Disco Elysium

I want another 50 games like Disco Elysium. This takes the writing-first approach of Planescape: Torment and removes all the combat elements so that everything is about your character's interactions with the world, and the different bits of it you can unlock with your skills and choices. At times it feels like an adventure game, where you are collecting items and asking questions until you tick your tasks off the list. That may sound linear and boring, but thankfully the game's story, characters and universe are so rich that I was compelled to explore as much as possible, sinking a glorious 50+ hours following every lead I could find.

Even if the gameplay is limited, there is enough of it to be satisfying when your build allows you to pass a check. Die-rolls govern your every interaction, modified by your skills and prior actions. There's always a chance to succeed or fail – at the first big climax of the game, where your amnesiac detective examines a dead body, I managed to pass a 3% chance perception check which massively upends your assumptions about the cause of death, and I felt a huge surge of elation even though it was just a piece of (amost literally) blind luck.

There's a pleasing ludo-narrative consonance to developing your skills. You wake up not knowing anything and are tasked with investigating a murder. But as you tick off bits and bobs in pursuing the case, you gain experience points, which allow you to level up your skills and slowly learn, or re-learn, how to be a cop.

Even better, your skills can talk to you – giving you tips and dialogue options that can push you in the right direction. But not always – sometimes their advice works against your interests. This was the second revelatory moment in the game for me. In a conversation with a femme fatale character I passed a volition check which made me realise that all my other skills, particularly the one helping me detect lies, were being hoodwinked. My character was being seduced, almost mesmerised, by the figure he was talking to, to the point where my thoughts and impulses were betraying me.

If skills are a bit like companions, chipping in here and there with advice, the game adapts the standard RPG alignment system to give you options to explore and subscribe to different cop personalities (sorry cop, superstar cop, honour cop) and political philosophies. The latter are more well developed, and in the final cut version of the game include specific 'vision quests' revealing the implications of your political allegiances. In my playthrough I picked the boring moralist (or centrist) option, which I thought went furthest to minimise harm. But in this world, the moralintern are the ascendent power, and the game makes clear the damage caused by keeping things as they are.

The game's reflections on politics are commendably nuanced. The representative of the libertarian faction (a negotiator for a shipping conglomerate) is personable and helpful, but the organisation she works for is sinister and dangerous. The representative of the dockers union is unpleasant, slippery and corrupt, treating you as a means to advance his own ends. But ultimately those ends are more noble than they at first appear. Generally, the game is ambiguous about whether the sacrifices required for liberation are worth the price in blood, sweat and tears. A moralist abandons dreams of a better world for the crushing, unfair reality of today. But realising those dreams risks unleashing horrors that are far worse than the status quo.

The game's final comment on these alignment options might lie in the character of the killer – an old revolutionary that remains committed to a dead cause, with a psyche so poisoned and curdled by ideology that it starts unleashing random death on the neighbourhood. Committment to a grand project is suspect, the game appears to suggest. A better avenue for your energies is the limited good you can do in your interactions with people.

The one discordant note for me came towards the end, where the game inserts a kind of deus ex machina in the form of an alien creature imparting wisdom on our player character, whose bender is at root inspired by a break-up he never got over. The Insulidian Phasmid urges you to let her go: "Turn and go forward. Do it for the working class". The implication is that being hung up on a lost love is preventing you from reconnecting with the world and the downtrodden people in it (it's not for nothing that the only essential skill check to pass in the game is a Shivers one – it's the skill that plugs you into the rhythms of the city). But the following line puts a sour twist on that laudible sentiment: "She was middle class. It doesn't take a three-metre stick insect to tell you that". The tone is resentful, and implies that any inter-class relationship is inherently tainted and unworkable, which is a gross idea to latch onto one of the final climaxes of the game.

That's a small exception that proves the general rule, which is that Disco Elysium is written with great thoughtfullness and tenderness for its large cast of characters. It is also very funny, and has a knowing sense of its own inherent ridiculousness. But even in a playthrough committed to exploring its most farcical elements, the creators ultimately pull the player towards the great sadness haunting the setting – the threat of existential nothingness that warps every attempt at progress. The poetry of the game is inescapable, and is its most impressive and unique feature. It's a great novel disguised as a roleplaying game, a new milestone in interactive narrative. And I want a lot more of it.

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