Have you ever been hungover in a video game? Not just once but permanently? In Disco Elysium the hangover is not a one-off—it’s more a state of mind.
My first day in the town of Revachol I stumbled around clicking on everything in sight. The fishnet shirt? I put it on immediately. It emphasized the unpredictable eccentricity of my new flip-up sunglasses perfectly. The punk kid who showed no respect for my authority as an officer of the law? I laid him out flat with a sucker punch to the jaw. Beating up 12-year old kids is thankless work, so I started day drinking while wandering around, just to buck up my spirits and feel some warmth inside. And yes, I kicked that damn mailbox—hard. It gave me a funny look, man.
If you’ve spent any time in the past month clicking on video game content you’ve probably already heard of Disco Elysium. But for the sake of my own self-indulgence, I’m going to imagine you squinting at this page in confusion like a hung-over, naked detective on the tail-end of a three-day bender, and will fill you in.
An RPG made by ZA/UM—an artist-collective-turned-development studio based in Estonia and the UK—Disco Elysium’s setting and lore is drawn from a custom tabletop scenario played by the group for the past seven-or-so years. Given an isometric viewpoint, animated watercolor illustrations and basic point-and-click navigation, you play a detective in the grip of a drug and alcohol induced amnesia. Or possibly a psychotic break. Something happened and you can’t remember a thing.
It’s all very unfortunate timing because a Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi from Precinct 57 just arrived to help solve the mystery of the armoured boots clad dead body hanging behind your hotel. And the whole town is already on edge due to a union dispute and the strike that’s brewing down at the docks. Your job is to be the police officer everyone seems to think you are. But you have options. For example, if you wanted, you could give up on the murder mystery and become a homeless alcoholic hobo instead.
After my own altercation with the mailbox, feeling a dull pang of remorse easily confused with the normal boredom of small-town police, I agreed to fetch that punk kid a bottle of stolen amphetamines. We split ‘em in broad daylight as Lt. Kitsuragi looked on in silence. Hard to tell what that guy’s thinking sometimes. Other folks we found that first day included a woman in her studio, working on dice commissions for tabletop games and an itchy bookshop owner.
Using Kim’s radio I called into the district station and let it slip that I had lost my memory, my badge and my gun. My wallet had vanished too, so I collected used bottles in a plastic bag to help pay for the hotel room that someone had royally trashed, rock star style. All of this was horsing around. Procrastination. Avoiding duty. The corpse in the hotel’s backyard had been rotting for seven days but I couldn’t get close without vomiting.
There are lots of tabletop references in Disco Elysium and that makes sense because playing it feels like participating in a custom Dungeons & Dragons campaign set on the outskirts of a large metropolis, DM’ed by a loquacious Eastern European Professor; one who probably once had a second life as a ringleader in the Communist punk scene and reads noir fiction on weekends.
At the start, you are given the option to create or select an archetype made up of twelve points distributed between intellect, psyche, physique, and motorics. These four categories each sit over six additional skills that can each be raised, individually, as you gain XP. What makes this so different from other RPGs is that these twenty-four “skills” are not just indicators of probabilities or possible paths you can take to advance your character’s story. It’s not really fair to call them skills actually because they are in fact distinct voices inside your detective’s head expressing psychological and physical tendencies, voicing opinions and facts as you interact with objects and characters.
Put points into Inland Empire and inanimate objects will speak to you. Buff up on Visual Calculus you’ll have a better shot at reconstructing crime scenes. Drama speaks in a Shakespearean voice and stirs up, well, drama. Electro-Chemistry is your id and it encourages you to consume alcohol and drugs and think about sex 24/7. Esprit de Corps allows you to “[u]nderstand cop culture.” Talk to a character, walk on a balcony, look at tracks in the mud and one or more of these voices will talk to you, offering information or memories, making suggestions or snide comments. How you respond is determined by what kind of detective you’ve decided to play.
