Disco Elysium might stumble a bit in its final stretch but the writing is excellent, the visuals beautiful, and the world expansive. Its invisible system of dice rolls and ability checks silently guide the story, creating an RPG like no other.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid reading about Disco Elysium so far, I implore you to keep it that way until you have the chance to play it. Like so many great games, it’s a better experience going in blind. Of course, this puts me in the unfortunate position of having to provide an adequately descriptive review of Disco Elysium without encroaching on spoiler territory. Just know, the game opens with the protagonist’s reptilian brain and “self” in a debate over the virtues of consciousness in a hopelessly bleak existence. If that sounded like a good time to you, let me stop you right now and say you should get Disco Elysium. For everyone else, read on because I’m going to tell you why I fell in love with the game and why I think you should be playing it, too.
Disco Elysium is a role-playing game in the purest of definitions. The protagonist is a deadbeat cop who begins this tale in the process of awakening from a drink-induced coma, all memories erased to the point of forgetting his own face, his own name; a blank slate for narrative and gameplay purposes. But unlike the player-character in countless other RPGs, he’s not a Gary Stu for the player to imprint themselves onto. The player defines him insomuch that they assign points at the start of the game that shapes his personality, but from there on who he is he defines how you play. There’s limited opportunity to project your own beliefs onto this character in Disco Elysium. The game, instead, constantly invites you to step into the mind of a person who doesn’t know himself.
It does this by defining the character via a set of discrete personality descriptors, 24 distinct traits that manifest as voices that live in the back of his head. Throughout the game, these voices surface and sink, chiming in with vital notes about your surroundings, observations about a person’s strange facial expression or inconsistency in a character’s logic. Importantly, addiction, too, is a voice. It’s loud and forceful and jumps at the slightest hint of narcotics or alcohol.
Nearly every decision made in the game is subject to a series of invisible dice rolls, the different traits clashing against one another. You might, for instance, decline to submit to the shouting pleas of addiction, but the question then becomes whether your character has the mental and physical fortitude for it. Mine didn’t and wound up licking a half-dry wine stain off a cafe counter. More than the player, in Disco Elysium you are the 25th voice, certainly the most important voice but one of many, subject to the internal rules that prevail over the character’s psyche. It’s a brilliant system that allows for the character to maintain a unique personality without suffocating the player’s agency to effect change, subject to the results of various ability checks, of course.
All of these voices and internal conversations make for quite a wordy game. In fact, nearly all of the important bits of gameplay revolve around conversation, with even the more action-y scenes playing out via the text box. This would result in a boring game indeed if it weren’t for the stellar writing and excellent world-building. Disco Elysium’s story is dense and branching and it gets caught in about a dozen different philosophical topics, from the struggle of the proletariat to existentialist musings to scientific racism. You needn’t invest yourself in all narrative paths, many of them are present simply to provide context to this rich world, but those who want to will find a satisfying depth to any thread they grab hold of.
To keep players from getting lost in rabbit holes of philosophy, the game’s plot is nudged ever gently forward by a murder mystery. The Hanged Man Case (or however you decide to name it in your run) involves just that – a dead man hanged by his neck from a tree out back of the hotel the protagonist awakens in. Everyone in Revachol knows of the murder, but nobody knows anything about it. The murder case gives both the player and character a clear end goal, something to work towards, but you’re free to decide how vigorously you want to pursue any leads. In my first playthrough, I didn’t even take down the corpse until my third in-game day. I was too distracted with the many scattered minor mysteries I chanced upon during play.
The world’s characters, too, are appropriately multi-dimensional, with motivations, fears, and vices all their own that influence how they respond to how the protagonist speaks, acts, dresses, or the items he carries with him. And they lie. The police are an unwelcome presence in the city of Revachol, an industrial town with a history of revolution currently embroiled in an ongoing class war. The people there don’t trust the protagonist or the law enforcement institution he represents. And so they feed you half truths, sometimes unintentionally, to dissuade you from pursuing a line of thinking, or to throw you off a trail, or to save their own hides. The game is less about solving crime and more about unraveling truth from myth, both as it relates to the game’s whodunnit murder case as well as the mystery of the character’s identity.
The action in Disco Elysium primarily takes place within its dialog box, an unceremonious slab that occupies a third of screen real-estate, but it would be disingenuous to assume it would be the same game if the whole experience were reduced to text prompts. So much of the experience of Disco Elysium is visual. Revachol and the people trapped within it are much more than the thoughts they think and the words they speak. They’re characters in a moving impressionist painting, living in a city-state governed by foreign powers in an alt-70’s virtual reality. The streets are marked with dried blood stains that have seeped into the concrete, permanent reminders of a violent history and a revolution only 50 years past. Racist symbolism and capitalist propaganda and subdued signs of an underground communist movement.
As far as story-driven role-playing games go, Disco Elysium very often approaches masterpiece status. Its only drawback – and it’s a major one – is its insistence on you seeing a day out in its entirety. You can’t advance to the next day until 9PM, an issue that becomes greater as you near the story’s climax. Once you’ve followed the various mysteries to their conclusions, there isn’t much left to do but see the primary plot thread to its end. You’ll likely find yourself filling the last few days with mindless running or doing what I did: leave my computer alone for a while to read skim Reddit until the in-game clock hit 9PM. For all its brilliant philosophical musings, often verbose and occasionally self-indulgent (much like this review has been), there isn’t enough content to fill every hour of every day. It hurts the pacing in the game’s final third.
Even with its pacing and content issues, Disco Elysium feels like an important game, if only for showing the industry that openness and absolute freedom doesn’t have to be the standard by which RPGs are measured. It’s incredibly compelling as a character-driven work because it allows the protagonist to be just that, a character in a world of characters, the player be damned.
Disco Elysium’s depiction of the soul’s inner monologue is, as lead writer Robert Kurvitz describes, “Grandiose and ominous 19th-century philosophical ambitions and some esoteric Soviet nonsense.” It’s more rooted in pseudo-scientific notions of the human psyche than in real philosophy, but it’s innovative and novel and affecting. I’m currently trying to quit smoking for the hundredth time, and when the craving for a cigarette seizes me, I can almost hear my Electro-Chemistry dueling with my Volition.