Disco Elysium

This is everything I wanted Torment: Tides of Numenera to be.

Disco Elysium is an RPG with no combat system. It has every other part of an RPG: levels, skills, equipment, and items. But instead of combat, all your skills are based around investigation and conversation; and you will need them, because you play as an insane, dysfunctional detective who nevertheless has to solve a very important murder.

The game is bizarre and wonderful, and a model for how nonviolent RPGs can work.

One of the first things that struck me about this game is how unpretentious it is, despite everything pointing to the contrary. Even RPGs that emphasize roleplaying and choice always seem to assume a basic level of competency for the protagonist — and that makes sense, since RPGs are usually power fantasies. Not so here. Your player character is a pathetic wreck of a human being, and the game doesn’t shy away from that. You can make incredibly silly, bizarre, and meta dialogue choices that make you look completely unhinged and incompetent. It uses this to parody the common trope of the amnesiac protagonist, where you can outright tell people “I am completely new to this world, exposition please.” And even more amazingly, characters actually have to respond to this, and do so in their own unique ways rather than being cheerful exposition fairies. Characters will be visibly baffled and frustrated at having to explain basic concepts to you, and characters are open about not being omniscient or reliable narrators, so you know your exposition may be biased.

I absolutely loved this. It is so cathartic to rip away the veneer of respectability and just directly say what I want to say: Where the exposition at? And it was even more delightful when the characters themselves riffed off of that in ways that characterized them too. Even something as simple as asking an NPC for directions can later come back to bite you as she tells everyone what a nutcase you were.

Another way the game plays with RPG tropes is that your skills are, themselves, characters. As I said earlier, you are insane, and your skills are all voices in your head with their own individual personalities and quirks. You can chat with them, like snidely asking your knowledge skill if it can draw up anything important, like, say, your past, instead of just useless trivia. They sometimes even argue with each other, calling into question their objectivity. Probably the absolute best example is this. Other reviews have likened them to effectively being your party members, and I think that’s a delightful take. In particular, the way they’re integrated into narration is extremely well-done: Instead of only being tested actively through your choices, there are countless passive checks as well that react to dialogue and events, seamlessly providing you with minor but important details. (These passive checks are also invisible if you fail them, which avoids the problem of it being obvious you missed something. You don’t know what you don’t know, just like in real life!)

This all contributed to a sense of vulnerability I almost never feel in video games. I mentioned in my Dragon Age 2 post that the power fantasy broke the narrative for me — given how demonstrably godlike I was, it didn’t make any sense that the story forced me to make sacrifices and hard choices. But here, I was keenly aware of my limitations the whole game. I understand why I can’t just go in guns blazing and solve everything with violence. There is exactly one time you end up in an actual fight, and it might have been the most tense boss fight I’ve ever experienced despite only being a series of skill checks. Because I didn’t plow through waves of mooks to get there, I really didn’t know whether I could survive or if I was suited to this task at all. To make it even more tense, the real challenge isn’t whether you survive, but how many of your allies you can save — and no matter what you do, you can’t save them all. Much like Trigun, Disco Elysium understands that that’s a much more serious proposition. We’re never really doubtful that the hero will survive, since if they die the story’s over; but the lovable side characters? They really are disposable, and that makes the desire to save them so much stronger.

Oh, and yes, that Steam review you may have seen circulating was not exaggerating: You can, in fact, die from sitting in a chair. It’s a very uncomfortable chair, you see. You can also die from reading a book that’s so depressing it causes you physical pain. I love it.

And I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning the plot! The story dives headfirst into extremely political topics that most respectable media won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. It shows it’s not pulling punches from the very start: The murder you’re investigating is of a mercenary employed by a trade company to intimidate a union strike. As part of your investigation, you will inevitably run into some very frank discussions of the relative merits of capitalism and communism, and you are allowed to take extremely radical stances yourself. The narrative is refreshingly even-handed and nonjudgmental — characters deliver extremely incisive criticisms of capitalism and centrism, and while the narrative is critical of communism too, it is critical of things that are actual problems with communism (like all the mass murder) rather than nonsensical Western propaganda. It takes the tired RPG alignment mechanic and violently rips away the veil of fiction by asking you to align yourself with real-world political ideologies.

The setting is technically fantasy, but it took me a long time to realize it because everything feels so real. There are no elves and dwarves; the ethnic groups in the setting have different names than we’re used to, but they are recognizably white, black, Asian, and etc., and the racial tensions mirror the ones in our own world. Admittedly, I am a little ambivalent on the fantasy setting; nothing about the setting is directly relevant to the plot, so why couldn’t it have been realistic fiction set in post-Soviet Russia or something? But in a way, that’s also a strength — the fantasy elements don’t at all distract from the very real themes discussed in the story, but they do provide fun diversions for side quests and extra lore, which are crucial components of an RPG.

