You wake up in a room. You have total amnesia. And there’s a murder to solve. Think you’ve seen this all before? Think again. Disco Elysium is a murder mystery, a point and click adventure, and a roleplaying game (RPG); and it’s one of the weirdest, most innovative versions of all those things in recent memory. We take a look at one of 2019’s most spellbindingly strange games….
Every now and then, you can sense you’re in the presence of genius. It might be when you read a beautiful line of prose, or see a breathtakingly composed cinematic shot, or watch a particularly well-constructed scene in a play. I got that feeling playing the opening of Disco Elysium at a games expo in early 2018.
The first thing the game tasks you with is waking up. To do this, you must have an argument with your Ancient Reptilian Brain, which advises you to cling to peaceful non-existence, and your Limbic System, which warns you that awareness of the “meat-thing” you are currently inhabiting will only lead to pain and humiliation. Eventually, you talk yourself into consciousness, to find that you’re mostly naked, lying on the floor of a trashed hotel room, and have a hangover so severe that you’ve forgotten literally everything about your life, including your name, your appearance, and basic facts about the world you live in. You will learn that you’re a police officer, at the hotel to investigate a murder; how much you find out about the crime, the game’s setting, and your own past, is mostly up to you.
In some ways, this is a very familiar set-up; an amnesiac protagonist waking up in an unfamiliar room is a staple opening in fiction, used in everything from Roger Zelazney’s fantasy classic Nine Princes in Amber to the cult sci-fi noir film Dark City. But that first argument before your character comes to shows off all the things that make Disco Elysium feel different. It takes place in darkness, eschewing the game’s striking, watercolour-esque visuals for a first impression and allowing the writing to do all the work. The quality of the game’s dialogue is immediately apparent; depending on your choices, it swings from evocative (“Your consciousness ferments in [blackness] — no larger than a single grain of malt”) to poignant (“I like pain and burning light and wanting things from people who don’t want to give them to me”) to laugh-out-loud funny (“Help! Someone! Cut my head off, it’s trying to murder the rest of me!”) Most importantly, it introduces the game’s core mechanic: the conversations you have with yourself.
In character creation, Disco Elysium looks like a fairly typical RPG. There are 24 skills, and your starting proficiency in each is governed by one of four attributes whose values you can set at the start of the game. Your attributes remain fixed, but your skills can be enhanced in various ways: by spending skill points (you get one each time you level up), changing clothes, even by taking drugs. The game’s big innovation, though, is that your skills are also inherent parts of your personality, and will pop up throughout play to provide you with more information, urge you towards certain courses of action, and even to argue with each other. A player with a high score in Authority, for example, will find it easier to assert dominance and intimidate other characters; but the voice of their Authority will constantly appear in their head to urge them to do so, whether or not it’s a sensible option. One who invests in Electro-Chemistry can spot when characters are using various intoxicants, but will find it hard to resist taking them themselves.
This approach not only shows off Disco Elysium‘s writing, but also adds a layer of replayability to an otherwise pretty linear story. Varying character builds don’t simply have alternative ways to solve the problems they’re presented with, but will experience entire scenes and relationships differently. The game continually runs passive checks against your various abilities to decide how much information to give you; you will be told if these succeed, but not necessarily if they fail. A player with a lot of Visual Calculus will learn very different things in a scene, and possibly come to different conclusions, than one whose strength is Inland Empire (an uncanny intuitive ability named after the David Lynch film).
The other major way Disco Elysium allows you to develop your character is through the Thought Cabinet. Conversations with other characters, or repeatedly making dialogue choices that support a specific ideology, will give you access to ‘thoughts’ which you can then place in the Cabinet, spending time to internalise them. These range from the practical (Hobocop allows you to stop paying for accommodation and sleep on a park bench) to the philosophical (Mazovian Socio-Economics espouses a communist world view) to the downright horrific (Advanced Race Theory unlocks terrible racist dialogue options). Aside from whatever gameplay benefits they might give you, these thoughts give a real feeling of shaping your character to match your conception of them. You can spend a skill point to unlock space for a new thought or, interestingly, to forget an old one. Anecdotally, many players initially internalise Advanced Race Theory in order to solve an early puzzle, but later in the game consider it worth the extra resource to forget it, as they don’t want that rattling around the brain of a character they’ve become attached to.
