Disco Elysium’s strategy to completely shun battles in favor of dialogues paves the way for surprisingly clever ideas that allow decicions and character-building to radically alter the experience, making it come off like a highly psychological RPG as well as the reaching of a new threshold in choice-based gameplay
Many are the trends that could be selected as the defining facet of gaming during the 2010s. Throughout that decade, for instance, adventures set in open worlds became so commonplace that any title striving to be qualified as an epic had to adhere to the format. Likewise, with the advancement of algorithms, a wave of works whose levels and sometimes even worlds were procedurally generated rose to the surface, giving birth to experiences that could mathematically achieve a practically infinite amount of content. And any discussion about that topic would also have to consider additional prominent tendencies like walking simulators, narrative games, battle royale titles, roguelike gauntlets, and a few others. Among the meaningful trends that defined those ten years is how numerous games gave players the power to make choices that affect not only the characters they control, but also everything that surrounds them.
Appearing more notably on western RPGs, that trend grew in complexity as the decade went on, and after a while no game in the genre could hope to leave any sort of mark without implementing a feature of the kind; after all, choosing a path to follow is part of the essence of role-playing games, and there is no better way to allow players to do so than by letting them make choices. Consequently, as time passed and these systems became more intricate, RPG heroes – who in the past had very specific stats like attack, defense, and speed – gained a whole new deck of softer skills such as intimidation, persuasion, and charm, which walked hand in hand with the characters’ ability to interact with the world in multiple ways.
Yet, as complex as they may have been and regardless of the budget backing the projects in which they were implemented, there was a clear threshold on how deep those choices could be; not because games are ultimately limited by what is programmed into them, as that is a wall that will likely always be there, but because all of those RPGs had to concern themselves with gameplay matters, which inevitably drained most of their resources. Therefore, while titles like Skyrim, Mass Effect, and The Witcher 3 included a pleasant breadth of decisions, their extent was somewhat held back by the fact the heroes of those adventures had to spend time cutting bad guys to pieces or gunning them down.
It is right here that the magic of Disco Elysium comes in, because this is a game that willingly throws any sort of combat out the window so it can dedicate itself solely to dialogues and choices, coming off like an RPG that is exclusively driven by its plot, characters, and the ramifications that exist between them. Rightfully, one may point out this complete inclination towards a branching and flexible narrative is nothing new, since the 2010s themselves also held titles like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, which had a similar focus and abandoned gameplay to bet on storytelling. However, the distinction is that while those games were essentially interactive movies, Disco Elysium is far from that: it is a full-blown isometric RPG that takes place in an open world that is small for contemporary standards but perfectly rich and satisfying for an effort of its kind. As consequence, its shunning of combat or any other type of action to lean on dialogue is quite bold; and by doing so, it breaks into new ground as it radically amplifies a trend that was already present in its genre.
When Disco Elysium starts, players catch a glimpse of the main character in a rather miserable state, as he is waking up with a massive hangover thanks to a wild night during which the level of alcohol in his blood must have reached historical proportions. The drinking, in fact, happened to be so intense that the protagonist is faced with a serious case of amnesia, given he is unable to remember where he is, what he is supposed to be doing there, and even more significant matters such as the current date, major details of the world in which he exists, and – of course – his name as well as his entire past. Shortly after putting some clothes on, though, he comes across a woman from a neighboring room that gives him some important information: she saw him party hard on the previous night; he seems to like disco music, because that is what she heard him drunkenly sing; and he happens to be a detective who is investigating a murder.
Centered on a corpse that is hanging from a tree on the backyard of a cafeteria, Disco Elysium is therefore a good old murder mystery; a fact that on its own should already have been enough to turn it into an idiosyncratic RPG. And the secrecy that usually surrounds plots of the type is augmented by how the game could not have been set in a shadier place, as the whole affair unfolds in an impoverished district that is not covered by any specific police precinct and that is, instead, controlled by a worker’s union that currently finds itself in the middle of a mighty fight against the corporate overlords who run the local harbor.
Due to its original constitution, there is a lot about Disco Elysium that emerges as being unique. The first characteristic that ought to be perceived as such, however, will probably be the game’s highly literary vein, given it shows up even before the protagonist opens his eyes. This trait, which borders on intellectual, does not come solely from how Disco Elysium often finds itself in the midst of social, political, philosophical, behavioral, and psychological debates – though that is certainly a big part of it. It also comes to the forefront on the very nature of the quest’s dialogues. The Final Cut, which is the version of the game available for the Switch, comes with the sentences spoken by characters as well as the main detective’s thoughts fully voice-acted in absolutely spectacular fashion. Yet, everything that is said appears written on the screen, and alongside it there will be detailed descriptions of how the characters are acting as they communicate.
