It was Titus Hardie, the leader of the unionized workers who operate as the quasi-local law enforcement of Revachol, who caught my ear. His voice sounded familiar, and I couldn't quite place it. Throughout Disco Elysium, more and more voices tickled the same sense—who the heck were these people? I felt like I knew them; beyond the I'm-very-invested-in-this-game sense.
It wasn't until credits rolled that it all clicked. Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Virgil Texas, Will Menaker—all better known as most of the hosts that shoot the shit about politics on the far-left podcast Chapo Trap House. It's a podcast that dominated my earbuds during the 2016 election, and still on occasion ever since.
Chapo Trap House is the most successful creator on Patreon, and it's easy to see why: Its hosts are exuberant, funny, and intelligent. They're always a good time even when the world isn't. They host enlightening interviews (an interview with documentarian Adam Curtis hooked Disco Elysium lead writer and designer Robert Kurvitz on the podcast), and even discuss video games from time to time. It's the latter that gave Kurvitz the idea to reach out to the hosts to ask if they wanted to do voice acting for Disco Elysium, an RPG that likewise leaves no subject untouched and minces no words—be it heartbreak, the plights of the working class, or communism. Nothing is good or bad, nor black or white. (Except racism. Racism's always bad.)
"There was a two-part special episode that Chapo Trap House did where they all played Call of Cthulhu, the Lovecraftian RPG, and recorded it," Kurvitz tells me. "[T]hat told us these guys are pen and paper people, and so are we. [Ed. note: Disco Elysium got its start as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.] And not only are they pen and paper people, they improvise on spot and understand characters."
Similar to how I and many others fell into the Chapo Trap House hole, Kurvitz tells me that he started listening to the podcast during a time where there "might have been some political developments in the year 2016 that got people looking for some kind of solace." Chapo became that solace not just for disheartened Americans, but progressive-minded people across the globe. It wound up resonating all the way to Estonia, where Disco Elysium's developers are from.
Disco Elysium operates in a similar way as the podcast it's lended voices from. It's at once the funniest game you'll play this year, but also the most touching one you'll lay your hands on. The hosts of Chapo Trap House were carefully selected for certain characters, thanks to the help of Disco Elysium's artists who were big Chapo Trap House fans (they "have a luxury," says Kurvitz, "they can draw and listen to podcasts"), and it's easy to see why.
Matt Christman voices the loud and brash Titus Hardie, the aforementioned union leader who's intimidating at first, but later—at least in my playthrough—maybe the most trustworthy guy in town. He's a man whose heart is in the right place. Felix Biederman voices the scab leader who later turns out to be someone else entirely, and the heel turn is an effective one aided by the character's earlier non-descript presence during a strike of non-unionized workers. Will Menaker voices the pushover punk Fuck the World, a character I pestered until his friend, whose name I won't type here for vulgarity sake, gave me his jacket. Virgil Texas, maybe the resident "cool guy" of the group, portrays Disco Elysium's most mysterious character: a man who smokes on a balcony that overlooks the crime scene. He is referred to simply as the Smoker on the Balcony. There are a couple other side characters the hosts voice too: Menaker as the flea market-like salesperson Siileng, Biederman as Rosemary.
"I was just one role in what seems to be a sprawling and diverse voice cast," writes Virgil Texas of Chapo Trap House to me over email. "I played the smoker naturally, and I think my voice contributes well to the menagerie of accents you encounter in Revanchol."
Meanwhile, casting the small but densely populated neighborhood Martinaise where the Planescape: Torment-like RPG is set was its own unique challenge for a studio that moved from Estonia to London mid-development.
"[T]here was also a need for voices that sound a bit American, because the setting of Revachol is kind of French, but also American, white place, which is a cultural combination that works really good for hard-boiled detective stuff. We had plenty of people who have English accents and then we were even making some headway on getting French accents, but where do you get Americans? And we didn't really know anyone in America. Like, it was a huge step for us to come to London and Brighton," says Kurvitz. He does a funny voice to reenact the question that was on the tip of the team's tongue: "Does anyone know an American?" The answer, they discovered, was in the podcasts they listened to.
Other people that appear in Disco Elysium's voice cast aside from the chaps of Chapo Trap House include Dasha Nekrasova, co-host of the podcast Red Scare. "We produced VO for this game like in weird chunks during the production," Kurvitz says of the casting process. "We were constantly going around begging people to, you know, spit something into the mic, please. It was a real shoestring operation." Musicians Mikee Goodman and Mark Holcomb, from the bands Sikth and Periphery respectively, also appear as characters in-game. In an interview with rock and metal site Louder, Holcomb says the decision to do voicework for the game came naturally as he's a "roleplaying game nerd at heart."
"Our casting process was very guerilla," says Kurvitz. "Mostly we have U.K. music people, members of bands—like famous bands I won't throw up here now. There's something people have with doing VO for games: They want to do it. It's not as scary as coming onto a film set and being there physically, and a lot of people already do a voice work in bands, singing, and so on, and they wanted to try a bit of acting. It's a nice, calm situation to try it."
On paper, it all sounds like a mish-mash of tastes—from metal musicians and leftie podcasters to the indie band British Sea Power performing the soundtrack—but it all works in the bleak world of Disco Elysium's Revachol.
And the developers at ZA/UM didn't have some magical connection to Chapo. They didn't know a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy—the typical thread for these sorts of connections. No, ZA/UM emailed Chapo's general email, where it presumably gets a flood of fanmail, maybe questions for the podcast, and probably a healthy dose of hatemail too. "It must have had some of the crazy keywords that worked because, yeah, I think the main keyword was 'VO for a video game,' which they really just wanted to do. So that's how we sort of put it together or got it started."
"ZA/UM reached out to us," Texas confirms. "They described themselves as the 'last living Soviet video game developers making this degenerate detective RPG,' so of course I loved it. I had not heard of these Estonian degenerates or their game before, but I was told their lead writer is a fan of ours." It's fitting, too, as during our separate conversation Kurvitz mentions offhand that of the Chapo Trap House hosts, Virgil Texas is his favorite.
Disco Elysium is the first video game Chapo Trap House has done voice acting for, but it didn't end up being a setback when it came time to record in New York. "They were absolutely, very professional in the booth," says Mikk Metsniit, head of publishing, marketing, and communications at ZA/UM Studio. "We actually got all their lines done within like one day; even half a day, I should say. Getting there and actually seeing them read the lines, and like they got accustomed to the characters so fast. So if we didn't know better, they were absolute professional voice actors already." Kurvitz adds to that point: in a way, they are. All podcasters are.
For Kurvitz, one of the best unintended consequences of employing famous podcast hosts as voice actors on Disco Elysium is that fans of the podcast are now playing when they otherwise might not have. "There's this saying that there's an Estonian in every port," says Kurvitz. "No one knows it; only Estonian people know it. It's dumb. There really isn't an Estonian in every port, but there seems to be a Chapo Trap House fan in every forum."