Thoughts: Disco Elysium

disco_corpse

Disco Elysium is a text-heavy narrative RPG in which you play a cop with amnesia trying to solve a murder case in a sci-fi city. Because of these themes — and not least because of the amnesia — it has been described as a successor to Planescape: Torment, which is one of the most powerful curses in gaming1. If anything, though, that description is hugely underselling what Disco Elysium is trying to do. Planescape is nearly 20 years old now and was unnecessarily constrained by the relative infancy of the story-driven CRPG, while Disco Elysium is a game that’s fully aware of what it is and where it’s coming from. It knows the player is probably going to have expectations on how it’s going to work based on their previous experience of the genre, which is why it immediately sets out to subvert them.

Case in point: the amnesia. This is a tired mechanic that’s still very beloved of narrative RPGs, because it lets players define their character while giving them a built in Mysterious Backstory of uncovering who they were before the amnesia struck. Disco Elysium also makes use of it, but it does so in a way that almost makes me think the game is taking the piss out of its predecessors: your detective partied way too hard the previous night, got absolutely blackout drunk and woke up in his hotel room the next morning unable to remember anything but the most fleeting details of his past life. That’s it. It’s the most mundane explanation possible, and while you can discover the personal story of how he wound up in the hotel in the first place there’s not really any bigger mystery behind it; he just overcommitted to the tortured genius cop archetype by becoming so much of an alcoholic he lost his memory.

disco_deathnotif

I like this setup a lot. The relative mundanity of it sets the scene, and the stakes: Disco Elysium isn’t going to be some world-spanning adventure culminating in a final battle between the forces of good and evil. It’s a much smaller, much more personal story full of messy human fuckups. The game takes place solely within a single district of the city of Revachol, and while there’s plenty of locations within this district to explore you can never move outside of it. The district — Martinaise — is a particularly deprived area of the city, filled with people who have been betrayed by the system, and they’ve all got painful stories to tell.  The architecture is a mix of run-down shacks, slum tenements and ruined buildings still left over from a revolution that took place fifty years previously; the “civilized” nations of this fictional world came together to crush the revolution in its infancy before it threatened their precious capital, and Martinaise never recovered. It’s exactly the kind of place where you can believe that fifty years of pain and anger would bubble over and they’d start killing outsiders who they see as responsible for their predicament.

Which is where you come in. Memory loss or no, you’re still a cop, and you have a case to solve: a man has been lynched just outside the hotel where you’re staying, and the larger part of Disco Elysium is about your journey as you figure out how and why he was killed. This involves a lot of walking around and talking to people — in fact, that’s pretty much all you do, as even interactions with inanimate objects and action scenes like jumping up to a raised balcony are conducted via the game’s dialogue system. I had a strong suspicion that that’s where Disco Elysium was heading prior to release and was somewhat worried that it’d end up being little more than a glorified text adventure2, but fortunately that’s not the case. Yes, the game is text-heavy, but that’s because Disco Elysium is actually the strongest attempt yet to translate the concept of an actual pen-and-paper RPG into a videogame format that I’ve ever seen, and it works wonderfully well.

disco_cryptozoologist

That might seem like a bit of an odd thing to say seeing as how Baldur’s Gate adapted the 2nd edition D&D rules fairly faithfully more than two decades ago, but RPGs have moved on a little since then. They’re less about dungeon crawling and combat, and more about creating interesting narrative problems that the player characters can then use their skills to solve in a creative, bespoke fashion that doesn’t involve a dozen rounds of swinging a sword. Later CRPGs have attempted to move towards this philosophy with extra options being available in dialogue to allow a special solution or a non-combat resolution to a given situation, but progress has honestly been very slight and even when these options are present they don’t really provide variety, with the change in outcome usually being limited to skipping a combat encounter or getting a bigger reward for a quest. Obsidian are probably the studio that’s taken the best swing at it with Alpha Protocol and New Vegas being a little more reactive to your approach as a character than typical examples of the genre, but both those games are getting on for a decade old now and it’s fairly telling that their more recent titles have rowed back on the concept considerably.

