Gavin has had a passion for writing almost as long as his passion for video games. Which came first, the controller or the pen?
Game: Disco Elysium
Genre: Detective RPG
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
An Achievement popped up in the corner of my screen telling me I’m a “laughable centrist.” Another accused me of neoliberalism. One even chastised me for apologising ten times. That’s Disco Elysium in a nutshell. And if you had to Google any of those terms, get used to it, because Disco Elysium pulls no literary punches.
The debut game from developer ZA/UM is ostensibly an isometric RPG. I’d argue it’s also a point-and-click adventure, a visual novel, and a noir cop thriller. It’s also a scathing literary critique of a Pandora’s box of philosophies, psychologies, sociologies, and any number of other -ologies you can name. There’s even some cryptozoology thrown in for good measure.
You take the role of a conveniently-amnesiac police detective, and victim of the world’s worst hangover. This man drank and ingested so many substances that he forgot his entire life, and that’s where you come in. And, of course, being a hardboiled detective you have a murder case to solve that involves a suspicious lynching out the back of a hotel. How you go about doing that is entirely up to you.
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With little to no explanation, the game opens with a deep character creator of 24 possible skills. These aren’t your traditional RPG skills of strength and dexterity though, instead replaced by a number of personality motivations—empathy, volition, electro-chemistry, composure. These skills are broken down into four basic categories, so where empathy and volition are Psyche based skills, interfacing and reaction speed are Motorics. Intellect and Physique round out the group, but after picking a specific weighting of the four to determine your basic character build, you’re free to put skill points into any of the other 24 skills upon levelling up.
This grants an insane amount of freedom when it comes to designing the detective that you want to play as. Whether you’re going for the strong fight-first type or the smooth-talking charmer, or the substance-addicted crazy man, you’re catered for here. The only limitation on what you can create is that you have to play a white male 40-something year old veteran detective with the hangover of all hangovers. You’re playing a specific character with a back story in Disco Elysium, and whilst his personality is entirely your decision, who he is and where he comes from is not. A fair comparison may be Geralt of The Witcher series—he can only be Geralt, but he’s your Geralt.
The gameplay of Disco Elysium consists primarily of reading. A lot of reading. Make no bones about it, if you don’t like having to read during your gaming, Disco Elysium is not for you. But the reading is worth every second, because the words that are there are expertly crafted and stand out as some of the most intelligent and beautifully written writing in all of games. At times, the grand standing borders on pretentious—you will spend literally hours on a side plot that revolves around the virtues of anodic (electronic dance) music, and its obsession with the titular disco is almost alarming. Aside from its music tastes, almost every passer-by in Disco Elysium will want to give you their opinion on communism or some other political ideology. This stuff gets pretty deep and it can get in the way of the plot, at times, but it’s a huge part of what makes Revachol (the setting of the game) the place that it is. In fact, the gritty violent history of Revachol and its downtrodden people is in many ways the real meat of Disco Elysium, with the murder case just the salad dressing.
There is a solid 35 hours of play time in Disco Elysium, though that will depend on your reading speed. Outside of that reading, the gameplay consists of navigating the beautiful setting and interacting with the environment and the NPCs placed generously around the town. That’s where the aforementioned skills come in to play. Every conversation, big and small, uses your skills to determine outcomes and available dialogue options. Like the tabletop games that the game is inspired by, Disco Elysium makes use of dice rolls, which are displayed front and centre for you to see. This has the dual effect of making you understand why you have failed a check, but also means you can fail something through no fault of your own, often resulting in the strong desire to reload a previous save to try it again. Doing so is a disservice to the game though, as more often than not, failure can lead to some of Disco Elysium’s better moments. In fact, some victories are only achieved through failure, and often the correct approach is in the dialogue choices you don’t say rather than the ones you do.
The skills you have selected also affect the dialogue that you get to read. One of Disco Elysium’s most unique features is the voices in your character’s head—each of the 24 skills chipping in as actual dialogue voices to give their biased opinions on the events occurring around you. Empathy will naturally side with caring for others, whilst Encyclopedia will ensure you always know the facts. Logic will make sensible deductions, whilst Drama will seek to make everything seem as fantastical as possible. The voices don’t have your best interests at heart, or even the best interests of the murder case you’re trying to solve. Electro-chemistry is far more interested in making sure you pursue drugs and alcohol at all costs. Through these voices, you’ll craft the individuality of your character, and the way in which he perceives the world.
To help influence your skill points, the game has two accompanying mechanics—inventory and Thoughts. The former acts much like any inventory system in any RPG; you acquire items and clothing, and equip them to receive their benefits, positive and negative skill modifiers. In practical terms though, this results in you often equipping the correct item for the specific skill check you want to succeed at in that moment, and the game doesn’t punish you for doing so—in fact, it encourages it with most skill checks being “white”, meaning you can return to them at any time to retry them. The game also goes out of its way to point out how ridiculous your character looks in the wacky assortment of items you’ve made him wear specifically for their benefits. I spent portions of the game in an Amphibian Sports Visor and Green Snakeskin Shoes. Fashion Elysium this ain’t.
Thoughts work like RPG Perks, acquired throughout the game based on your choices and decisions in conversations—at one point, you may question your own age, leading to unlocking the “Date Of Birth Generator” thought. Mention suicide enough times, and you’ll acquire the “Finger On The Eject Button” thought. These thoughts combine to form your Thought Cabinet, and have a variety of effects, from simple skill modifiers to one that even changes how much you can scroll the in-game camera.
The Planescape: Torment style of gameplay can be exhausting, and at times I found myself longing for something more than just reading dialogue. But like any good book, my love for Disco Elysium grew the more I became familiar with the array of characters and the more familiar I was with the setting. I grew to care about these people, and genuinely mourned some of those I lost. The main plot around the murder case kept me intrigued, up until an admittedly disappointing conclusion. Thankfully, many of the side quests also pull their weight, and despite a misleading time mechanic, Disco Elysium does not punish you for taking your time to explore. In fact, doing so can lead to revelations that not only further your investigation, but also provide buffs to story-relevant skill checks as well.
If you’re looking for an action RPG like Diablo or even Baldur's Gate or Divinity: Original Sin, then this isn’t it. I can’t stress enough that there are no combat mechanics. But if you prefer your RPGs to have fascinating personalities and character development, interesting skill mechanics and a great story where your choices truly matter, then there is literally no better than Disco Elysium. It will leave you thinking about its multitude of revelations and philosophical ponderings for days after the fact, and if you can handle the reading, it’s skill system is perfect for re-rolling a new detective and giving it a second playthrough with some different voices taking precedence in your head. Perhaps on my next playthrough I’ll try to apologise less often.