rest of the district. Even if some of the other residents are less gung-ho about it.
Beyond that, the union as a police force demonstrates what happens when those in power refuse to protect or provide for those they supposedly serve. When people are forced to take matters into their own hands, they are just as fallible as anyone else. Often they don’t have the skills or training to support what’s been thrust upon them, while others may see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. As we’ve seen with recent incidents in our own industry, those charged with doing good may not always be the best managers or people, but their presence may create complicated feelings around the net good for the community. Disco Elysium doesn’t shy away from that. Rather, it’s actively interested in exploring what that looks like and how it impacts both your small investigation and the broader district.
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Rather than enticing players with areas beyond Martinaise, and what goodies might be there to find, Disco Elysium presents the district as a network of people existing in, under, and around the union and its employers — whom you need to get to know on individual bases to progress. Even your ability to leave the district is blocked by a time-locked obstacle. Instead of pushing you towards the next fun thing, Studio ZA/UM wants players to see that dialogue, the investigation, and compiling an understanding of this district with whatever emotional intelligence your version of the detective may or may not have is vital to understanding the game as a whole.
Both of these games frame the player as an outsider looking in on communities in the midst of labor struggles, but only one manages to show the real depth and nuance of the community you observe. You cannot understand Martinaise or Revachol without the union conflict. Elements of that struggle touch every part of life. Chainscrape’s work stoppage, on the other hand, is a convenient plot device to propel you into more convenient plot devices, and not much else. Hours later, Horizon Forbidden West players likely won’t remember the border town as much other than a gate they had to pass and a place to sell collectibles.