The room is in shambles, and that’s before you notice the necktie attached to the spinning ceiling fan. An empty bottle lies on the carpet, the bed is a mess, and the window is broken, judging from the way you sloughed off the floor, this was probably your fault. You may not know why, but it’s clear that something has gone horribly wrong. And somehow, it’s on you to fix it.
Disco Elysium is an RPG that places heavy emphasis on role-playing to a degree that is absurd. It takes the mechanics long-established by CRPG’s of old and deconstructs them, ensuring that you are always growing and changing in ways big and small. The trappings of the genre are all present, but thanks to a fascinating world, even more fascinating characters, and a writing style that elevates everything, Disco Elysium is extremely satisfying.
This is a police procedural that revels in psychology as much as it does mystery. There was a murder over by the docks in the city of Revachol, and the alcoholic detective that is the protagonist has been assigned to investigate it. But not before he experiences a complete mental breakdown, complete with copious use of alcohol and drugs, that culminates in a trashed hotel room and severe amnesia. With nothing but a pair of dirty underpants to start with, you must solve the murder while trying to figure out what kind of person you were.
Thanks to the lack of memory, the hero is a blank slate for you to mould. Save for the fact that he is always some degree of sad and pathetic, you can decide what kind of person he was down to the nitty-gritty details. He could have been a by-the-book cop who just happened to enjoy the bottom of a bottle too much. He could have been a karaoke-loving communist who loves nothing more than getting in a fistfight. He could be someone trying to make up for the mistakes of his part while spouting nationalist slogans as your partner winces with each shout. He could be many contradictions, and the amount of freedom you have in shaping what this sad and pathetic detective is and can become is impressive.
The personality is shaped over the course of thousands upon thousands of conversations, most of which have a rhythm and style that makes Disco Elysium shine. Over the course of 25-odd hours, you’ll talk to people countless times, retracing your steps and conversations with each passing day to uncover something new. Thanks to the wildly unruly and indulgent writing, this is mostly a delight to experience. You are always changing, always influencing others, and most importantly, always learning.
The people you meet will change too. Your partner, Kim Kitsuragi, is a moralist who may slowly come to trust you over the investigation depending on your competency, only for you to ruin it because you inadvertently shouted something horrible at him over the din of a party. The young boy, Cuno, who shouts slurs behind the hotel may be a troublemaker at first glance, but if you can get him alone you can uncover a kid who’s scared and hurt at his core. The level of control you have over these conversations is unparalleled, and Disco Elysium is certainly not a game where clicking every dialogue option is harmless. Failure lies behind every conversation, even in the ones that don’t require you to roll the dice.
Fortunately, failure moves the story and your character just as much as success does. At one point, when the cafeteria manager of a hotel informed me that I must pay for the damages to my room in order to stay there again, I was given the option to stealthily make my way out of the building. I failed the check, and instead of sneaking out, I ran across the room, jumped through the air, flipped the manager the bird, and promptly knocked myself out on an elderly woman’s wheelchair. When I came to, the manager lowered my bill.
The dice behind these checks are the most mechanical aspect of Disco Elysium, since there is no combat to speak of. Everything is decided through conversation, and for those rolls that need to be made, you will make use of one of the 24 skills you can upgrade over the course of the game. Divided across four broad categories, these skills range from the simple, such as Perception, Endurance, and Suggestion, to the abstract, such as Inland Empire, Authority, and Esprit de Corps. That last one is about understanding what is happening elsewhere in the world when you are not present, in case you were wondering.
More than just serving as dice rolls, perhaps the greatest aspect of Disco Elysium is that these skills represent aspects of your psyche that will talk to you and debate each other. Electrochemistry will try to get you to lick the remnants of a glass of alcohol that spilled onto a countertop. Volition will always urge you to never give up in the face of existential terror, while at the same time Composure may be screaming at you to flee and hide this instant. It’s a delightfully weird batch of characters, and watching as they try to influence your decisions is always entertaining.
In addition to skills, you also have the ability to internalize thoughts that you encounter to improve or worsen your character. An early thought may tell you to get your shit together, which will allow you to approach a corpse without vomiting. But these thoughts get more and more abstract as time goes on — becoming a die-hard communist, refusing to live in buildings, obsessing over an actor’s history — these all serve the purpose of changing and influencing your character even more, and provide new avenues for you to approach people and quests.
Against the backdrop of this is Revacho, which is an awful place to live in. Fifty years before the events of the game, a communist uprising that killed the presiding monarchy was swiftly put down by a coalition of capitalist nations that has remained in control ever since. This political history influences every character and area that you encounter. Depressing watercolour brushstrokes and a haunting soundtrack evoke the sense that Revachol is a dying city that will never truly get better. Coupled with the hatred expressed by characters of many of the political factions in the city, and it’s hard to argue against that. This is as nihilistic a game as they come.
But thanks to the freedom that pervades your character choices and the world itself, you are able to tackle every challenge that the world throws at you however you want. There is rarely a dead end to your path, and every conceivable roleplaying aspect is catered towards in some form. Disco Elysium wants you to experience its world at your own pace and on your own terms, and there are countless ways to experience that. It is a role-playing game of the finest order and one that I want to explore again.