Disco Elysium is one of the smartest, most cerebrally fascinating RPGs of modern times. Released in 2019, the combat-free game blew us away, and won piles of awards, and has since gone into development with dj2 Entertainment for a possible Amazon Prime TV show. All from the extraordinarily humble beginnings of an Estonian collective. Sadly, however, it seems that has now broken down, with recriminations flying, and little clarity on what has actually happened.
At the beginning of October, it was announced by one of the group’s founders, Martin Luiga, that the “ZA/UM cultural association” was “dissolving.” This was in response to an unknown internal dispute that had, according to Luiga, caused three key members of the group to leave at the end of last year, in ways he described as “involuntary.” Tech News Space is reporting today that the game’s lead designer, Robert Kurvitz (one of those three who was let go from the studio), is suing the company ZA/UM, although again, details are scarce.
There’s a lot of confusion, not least about what ZA/UM actually is. The answer is, unhelpfully, two things. The first was an informal art collective from Estonia, formed around a decade ago, and responsible for all sorts of projects surrounding literature and cultural criticism. The second is a game studio, that grew out of the former, which some are claiming has been taken over by its UK investors, and from which Luiga has implied his colleagues were fired. He also said that “it no longer represents the ethos it was founded on.”
To hopefully offer a bit more flavor, I remember from a conversation with the original group of Estonian creators (before Disco Elysium first released), that their beginnings were unlike any other. I was told about how ZA/UM was, at one point, operated from an abandoned building in Estonia, where they would hang sleeping bags over the glassless windows to keep out the freezing winter. So when they talk about a change of ethos, you can see that they might have a very particular perspective.
ZA/UM, meanwhile, responded earlier this month saying that the continued development of Disco Elysium “was and still is a collective effort,” before adding they had no further comment.
Our Australian siblings did some digging, and discovered that Kurvitz is a board member of another Estonian company called Telomer OÜ, and it’s this company that’s suing the remains of ZA/UM. A listing on Estonia’s Ministry of Justice site states that Telomer is seeking to “obtain information and review documents,” with a court date of November 28. Beyond that, and presumably until that date, more specifics are unavailable. However, one could speculate that the creator of the Elysium world might want to restore his ownership of his creation, especially given Kurvitz’s Telomer is listed as a video game publisher, and a sequel was supposed to already be in the works.
We’ve reached out to people involved on both sides, and will update should we hear back from more. Meanwhile, we spoke to ZA/UM founder, Martin Luiga, to get his perspective.
Luiga, it should be stressed, stopped direct involvement with the creation of Disco Elysium in 2016, but for a two-month stint in 2021. He was, however, the editor of Kurvitz novel, set in the same world, that preceded the game’s release, and indeed was the person to officially announce the dissolving of ZA/UM as an art collective earlier this month. I asked Luiga why he chose to dissolve, rather than disassociate, given that ZA/UM existed long before there was a game being made.
“Less confusion if you don’t have ‘Two Coopers,’ Luiga replied. “And, it provided a good framework for announcing that the three had been pushed out of the company, which I felt like should be public information.” I asked if they knew he was going to do this, and he says that he told them in advance that the organization was being dissolved, and that their job status was already in public, just not widely known. “The three are too cautious with information in my opinion. They themselves also agreed that it is good that this info is out now.”
Luiga told me the “collective had become dysfunctional,” but, it isn’t necessarily an end. “A collective is a tool. It can be disbanded and it can also be put back together if need be, like a band.”
I asked if the ZA/UM founder knew any more detail about the forthcoming court case, and he explained that he did not, and also had deliberately tried not to find out. But when I asked if he thought it would be to regain control of the Elysium IP, he said, “What else could it possibly be?”
Finally, I put a hypothetical scenario to the writer, who lives in Estonia and says he’s currently “writing some stuff and making primitive witch house remixes.” Say, if a certain video game company called, maybe, Telomer, were to regain control of the rights to the Elysium world, would he be someone who might join? “I might,” he replied. “See, for a writer it is important to have a lot of readers. This makes games a rather good format for them.”