Want to play a tireless revolutionary who drags communism and labor into every conversation? You can. Prefer to role-play a sexist pig, the kind of guy who probably ends every conversation with a female with the words “baby,” or “doll?” Okay. That is an option. Feeling more like a capitalist who wants to preach the gospel of the free market, or perhaps a supernatural detective attuned to the call of a world beyond our own? You can do all of this. Disco Elysium is committed to allowing the player wide and startling freedom.
This all occurs in the basic frame of a point-and-click adventure game. There is little combat. When a fight occurs it is a climactic moment whose outcome, like everything else in the game, is determined by stat checks and dice rolls. Many stat checks happen automatically. Others are optional. Thinking about lifting those weights? Your Interfacing ability is low and chance of success is shown to be 17%. You could come back later or just accept that your character isn’t very fit. You could also pop some pills or snort some drugs and maybe that would help. In Revachol consumable substances briefly alter stats.
What you cannot do in Disco Elysium is see all that the game has to offer in one or two playthroughs. Despite ZA/UM’s claim that the game could take 80 hours to finish, my run ended in twenty-four. It’s good to keep in mind that the game’s large scope is not geographical. Not knowing this I was imagining something the size of Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Breath of the Wild. Instead, imagine a map the size of Fort Joy, or Zelda’s Great Plateau. The town and surrounding area are small but the depth is vertiginous.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so excited to see new NPCs to talk to. “Look, there’s a new one! What will happen this time?” I’d think. What chain of reactions and possibilities will result from the strange alchemy of stats, characteristics and digested thoughts that I’ve cobbled together?
Yes, on top of everything else, there is a thought digestion system. In addition to the character stat sheet, the game gives you something called a “Thought Cabinet.” There are 53 thoughts total. They arise in conversations with yourself, or with other characters. It’s impossible to collect them all one time through and on my play-through I managed to get eleven. Each thought requires time to develop and enter your psyche where it then gives you a stat boost or a de-buff. After talking to a pretentious character who knew a lot about art I had the option to digest the “Wompty-Dompty Dom Center” thought that would have upped my Encyclopedia knowledge but would have also made me a “Pretentious wanker.”
But even pretentious wankers will find it difficult to deny that playing Disco Elysium feels revolutionary. Not only does it take place in a world where Communism and revolution are remembered by some as more than abstract history, but it pushes the RPG in a radically new direction, one with actual choices and an overwhelming variety of voices and words. It makes me wish I could find friends who wanted to play custom Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. I replay few games, but this is one that I can easily imagine starting all over again. The writing is just that good, that surprising, confusing, and hilarious.
It’s not perfect. There are lots of loading screens and this becomes a bit tiring in one or two locations where you have to spend a lot of time backtracking and going upstairs and back down. And while I personally enjoyed the music and know that it is probably a big expense, it would be nice to have a bit more variety. I’m not sure I could listen to even ten more minutes of the hotel theme. Traversal could also be much better. Instead of clicking and clicking on the edge of the screen to make the character run to your next destination, why not allow the player to tag a general location on the map for the character to run or even walk to. Maybe walking and never running is how you stretch the game to 80 hours?
It’s exciting to imagine what could come next from ZA/UM. Its fair to describe the voice of Disco Elysium as supremely male and there’s no option to play as a female. The developers have already suggested they’re considering remedying this with a followup that will give players the option to play as a pregnant woman. A possible video game first? A sequel would also have the chance to develop a more detailed inventory and item system. The clothing you find in Revachol contributes a lot to the game’s humor and I never got tired of collecting as many objects as I could find. But imagine a game set in this same world that took more cues from the player agency allowed in something like Divinity: Original Sin 2, where objects can be used for the player’s own inventive strategies and mischief.
In addition to an eventual sequel, the developers have let slip that they’re also planning to publish a manifesto. Are they planning a rebellion? A video game design putsch? After Disco Elysium the possibilities seem endless. Viva la revolución.
You can find Disco Elysium on PC.