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Disco Elysium - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Skills expressed as internal dialogue
  • Existential introspection
  • Political introspection
  • Compelling mystery
  • Systems encourage and reward role play
  • Revachol itself feels like a character
  • Can't pass time without progressing story
  • Robust log of activities and goals
  • Expressionist art style

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Can't pass time without progressing the story
  • Ideological extremes
  • Loading screens separated by a single, tiny transitional zone

Overall Impression : A
The politics is the point

Disco Elysium - cover

Developer:
ZA/UM

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam, Epic Store, or GoG),
PlayStation 4 | 5 (via retail disc PSN digital download),
XBox One | X | S (via retail disc XBox Live digital download).
Nintendo Switch (via retail disc Nintendo Store digital download).
Google Stadia (via Stadia digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $40 USD

Original release date:
15 October 2019

Genre:
Mystery, thriller RPG

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
30-90 hours

ESRB Rating: M for Mature (17+) for:
Blood, Violence, Strong Language,
Sexual Themes, Use of Drugs

Official site:
discoelysium.com/

It's kind of hard to play a lot of video games while holding an infant child. It's certainly possible, but I had to accept that I was going to be less precise in my inputs whether I was holding a PlayStation controller or a keyboard and mouse. It seemed like a perfect time to try out a game that only requires a mouse to play -- a perfect time to finally try out Disco Elysium!

Disco Elysium is a unique and experimental RPG that straddles the line between RPG, point-and-click adventure, and walking sim. Most RPGs have combat of varying degrees of complexity in order to give all the various character stats and progression systems something to do. Disco Elysium completely eschews those conventions. I think I fired a gun maybe three times in my entire play time with the game (across a campaign and a half that I played prior to reviewing), and one of those gunshots was against a corpse hanging from a tree. Oh and I roundhouse kicked a a racist beefcake (you know, in order to establish my own racial superiority). Not exactly Call of Duty over here.

It may not require the twitch reflexes that many "gamer bros" expect every game to have, but games like this have been a godsend for those of us who only have one free hand to hold a mouse, because the other arm is holding a sleeping infant. It also happens to be a really good game.

I maybe fired a gun thrice, and roundhouse kicked a racist once, in 40+ hours of gameplay.

Inner dialogue

Instead of channeling character stats into gauntlets of filler combat encounters as a way of accumulating experience to improve those stats for the next combat encounters, Disco Elysium channels all of its character attributes into conversation trees. But these conversations aren't just with the other characters who I interview as part of the murder mystery plot. These conversations are also with the character's own inner monologue.

You see, the skills in Disco Elysium aren't like the skills of most other RPGs. They don't determine the character's physical strength, or agility, or skill with various weapons, or a blanket "charisma" attribute that determines if people believe your lies or are swayed by your arguments. No, instead, all of the skills of Disco Elysium represent elements of the protagonist's personality and psyche. Those skills will even pop up during dialogue and allow the character to have arguments or conversations with his own inner monologue. Each skill is like a voice in the protagonist's head, telling him what to do, or how to interpret the events he encounters. Each skill is sort of a character in its own right.

The character's skills talk to him, giving the player insight into the game world and current circumstances,
and also (sometimes flawed) advice about how to proceed.

I'm reminded of the psychosis voices of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, with each voice shouting over the others trying to tell Senua what to do or telling her that she's worthless and can't do anything right. Except in Disco Elysium, the player can actually have conversations with those voices. You can talk back to them.

These skills will pop up from time to time as interjections during conversations to make observations about what is happening or to recommend specific courses or action or responses. It's also a great way of delivering exposition and ensuring that the player knows any relevant details that the character should know. But they aren't always completely reliable. Sometimes blindly following the advice of these skills can land you in trouble.

The "Shivers" skill really helps bring Revachol to life.

One of the more interesting skills is "Shivers", which represents the protagonist's "street knowledge" of the city, and which allows him to visualize what life in the city is like. This ability rarely provides directly useful information, but it does provide a tremendous amount of insight into the city as a character and the inhabitants who live within it. It helps to augment and reinforce a lot of the world-building that the rest of the game is doing.

Other skills might represent the character's willingness to engage in debate, his ability to lie or recognize lies, the knowledge he has accumulated about police culture, random trivia about the game world as a whole, his predisposition towards drug addiction and alcoholism, and so forth. Exactly none of the skills determine how much damage he does with an attack or how much junk he can carry in his inventory.

To account for the lack of direct combat, Disco Elysium does not employ a typical health bar, since you aren't being shot at or stabbed with swords around every corner. He has a handful of hit points that can be depleted whenever he suffers pain or does something physically exhausting. Something as simple as stubbing his toe, or punching a wall in frustration, or sitting for too long in an uncomfortable chair can cost him a hit point. And of course, if he does happen to get shot with a gun, that will also take away hit points.

For an example of the creative ways that this game divvies out and takes away hit points, at the very beginning of the game, the character wakes up with a hangover. He is so hungover that turning on the ceiling light in his hotel room can trigger a fatal heart attack, and give a "Game Over". You can also gain health back by sleeping, eating, having a smoke, or massaging a sore muscle.

