I am mostly writing this “review” to provide a space for people to discuss their experiences with the game. Nonetheless, I’d like to provide some context for the curious, and hopefully some encouragement for those that might interested in this unique CRPG.
Disco Elysium is the debut game by the Estonian game studio ZA/UM. It was released October 19th, 2019 on PC, with a Mac version in April of this year, and upcoming PS4, Xbox One, and Switch versions announced for some time later this year. In many ways it’s a fairly traditional CRPG: you gain skill points by completing tasks and use those points to improve skills that your character has. Those skills influence how you interact with the world. However, the emphasize here is mostly on dialogue. There is no combat in the usual CRPG sense. Any violent interactions you may take part in, of which there are very few, are encountered within the plot, and their success or failure is dictated by skill checks. These skill checks make up a large part of the game’s systems and passing them can influence anything from you catching something tossed at you to whether you can intervene in a tense standoff.
The skills that you possess are, to say the least, nontraditional. There are the usual ‘Endurance’ and ‘Rhetoric’, but then there are esoteric skills like ‘Shivers’ and ‘Inland Empire’. Whole articles could be written about the intricacies of this system, and they have been! In fact you can find Ollie Toms description on Rock Paper Shotgun here: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2019/10/14/disco-elysium-skills-character-creation-intellect-psyche-physique-motorics-and-the-24-skills-explained/
As mentioned, these skills are the lifeblood of the gameplay, and dictate how you traverse the dialogue tree, and other interactions with the world. But, more importantly, they also dictate how you interact with yourself. That’s because the skills are not just abstract ideas, they have their own personalities, and rattle around in your head fighting for your attention.
Let me back up.
You wake up in a ruined room, slumped on the floor clutching a bottle, naked except for underwear and socks. Who are you? Where are you? What are you? Disco Elysium begins with the trope of an amnesiac, a tabula rasa. But it goes further, because despite your best efforts, you can’t escape your past. And you certainly can’t escape history. You slowly realize that you have drank yourself into such a stupor that you’ve literally forgotten everything. This is good, for you, the player, because you have the opportunity to learn about your surroundings just as your character is. Indeed, you are often given the opportunity to hang a lampshade on your curious condition, and sometimes you don’t have a choice. You don’t have vital information that you are expected to have, like who you work for, what you’re doing there, or what anything is. You’ll be forced to ask absurd things like, “What is this ‘America’ thing you keep talking about?”
Except, you won’t be asking that, because this isn’t America. It’s Revachol. Specifically, Martinase. Don’t worry, that’s just the start of it. You’ll learn about countries, continents, possibly planets. Whole histories, philosophical schools, economic perspectives, race theory. And there’s a body hanging on a rope in the back of the cafeteria.
Did I mention that? Fundamentally, that’s what you’re doing here, in this game. You’re a cop. There’s been a murder. You were supposed to get that body down, I guess. There’s also a man here who says he’s your partner.
At its core Disco Elysium is a CRPG, but your main focus is to learn, to adapt, to pry, and to get into trouble.
What kind of cop are you?
Okay, I ran out of energy up there. But here’s what I really want to talk about So what happened in your game? What paths did you choose? What thought cabinets did you take? Did you recruit Cuno? Did you get the Fuck the World jacket?
After I finished, I read some negative reviews, to try to get a different perspective on the game. None of them were particularly insightful. Most of them complained about the amount of reading that was required (which is, frankly, asinine). There was one, however that had an issue with the ending. Part of it was leaving threads open. The only one left open from my game, and I would hardly call it a thread, anyway, was The Return. But that’s deliberate world building, and is hinted at throughout the closing dialogue. But another issue was that the ultimate culprit was someone uninvolved with the rest of the game. That they just came out of the blue.
I suppose that comes from specific expectations about how whodunits work, but it made me realize that if you’re playing this game to find the murderer, you’re really not doing it correctly. Of course, that’s your main quest, as Kitsuragi will be happy to remind you. But the real point of the game is to build up yourself, understand the milieu, and reacquaint yourself with the world.
In that respect, the ending was immensely satisfying to me. The deserter represented the violence of history, and it’s constant imposition on the reality of the modern day. Martinese is a city sector doomed to swallow itself up, again, and again. It’s marked with the past, with bullet holes from atrocities that don’t let it wrench itself away from the past. All of the games larger themes were encapsulated in the deserter.
But more importantly, the sudden inexplicable appearance of the Phasmid, and its unexplained influence on the deserter presents a new angle on the themes of the game. Yes, history is bound to echo through the present, but it’s still controlled inexplicably and mysteriously by nature and the surrounding environment, no matter how much we fight against it. But we need to fight against it, that’s what makes us human, butting our heads against our fate, rising from our comfortable reptilian brains.