Since this blog’s instigator requested video game commentary, I decided to bite the bullet and post a review. Are there more important things to consider? Yes. Are there more widespread concerns in this group? Yes. But did our illustrious leader request such writing? Yes, and I am but a sycophant, here to please.
Before discussing the game, I supply a caveat so readers account for my position. I am a ‘pseudo-gamer.’ I do not play many games, yet – somehow – I know of classic games I’ve never played, hear gaming news irrelevant to me, and see reviews for games I have no intention to buy. I have heard the merits and demerits of many games with which I am unfamiliar, and I hold conversations with ‘real gamers’ while clumsily covering my ignorance like the poseur I am. Right now my gaming is restricted to an occasional over-analyzed experience, usually accompanied by one “Mr. Shallow Waters,” or a brainless button-press occupying my hands while I listen to Economics podcasts.
Disco Elysium is of the first category. I have not finished it, yet the experience deserves comment.
Disco Elysium is a narrative isometric detective RPG; that is, it is a story-focused detective role-playing game viewed from above the characters. The player starts by defining base qualities determining the character’s capacity for different activities and then thrusts their creation into a lovingly crafted murder mystery; from there, the player forces their newly minted policeman to stumble through a collage of characters, conflicts, and other sundry bits of world building as they swagger through the plot.
Like other RPGs, Disco’s main gameplay involves moving your character around the game world and interacting with the places, people, and objects with some degree of success. The player takes the character different places by clicking on different parts of the world or using arrow keys to walk the character around. When interacting with other people, the player chooses dialogue which is either the best guess to achieve plot advancement or the most amusing available statement. Certain objects can be examined or obtained by clicking them; the character can store an unfeasible number of items.
The success with which one interacts depends on ‘skill checks,’ random outcomes based on a situation’s difficulty and the character’s capacities. Though these capacities rely on the character’s base qualities, the player improves particular abilities by equipping different items or investing ever-accruing ‘experience points’ into particular skills. Unlike other RPGs, where skills like ‘speech,’ ‘lock picking,’ ‘sneak,’ and ‘one-handed weapons’ are normal, Disco supplies skills such as: savoir faire, pain threshold, rhetoric, empathy, logic, interfacing, and visual calculus.
The typical RPG system is further altered by what I can only describe as ‘identity determinants;’ the player discovers and determines thoughts through which the character may see the world. These central thoughts impact gameplay; for example, the character might adopt: ‘hobocop,’ wherein the hero sidesteps paying for a room at the cost of being unpleasant and smelly; ‘volumetric sh*t compressor,’ which forces the character to mentally get his life together, represented by improved odds for endurance checks; ‘actual art degree,’ which makes him into an art snob, represented by improved morale despite reduced perception and hand-eye coordination; and so on.
Using these mechanics, the player must steer the wayward detective around as he defines his personality and solves a murder mystery in a world populated by disaffected communist dockworkers, mob boss union managers, the indigent, exploitative bourgeois capitalists, vapid small business owners, foul-mouthed guttersnipes, racist hyper-nationalist fascists, and parasitic immigrants – not to mention washed-up detectives.
Though most western RPGs are fantasy-scapes populated by elves, dwarves, magicians, and dragons, and most JRPGs are fantasy-scapes populated by nobles, samurai, monsters, and women wearing surprisingly functional armor considering it’s just lingerie, this game ignores such precedents. Disco Elysium is a world that looks like mildly Russian, postmodern, futuristic New York dockyards circa 1940 experiencing union conflict and neglect.
Our hero has the run of Revachol – a one-time capital of development and political power, now an eclipsed and economically depressed slum. Impoverished tenements, chain drugstores, union dockyards, shantytowns, and week-long traffic jams all beckon for investigation. Cynical corruption and idealism embrace and thrive. Poverty fuels a lingering, jingoistic nationalism at odds with a growing immigrant population arriving from former colonial holdings. Bitter memories of embarrassing military defeat dwell in generation-old craters pockmarking city avenues.
Through this bleary town our main character trudges on his hunt for the identity of both the killer and himself.
Upon starting the game, the player reads a witty dialogue between the character’s subconscious and basic motor function on whether he should wake up at all.
Once his eyes are open, our hero finds himself lying in a puddle of vomit and depression. His face is an unknown mess poorly masking a hangover. His clothes are strewn about the room, but his gun, badge, name, memories, and left shoe are all missing. Is he married? Divorced? Friendly? Arrogant? Is he political? If he is, is he an extreme leftist or a right-winger? Does he possess a mind like a trap and an artistic sense to change the world, or is he a brutal philistine? Is he a living tank of a man or so fragile he could be brained by an underpowered ceiling fan? Can he empathize with anyone?
