When Estonian writer Helen Hindpere took the stage at the 2019 Game Awards to accept one of the many prizes awarded to the video game Disco Elysium, she thanked Marx and Engels “for providing us the political education.”
Disco Elysium is a text-heavy role-playing game (RPG) about an alcoholic cop with amnesia investigating a murder in an alternative universe. Playing this strange and beautiful game, one can’t help but wonder how it got made — much less how it became a mainstream hit, grossing over $70 million. The game’s creators, too, seemed surprised by its success, with lead writer and designer Robert Kurvitz calling it “an extremely unlikely object” and “a miracle.”
The game’s uniquely rich in-game backstory invited speculation about sequels, and there were soon rumblings that the game’s Estonian production company, ZA/UM, was planning to make Disco Elysium 2. This seemed like a story with a rare happy ending for the little guy: creatives and artists from a small eastern European country build a successful video-game franchise that brings a little joy in a world filled to the brim with increasingly uninspired, hypercommodified art.
But then, in late 2022, ZA/UM gained new majority shareholders. In a move that shocked fans, they quickly fired Kurvitz, Hindpere, and art director Aleksander Rostov. The public demanded to know what happened, and lawsuits were filed on each side. The shareholders of ZA/UM accused the trio of, among other things, intending to steal intellectual property (IP) from the company — a curious accusation, considering that the world of the game is based off of a novel written by Kurvitz himself.
The case of Disco Elysium illustrates the shortcomings of IP rights as protection for artists. Consequently, it contains a lot of lessons for the labor movement when it comes to the arts, and serves as a reminder that creative workers are, at the end of the day, workers.
But this is not just an academic exercise. It’s a human story about the intimate consequences of capitalist exploitation. “I got my soul ripped out of me,” Kurvitz told me over Zoom in April of 2023. “I got my skull cracked open and my brain lifted out of it by a fifty-five-year-old financial criminal.”
As a lazy and infrequent gamer whose Google history includes phrases like “video games without fighting,” “relaxing games,” and “story-driven games,” I was immediately enchanted by Disco Elysium. The game featured lots of laughs and beautiful artwork, and demanded almost no use of my reflexes.
It was also surprisingly politically literate, without being at all didactic. When playing Disco Elysium you can be a fascist, help out the thuggish union boss, be a centrist, or be a race-science extremist. You can also attend a communist meeting that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of socialist politics. No matter what you choose or where you turn, you and everyone else sound like idiots, which adds to the realism of the experience.
Still, by the time I’d heard about Hindpere’s shoutout to Marx and Engels, I’d already gotten a strong socialist vibe from the game. That’s not because the show argues for any particular set of beliefs, but because it seemed too attentive to political nuances to have been written by anyone but a well-read Marxist. The player’s attention is frequently drawn to monuments of historical figures and marks of damage left from battles long ago, the result of clashing political ideologies.
Kurvitz and Hindpere have said that their understanding of dialectical materialism heavily informed their creation of a history in motion for the universe of the game. Disco Elysium’s backstory, which is too detailed to describe, gives you the sense that you’ve tapped into another universe that has existed forever, running parallel to our own, propelled by similar underlying laws of politics and economy.
The game’s content is so uncommon in part because its development was atypical. Rostov and Kurvitz met as teens, and ZA/UM started as an artist’s collective — a creative outlet for writing, painting, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Disco Elysium was first brought to life as a live-action role-playing game, and took nearly two decades to reach its final form. When Rostov, Kurvitz, and Hindpere started to seriously pursue the creation of a video game, they cobbled together financing and talent in a tiny country where basically zero existing video-game expertise could be found.
“Disco Elysium was not made by three people,” Hindpere told me, acknowledging the hard work of the large team of people that brought their dream to life. However, it’s inarguable that these three people were pivotal, and were the original creators of the unique elements that make Disco Elysium what it is. The trio worked on the production phase of the game tirelessly for seven years.
When Funders Become Thieves
When I was a union representative at my workplace, my boss once pulled me into his office and ripped me to shreds, calling me “snide” to him and “intimidating” to my coworkers. It stung, but in time I came to understand that my boss was retaliating against me for asking him to follow the union contract. Workplaces are riddled with difficult personalities, but they’re also riddled with angry bosses bent on character assassination. When one hears tell of a conveniently bad apple, one must proceed carefully.
