I’ve played a great many role-playing games in my years of existence so I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about the genre. Most especially, how truly difficult it can be to effectively play an RPG, which is obviously the point. A well-designed role-playing game should take you out of yourself and into the shoes of someone else, which might sound like the most basic explanation of the genre imaginable but there’s more to it than that.
Many RPG’s fall into a trap (although whether it’s a deadly one is up for debate) where they allow players to “game” the system. Something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim wants you to think it’s an RPG, but at the end of the day there’s not reallymess any transference of player to character. Most problems can be solved with the swing of sword and while there are certain objectives that can be solved creatively, but the game never really tasks you with embodying a character. I think that’s the difference between a game like Skyrim and Disco Elysium: The former surrenders itself to the player, but the latter asks the player to surrender themselves to it.
While many games attempt to immerse the player into the game world through visuals and detailed environments, Disco Elysium is more interested in immersion through writing. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing depending on your perspective towards tomes of text. Waking up as a half-naked police officer in a seedy, greasy hotel room you’ll be inundated with questions as to just what the Hell is going on given the strange yet familiar both the characters feel. The game is not willing to give you the information you want right off the bat, you have to earn that by…well, being a police officer.
There’re questions to be asked, criminals to apprehend and murder that could have dire ramifications for the city of Revachol. The only problem is, no matter what kind of cop you want to play as, you’re a mess of a human being who can’t remember a single thing about either himself or the surrounding world due to some kind of alcohol-induced amnesia. While I initially found it to be a contrived way to obscure so much of the game’s lore and story, I eventually warmed up to the idea. At some point in my playthrough, everything just clicked and I realised what Disco Elysium was doing.
You’re not just solving a murder. You’re solving yourself.
Few games have managed to effectively pull off such unique and open-ended gameplay as Disco Elysium for one reason: You’re not playing the character, you’re playing his mind. Skills and attributes aren’t arbitrary points to slot into a menu, they’re different parts of your character’s brain, each representing different talents and flaws. His brain talks to him, offering up useful information or belittling his incompetence and it’s all just incredibly…complicated. Which isn’t a bad and even though the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining these systems, it doesn’t take long to start building a character that plays how you want. Once you develop that character, you better stick with them because Disco Elysium hits you with skill checks hard and fast determining whether you succeed or fail on actions as simple as grabbing a tie that’s dangling from the ceiling fan. It’s punishing and maybe a little vague but so incredibly effective at breathing life into the rundown shell of a cop you’ve been saddled with.
Placing such an emphasis on role-playing through literal thought, I suppose it goes without question that Disco Elysium wants you to appreciate that it is trying to be an overtly cerebral experience. With a script of reportedly a million words, the game often straddles the line between RPG and adventure game because during the many hours I spent with it I never encountered a combat system so speak, just reams of dialogue and conversations. While I enjoy reading, I admit that Disco Elysium often feels the need to dump paragraphs of text on you in the seemingly most mundane conversations.
Honestly, as someone who usually takes an overtly pretentious stance on games and solid writing (it comes with the territory), I’m fairly confident in saying Disco Elysium has some of the best writing I’ve seen this year. Pulling on the off-kilter strings of authors such as Grant Morrison and Brian Azzarello, Disco Elysium crafts a story that is both thoroughly engaging and expertly crafted, only dipping into tedium upon becoming swamped with too many objectives. Go into this game expecting a story of classic post-modern police work, akin to Paul Auster’s City of Glass novel and you’ll be tickled, but go into Disco Elysium expecting any kind of combat and you’ll be sorely disappointed.
If that’s what you want out this game then you’re missing the point. Disco Elysium is attempting to recreate the golden age of RPGs, a goal that it achieves with astounding spectacle. The world offered up is perhaps up there with some of the best design fictional universes I’ve encountered, begging for players to sink into the pages upon pages of lore written to describe the events of this weirdly steampunk future. It’s visually gorgeous and expertly expanded upon, going in a direction that may be considered taboo for many people and while the game is not afraid to play with themes of sexual debauchery and racism, most of these are tackled with enough nuance and tact that’s clear the writers knew exactly what they were doing.
Above and beyond the excellent writing and unique role-playing aspects, what Disco Elysium achieves above everything else is the sense of freedom. Solving a case or a puzzle always feels authentic to the character as you’re forced to approach things based on strength, empathy or intelligence. It’s the first RPG in a long time that’s truly elicited a feeling of embodiment, of conscious transference as I mentioned earlier. Look, it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a game made for the patient in mind, giving players as back as much as they put in. I suppose that could be said about any game, but what Disco Elysium offers back is a truly resplendent experience that very few other games have ever captured. It’s a unique mastery of role-playing game that I think we’ll still be discussing for many years to come.
Last Updated: October 17, 2019