At the very least, he knows he possesses impressive sideburns and carries an extreme fondness for disco.
He soon learns he is a detective and must investigate a murder despite not remembering anything about his life. A week prior, a lynch mob beat, stripped, and hanged an unidentified man behind a local hostel and bar; popular opinion suggests the dockworkers’ union is to blame. Now with a cooled trail hidden within a heating union strike, he must question his way through a diverse cast of characters armed with naught but his whimsy and his partner, Kim Kitsuragi.
How our hero fares, what he discovers, and what kind of person he becomes depends on how the player chooses to interact with the other characters.
Revachol is home to a colorful cast of delightful, well-written characters.
The union boss is an unapologetic, whale-sized cynic willing to use his workers’ ideologies to his advantage; he and his ‘identical twin brother’ trade union leadership every year. The right hand man is a laid back, diehard communist who rejoices that his boss’ corruption is such a help for the cause. Down the street, a bookstore owner keeps her preteen daughter working at home and assuages her conscience by telling herself that job experience is far more important than school. The daughter daydreams as she advertises outside the store. Behind the building, an uncouth, redheaded teenager dumpster-dives and flicks rocks at a long-stiffened corpse left hanging for over a week. Across the street, a recent immigrant has set up his quasi-legal resale stand and serves all comers with an impenetrable smile and evasive statements.
Talking to each character reveals a depth to their personality, a depth made all the more interesting though their reactions to our hero’s penchant to ask anyone he meets questions about the meaning of life, socio-economic policy, historical interpretation, or the possible benefit of corruption. Though each character is dynamic and interesting, very few have the fascination commanded by the detective himself. By responding to the ideas he experiences, our hero discovers himself, and he is nothing if not a wild eccentric. (I giggled with delight when I discovered I could declare myself “the prophesied herald of neo-communism” to one man and “a knight errant of the free market” to another but instead decide my dream was to ignore politics and become a disciple of ‘advanced race theory,’ an idea of racial supremacy disenfranchising my own heritage.)
Besides talking to different characters, our fair lead has no lack of dialogue with himself. Until playing Disco Elysium, I never could have imagined a game wherein the personification of a man’s artistic conceptualization calls his visual calculus “autistic” because it didn’t focus on the marvelous aesthetic of blood splatter.
Art and Graphics
Drab though the concept seems, Disco is full of interesting visual design. The main window has low intensity yet iconic watercolor graphics. The main menu and character art looks like a postindustrial Cézanne beholding harsh beauty in wasted, decaying cityscapes. The in-game menus look like Bosch, Picasso, and Dalí woke up together after a night of drinking only to discover they produced illegitimate, mutated crack babies.
The composers, English post-rock band “British Sea Power,” certainly made their mark on the project. The music doesn’t stand out in game, but when I pull it up specifically, it is filled with vast and hollow string sections, subtle brass variations, and uncanny piano arpeggios lacing the world either with the sound of faded nostalgia and quiet hardship or ambiguous acceptance.
Speaking as someone who hasn’t finished the game, the most unifying themes I find are “discovery” and “definition;” the most prevalent mood is one of pensive reflection. The detective meets every character, each dialogue option, and every choice with a look into himself. Our hero not only explores the world about him but, through that exploration, encounters ideas about the world, forms his current personality, and discovers hints about his former self. It is the player’s pleasure to interact with it all, determine who the main character becomes, and blaze a zany path laced with humor and gusto. Along the way, you grow to appreciate the memorable characters and trashed streets, and the whole ironic, hypocritical, decaying mess merges together into a kind of amazing beauty seen through the imperfect world rather than in spite of it.
I recommend this game, as if that opinion wasn’t already clear. The characters are developed; the story is intriguing; the setting is unique. The writing is good compared to many books I’ve read and is mind-blowing compared to almost any other video game. This is no surprise; the lead game developer is Estonian author Robert Kurvitz whose novel The Sacred and Terrible Air introduced the world of Disco. I cannot think of another game offering a comparable experience.
It might not be for everyone, but if this description sounds fascinating, go and play Disco Elysium.
The game is $40 on Steam, a decent price for an indie game with its run time; however, at the time of posting, it is on sale for $30 until September 5th. I think I purchased it at a lower price, so if you want to wait for dropping prices or a better sales, it might happen. Maybe.
Links for perusal.
Search for “Disco Elysium Art” yourself; it’s interesting.