The world of gaming presents several kinds of games to consume. Of course, we have the annual Call of Duty release to scratch a visceral multiplayer itch that satisfies and frustrates in a predictable manner. We also have the attempts at niche, minimalistic arthouse renditions of independent titles that seem like they lazily try to say a lot by doing little. Stylized games mill about in the RPG sector that pull at the heartstrings or build a gigantic world gushing with lore as they try to topple the Tolkien goliath in epic fantasy. Ninety-nine percent of these titles vie for dollars as they hope to satisfy their demographic. Then there’s Disco Elysium, which takes hold of the foundation of what we know in the gaming landscape and violently shakes the core with Titan-like fists.
Disco Elysium follows an amnesiac alcoholic detective who greets us from the black void. Curtains drawn, our hero awakens on the floor of his hotel room, his head trying to kill the rest of his body with a wicked hangover. After accomplishing the most humbling, simplest tasks, we discover that we came to this podunk town to investigate the murder of a lynched man right in the backyard. Our dedicated gumshoe makes introductions with people he’s clearly met (and previously irritated) over the course of this last week he can’t remember. The protagonist being a detective, the denizens feel obligated to demonstrate a degree of decorum, though each shows varying levels of intolerance or bemusement at his recent behavior. At first, he seems to be a total screw-up, but is he? That is up to the player to decide.
To date, Disco Elysium has been marketed as an RPG, and while its use of skill points and checks leans heavily into this genre, I’d describe it more as a graphic adventure title. Disco Elysium has virtually no combat or physical demands on the protagonist, instead relying primarily on storytelling. Players can expect most gameplay to occur in choosing where to go and who to talk to, dialogue options, and occasional “dice rolling.”
When creating the protagonist, players can choose one of four predetermined stat layouts or customize their own, giving the impression that the bulk of the gameplay will be about stats… but this is far from the truth. Yes, skill checks passively and actively influence how the story plays out, but dialogue options remain king. Skills matter, though: within the four houses of skill types exist six sub-abilities. These twenty-four sub-abilities are what truly matter in the numeric aspect of the game and make our protagonist who he is. Some examples include Composure, Hand/Eye Coordination, Empathy, and Physical Instrument. Each skill has a brief description when clicked in the stat screen explaining its meaning, as some are not always obvious. Sure, everyone can intuitively understand Logic, but what about Half Light?
Over the course of the game, our protagonist engages with several different memorable NPCs — few are forgettable. While conversing, these sub-abilities chime in depending on the passive skill check they demand. For instance, if the protagonist has high Conceptualization, this quality may interrupt far more frequently than Physical Instrument if that stat is low. These sub-abilities act like part of the protagonist’s inner psyche and provide advice on how to engage with certain people. If the hero engages with an extremely strong individual, Endurance may speak up a fair bit more than Suggestion. In addition to these passive skill checks, sometimes sub-abilities show up in dialogue options, providing a chance to roll the dice and use a degree of expertise to sway the conversation. The common “white skill check” offers the ability to test one’s chances depending on how many skill points are in, say, Shivers. If the dice meet the check, the hero will likely earn a crucial piece of insight. Don’t worry, though: failing has its own rewards and white skill checks can be retried.
Unlike most games that use a similar system, sometimes failing can be just as fun as succeeding — or moreso. When a failed check occurs, usually the protagonist humorously falls on his face, so to speak, and may even provide additional dialogue options so that the player can decide the way in which he fails. The key here — like the rest of the game — is the writing. I cannot possibly understate just how astoundingly written Disco Elysium is. Every sentence feels labored over and significant, even if it’s not significant at all in the grand scheme of things. Each character feels unique and memorable, even if they play the smallest role and have an otherwise unremarkable life. Robert Kurvitz, the lead designer and writer, enables us to witness the stories of those the world can’t otherwise see.
