Kaur Kender on new computer game: It’s like 'Truth and Justice'

Executive producer Kaur Kender.

PHOTO: Kaur Kender

Estonian creative collective ZA/UM’s long-awaited computer game “Disco Elysium” shot straight to the top of Steam’s best sellers list after its release a week ago and was the highest ranked game for this year on the website Metacritic.

The lives of ZA/UM’s members have been out of the spotlight ever since the group’ creative core moved to England in 2017. Executive producer Kaur Kender agreed to comment on a few aspects of the game now that “Disco Elysium” has been released. The game’s scenario was written by Robert Kurvitz and its development funded by owner of Postimees Group Margus Linnamäe.

“Disco Elysium” was first picked up by the Estonian media in connection with your person and the development team moving to England. What was your role in the entire project?

If Robert Kurvitz (lead writer) and Aleksandr Rostov (artistic director) are like the modern era’s Arvo Pärt, I’m more of an interpreter and technical worker. Like Tõnu Kaljuste. But there is a great and powerful orchestra made up of top experts in their fields – these people and their work is what makes this whole thing come alive and resonate. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who helped make this game. Never have I seen tougher people. Thank you!

The main part of “Disco Elysium’s” creative team lived in England, while some resided in Estonia and Romania. Who worked there and what did they do?

In the end, the biggest team was in England, next came Poland, then Estonia, Romania and finally China. Well over 100 people contributed to “Disco Elysium” all together. The credits are quite extensive.

How does a typical day look for a game developer in England? Was “Disco Elysium” developed frantically and in a race against time or did you take it easy so as not to burn out?

Work is work, you do as much as you can as well as you can. There has been a lot to learn, but people live all over. If you can make it in Estonia, you can make it anywhere. And vice versa.

The plot of “Disco Elysium” plays out in the fictional city of Revachol. Does the name include a reference to Tallinn (Reval, and why not Reval + alcohol) and to what extent has Estonia inspired the development team in recent years?

That is a very clever construct, but I believe it should be interpreted like a Rorschach text in that it tells us more about the interpreter than the text itself. Life in Estonia is pretty much like life everywhere in Europe – there is nothing brilliant about it, nor is there anything particularly wrong with it.

But Estonians are privileged when compared to the rest of the planet in that the novel “Püha ja õudne lõhn” (Sacred and horrible scent), written by lead writer of the game Robert Kurvitz and depicting the world of “Disco Elysium” from a very different perspective, exists in Estonian. No one else has that luxury.

How much symbolism and hidden yet decipherable clues to actual places or people are included in the game?

Very little I believe. It is a clear-cut detective story where you need to solve a murder mystery to the best of your ability. But we also poke fun, mostly at our own expense.

The game has been described as a thought simulator. Could you elaborate on that for people who are not into gaming and explain what a ZA/UM thought simulator is?

Can you explain to someone who can’t read what a novel is? You can use the same words to describe “Disco Elysium.” Whether they would understand is something I don’t know.

Eesti Päevaleht quoted Robert Kurvitz as saying: “Fantasy worlds offer us tools for understanding the world better.” What kind of tools are we talking about?

The same kind Tammsaare’s “Truth and Justice” offers. “Disco Elysium” is like “Truth and Justice” but exists as an audiovisual work and is a little more youth-friendly and global as it helps us to make sense of the world in general.

Was producing the game a form of collective escapism for members of ZA/UM or an exercise in taking out the tension and frustration of real life?

Making a computer game is like any other creative effort. The game industry is bigger than the movie and music industries put together. We are simply industrial workers. But ones who can also realize their creative ambitions in the process. Intellectual proletariat has a nice ring to it.

How did you manage to secure Humble Bundle as the game’s distributor? No other Estonian game has been distributed by such a major player before.

In the end, ZA/UM developed, released and distributed the game by itself. But Humble was immensely useful! We are their friends and owe them a debt of gratitude forever!

The game’s soundtrack is by well-known UK alternative group British Sea Power, while characters in the game were voiced by a host of famous musicians. How did you come by these contacts?

As you come by any contact, we asked for help and they gave it. People are absolutely wonderful.

How much did the game cost in the end? Can you hope to get it back?

Unfortunately, I cannot answer that. I do not have the right to comment on the business side of the development.

Was the game your principal job in recent years or were you forced to work on several projects simultaneously?

I have only worked on this game. Globally speaking, we have a microscopic team, and everyone had to do the work of two-three people. But it’s okay, it is common for a new company in whichever field.

ZA/UM has said, in connection with developing “Disco Elysium,” that the world of computer games is a place where one can demonstrate one’s writing talent and that more writers should. Can you name video game writers who are known only for writing brilliant video game scripts?

I cannot, but I’m sure they will come. A video game is an audiovisual work, and it is the dream of every writer to see their words come to life.

Is a video game the best way to tell a story?

I believe it is one of two. The other is a TV series.

Has ZA/UM other projects in the United Kingdom?

We will be working on adding content to the game and improving it, and it’s up to the people to decide whether they like such games and want more. That part of capitalism is extremely democratic. Everyone can vote in favor.

Rockpapershotgun quotes Robert Kurvitz saying he sees the world as a depressing place. Do you agree?

I believe in progress and in people. It will straighten out. You need to play video games, work and exercise and take care of your loved ones. The rest will straighten out. And “Disco Elysium” is a part of this development plan. It is a game that makes you realize you have the strength to live once you’re done with it.

What are your plans for the near future? To start working on a new game or story right away, go on vacation, actively market the game or something else entirely?

The game has been out there for 60 hours (released on October 15 – ed.) and we have more work than before. In a sense, it is an ordinary software product that requires customer support and everything else that comes with it. But people are great. They help us become better.