Losing morale can lead to a psychotic break and cause a Game Over.

But losing health points due to physical damage isn't the only way to trigger a fail state. Since almost all of the game's encounters are conversations with other characters or the protagonist's own inner psyche, he also has morale points which act as a second hit point store. It's kind of along the same lines as a "sanity meter" in most Lovecraft-influenced games. Failing at tasks, including being "beaten" in conversation by a wittier opponent, can cause losses of morale. He will also lose morale whenever he's confronted with the stupid shit he's done during the multi-night alcohol bender that caused him to black out and lose his memory prior to the start of the game. If his morale goes to zero, he breaks psychologically, quits the police force, and the player gets a "Game Over".

Morale can be recovered in various ways, including completing certain objectives, progressing the murder investigation, or making amends for any injury, annoyance, or damage he may have done to others or property during his bender before the game. Morale can also be restored by playing into the character's strengths. For example, if I put a lot of points into the "rhetoric" skill, it means that the character likes to engage in debate or argument with other characters. Picking an argument, and then "winning" said argument can potentially restore morale. It's yet another great system that encourages the player to role play as the character that I've built!

Socio-economic role play

The unconventional skill system and writing isn't just a novelty either. It is in service of a compelling, introspective, and thoughtful story. At a surface level, Disco Elysium is a murder-mystery. A man has been lynched and hanged behind a hostel, and it is the protagonist's job, as a police officer, to figure out who done it and arrest that person. But this isn't really the story.

Our job is ostensibly to solve a murder mystery, but the real story is much more thoughtful.

The story of Disco Elysium is more about our protagonist piecing his own past back together, confronting the traumas that lead him to alcoholism and drug abuse, and figuring out who he wants to be moving forward -- with the helpful input the player, of course.

It isn't just the details of the protagonist's personal life that make up the game's story. It's also largely about placing the protagonist somewhere along a 20th century political axis. Disco Elysium takes place in the years and decades following a series of wars between communist revolutionaries and the fascist governments that ruled them. Revolutionary sentiment still runs high, and the protagonist finds himself in the middle of a labor strike, caught between the socialist labor union, "right to work" scabs, the racist nationalists still lingering in the city, and his own duties as a police officer.

Once again, if you're one of those "get your politics out of my video games" type of gamer bros who spends all your time obliviously engaging in digital American imperialism by shooting brown foreigners because a beefcake marine told you to, then you might want to stay far away from this one, because it's going to ask you to think, instead of just mindlessly pointing crosshairs at heads and pulling a trigger.

Characters in Disco Elysium will frequently go on political rants, and the responses that the player can give usually align with pro-labor communism, racist-nationalist fascism, self-servicing ultra-liberalism, or a "moralist" centrism. It is kind of frustrating that these responses almost always lie on the extremes of those various political axes. I can't be a progressive democratic socialist. I have to be a hard-line "burn down the bourgeois", authoritarian communist. On the other end of the spectrum, I can't express the sentiment that people should have fundamental human rights without veering completely into laissez faire corporate libertarianism.

Political conversations often veer to the extremes.

Disco Elysium is stuck in this early 20th century paradigm of political polarization. It kind of makes sense, considering the game was developed in Estonia, which was on the frontlines of the real-world conflicts between these ideologies that took up most of the 20th century. There's no real political spectrum here, and when I tried straddling the line so as not to go too far into one extreme or the other, I would end up being classified as a "moralist", a complete centrist who never seems to have any opinion one way or another. But then at the end of the game, Kim still characterizes me as a "huge communist", but then also recognized and acknowledged that I paradoxically have some ultra-liberal leanings as well. So the game is a bit smarter than I thought.

I guess it would be far too much work, and far too complicated to model more gradients of the political spectrum, so I can't expect that. And I guess forcing the player to one extreme or another is a way of challenging the player to think hard about these political alignments and what they really represent. And I guess it also leads to more interesting outcomes. When everybody is basically either a Nazi, Marxist, or Randian Objectivist, the conversations and conflicts certainly are interesting. Yet somehow, most conversations manage to remain civil. But it's still disappointing that I couldn't truly play to my own personal moral compass. The closest I could come was to alternate between the "communist" response and the "moralist" response.

I do, however, appreciate that the responses that the player can give are not explicitly labeled as being either the "communist", "fascist", "ultra-liberal", or "moralist" response. While it's often pretty obvious which is which, you will at least have to read each response and think about it for a moment. This isn't like Mass Effect where "Paragon" and "Renegade" choices are explicitly labeled and highlighted in bright blue or red so that the game feels like it's making the choices for the player, and you don't have to think (or even read) the responses at all. No, Disco Elysium really forces the player to have to engage with and understand its politics.

Disco Elysium can be very nihilistic.

