Waking up with the mother of all hangovers is something I’ve thankfully put behind me as I’ve aged. Nights out followed by pounding headaches all became too much. The bouts of melancholy and regret over spending all that money, saying all those things or acting the fool weighed too heavily during their aftermath. The occasional moments of glory provoked by reveling, few and far between, but certainly there. With hindsight, it can be hard to even think of the mind set and mentality I had in order to do those things, almost as if another person did it. It’s hard not to imagine the writers at Studio ZA/UM considering their experiences similarly, as this scenario of being far too hung over and far too unsure of what provoked this situation is where we find ourselves at the start of their new game, Disco Elysium.
Disco Elysium is, in the simplest of terms, a story focused RPG with no combat gameplay. Viewed from an isometric perspective, you control the weary, worn out and altogether addled body of a man who has woken up in a trashed apartment with no idea of who he is, where he is, what happened or why. With this complete erasure of the self comes the perfect scenario to justify our input as players – choosing how our unlucky avatar thinks, acts and reacts to people and situations. It’s all as one might expect from a CRPG when it comes to choosing dialogue, taking action and moving ahead, all apart from one major difference – the facets of your character that make up your skillset all have voices of their own, each weighing in and commenting, trying to sway your action, for good and bad.
At the outset, you choose your character’s skills and immediately set yourself on a path toward being a particular kind of person and, in turn, a particular kind of detective. Selecting to boost or reduce your Intellect, Psyche, Physique and Motorics sets your base stats, which are linked to a set of secondary traits that describe your character’s capacity in a given field. Focus on Intellect and skills like Logic and Visual Calculus are raised, giving you an edge in seeing logical flaws in witness testimony or the ability to take a look at a crime scene and discern details other might miss thanks to your keenly analytical mind.
In contrast to the perhaps coldly real attitudes that Intellect brings, Psyche gives boosts to traits like Empathy, Authority and an abstract concept called Inland Empire. With this focus, you’ll find yourself capable of seeing when others hold back information or lie to save face. You’ll be able to impose the sense that others must help you due to your position in society thanks to a high Authority stat, while the ability to look inside and harness the power of imagination to think outside the box is provided by Inland Empire.
Physique raises your abilities in Endurance, Electro-chemistry and Shivers, among others, to help create a physically imposing individual. With these stats raised, knocking down doors, making good on threats and taking the physical punishment that hard drugs and alcohol dish out becomes far easier. An abstraction called Shivers in this selection of stats gives your character an almost sixth sense like ability to sense the mood on the wind, to almost hear the whispers of the city itself in a manner akin to a detective from a noir novel.
Last, but most certainly not least of your stats is Motorics. Raising it gives bonuses to your Hand/Eye Coordination, Reaction Speed and Composure, allowing your mutton chop sporting alcoholic to accurately aim his pistol, make snappy retorts and keep his cool under pressure. Alongside these obviously useful and appealing abilities is another more unusual trait named Savoir Faire which allows for all kinds of slickness and audacious behaviour. Imagine the iconic image of an American cop sliding across the hood of his car and deftly aiming his gun at a fleeing perp and you’re imagining one hell of a display of Savoir Faire. In short, it will make you a cool cat.
What makes these choices to important and compelling is the way each trait is personified in your character’s mind. After waking, you’re free to stumble around telling everyone you can’t remember what’s going on, but as you do thoughts will swell up and contend to direct your perception. Admitting you’re an amnesiac might make your Logic take issue, noting that you’re making a fool of yourself and perhaps ought to think before talking, while your sense of Drama may take an alternative attitude and decide to encourage you when you act against your interest, just because it wants to see what might happen.
As you converse and interact with the world around you, checks are made against your skills regularly and not always in the ways you might expect. Perhaps you’ll try to smooth talk the first woman you meet, but your Suggestion isn’t very high and you fail a check as you attempt a chat up line? Brace yourself for a fumbling, hilarious conversation in which your character becomes a monosyllabic source of amusement for the poor woman you’re trying it on with. Make that check though, and a whole other branch of conversation may open up. More than that, this conversation will matter later and what you’ve revealed and how you’ve acted will come back around to you, be it good or bad when it does.
This focus on consequence and chains of events runs throughout Disco Elysium, true to it’s detective focused, murder mystery story aspirations. Each passed or failed check opens and closes routes toward crucial information, each conversation choice changing the way others view you. Disco Elysium takes place in a relatively small space, but it’s density is impressive. Each character you meet has reams of fascinating, flavourful dialogue and your choice of reaction is a true step away from the thoroughly worn out trope of Good/Sarcastic/Nasty reaction. Trying to play characters against each other or lazily thinking you’ll bypass their prejudices with overt aggression will often give some unexpected results compared to other games in the genre.
What makes this already specific and wonderfully realized tone and attitude all the better are the thoughts that your choices can provoke. Perhaps you’re under the impression that you’re a hot shot cop, some sort of superstar who is bound for greatness? Perhaps you’re a hand wringing moralizer, forever lost in quandary over the best course of action for the greater good. Perhaps you’re just a homeless guy who happens to be a cop – a hobocop, if you will? In each instance and many more, unusual dialogue choices will eventually lead to the formation of a Thought. These Thoughts must be internalized and placed in your character’s mind over the course of in game hours. Their results are myriad, but many boost skills after they’ve been successfully held in mind and all offer some extra insight on the world around you, though some will give debuff and cost you precious stat points while you’re working them into your mind.
So, to the location in which Disco Elysium takes place – Revachol. The feeling that this place is of our world, but not quite is powerful, as European overtones run throughout the location and people who live there while American cop cliche drives the more absurd elements of your ability to react and take action within it’s confines. Talk of past conflicts and the echoes of that time harken to real world politics, with current issues plaguing the area such as worker’s rights and racial tension most certainly being real world issues that we all have to in some way engage with. Being provoked to express opinion on such things and having characters react, not in some typically conciliatory way but instead challenging and openly deriding a player for their choice or offering salient counterpoint is something I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to see more of in games aimed at an adult market. Disco Elysium doesn’t draw lines on these subjects, so much as explores them and presents the player with the opportunity to play with such concepts too. It’s the kind of bravery in story telling that few companies ever indulge, much to their detriment.
To say more about what happens in the game or to go into detail about it’s characters and the scenarios you’ll be solving would be to dilute their potential for impact on you, the currently blind but curious, potential player. What I will say though is that Disco Elysium made me laugh out loud more times than any game in recent memory and in ways that I still chuckle about when I consider them days later. More than that though, Disco Elysium gave me pause for thought and reflection so regularly that when it came to an end I almost felt angry that I’d been left with so much to consider, that I’d not seen more of that tantalizingly weird world and wanted to keep digging deeper and deeper until the esoteric mysteries and more mundane criminal networks of the land had been exposed and understood. There are answers to questions just waiting to be dug up and wondered over.
That feeling of almost being angry by the end washed away though and I’m left with the urge to see and know more. Truly, more than any story focused game I’ve played in years aside from perhaps Obsidian’s Tyranny, I NEED to see more of the world Studio ZA/UM have created. I NEED to visit the precinct in Jamrock and find out what kind of a cop I had been before I became the Sorry Moralist. I NEED to know more of The Pale and what forces beyond perception influence the fate of humanity in this bizarre place. I NEED to meet Measurehead on the Semenine Islands or on Boogie Street to decide the fate of the ham Sandwich race. And you, if all of this sounds tantalizing in any way, you NEED to buy Disco Elysium. Don’t watch someone else playing it – make your choices and don’t miss what is hopefully the first story in an exciting and distinct, ongoing series.
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