Enter Disco Elysium, a game that nails its colours to the mast very firmly by not bothering to have a dedicated combat system at all and which redirects all of its development effort into a sprawling set of dialogue trees that are absolutely crammed full of skill checks. Your cop has a whopping 24 different skills that he can invest points into, split into four branches that can be summed up as logical intelligence, emotional intelligence, physical prowess and physical reflexes. Investing in the logical intelligence branch gives you your typical persuasion (Rhetoric) and lying (Drama) skills, but it also boosts your skill checks for Encyclopedia, which gives background information on the things and places you’re inspecting that ranges from interesting flavour to actually useful information, and Visual Calculus, which is your ability to do forensic analysis and which brings up an interesting CSI-style overlay depicting what your cop thinks happened at a crime scene at several points in the story. The emotional intelligence branch has an Empathy skill which often provides useful insights into a suspect’s state of mind, but it also has the more cryptically-named Inland Empire, which is a window into the emotional/imaginary impulses at the core of your character’s inner psyche, and which can lead to you e.g. having a conversation with your necktie. Even the physical prowess branch manages to avoid being cliched, with the Shivers skill representing your character’s connection to the city and being able to read the feel of the streets and the change in the wind.

disco_skills

The skills are all fairly imaginative and — very importantly — all tie into your job as a policeman. Nearly all of them represents some aspect of classic detective fiction, and you can build just about any cop archetype you can think of.  They’re used in two ways, the first of which is as the standard RPG dialogue skill check. You’ll have seen these before if you’ve played literally any modern RPG: a situation will come up that gives you the option to manhandle something or someone, or lets you assert yourself over the person you’re interrogating, but in order to do these things you need to pass a Physical Instrument or Authority skill check. Unusually this isn’t a simple comparison of your skill value against an arbitrary difficulty value with an automatic success if your skill is higher, but is instead a proper pen-and-paper RPG style check where you roll two six-sided dice and add your skill value and then do the comparison.

This means that you can sometimes succeed at things your character isn’t good at, and sometimes fail at things that they excel in, and this is something that drives me up the wall in other RPGs that retain the dice-roll style of skill check3. However, Disco Elysium ties failure into its narrative in natural, sometimes surprising, and almost always entertaining ways. You’re supposed to fail sometimes in this game; the mechanical consequences for failure are usually light (you lose a point of HP or Morale, which is DE’s measure of psychological health) or non-existent, and there’s a whole bunch of safety valves built into the game to ensure that you’re never locked out of continuing the story. Failure often just shunts you onto a different path that’s a little more work but ultimately just as valid as if you’d succeeded the check in the first place, and some of these paths are a lot more fun than making the dice roll and immediately getting what you want. You can save scum your way through the dialogue skill checks if you want — there’s no seed for the RNG powering the dice rolls, so you’ll get a different result each time you reload — but that would be missing the point of Disco Elysium. It’s a game about failure, and how it is okay to fail sometimes, and that’s a philosophy that’s directly reflected in its gameplay.

disco_visual_calculus

In addition to these standard RPG skill checks in dialogue, Disco Elysium will also constantly — constantly — be passively checking your skills in the background during conversations and when you’re walking around Martinaise. Your detective will make different observations about the environment depending on whether he has points in Encyclopedia that allow him to identify a statue of a historical character, or a high Perception skill that lets him pick out fine details hidden by the accumulated detritus of fifty years of decay, and this is a very nice touch that emphasises how your skill choices determine the way your character views the world. It’s the passive conversation checks that really impressed me, though, both because of how they’re used as part of the gameplay and how they’re portrayed in the dialogue system. Each of your skills is an aspect of your personality and is presented as a distinct character in dialogue, complete with a unique NPC portrait done in a Sandman-esque dreamlike style. Whenever you’re talking to someone in Disco Elysium  your skills will chip in with hints, observations and suggestions — as long as you can pass the invisible passive skill check that’s happening behind the scenes. Some of these passive checks are of “Trivial” difficulty, meaning that you don’t need to have any points in a given skill to pass them and ensuring that all of your skills make their presence felt in dialogue at various points throughout the game. However, the more points you invest in a skill, the more skill checks you’ll pass and the more advice you’ll receive from that aspect of your personality — so when you make a character in Disco Elysium you’re not just raising some boring numerical values to a point where they’re mechanically useful, you’re effectively choosing which parts of your psyche you want to listen to.