From grunts to sighs, from the touching of one’s face to shrugs, and from frustration to disgust, dialogues are always enriched with textual illustrations of how people are acting, and given the character models in Disco Elysium do not move significantly when talking, the title leaves it up to players to picture scenes in their mind as they play out. Essentially, then, the game invariably reads like a book, and the dialogues and thoughts of Disco Elysium are certainly up there with those of great literary works, for they come in a word count that matches those of many epics and they explore a myriad of subjects with such depth that they display a vast understanding of quite complex matters. Some may say the game can sometimes be too wordy. But truthfully, for the most part, dialogues and thoughts are smartly setup in a way that allows them to be cut short (usually without much repercussion) if players wish to, therefore letting everyone have power over how much they are willing to read.
Naturally, Disco Elysium could not qualify as an RPG if the solving of its central murder relied only on walking around the district, talking to characters, and going through complex dialogue trees; sure, that is a big part of the ride, but if it were the game’s full extent then the experience would be an incredible interactive story at best. The RPG layer of Disco Elysium is mostly supported by the stats of the main character, which are divided into four groups: intellect, for skills related to intelligence and inner thoughts; psyche, for skills connected to how one relates to other people; physique, for skills connected to brute strength; and motoric, for skills that are required for the protagonist to perform actions that demand ability rather than raw power. When the game begins, players can either select one of three detective archetypes (with each one boosting traits of a particular category) or build a personality of their own. But, as the quest advances, every level that is gained will yield one skill point which can be used to improve an ability of one’s choosing, therefore giving even more freedom for players to customize their character.
With every type of skill holding six different abilities, the hero of Disco Elysium is defined by a whopping twenty-four stats, and most of them are rather wild for RPG standards. Both volition and endurance work in a very commonplace way: the first increases the character’s morale while the second raises his health, and since if any of those run out players will be greeted by a Game Over screen, they act like the protagonist’s energy, with morale taking a hit when he is psychologically harmed by a situation and health being affected when he is physically hurt. The remaining twenty-two, though, range from easy-to-grasp to borderline philosophical.
There is Encyclopedia and how it unlocks random knowledge on the world of Disco Elysium, being essential for folks who want to learn additional details about the shockingly intricate universe of the game, which includes a failed communist revolution and an apocalyptic threat. There is Conceptualization for those who love to see art in unlikely places. There is Inland Empire, which unlocks the wonders of imagination. There is Half Light and its power to trigger one’s instincts. There is Composure, which allows the detective not to falter under pressure. There is Electro-Chemistry for those who enjoy dabbling in mind-altering substances. There is Savoir Faire and how it enables individuals to move with style. There is Visual Calculus, which helps in reconstructing scenes. And there is a whole lot more.
When looking at it all on paper, it is natural to think there is no way a game could make use of such an arsenal of tools. First of all, most of those abilities come off as being too vague, which makes it unlikely they will have any sort of practical use. Furthermore, with so many of them lying on the table, Disco Elysium could carelessly let a handful of them slip under the radar to the point where it forgets to put them to use. In a normal RPG, those observations would undoubtedly have some weight. Disco Elysium, though, is of course not a standard member of the genre, and since everything in it hinges on dialogue trees and choices, the game finds ample space to employ those skills.
Called Passive Checks, the first usage of those abilities is, in a way, stylistic. Whenever the protagonist is talking to someone and sometimes even when he is merely walking around, his stats will be – hidden in the game’s processing background – automatically verified against a threshold; the higher they are, the more probable it will be that thoughts related to that skill will be triggered. For instance, when discussing information on the crime with someone else, the detective’s Logic can kick in to let him know there are tidbits that do not hold when analyzed against the facts; similarly, his Rhetoric can appear to advise him on what to say, Encyclopedia can burst into the scene to drop some random knowledge, or Shivers can suddenly let him feel his surroundings with an almost transcendental level of detail.
It may sound a bit superfluous to some, but given Disco Elysium is a journey that is defined by text, the emotions that kick in can radically alter the experience. If one chooses to start the game with an intellectual archetype, for example, the investigation will be an endless stream of logical deductions, world-building trivia, and philosophical contemplation, since abilities like Logic, Encyclopedia, and Conceptualization will often come to the forefront. If, on the other hand, one picks a Physical archetype, the dialogues will become a symphony of demands asking for direct confrontation, because Endurance, Pain Threshold, and Physical Instrument will not be afraid to speak their minds.