In 2022, Ilmar Kompus, a shareholder and leading executive at ZA/UM, staged a corporate takeover. He bought sketches and notes about Disco Elysium 2 for one pound sterling, and then sold the same sketches back to the company for €4.8 million, which was in turn used to purchase out another shareholder. Despite previous agreements that shares would always be split up to prevent one entity from having over 50 percent, the shares were not redistributed, and Kompus quietly emerged holding 70 percent of shares in the company.
When Kurvitz, Hindpere, and Rostov discovered later that Kompus had become the majority shareholder, they began to request financial documents and other information about how ZA/UM was being run. That’s when they were fired.
While the media accounts are difficult to piece together, no reporting thus far refutes the idea that Kompus and his associate Tõnis Haavel, who was already previously convicted of major investment fraud in a different situation, came to own a majority of ZA/UM unethically and potentially illegally. “What they’ve done is they have illegally taken millions from the company’s account,” Kurvitz told me plainly. “It’s not legal or moral in any kind of way. They needed the signatures of all shareholders.”
Despite the clarity provided by the facts of the takeover, there’s been an effort in the reporting to paint a picture of bad guys on both sides, with the rest of the employees at ZA/UM stuck in the middle. Kompus, who still runs ZA/UM, maintains that the trio were fired for slacking off at work, for intending to sell Disco Elysium IP to other development companies, and because Kurvitz in particular was a “toxic” person to work with. A great deal of attention has been paid to this last detail, though it doesn’t explain why the two other people were also fired. In fact, in the same breath, many have both acknowledged that the timeline makes it impossible that Kurvitz’s behavior or alleged plans to steal IP were the reasons for his termination and have suggested that he probably deserved it anyway.
A typical example of the coverage of the controversy is a sprawling two-and-a-half-hour documentary recently released on YouTube by media group People Make Games (PMG). The first forty-five minutes paint a pretty damning picture of Kompus and his associates who took over ZA/UM. The video then proceeds to give a lot of airtime to complaints about Hindpere, Rostov, and Kurvitz. These include allegations that after the video game was initially released, they took too much time off; that Kurvitz gave harsh feedback to writers; and that there was confusion over deadlines, workflows, and plans for the future.
The documentary sensationalizes the revelation that Kurvitz wanted to spend another seven years developing Disco Elysium 2, which it depicts as ludicrous, even though spending upward of ten years on an RPG is not uncommon. This detail opens up the possibility that the company’s new leaders wanted to pump out subsequent Disco Elysium titles without Kurvitz’s insistence on taking the necessary time to make something as high in quality as the first one. But this observation is lost in the documentary’s chaos of flying accusations.
The employers are clearly adding fuel to the fire with public comments that introduce new layers to the conflict. As a result there are now, in addition to the YouTube documentary, tireless rundowns on Reddit that track tit for tat every accusation made by Kompus and others at ZA/UM. These in turn form the basis of much of the reporting.
The high-drama play-by-plays, shot through with gossip and character judgments, have the effect of overwhelming the audience and making the case seem harder to follow than it is. In truth, the issue is very simple: whatever anyone thinks of Kurvitz, the bosses stole his and his co-creators’ work and kicked them all to the curb. These are common employer tactics to make the issue tiring to follow, and to instill in onlookers just enough doubt to dissuade them from expressing full support of the workers.
The trio was allegedly given an aggressive settlement offer. “Kompus came to us and threatened to destroy our careers if we didn’t take a very paltry settlement offer from him,” Kurvitz told me. “And then part of the settlement offer of course was that we give them the intellectual property completely.”
There Is Power in a Union
“We were naive, very naive,” said Hindpere, who felt that the three cocreators were not worried enough from the beginning about protecting themselves and the work they had produced. She adds, “I’ve really started to think about the legal education of workers and artists.”
Kurvitz agrees. “I would have thought my spiritual history as an absolute rancid communist might help me in this situation a little bit. But no, no one wants this kind of fight, and it didn’t prepare me in any way for this stuff. I was very naive about who to trust, and about what people are willing to do when the money number starts getting very large.”
The rest of us have an opportunity, maybe even an obligation, to take lessons from what happened to these creators.
IP rights are usually uncritically accepted as the way artists with good ideas maintain control over how those ideas are used and the value they produce. Kurvitz leased IP to ZA/UM for the making of the game, and yet it is he who stands accused of intending to steal IP from the company. Even if Kurvitz wins his day in court, IP rights did not protect him.