This not only provides Disco Elysium with a wonderful dash of flavour as your skills invade your own internal monologue to squabble and bicker while competing to offer you good and not-so-good advice, but it’s also genuinely useful for solving the murder case. A high Reaction Speed skill will chip in to catch erroneous details during an interrogation and nudge you towards the right dialogue option for following it up. A high Authority skill will tell you which of your suspects is weakest and more likely to crack under the pressure of questioning. A high Inland Empire skill guides you as you deal with the more superstitious elements of Martinaise. However, an important thing to understand about the skills is that they represent your character’s base emotional impulses and that following everything they say to the letter isn’t necessarily going to be the right thing to do in a given scenario. For example, the Electrochemistry skill has the (dubiously) useful gameplay effect of allowing you to find and ingest drugs and alcohol for temporary stat bonuses, but during dialogue Electrochemistry will always prompt you to do the thing that involves fucking, drinking or doing drugs, because that is what that part of your brain is all about. That’s fine if that’s the kind of detective you want to play, but otherwise it might be best not to do what Electrochemistry tells you. All the skills do is offer suggestions. You are the person who decides whether or not to follow them4.

disco_thought

The passive checks and the implementation of your skills as NPC characters in dialogue are what makes Disco Elysium feel so organic as an RPG. You’re constantly being presented with information and dialogue that’s somewhat unique to your character build, and that you probably wouldn’t be getting if you’d invested your skill points in a different way. It’s why Disco Elysium’s problems and solutions feel so much closer to the bespoke stuff DMs hand-craft for their players in tabletop RPGs, and why it feels like a dramatic step forward from the staid, regimented approach of Bioware or Bethesda or even Obsidian. It must have taken an absolutely ridiculous amount of work to construct the writing and dialogue trees to accommodate separate contributions from your 24 separate skills, observations NPCs make about your clothing, taking into account the time of day (Martinaise changes considerably based on whether it’s daytime, evening or night), and the presence (or not) of your partner.

Oh yes, your partner. You do have one, and he’s actually flesh-and-blood instead of being a figment of your imagination. Lieutenant Kim Kutsaragi meets you for the first time just after you stagger out of your hotel room on day one of the investigation. At this point you’ve already lost your badge, your gun and your memory — not to mention running up an absolutely epic bar tab and breakages bill from your bender the night before — and so he’s silently dismayed to be working with someone who is so obviously unsuited to police work (as relayed to you by your Empathy and Espirit de Corps skills). At first glance, Kim is everything you aren’t: an efficient, methodical investigator who does everything by the book and who is constantly taking notes. Most other games would have him playing the somewhat antagonistic role of the tedious straight man who prevents you from having any fun, but that’s not how Disco Elysium chooses to play it. Kim’s not a robot designed to fulfil some gameplay goal of keeping you on the straight and narrow; he’s written as a human who has impulses and emotions of his own, even if he’s much better at controlling and masking them than you are. You’ve been on the scene longer than he has so he lets you take the lead in most conversations, although he’s always a presence during them, and he’ll usually allow your… unconventional methods just to see where you’re going with it. He objects whenever you pursue something that’s obviously not connected to the case but he can usually be won around, and it’s during these interactions that you start getting a sense of who he is and building up a rapport with him.

disco_crime_bros

That’s the crucial thing about Kim: when you talk to him, there’s no dialogue option that causes him to dump a canned backstory on you along with a companion quest to earn his trust. There is a dialogue option to find out why he’s on the case with you, but you can’t learn about Kim himself by asking him directly. That’s a process that takes basically the entire game, with the two of you working the case together and in the process building a picture of who the other person is through a hundred small human moments. I won’t spoil any of the specifics, but some of those moments are my favourite interactions with any RPG companion, and Kim is one of my favourite RPG characters. Gain his trust by doing good policework — doesn’t matter how, as long as you achieve the case goals — and he’ll back you to the hilt despite your being an amnesiac fuckup. Alienate him, and… well, that’s likely to have severe ramifications later if you don’t have anyone watching your back.

