"My hero: a stout, middle-aged man clad only in his tighty-whities, laying face-down ass-up in a ruined motel room."
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the sleazy, hand-painted detective RPG that was pitched to me as "a Hunter S. Thompson fever dream." In all honesty, what could one possibly expect from that? Developed by ZA/UM, a studio likely named for Zaum, the Soviet pre-Dadaist linguistic arts movement, I had a feeling I was in for something special.
While I waited for a kiosk at ZA/UM's very popular booth to become available, I chatted with community manager Danielle Woodford and game designer Robert Kurvitz, who both effused their affection for the timeless Black Isle RPG Planescape: Torment — a fondness I happen to share. Between the three of us, we agreed that combat was the least interesting part of the old Infinity Engine titles. Much like in tabletop, Planescape: Torment shined brightest when the player navigated its syrup-thick lore, shaping their protagonist in a way that was wholly unique to each playthrough. This, Kurvitz explained, is why each of Disco Elysium's combat encounters is an important story event decided through narrative-heavy skill checks and dice rolls, as opposed to a more traditional combat engine.
Initially, I'd taken our conversation simply as praise for Chris Avellone's knack for high quality, immersive narrative design, but once I was set up with the demo for myself, it quickly became apparent that Disco Elysium has no doubt also been inspired by Planescape: Torment's surreal brand of existential horror.
The demo began with text displayed on a black screen, read by a sinister voiceover. I found myself in a dialogue tree argument with my protagonist's own thought processes. His Ancient Lizard Brain tried to goad me into drifting peacefully through the inky blackness. As I challenged these thoughts, another voice came into play: The Limbic System. Speaking to these two soon made it apparent that our protagonist is struggling to come out of a drunken stupor to face the hangover from hell, and I was tasked with battling his natural instincts so he could rise to the occasion. After rolling some skill checks, the blackness began to recede as the world filled in from the edges inward towards my hero: a stout, middle-aged man clad only in his tighty-whities, laying face-down ass-up in a ruined motel room. He stumbled fuzzily to his feet; a reel-to-reel tape deck, sans tape, clicked and spun endlessly in the corner, a reel of choral music violently torn to magnetic ribbons on the floor nearby. I dressed my hero in a tacky leisure suit and glanced at a calendar on the wall. Apparently the year is `52, but to his horror, the protagonist found himself unable to determine what century
it is — nor could he remember anything about himself, not even his own face.
While Disco Elysium's over-the-hill hirsute alcoholic protagonist is static, players are given a choice of four starting "classes" which govern his initial skills. There's Logician, a detail-oriented lateral thinker with terrible people skills; Sensitive, a charismatic empath who "might lose his mind"; Predator, a fascistic tough-guy who talks with his fists and "will definitely lose his mind"; and Detective, a jack of all trades/master of none who, though relatively proficient, is likely to miss out on the more interesting story threads that require a specialist approach. Being the type of player who gets the most out of interaction with other characters — not to mention one who feels too guilty to play the villain's part — I picked Sensitive. This choice came with its own caveats; as I wiped the filth from the bathroom mirror, my protagonist peered at his own visage to see a sleazy, forced smile; a grin permanently locked in place by some form of live rigor mortis. My character portrait became this unsettling grimace which doubled as a persuasion skill...albeit, one dependent on the temperament of the person I wished to use it on.
I stepped out into the motel lobby and attempted to gather some info on who I was and how I got here. As I accosted the other guests, I learned I was in the City of Revachol (an underworld paradise that's virulently anti-cop) to investigate a gruesome homicide. I headed downstairs to meet my new partner, Detective Kim Kitsuragi. Unable to give him my own name, I rolled a skill check to come up with a cool sounding pseudonym. I failed that one, and muttered an unconvincing "I'll tell you some other time." Kitsuragi filled me in that the victim's corpse has been hanging nude from a tree outside the motel for seven straight days and questioned what I'd been doing in that time. As my character was unable to answer, I found myself wondering about the game's title. Is this Elysium a physical locale, or a disco-loving purgatory in which jobs and roles must continue to be carried out to esoteric ends?
I didn't have an answer to that either, so Kitsuragi and I stepped outside to investigate the body. We came across two teenage street urchins throwing rocks at its exposed genitals. I attempted to intervene, but found myself on the receiving end of some virulently homophobic abuse. I attempted to talk some sense into them but didn't get very far. I was assured there was an alternative solution to their puzzle that didn't involve speechcraft, but I had to dash off to my next appointment before I could figure it out for myself. I can see what ZA/UM is attempting with these characters; their liberal use of slurs definitely made me feel like I was back in high school, though personally, that's not a feeling I'm keen to recapture. Admittedly, this has made me a little wary of how the rest of Disco Elysium's script is going to pan out, though I would be lying if I said I wasn't very enticed by the ins-and-outs of Revachol's ontological murder mystery.
Disco Elysium is unique, uncomfortable, and bizarrely alluring. Watch for it before the end of the year.