The reason is twofold. First, IP as a concept has never actually been about protecting workers. In fact, today it’s mostly used to do things like copyright species of corn to extract money from indigenous South Americans, or making sure no one else can replicate patented lifesaving vaccines. Second, IP fights drag struggle out of the workplace, where things actually happen, and into the courts, where amends for things that already happened are made or are not made.
If IP rights can’t protect creative workers, is there anything that can? The answer is simple: creative workers, like all other workers, need to take collective action. In the case of artistic products that take entire teams to create and lots of money to produce, there are few options besides forming a company and getting financial backing from investors. But they can also form collectives to carry out their project, and unions in the event that they end up working for a company.
Pixel Pushers Union 512 (PPU512), which created the game Tonight We Riot, offers a compelling alternative. “I wasn’t making any money off of the games that I was spending lots of my life making, and it really bothered me,” said Ted Anderson, PPU512’s founder. “When I was working at Retro Studios and we made ‘Donkey Kong Country Returns’ which sold over seven million units at fifty dollars per piece, I saw zero of that. Not a bonus, not anything.” Anderson’s frustration grew as he continued to work on successful game after successful game. “The only people who got rich were the C-suite execs.” When Anderson and a friend decided to make a game together, they set up PPU512 as a worker-owned game development company where all decisions are made democratically, all members make the same salary, and anyone who works on a game gets a slice of the profits of that game.
PPU512 is hard at work on its next release, Five Points Mall, a survival horror game in which the player guides friends trapped in a demonic mall to safety by using voice commands and security cameras throughout the building. Thus far, PPU512 has focused on games that can be accomplished with a smaller team. But RPGs tend to be much more complex both in their visuals and in their mechanics. The teams working on them are larger and the cost is higher. Can PPU512’s model be scaled up? Anderson thinks so. “I would not say that’s something that’s limited by the type of production model you have,” he says. “It just means we slow our growth to be manageable in the long term so we don’t have boom-and-bust cycles that ruin people’s lives.”
Unionization in a more traditional sense is another possibility. In 2019 the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE) was announced by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and Game Workers Unite (GWA) to push for organizing in workplaces for tech and games. It’s also notable that SAG-AFTRA members, currently on strike in the film and television industry, are now moving to authorize a strike for members working for video game companies.
For creatives getting started on a project they dreamed up, the formation of a worker’s collective or recognition of a union could feel like a sacrifice of authorship. The reality is that this may be the only reliable means creatives have to protect themselves and their ideas. Individual workers simply don’t have enough power on their own to stand a chance against capitalists who swoop in to exploit them and appropriate what they created. And the more successful a product is in the market, the more likely that is to happen.
Carrying On, Lessons Learned
Fans were hopeful that some of the mysteries touched on in the story of Disco Elysium would be revisited in the sequel, and the creators have shared many times that there is much that has been left untold in the Disco Elysium universe. Excitement grew when it was revealed that at least some part of a sequel would take place in space (and, in fact, the contraband illustrations that were sold and repurchased to fund the takeover of ZA/UM featured a man in a space suit). Unfortunately, thanks to the IP dispute, fans and the original creators alike may have to accept the tragic reality that the first Disco Elysium is all we’re going to get.
When I asked Hindpere and Kurvitz if supporters should boycott the game, they said no. They still cherish the game they helped create and the time they spent working on it, and they still have respect for their colleagues at ZA/UM. What they want is support in their fight for justice and in the making of their next project. They both expressed their determination to turn the page even with the challenges they face in tapping back into their creativity.
“There’s the timeline of my legal case, but that’s just a small detail in a bigger picture,” said Hindpere. She continued:
What’s next for me? I know that I want to keep working on video games, but can I actually do it? Every day I wake up and start working again and start trying to move on. I think about it and I really hope the answer will be yes. That I can get through it and master the optimism and turn everything that has happened into creativity. But it’s not an easy answer. I’m definitely not over it because of the legal process. That’s very hard, but if there’s something that I have learned it’s that I can always create something new.
Kurvitz is also optimistic about overcoming the turmoil he’s been through. “I have other words in me,” he said. “Under this onslaught, it has been very challenging to find that part of myself.” But Kurvitz is nothing if not stubborn, adding:
There’s lots of interest from investors and fans for what we might want to do next. There’s a surprising amount of camaraderie among very important artistic partners in my life. Even after this unbelievable ordeal that we’ve gone through together, we want to make art together and to build something new.