Because here’s the thing: despite everything being conducted via the dialogue system and despite there being a total lack of anything we’d usually recognise as combat in the game, you can die in Disco Elysium. You can die before even getting out of your hotel room, in fact; if you haven’t put any of your initial points into the Physical track you’ll only have a single health point, and you can lose it trying to get your tie down from a ceiling fan. However, this is only really an issue at the very start of the game as Disco Elysium practically showers you with healing items, and you’ll always have an opportunity to use these even if you’re reduced to zero HP.  What physical confrontation there is is usually played for laughs, with your detective making a roll against his Physical Instrument skill and hurting himself in a comedic fashion if he fails, but with no lasting negative consequences beyond that. Disco Elysium is in general a very funny game, setting up jokes and delivering punchlines with pinpoint accuracy and wit that’s whip-smart, and which stings like one too given how closely Revachol and its politics mirror those of the real world.

disco_church

And this just makes the moment Disco Elysium turns on you all the more shocking. You and Kim are pitched into a life-or-death situation where the potential consequences for your character are suddenly and horribly real. It’s a real powder keg of a confrontation, and the game masterfully ratchets up the tension further and further until an explosion of violence — real violence, not the cartoon stuff you’ve encountered up to this point — seems all but inevitable. You can try to reason with the instigators using everything you’ve learned in the investigation up until that point, but none of it is working because they’re not willing to listen to reason and they’re getting more and more agitated and things are spiralling out of your control and oh god what if they actually open fire. How is the game going to handle it? I had absolutely no goddamn clue how a game with no combat system was going to resolve a combat situation, and the fact that I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen made me extremely nervous. Like, palms sweating, heart racing levels of nervous. In an isometric RPG. That’s a hell of an achievement, and if you choose to draw your gun during this confrontation what ensues is one of the most brutally terrifying and viscerally effective portrayals of violence I’ve ever seen in a videogame.

I’d like to close out the review by talking about Disco Elysium’s themes. First, it actually has some, which in and of itself is rather unusual for an RPG released in 2019. Too often they divorce themselves completely from the real world, filling their fake ones with paper-thin factions aligned to Good or Evil and setting up an inevitable, tiresome confrontation between the two that means absolutely nothing of any lasting value. With a very few notable exceptions they’re either popcorn entertainment or fantasy escapism, which I suppose is fine if that’s what you’re looking for — I enjoyed the dumb overblown space opera of Mass Effect just as much as anyone else, after all. Disco Elysium, though, makes the conscious decision to have its world be a parallel for the real one in a very obvious and unflinching way. Sure, there’s some fantastical (and scary) elements to it if you dig deep into the backstory, but they have almost no bearing on your job as a cop and barely intrude on your investigation. This keeps the game mercifully grounded and lets it focus purely on being a great cop RPG, which is refreshing all by itself, but also allows it to tackle its themes in a much more obvious and cutting fashion.

disco_liberal

Revachol is an analogue for a post-Soviet society5, where a communist revolution failed and the city was left to the predations of neoliberalism and unfettered capitalism. Failure is one end of the common thread running throughout the entire game, but Disco Elysium doesn’t just explore the failure of communism. It also explores the failure of liberalism to rebuild Revachol afterwards, and the failure of capitalism to provide a viable long-term economic alternative that doesn’t price in industrial quantities of human misery. On another level it’s exploring the failure of you as a character. You can delve into your cop’s backstory and reconstruct a few of the pieces of his past life and it’s dreadfully sad; you gradually come to understand just why he’d become so reliant on obliterating his pain with alcohol, and why he eventually tried to commit Suicide By Vodka. When you meet him, and when you start the game in Martinaise, both are at their absolute lowest ebb. Both have failed.

But it doesn’t stay that way. Of course this is an RPG, and there are a number of ways you can play it, but the theme of Disco Elysium isn’t failure itself. It’s what happens after failure. That is the single thread tying the game together, from the skill checks to the setting to the story to your character. You start Disco Elysium in a state of failure, and you’ll fail even more as you progress the story — sometimes avoidably, but sometimes not. You carry on, though, and you have the option of making things better for both yourself and the city through your actions. For starters, you can ignore Electrochemistry and stop consuming vast quantities of narcotics and alcohol. You can help the people of Martinaise in small yet important ways. You can build up your friendship with Kim. You can solve the murder. You never give up, and you can slowly start hauling yourself out of the abyss.