The murder-mystery that makes up the actual plot is, after all, fundamentally intertwined with those failed communist revolutions of the game's past -- and in multiple, surprising ways, no less. There is no escaping the politics of Disco Elysium, and that is refreshing in a climate full of entitled, basement-dwelling, man-baby snowflakes throwing tantrums over any perceived "wokeness" in any piece of media, and publishers pandering to those snowflakes by insisting that their games about racism, revolutions, holy wars, terrorism, imperialism, cyberpunk dystopias, and so on are all somehow "not political". As if that's even possible.

A refreshingly-sympathetic take on communism

Disco Elysium's take on communism is probably the most interesting political statement that it makes. At first glance, it seems openly hostile to the idea. Text within the game insists that nobody wants to self-identify as a communist because of all the baggage that the failed revolution brings with it. Communism was defeated in this world. The Bolshevik revolution failed before it even got off the ground. This mirrors the response that most Americans have towards communism, which is that it is an utterly failed (and evil) ideology that does not warrant a second look, even though its ideals have never truly been attempted (even by the Soviets and Maoists).

So it's interesting that Disco Elysium seems to be the most sympathetic towards communisism. The fascists and nationalists are unabashedly racist, sexist, homophobic, and all-around despicable. The ultra-liberals are corrupt and greedy corporatists with no concern for the workers or lower classes. The ideologies themselves invariably lead to those outcomes, according to Disco Elysium.

The communist characters are also villainously corrupt. They pay lip service to the "common good" in order to enrich themselves and accumulate power. But this is often contrasted with a communist player character's more genuine concern for the working class and for socio-economic equality. The corruption of the labor movement rarely comes off as a failing of the ideology itself. In fact, the game often makes a point of insisting that these characters are "doing communism wrong". And it's true, those characters are doing communism wrong. Just like Stalin and Mao did it wrong. Having a leader is inherently un-communist, since the whole philosophy is built around the idea of a classless society in which everybody contributes according to their aptitude, and everybody is entitled to an equal share of all that the economy produces. The game makes a point of emphasizing that this philosophy has never been realized. It's still a pipe dream.

Disco Elysium is sympathetic to the ideals of communism,
but not to the corrupt leaders who use the "common good" as a means to enrich themselves.

Heck, even humanism is soiled by an almost religious reverence for a patron saint named Delores Dei! So even the humanist options often had me second guessing whether I wanted to chose them because I felt like doing so would put me in a cult.

Or at least, that was my takeaway. There's a lot of dialogue and interaction in this game, and it's entirely possible that my own socialist proclivities fed back into the game and lead me to dialogue that glamorized the ideals of communism. Maybe if I were an entitled, basement-dwelling man-baby snowflake complaining about everything being "woke", I might have stumbled into dialogue trees that paint a more favorable picture of fascist nationalism. Or maybe the game would be more openly critical of that political alignment. I guess I'll just have to finish my "fascist playthrough" and get back to you on that one...

Killing time

Disco Elysium employs a strange day / night cycle in which time passes while engaged in conversation -- but only if that conversation is new dialogue. Repeatedly asking the same questions does not pass time. This can be annoying if I'm stuck and just want to end the day because I have to scour the map for someone to talk to in order to pass the remaining minutes or hours.

But at the same time, this system proves remarkably useful and really helps to force the player deeper into Disco Elysium's world. First and foremost, it ensures that the player experiences a minimum amount of content and story in each of the game's days, since you cannot progress to the next day until you've explored enough of the city to have enough unique conversations to pass the time. Simply lounging around your hotel room, or wandering back and forth won't run out the clock on the day and cause you to miss large chunks of story. If you find yourself with a lot of time left over in the day, that is a sure sign that you've missed something. There is somebody, somewhere, who has new information for you.

But there also usually aren't enough NPCs to talk to in order to pass all the hours in the first couple days, so the player has to dip your toes at least a little bit into Disco Elysium's personal or political introspection. Reading books (which you must buy with money) is one way to pass excess hours. You can also engage in internal dialogue with any of the various "thoughts" that pop up in the character's mind. Books and thoughts will trigger conversations with the character's subconscious that will inform his political, moral, ethical, and metaphysical opinions, as well as providing passive bonuses (or in some cases, debuffs).

Proper time management is sometimes critical to the success of a quest.

This leads to a remarkably well-paced and well-curated experience, especially compared to the multitude of repetitive, tedious, open world sandbox games that companies like Ubisoft keep insisting that we want to waste 90 hours on.

There are side quests, some of which are optional. Some of them can be surprisingly involved and complex. But none of them ever feel like filler, and they certainly don't feel copy-pasted! Not only do all these side quests further engage the player with the game's politics or the protagonist's fractured psyche, a surprising amount of them actually end up informing the main murder mystery with new witnesses and evidence. So even someone trying to bee-line through the "main quest" might have a hard time discerning which objectives are "main" and which ones aren't.

The end result is a game that feels masterfully crafted. The creators had a vision for Disco Elysium, and they fulfilled that vision almost without flaw. It's pretty damn impressive for a debut game. You can bet that if Za/um ever releases a follow-up game, I won't wait 2 years to play it.

"Side quests" can be a way of passing time, but they'll usually feel more "main" than you might think.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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