Skip to main content

Last Disco Elysium writer laid off by ZA/UM speaks out

“The fish starts rotting from the head,” says Argo Tuulik
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Update (Feb. 19, 2024): Though ZA/UM has not responded to our request for a statement about the events, it has shared one with other outlets such as VG247, confirming the contents of our report:

“As with all studios, we adapt the size of our team to the work underway, growing when we start a new project and shrinking if one is cancelled. It is always hard to lose talented colleagues, and we thank those leaving for their many contributions to ZA/UM.”

Update (Feb. 17, 2024): Added a tweet with context from interviewee Argo Tuulik clarifying his opinion of the People Make Games documentary mentioned below.

Original (Feb. 16, 2024): GLHF reported yesterday that Disco Elysium developer ZA/UM planned on laying off around 24 workers and canceled its latest project, codenamed X7. Among the staff members to be laid off is the entire writing team that has worked on X7, which includes Argo Tuulik, the last remaining writer at ZA/UM to have worked on the company’s greatest hit. Speaking on the record to GLHF, Tuulik confirmed that his role had been identified for redundancy. He’s been with ZA/UM since it was founded and had worked on Elysium even before it became a video game setting, helping with the table-top campaign the acclaimed CRPG is based on.

Tuulik confirmed that ZA/UM employees were informed about the layoffs and the cancellation of X7 at 10am GMT on February 15, 2024, through an email sent by CEO Ilmar Kompus. Tuulik said that project cancellations were nothing new – back in summer 2023, for example, X7 had “absorbed the vast majority of the people from another canceled project. One of many.”

Tuulik and a principal writer “co-created” X7 and had been working on the project since summer 2022, though he couldn’t get into any details about the game.

ZA/UM development studio logo in white on black background.

ZA/UM is planning redundancies after the cancellation of project X7.

Said principal writer, Dora Klindžić, agreed to speak to us on the record as well. She joined ZA/UM in 2022, which she likened to “being born into Yugoslavia in the '90s: you've just missed the party and now all you get is the bloodshed.”

“The last two months of X7 were rife with crunch, burnout and conflict,” she described.

Two hours after the initial email went out, an impromptu Campfire video meeting happened in which “Ilmar Kompus, his brother-in-law Tõnis Haavel and President Ed Tomaszewski announced the cancellation of X7, redundancies across the studio and answered some pre-selected questions,” Tuulik told us. “Easy ones.” Tuulik said that during his more than seven years at ZA/UM, this was the first time I ever saw microphones and comments disabled in any [emphasis Tuulik’s] meeting.”

He seemed flabbergasted at the tone-deafness of what leadership said during this call, quoting the trio to have said, “We are nurturing intellectual growth, fostering a strong sense of community with our team and creating games that are not just entertaining but are also deeply meaningful,” before he added, “I'm not making this s**t up. Those exact words.”

Afterward, Tuulik said, affected workers received a letter from HR, “informing us that each employee is gonna have a score assigned to them based on objectively applied selection criteria and the lowest scoring people are gonna go on the chopping board.” A third or a little less of the total workforce at ZA/UM would be impacted by the announced redundancies, according to our sources and confirmed by Tuulik.

Klindžić added that “a lot of the people who were impacted the hardest [by the X7 issues described above] and who raised complaints about working conditions ended up being the people targeted for redundancy today.”

Tuulik described yesterday’s atmosphere at ZA/UM to be about as great as “ten seconds before The Chicxulub impactor wiped out the dinosaurs. Gloomy.”

We asked how the studio culture changed at ZA/UM after the departure of most of the original writing team and the airing of the People Make Games documentary looking into the legal battle that ensued afterward. “It’s like transitioning from the Soviet Union to the fascist Russian Federation,” Tuulik said. “Wearing the dead cultural movement like a skin costume, roleplaying communism, lying for dollars and yen. PMG doc changed lots of things in the studio. Personal dynamics. None for the better.”

He estimates that ZA/UM “will forever stay a one-game studio. The individuals of ZA/UM, the cultural movement, have left the corporate body behind like the King Cobra slithering out of its dead skin. Remember, we promised: Un jour je serai de retour près de toi.”

Disco Elysium screenshot showing the sentence "Un jour je serai de retour près de toi" painted on the ground.

"One day I'll be by your side again."

As part of looking into the layoffs yesterday, one source told us that they didn’t think “women were treated the same and that their work wasn’t as valued” at ZA/UM. We asked if Tuulik had seen these issues at the company as well. “Absolutely,” he said. “You’d have to be blind not to. In the PMG documentary, the former DE: Final Cut Lead Writer Helen Hindpere describes a call with the Chief Executive Tõnis Haavel, where Tõnis is screaming at her. It's so loud that a fellow writer who walks in hears the screaming through her headphones and asks what the f**k was that? That writer was me.”

He continued: “I know at least five women who've left or been made to leave the studio since Disco’s launch, naming Tõnis Haavel as a major factor. There are zero women in creative leadership and very few women in leadership positions in general.”

Concluding our conversation, Tuulik stated that “the fish starts rotting from the head, not the tail or the midsection. Don't get angry at the junior producer, mid-level lead, senior artist, community manager etc. They didn't know, were kept in the dark. It's not their fault. It was their love for Disco, not dystopian totalitarianism, that brought them here. It's their worst nightmare too.

“It's the people on top – the motherf*****s in sailing shoes and bowties – that f****d Harry, f****d Kim, f****d Robert, Rostov, Helen, Olga, Cash, f****d Elysium, f****d you and me too. They are not artists, they are professional f****rs,” he said.

Tuulik also referenced Tõnis Haavel’s background, saying it was “important to keep in mind that Tõnis Haavel is a convicted financial criminal. Inside the company he goes by Denis Havel to presumably make googling him less convenient to those around him.”

Haavel was sentenced to be guilty of investment fraud by an Estonian court in 2014. ZA/UM’s original writing team, which was accused of abusive behavior towards other employees and forced out from the studio in 2022, suspected that Kompus and Haavel used illegal means to gain control of the company, though they ultimately refrained from bringing the case to a court hearing.

Dora Klindžić broadly echoed Tuulik’s sentiment: “I've seen good work done at ZA/UM. I've also seen management and production staff terrorizing creatives, lying, playing power games, turning people against each other, destroying relationships and people's self-esteem. For this, there have been no repercussions.”

She also emphasized that some workers would not only lose their jobs, but would have to upend their whole lives as a result of the layoffs: “As a reward for our hard work, some of us are even slated to lose our immigration status in the UK and will have to evacuate the country. We will be gone by next week, but those who remain are grappling with a place irrevocably changed.

“The mask has slipped from the face of capital. What remains at ZA/UM is a cold, careless company where managers wage war against their own creatives, where artistry is second to property, and where corporate strategy is formed by an arrogant disdain for their own audience.”

We’ve reached out to ZA/UM for comment on the points that have been raised, but have not received a reply ahead of publishing.