There are two main ‘schools’ of roleplaying in video games. Either you take on the role of a specific protagonist, whose style of fighting and negotiating may be up to you but whose personality and background is essentially fixed; or you play a blank slate, free to be whoever you choose. Disco Elysium‘s amnesiac protagonist attempts to walk a line between the two. Your character’s past is immutable, and the same for every playthrough. Their present, though, and how they choose to interpret it, is left wide open. ‘You can’t change who you have been, but you can change who you are’ is one of the game’s themes. You can search diligently to find your real name, or rechristen yourself something more exotic; embrace the extremes of the political right or left, or remain resolutely in the centre; decide that you’re the reincarnation of an influential philosopher trapped in purgatory, or accept that you’re a washed-up alcoholic who’s done some really bad things, and resolve to be a better person in the future.
The game’s mechanics do make one serious limitation on this freedom, however. Failing an active skill check will cause your character to speak or act in ways you didn’t intend, and even passing one may not produce the result you expected. In one memorable incident in my first playthrough, I attempted to join in a game of boules and my character promptly shot putted a boule into a nearby river. These failures will not necessarily spoil your game, and may in fact produce some of its most interesting moments; but players who want close control over everything their character does and says should be advised to save often.
Disco Elysium has its problems. It’s from an independent studio and, although the finished product is by and large very polished, there are areas in which its modest budget is noticeable. Loading times are long, especially on launch. It can occasionally lag or even crash. The game’s world is confined and, although it’s full of interesting diversions, it fundamentally has a single main plot which must be completed in order. There is no ability to quick travel so you’ll spend a lot of time running around the map, especially if you’re stuck on a puzzle and don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. In the first two in-game days, it’s possible to lock your playthrough into an unwinnable state without the game actually ending. Because some events only happen at certain times and are necessary to progress the story, players may find there are days when they have nothing to do but read a book to pass the time, which can feel clunky. And however time-honoured the mechanic, it is still a bit ridiculous for your character to be forever changing their clothes before attempting different challenges.
Beyond these problems, this is the kind of game that the reviewer’s staple phrase ‘not for everybody’ was made for. It requires a lot of reading and, a couple of tense face-offs notwithstanding, there is no real combat. Although it’s beautiful to look at, the world it’s set in is an ugly one: a dystopian nation full of poverty, racism, violent class conflict, and police abuses. Most of all, the protagonist you play as is far from a conventional hero, or even a conventional anti-hero. He’s a middle-aged, out-of-shape, raddled alcoholic who’s made a mess of both his personal and his professional life. He’s often greeted with disrespect or even flat-out mockery, and you’ll constantly run into problems caused by his past actions. It’s possible to love him, to embrace his flaws, and enjoy being the “absolute disaster of a human being” promised in the game’s advertising. It’s even possible to redeem him. But either way, you’ll have to work for it.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how to breathe fresh life into the RPG formula, at least for video games. They can certainly have cutting edge graphics, exciting gameplay, gripping, well-executed storylines. But by their nature, what a player can and can’t do in them must be thought of and pre-written by the game’s creators. No matter how wide the open world, how varied the combat, how smart the AI, a video game can never offer the total freedom to act given by a tabletop RPG and a responsive games master. Every now and then, though, a game comes along that does something new with the mechanics of RPGs, or places them in the service of a radically different story than ‘start as a nobody, become a god, save all of existence by punching the worst person in the world in the face’, and the whole genre feels fresh again. Disco Elysium does both those things.
It’s not a power fantasy. You spend some time in a well-realised world that has more problems than one person could ever solve, and you leave it having made a few people’s lives better — or worse. This isn’t the only videogame RPG with a low-key story to tell, but they’re rare enough to be exciting.
More than the story, though, it is Disco Elysium‘s dialogue that sets it apart. Making the main character’s skills facets of their personality, and having them constantly interact with the game as both talents and urges, felt like a genuinely innovative mechanic. I never got tired of being interrupted by my skills’ observations of the world and recommendations for how to act, particularly when they disagreed. Counter-intuitively, by breaking the protagonist down into his component parts and giving them each a voice, the game created someone who convinced as a whole human being. Watching him fail to muster the willpower to stand up for himself at a key moment or successfully argue back against his urge to relapse into drug use felt real and moving. Finishing the game sober felt like a harder-won and more meaningful achievement than solving its central mystery. Disco Elysium never made me feel like a god, but it did make me feel like a person. And I suspect that may be harder to do.