The only gameplay criticism I have is that I really wish there was an “optimize equipment” option. By the endgame you amass so much equipment that swapping between outfits for different skill checks becomes unnecessarily tedious. And maybe the skill checks could have been a bit more involved than just dice rolls, but it worked well enough.

Overall, this is a model of how RPGs should be, and I hope more games go in this direction going forward. War games are all well and good, but it’s time we fully broke from the shackles of D&D and separated them from our roleplaying games. You don’t need to beat up skeletons and bandits in between your philosophical discussions, and the experience will be much stronger for it.

12 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    Disco Elysium confirmed best game. It raised the bar way too high, though. Like Arcane. Has anyone watched Arcane? It’s really good. I don’t care about your beef with LoL or Riot, watch Arcane.

    And play Disco Elysium.

    1. illhousen says:

      “I don’t care about your beef with LoL or Riot, watch Arcane.”

      God gave us piracy for this very reason.

      1
  2. illhousen says:

    Disco Elysium is dope as fuck, and one day I’ll overcome my desire to do everything right in an RPG, embrace being a walking human disaster and actually progress past the first day.

    Until then, I’m reading Mare Internum – https://forums.sufficientvelocity.com/threads/mare-internum-an-exalted-quest.96673/ – , a forum quest set in the setting of Exalted that utilizes DE approach to mechanics (skills and thought cabinet works more or less the same, etc.), but adds a twist that the next action of the protagonist is determined by the first person responding to the thread, simulating the working of an unhinged mind. It stars an amnesiac dragonblooded disaster lady with very strong opinions re:boats vs ships.

    One of the more memorable moments was a legendary Integrity success, which allowed the protagonist to realize that the number of soldiers she’s attached to has increased by one even though other characters (and her own skills other than Integrity) assure her that no, it was always that way. For the players, that screams Sidereal infiltration. In-universe, it’s a clear sign of a decaying brain as she runs around trying to find an imposter among people who are completely sure they’ve all known each other for years.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      one day I’ll overcome my desire to do everything right in an RPG, embrace being a walking human disaster and actually progress past the first day.

      LOL. What’s funny is that the game is actually very accommodating behind the scenes; there is only one skill check in the entire game you’re required to pass, and failing certain checks can lead to equally interesting scenes and sometimes even better outcomes. (Memorably, the Suggestion check to flirt with the lady in the opening is pretty unremarkable on a success, but produces one of the funniest scenes on a failure.) This reflects the fact that failure is an important theme in the story itself.

      So yes! Embrace failure and be a human disaster! In many ways the game is more fun if you do.

  3. Xander77 says:

    Clothes swapping (inconvenient even with a guide) and not having a more functional fast travel system (I get how not have a fast travel spot to Evrart’s crate is thematically appropriate, I just don’t care) are my only major issues with this game.

    It keeps getting updated, so maybe one of these issues will get fixed eventually.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Maybe. Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Jamais Vu update. A lot of the new scenes felt silly and unnecessary even by this game’s standards, especially the ones about annoying or pressuring Kim.

      1. Xander77 says:

        Eh. Speedfreaks FM*, for example, is pure fire.

        * Which is a brand new scene with the Final Cut, not Jamais Vu specifically.

  4. Negrek says:

    I’ve been very curious about this game for a while–been waiting on a physical Switch release to pick it up. It sounds super up my alley. Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Act says:

    I finally, finally played this and it was a fucking masterpiece. The conversation with the, ah, spider, at the end was incredibly moving to me at this time and place in my life, something about being told “her, you’re doing pretty well considering” in such a way just had me sobbing. It was so weird and beautiful. But the whole thing was just amazing, 10/10

    1. Roarke says:

      Yeah, Disco Elysium was so fucking good. Pretty much the first game since PS:T to elevate the genre this way, imo.

      DETECTIVE
      ARRIVING
      ON THE SCENE

      1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

        It sucks that it’s such a hard recommend because the opening is so gross and weird. I tried showing it to my mom to see if she would like a game that was all reading and no combat, and she bounced almost immediately.

        1. Roarke says:

          Yeah, it’s a game that kind of demands you get over your disgust quickly and in a big way; Harry is truly wretched. The reward is actually worth it though, and in a genre that’s only gotten more bloated with bland power fantasies over time, Disco Elysium feels as refreshing as tripping into a mud puddle.

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