Review: Disco Elysium
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Do you know how hard it is to find a well-written video game? Of course you do, you’ve played video games. You’ve had to deal with plots that go nowhere, characters that break their roles just to keep the game moving, and cliche after cliche after cliche. Even the games that do manage to have exceptional writing don’t always have the gameplay to match, and in a tug-of-war between that and text during development, gameplay is always going to win. Maybe that’s why Disco Elysium has arrested so much attention, because its exceptional text is very much the gameplay, and it’s deep and engaging enough to top a lot of titles with more conventional action. It could be that, or it could also be that this is perhaps the most well-written game of all time.
You remember that scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter S. Thompson wakes up in an absolute crater of a hotel room, with no recollection of how it was destroyed? Well, that’s where our story begins here. Following an absolutely catastrophic rager, you awaken with no clue where you are, what you were doing, or even much of an identity. You’ll piece together details of what happened from the locals, as well as fascinating facts like your position as a police detective. You’re here in Martinaise investigating a murder, as it happens, and your partner Kim is not really going to let you weasel out of it. It might help to find a few things before you get started, though, like your shoes, or your police badge. Oh, and watch out for the massive labor conflict and political maneuverings happening in the area, too. Might complicate things.
I can think of games that cast you as an anti-hero or an unlikely hero, or games that leave you a blank slate to impose whatever kind of characterization you want. But I can’t think of any that establish you as a complete train wreck of a human like Disco Elysium does. You are a mess to rival all messes, an utter embarrassment to yourself, your associates, and people in your general vicinity. It’s actually a terribly clever way to do a sort of blank slate character, because you get both a compelling in media res start and the chance to lead your trash fire human in any direction you want. Is it time to turn your life around? Will you crawl back into a bottle? Are you a good cop, bad cop, lazy cop, psycho cop, or other? In the wake of the world’s most shattering bender, you have the freedom to make or unmake yourself as you will.
You won’t be alone on this journey, and I’m not just talking about your poor partner Kim. Because Disco Elysium is an RPG almost entirely concerned with text, your character stats are uniquely organized around the different components of your personality. You have aspects like Logic, Authority, Endurance, and Composure split across four main archetypes, 24 in all. Putting skill points in these makes it more likely you’ll pass checks pertaining to them, but it also makes them more likely to burst in on your dialogues. These facets of your mind are actual characters in the game, more than ready to toss out advice, context, pressure, or distractions. You can get huge chunks of world lore from Encyclopedia, warnings from Empathy, or an unyielding push from Electrochemistry to just fuck your shit all the way up.
What makes this system shine so bright is the writing itself. It’s one thing to have a neat concept of your own mind weighing in on your actions, but it’s another entirely to make them clever and engaging presences. And the dialogues they break in on are some of the most natural, humanized, and engrossing I’ve ever seen. If you’re interested enough in this game to read this far then you’ve doubtless seen the hilarious screenshots of giving yourself a quest to sing karaoke or deciding to personally restart communism. There’s no question that there are tons of quotable, laugh-out-loud lines throughout the game, no matter which direction your hot mess self leans. But that ignores the incredibly solid dialogue that fills the rest of the game, which paints every character as a grounded, realistic person with opinions, ideologies, and agendas.
The beauty of Disco Elysium is that it can make a dry, soft-spoken cop the most beloved character you’ve ever met. It can make you hate a blatant racist more than you’ve ever hated a world-destroying supervillain. It can warm your heart just by seeing someone take pity on your poor, fractured shell of a detective. The dialogues are second to none, offering every possible choice to get to know people, challenge their ideals, and beg for their mercy. A simple, off-hand comment about a dock worker’s strike can lead to six different, nuanced responses for you to choose from, each tailored to a different shade of politics. There are reasonable responses, asshole responses, absolutely mad responses, and more. One of my favorite things about the game is how it’s not always you trying to learn to deal with a difficult character… sometimes you can make a massive, confusing nuisance of yourself to an NPC, and watch them figure out how to deal with you.
There’s a lot I’m glossing over here, like the Thought Cabinet system that lets you stew on particular topics for stat boosts. Or the elaborate outfit system that lets you dress your detective as the fashion disaster he was destined to be. Or the incredibly rich setting that feels as rich as any established property, if not moreso. Or the stylish presentation, bold art, and smooth soundtrack. I could go into depth about all of those, but I think I’ve made the most important point. Disco Elysium might be the most well-written game I’ve ever played. It’s pure joy to read every line, mull over every option, and build your character to access even more choices. It’s a pleasure to beat a skill check, only for it to make you do something intensely stupid that you now have to cover for. It’s a singular experience in every corner of the design, and something that no one has any reason to overlook.