Disco Elysium was released on October 15, 2019 and I missed it completely. I don't know why but I somehow stop following releases in autumn and winter, and games of different degrees of awesomeness just fly past me like bullets. I learned about Disco Elysium shortly before TGA2019 because the "Best RPG" category always has my attention. It was nominated along with FFXIV and The Outer Worlds, it had a cool title but other than that I had no info on what it's supposed to be. I searched for it and looked through the screenshots: the game looked beautiful but it didn't seem to have magic, elves or dragons. What kind of RPG is that?..
TGA2019 happened and Disco Elysium won not only "Best RPG" but also "Best Independent Game" surpassing a very strong set of competitors: Baba Is You, Outer Wilds, Untitled Goose Game and the most amazing Katana Zero. 2019 was a year of awesome indie titles, what can I say.
ZA/UM, creators of Disco Elysium, also won "Best Debut", leaving behind Gris, Outer Wilds, Slay the Spire, Untitled Goose Game and My Friend Pedro. By that time I had only one question, "WHAT IS THAT DISCO ELYSIUM GAME!?"
As if it all wasn't enough, Disco Elysium triumphed in the "Best Narrative" category, beating Control, The Outer Worlds, A Plague Tale: Innocence and even Death Stranding. In conclusion, the game I missed completely won every category it was nominated in (4/4) and became the most awarded game of the ceremony, showing its back to Death Stranding with 3 awards and both Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Sekiro with 2 each. How often does this happen?.. How often the game developed outside of the main gaming market - Disco Elysium comes from Estonia - gets to The Game Awards, shoulders Hideo Kojima, Obsidian Entertainment and the like, gets showered with praise and walks out with a bunch of awards?.. Not than often, I'd imagine.
Why does this post come out only now? Didn't I rush to play the game immediately? Oh, I did :D I started Disco Elysium in January of 2020, played about 10 hours, LIKED IT but then... then I got distracted by this and that, Sekiro clouded my mind, then Hades started and before I knew it I was buried under a heap of other games. But Disco Elysium always occupied my thoughts and I knew I'd be back.
This post is spoiler-free, I will probably touch on the events that happen in the first 30 minutes or so, as usual. If you haven't played it yet but considering, you can continue reading without the fear of the plot being spoiled. Isn't that cool!
I also recommend reading the development story behind Disco Elysium, it's very interesting - and also tragic. The shorter version you can find on Wikipedia, the longer interview is available, for example, here.
Kim, we have a case!
In Disco Elysium the plot itself is not all that inventive: it's a typical detective story. You have a body and a whole district of people to interrogate. Catch the murderer, solve the case. However, your protagonist is a cop who's drunk himself into oblivion and cannot remember not only his own name but also the most basic notions of the world. He's an alcoholic trying to investigate a murder. Luckily, you'll have far more competent and diligent Kim Kitsuragi by your side. Not only will you try to catch the culprit but also try and restore your memory - or maybe decide not to do so. Along the way you will build friendly - or not so friendly, or exclusively formal - relationships with your partner who unlike you knows what he's doing.
What kind of cop are you?..
Despite the fact that you will always play as the same drunk detective regaining his foggy consciousness in a dirty hotel room, you'll still have to distribute your stats and ability points. After all, it's an RPG game.
Welcome into the human existence!
Intellect, Psyche, Physique and Motorics. Inside each stat you have 6 abilities that will help you function in the world. This is not just a character sheet but a very accurate map of you as a human being. Do you want to stun people by your intellectual prowess? Invest in Intellect, and that means Logic, Encyclopedia, Drama, Rhetoric. Do you want to understand people's motives and know how to behave appropriately in any situation? Wish I could do that! Choose Psyche - and that includes Volition, Empathy, Authority. On the other hand - to hell with them people and the clever stuff. You've got Phisique, meaning Electrochemistry, Physical Instrument, Endurance, Pain Threshold. If you are not a hammer but a lockpick, consider Motorics - there you'll have Perceprion, Reaction Speed, Composure.
Every other RPG where you can create your own character: in our astonishing character creation engine you can create a spitting image of yourself! You can adjust the curve of your eyelashes and the form of your toenails!