disco_art

If nothing else Disco Elysium is yet one more answer, if one were still needed, to that most tedious of questions: “Are games art?” It’s a thought-provoking game, quite literally — that’s too often used as a throwaway piece of weak praise, but Disco Elysium’s writing and story is both raw and mature and it makes its point so successfully that you find it invading your thoughts days later, quite involuntarily. A week after I finished it, I’m still thinking about it. I can’t understand the complaints I’ve seen elsewhere saying that Disco Elysium is too nihilistic, and that it has no heart. It has courage enough to present us with an unflinching summary of the world as it is, and heart enough to try and demonstrate that it’s always possible to achieve some good, even in the face of such overwhelming adversity. It’s about dragging yourself forward. Picking yourself back up. Carrying on. Rebuilding. And trying to leave the world a little better than when you found it. I think what Disco Elysium is actually communicating here is a powerful message of hope. It does have a nihilistic streak, but only in so far as it’s necessary for a counterexample of what happens when we lose that hope. It’s not just another piece of media to be thoughtlessly consumed before moving on to the next thing. It rewires your brain and actively changes (or at least challenges) your outlook on life. And if that isn’t art — if Disco Elysium isn’t art — then I don’t know what is.

  1. Right next to “successor to Master Of Orion 2”.
  2. Not that there’s anything wrong with text adventures, but I think they’re much better suited to formats that aren’t this.
  3. Looking at you, Pathfinder Kingmaker.
  4. I have been endlessly amused by various reviewers who have complained that their character was railroaded into being a sex-crazed lunatic because they picked all of the sex-crazed lunatic dialogue options that were presented to them by Electrochemistry, without for a moment considering that they had the option of not doing that.
  5. Which the developers have first-hand knowledge of since they’re Estonian.
Tagged , ,

3 thoughts on “Thoughts: Disco Elysium

  1. ilitarist says:

    I already know a lot about the game and know that I will play it soon. I’ve developed Estonian software products for years, would be nice to play one for a change! Still interesting to see your observations.

    Really interesting how they work with dialogue and how that part of RPG experience didn’t really evolve since Fallout 1 or something. Hard to see progress apart from adding labels to highlight skill usage and showing options you have no stats for (which Obsidian does to cleverly show all the variety while Bethesda somehow managed to obscure the fact that Fallout 4 even has skill checks in its dialogue) or switching to the dialogue wheel that makes dialogue exciting cause you never know what your character is going to say (and it’s not just about the wheel; I fondly remember how Witcher 3 “shove him off” option resulted in Geralt breaking leg of a major character lying helplessly on the ground). Fallout New Vegas has a single dialogue when immideately selecting skillcheck option is not a win button, Toment Tides of Numenera had you spend resources on dialogue options but resource management was trivial and you still were always fine by just clicking what your character is good at. Pillars of Eternity 2 at least has the decency of most special options giving interesting result that is not necessary beneficial. Another nice thing was Sunless Sea/Skies where you had more of a story choice rather than dialogue, you know what I mean. Like what I see here.

    Also wondering if you have more to say about Pathfinder Kingmaker. Wouldn’t think dialogue checks are the most infuriating thing about it.

  2. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    Once I have some more time available, I want to play this. It sounds great.

    I think you’re slightly harsher on Obsidian’s post-New Vegas output than they deserve. Yes, Pillars of Eternity was a step back. But Tyranny–despite being a complete mess in terms of overall design–had some interesting ideas and leaned into learning about your party members organically. Deadfire was all about colonialism, and had a remarkably granular faction system. On top of that, you have an unusual amount of control over your character’s personality; my second playthrough stalled out in large part because I didn’t really like the flippant screwup I was playing. I’m not sure where I stand on The Outer Worlds yet, but by calling back to New Vegas it feels better than some other games in the genre that have come out since New Vegas.

    But you are right that RPGs are a distressingly calcified genre. It often feels like your choice is limited to whether you want a rigidly codified Western RPG or a rigidly codified Japanese RPG. I’m not sure how to break out of that pattern.

  3. Andrew Ahn says:

    OK, this game obviously showed up on my radar, same as everyone else’s, but this review has made me want to give it a shot.

    Not my usual fare at all.

Leave a Reply