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The Jamrock Shuffle: On "Disco Elysium" and Combat in RPGs

Roberts has been a games enthusiast since 1997, a reviewer since 2009 and a cynic since 2014. He believes Saturday Night Fever is contagious

Though its source material existed six years before the game, ZA/UM's Disco Elysium was unexpected. Lead Designer and novelist Robert Kurvitz has stated that his influences were games such as Planescape: Torment, the works of Rembrandt and a number of North American cop dramas. If ever there was a game that could put the debate about video games as art to bed or under the gun, it has to be Disco Elysium. It has been praised for its writing, art style and soundtrack, but one thing has been up for debate since the hype has begun to fade: is the game a bonefide roleplaying game (RPG), or a glorified adventure game?

This could be asked of quite a few games nowadays, especially the open world collect-a-thons that many so-called AAA releases engage customers with until their next release. Does a levelling system, reputation, a talent tree or a dialogue choice make an RPG? I don't necessarily think so. I also find the trite expression of "it's a game wherein you play a role" to be a copout too - in every game a role is played, and the world and characters can respond to your inputs and those of your character. Death is one such example - the game responded to your killing of a non-player character (NPC), and as such the world features one less person. It knows as much about you as you do Skeleton #470 because it's only a machine, a million miles of code incapable of curiosity. It's why I'm careful when saying "choices matter" - to whom? Certainly not the game, because its only following through on the inputs already preordained by the developers, otherwise it would be a bug.

Above is an example of the mess that is this subject: the more definitions we lay out, the more problems arise. To the point, I'll be arguing against the notion that to be an RPG and not an adventure game, Disco Elysium must have combat.

Without spoiling anything, my playthrough of Disco Elysium featured the use of firearms twice, and three uses of violence (one in self defence). Despite this, many people feel confident in telling me definitively my experience featured no combat, despite not knowing what instances I resorted to pugilism and shooting. It's true firearms aren't always used for combat - I attempted to use a firearm to solve an early puzzle, as neither strength nor dexterity were my strong suit.

The main (or rather only) argument that Disco Elysium features no combat is because it's dependent entirely on dice rolls. I'll confess I wasn't fond of the dice rolling mechanics because 1) they were displayed as two six-sided die, and 2) this doesn't mean anything to me because I'm looking at the percentage chance of success when considering an action on the dialogue choice before making it.

Tabletop Roleplaying engines can involve six-sided die (or a "d6" in technical terms), twenty-sided die (d20s) or a hundred-sided die (d100), among other polyhedral die for specific actions. Dice rolls have been a big part of character creation, including the dreaded "roll 3d6 in order" of old-school Dungeons & Dragons.

I'd even argue the effectiveness of dice rolls versus the hidden damage calculations in video games. Where World of Warcraft's (albeit unofficial) "damage meters" can contradict each other in real time, dice rolls and the simple addition/subtraction of modifiers to effects can be done mentally - even I can do it. Video games are awful at explaining how DPS, damage, and other stats are calculated, presented or applied in practical terms.


Fighting Fantasy is a brand of single player roleplaying game, requiring only a pencil, some paper and 2d6. The video game adaptations do most of that for you and are no less a roleplaying game. Combat can be reduced to "rock-paper-scissors with dice", which - sans dice - is what JRPG Pokémon has adhered to since its inception.

In The Age of Decadence combat is discouraged by the developers due to its ruthless difficulty. Even though the entire game can be completed without having equipped a weapon, it is still considered an RPG. Planescape: Torment - frequently heralded as one of the best Western RPGs of all time - features combat and death, but the protagonist cannot die. This would render combat pointless in another game, but the setting and protagonist are so well written that death is more interesting than a failure state in the city of Sigil.

Depending on the person running the game, tabletop roleplaying games don't have to feature combat at all. Ability scores (think Fallout's S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes) can be used for more than increasing damage with certain weapon types, and many RPGs include other skills such as Persuasion, Appraisal and Tracking.... a bit like Disco Elysium, in how it breaks down physical and mental attributes. Some games emphasise the political intrigue or mystery such as Blue Rose and Call of Cthulu, and there's game engines like FATE which encourage use of general skills over combat.

Harvester (1996)

Harvester (1996)

Disco Elysium is well deserving of its title as an RPG, not to put down adventure games which sometimes feature their own combat, often very poorly implemented as the engine isn't capable of decent arcade-style punch-ups. During Sierra's point-and-click glory days, you could expect all kinds of immediate failures from combat that were mostly trial and error, which is not unlike Disco Elysium and one particular uncomfortable chair.

Rather than put down ZA/UM's creation as not being an RPG, what may be more constructive is to instead explore how it may qualify as an adventure game. The absence of conventional combat isn't as interesting a point for discussion as how the disco cop's exploits complement the point-and-click adventure genre. That's a discussion I'd rather have elsewhere, and I hope you'll be there to join me.


Matt Pietropaoli on March 13, 2020:

Great write up. I've been meaning to check out Disco Elysium since I first heard about it at the Game Awards. I agree on your point about displaying the dice rolls -- I'd prefer games find clever ways to hide those elements behind more engaging mechanics than "click to roll the dice"