Disco Elysium looks down on these guys. Yes, you'll always be playing as a middle-aged alcoholic. But inside he can be just like you! Isn't that awesome. In Disco Elysium you can see how well you'd do in this world. If you are a sensible person who despises use of physical force, can flex high levels of empathy but is unable to catch car keys thrown from two meters away, you can create this exact build and play it. Of course, if you want to. You can spend all your points on Psyche and open people's brains like cans. Or you can invest into Intellect and crack the case with the sheer strength of your brain muscle, it's up to you.
Levelling in Disco Elysium is unfathomably more interesting than all standard "strength/agility/intelligence" ability trees I've seen, although it's just a variation. That's what happens when your RPG doesn't have elves and dragons! Instead it ponders on the complicated things like the inner world of a human.
Thoughts to think
There is another awesome - and very true-to-life - aspect of your character progression, it's called Thought Cabinet. While investigating the murder you will inevitably come in contact with different people and phenomena, hear most wild thoughts and theories that will tingle your clouded memory. As soon as you come across something you can't get out of your mind immediately, it will take a form of a single thought that you will be able to conceptualize. As you are conceptualizing the thought - some of them take minutes, others may take hours - you will receive various bonuses and penalties to your characteristics. For example, if you are actively thinking about some ridiculous non-existing stuff, your Logic will receive a penalty. However, when you're done conceptualizing, this thought will be forever burned into your brain and give you some permanent bonuses, or permanent penalties, or both! The most wonderful thing is that you can never tell what result will occur after you're done thinking about something and how your character will transform. Thoughts kept in your Thought Cabinet can quite unpredictably influence the way you play the game, rising or lowering your chances to succeed at checks, opening new dialogue options and so on. It's unpredictable and thus beautiful. You don't know and you can't know what thoughts lead to what concequenses, and it turns your Thought Cabinet into an awesome experiment, a game without winning or losing. Whatever thought you conceptualize, it will definitely lead to some result that will definetely influence something. You can do whatever you want.
You can also manipulate thoughts: forget old ones, open slots for new ones. You get thoughts by having dialogues - including your inner talks with yourself - and events that are so numerous you are most likely not going to catch them all during your first playthrough. I finished the game, talked to everyone, completed every quest, collected everything I could and there is still like two dozen thoughts I've never encountered. And that's awesome.
24 voices in your head
I don't want people to get the wrong idea about what lies in the heart of Disco Elysium. It's reading. After completing the game you'll most likely realize that by playing it you've read a novel of a considerable size. Texts are presented in the form of short or medium-sized paragraphs so very quickly you'll lose the feeling that you're actually reading something. Before people start complaining about "the action part of the game" - this is it. Reading is your action. At times while reading in Disco Elysium my heart rate skyrocketed higher than in any FPS game.
In Disco Elysium you will constantly be talking to your own senses: when you are going somewhere, hearing something, thinking about something, talking to someone. It might seem tiring and out of place but you do it every day when not sleeping. For many hours straight every single day you are continuously thinking, analyzing, feeling, and Disco Elysium is the most accurate in-game depiction of real human life I've ever seen.
The game performs endless checks without letting you know. If you pass a check because your stat is high enough, you'll know because there will be a little circle of the corresponding colour near your head or you'll have a dialogue with yourself. Heading down to the fishing village you've passed the invisible Perception check and got a dialogue about the seagulls that, in turn, jog a distant memory of your past, and very quickly you're left with a thought you can't let go of. As in real life, while the thought hasn't overwhelmed you, you can use your willpower to refuse considering it, refuse talking about it and just throw it out. Sometimes it works and you can distract yourself while it fades. In other times you have to face it.
Everything you do is a check. Someone throws you keys and you throw dice on Hand/Eye Coordination and catch the keys - or they land on the ground. Some time after you need to perform a quick action - one more Hand/Eye Coordination check. You remember catching the keys and your confidence rises. You remember the keys on the ground - is it even worth trying?..
Perception often interferes when you talk to NPCs. If your skill is high enough, you start noticing the smallest details: gestures, a missing button, eyes glinting weirdly. Encyclopedia will pull knowledge on politics and geography from your poor shattered memory so you don't embarass yourself while talking to people. Empathy will let you feel what another person feels, understand if they are afraid or withholding information. Authority will let you straighten you back so people understand that you are a police officer, and they will feel more inclined to share what they know. Many dialogues become games in themselves: slowly and carefully you navigate a wonderful and complicated art of human communication, setting up your snares trying not to fall into those set for you.