Through its central narrative and engrossing gameplay, Disco Elysium draws on themes common to those who consume literature. That isn’t what’s important, though — it’s how the game comments on these themes. Truly, Disco Elysium has something for everyone. Socioeconomic politics? Check. Trauma and intrapersonal strife? Check. A gripping mystery? Check. Comedy? Check. Of course, to get the most out of Disco Elysium, welcoming all of it with open arms accentuates the experience, as these qualities are interwoven so expertly as to create a true work of art.
That isn’t to say Disco Elysium is preachy. Taking any five minutes out of context might cause one to believe that there’s an underlying agenda, and maybe there is, but it never feels so. One of the most incredible qualities of Disco Elysium is how many meaningful choices are constantly available in each conversation. Want to be an abrasive jackass? That’s a legitimate path, and people will respond in like. Players can take the chameleon route and sympathize with everyone they see, never taking on an identity, or go full Communist and speak out against the bourgeoisie. One could even dive hard into being a dumpster fire of a detective and continue the never-ending drunken, drug-abusing bender that seemed to have caused the amnesia in the first place. Or maybe you want to be a doom monger and spread chaos.
While the game offers some of the funniest writing I’ve read to date and literally left me laughing out loud, especially in the beginning 20% or so, Disco Elysium can feel like a slog. As beautiful as the game is in all aspects, there’s a tremendous amount of reading, and sometimes the writing is so incredibly thick (especially with regard to the fictional history of the district) that my eyes glazed over more than once and I just had to stop for fear of missing out on something important or otherwise interesting. I had to take a step away for a few days at a couple points just to re-energize myself for the veritable novel I was ingesting. One might say that this is a bad sign, and I can’t really argue with that, but given how innovative and authentic the game is, perhaps my brain was just becoming accustomed to a new standard of prose in video games.
In other small critique, I will say that sometimes the game compartmentalized its dialogue a little too much. For example, while I always had several dialogue options, I noticed a pattern of “The Law” dialogue or “doomsayer” options, to name a few. They didn’t always show up, but they hit me smack in the face when they did with little subtlety. Also, while I was initially blown away by the bold text and writing style, like anything else, this became the expectation, and no matter how otherworldly new scenarios were, I’d expect a certain standard from the game. All this to say that the “wow-factor” fell off within the first quarter or so of the game, but that’s probably more a commentary about human psychology than the game itself, isn’t it?
In terms of art style, I can’t say I’ve seen anything like Disco Elysium. It’s like playing on an oil painting. The background, portraits, and even characters in the foreground all have a vague quality to them that fantastically complements both the writing and who the protagonist is. At first a little jarring, I quickly fell in love with the style and find it refreshing to see a new art style in today’s games. Music and voice acting, though, might be the weakest part of Disco Elysium. A certain overworld theme plays constantly when scouring the town that started to grate on me, and little of the music elsewhere was memorable. The voice acting is good, but incredibly rare. This might fall into the “why include it if you can’t commit to it?” bucket. I hate saying that because I know voice acting isn’t cheap, especially with a gargantuan game like this, so it suggests that not including voice acting at all might have been better. Again, a comment on human psychology over production decisions. The controls flow relatively well with few hiccups. Text doesn’t always highlight intuitively with the cursor and clicking on items in the background is cumbersome on occasion.
Disco Elysium is a landmark title in gaming that will hopefully set a new standard for quality game design and writing. Everything offered within feels like a work borne from passion and talent, but that latter part’s what has me worried. I would love for Disco Elysium to somehow plant a flag that boldly proclaims, “Here! THIS is what we need to be doing and THIS is how you do it!” Even if a developer understands the “passion” part of the equation and puts in the time and resources, that doesn’t always mean they have a talent for this caliber of game. This review’s already gone on far too long, but I have to convey the affection I have for the central protagonist and his companion — their chemistry. Despite how much of a screw-up he is, I still love him for all his quirks and failings. And I made him that. Perhaps he’s a reflection of myself in some way since I have finally, for the first time ever, been given the true freedom to create the protagonist I want and not some flawless, altruistic knight who’s come to save the day.