There are two types of checks in the game: red ones and white ones. You can retry your white checks if you've increased the relevant skill or talked to a relevant person (you never know who that might be). For example, if you can't persuade somebody with your Logic just yet, do something else, level up, put a point into Logic and come back with your impeccable theories and bulletproof points. Red checks cannot be retried: usually they pertain to something immediate, happening at the time of the conversation, like the aforementioned key throw.
Check failed. Or did it?..
In RPGs a failed check usually means that you need to reload and try again. You know what's at stake and don't want to lose it. In Disco Elysium a failed check means... and alternative turn of events. Sometimes you don't even know if a successful check will lead to something good. My advice - don't reload anything. If you failed a check, just follow along and see how the events unfold. I reloaded twice because I was really upset at failing a ~80% success check but now I regret it.
The game always encourages you to behave weirdly because people are more forgiving to the people of power and authority, and you are a detective. Don't hesitate to drop your usual RPG routine and try something new instead of playing the good guy or the bad guy as you've been for a decade. The most ridiculous dialogue options are your ticket into the most interesting future.
The whole world
Disco Elysium doesn't shy away from pouring lore on your head: geography of the world, politicians, political parties, major historical events and more. It might get overwhelming very quickly. On the other hand, it's exactly the way it's supposed to be: imagine being someone who cannot remember his own name and basic notions about the world, existing in a society where people casually mention names, wars, revolutions and phenomena. Wouldn't you have any questions?..
Apart from Kurvitz, there were 7 more people working on the game's script. However, the tone and the atmosphere of the texts are exceptionally cohesive and stable. Disco Elysium's texts probably constitute the finest example of written work that I've come across in videogames - and beyond. The script is clever, sharp, with a great sense of humor and irony. Often it absolutely disarms you, telling you things that all of us think but never talk about. You freeze in embarassment and sudden revelation as if your vague thoughts were suddenly given form and thrown in your face.
I almost never play games twice. There is Hollow Knight and there is Sekiro that I played and then replayed because those are my two comfort-games. Otherwise I never go for a second playthrough because I find going through the same content all over again really boring. However big an RPG might be, if I take a mage instead of a warrior, it won't change all that dramatically. Repetition bores me.
Disco Elysium might be the game that I play again. Of course, the crime and the investigation will remain the same but it doesn't matter. The journey in this game is so much more important than the result, and it will be wildly different depending on your build. I'm sure I failed hundreds of hidden checks because my Psyche or Physique were too low. Quests might have gone differently if I had that skill and not the other; I haven't got a whole bunch of thoughts because their events didn't happen. I finished Disco Elysium but there is so much that I don't know about this game, there is so much content I have yet to explore. Discussing it with other people is exceptionally funny since they tell me about the events that never happened to me, just as I tell them about situations they thought impossible.
No Truce With The Furies
Disco Elysium is an unusual exploration of human mind and complicated interpersonal relationships that we can all find relatable. It's truthful to the point of being paralyzing. You are going to investigate a murder, talk to people and find a way to make them talk, engage in weird side quests while trying to restore your memory - or decide not to. Maybe you should discard that past you and move on. There are moments in this game that enter your brain like a bullet. A weird human desire to harm themselves with sharp thoughts and soul-wrenching emotions even though they can stop at any moment. Sometimes when you're supposed to be a serious adult you feel this irresistible urge to say something ridiculous in front of everyone. Getting caught up in details while disregarding the major point of concern because you simply can't focus. Could you say that again? I trailed off. Supporting other people in their most unrealistic hopes or forcing them to meet the harsh reality the way you were once forced. This is human, like you and me.
It's also a solid detective story with clues, mind games, suspects, false leads and unexpected turns of events where you cannot be sure about what actually happened until the finale. But, as I've said, the outcome of the investigation doesn't matter as much as your winding path leading to it.
Disco Elysium looks astonishing thanks to its leading artist Aleksander Rostov, the surrealistic style suits the game really well.
Thus, Disco Elysium enters the list of my favourite games of all time. It gave me an unparalleled feeling of freedom that not many RPGs have to offer and hardly any of them to this degree. Here I could be not only a good cop or a bad cop, but also a crazy cop. I could ask for bribes, could be a communist or a neoliberal, could be running around telling people about the inevitable Apocalypse or spill the investigation details to any bystander to see where it'll lead.
Playtime - 35hrs