All in all, this system is an absurdly clever feature that has two immediate benefits. For starters, considering there are three standard archetypes to choose from, Disco Elysium – which has a running time that can extend to more than thirty hours if players choose to thoroughly comb through its dialogues and tasks – becomes highly replayable since the game’s quest can dramatically change between playthroughs; and when it comes to story-driven games, this replayability is an extremely rare characteristic, even among titles that involve a lot of choices. Secondly, more than perhaps any game before it, Disco Elysium truly lets players experience the world around them according to how they build their character.
The second usage of skills, meanwhile, is the more practical one and it comes in what the game dubs Active Checks. Basically, these are dialogue options – which may activate either spoken lines or physical actions – that are connected to a specific stat. Trying to understand why the rascal of the district is so angry demands Apathy; attempting to open a locked door requires Physical Instrument; squeezing information out of a gang leader will only succeed if the detective proves he has some Authority; making solid deductions based on evidence is dependent on Logic; operating an electronic device relies on Interfacing; convincing someone to do something is a matter of Suggestion; and so forth.
As it happens with the hidden Passive Checks, this verification is probabilistic. In other words, every check has a level of difficulty and the higher the required stat is, the more likely it is that the action will be triggered. Differently from them, though, Active Checks come in two types: white and red. The first is related to actions that can be retried; as such, if players fail at them, all they need to do is increase the relevant stat so that the check is unlocked again. The second kind, however, has no such benevolence, given those tend to be critical actions or dialogue lines that be it in failure or success will move the situation forward in a way that cannot be reverted.
If there is one element of Disco Elysium that could qualify as gameplay in the traditional sense, then the Active Checks would definitely be it, since they are – when looked from a certain perspective – the adventure’s equivalent to battles, even if they tend to be of the verbal kind. As it happens in a normal RPG, players can prepare to tackle these challenges in various ways: they can change the clothes the detective wears or equip tools to boost stats; they can consume all sorts of usually illegal substances to temporarily increase their skills, with the caveat this alternative comes with harmful side effects; and, on what is a pretty awesome twist, they can also either harm or enhance their chance of succeeding in a check by performing complementary actions, because characters can be more or less inclined to open up and cooperate if the protagonist has given them reasons to trust or suspect him.
Given Active Checks are connected to a whole lot of situations, from optional quests to the main investigation as well as to simple lines of dialogue that merely reveal more about the characters, Disco Elysium has no shortage of these tasks, with the game even going as far as keeping a useful list of the Active Checks that have been found (alongside their location on the map) so that players can give them another shot whenever they want to. Yet, as fun as it may be to track them all down and roll the dice to see what happens, Active Checks can sometimes be frustrating due to their reliance on chance, because every once in a while it is inevitable that players will fail to clear the verification regardless of how good their stats are. Sure, the design choice to work with probability is understandable and actually good, because there is always a thrill when tackling a check since there is never certainty that it will succeed; in addition, contrarily, luck can always go the other way and players may be able to pass a few checks for which their stats were far below the threshold. Nevertheless, it is a fact that most are likely to experience some frustration with this gameplay facet.
Other than stats, Disco Elysium – true to its psychological nature – allows gamers to further customize the protagonist via thoughts. There are over fifty of those, and they are unlocked when players take certain actions or act in a specific way. Mazovian Socio-Economics, for example, is unlocked if the detective tends to pick left-wing dialogue options; Advanced Race Theory comes up when he listens to the ramblings of the local racist; and Cop of the Apocalypse appears if he shows concern for a seemingly impending doom. These ruminations can be managed in the character’s Thought Cabinet, with every available slot only becoming accessible with the spending of a skill point, and each one has two different effects: a temporary research bonus that is active when players tell the character to think about that subject and a bonus after research, which becomes available once the thought internalization is done and the idea is solidified in his mind.
Needless to say, thoughts have a ridiculous variety of bonuses, including mere stat boosts, unlocking white checks, extra experience points in certain situations, additional dialogue options, as well as even suicidal ideas. And ultimately, they go to show that despite the fact Disco Elysium does away with the usually vital idea of combats, it is by all means an RPG with a relatively complex underlying layer of systems; with the difference being that while nearly all games of the genre use stats and abilities to support showdowns against enemies, Disco Elysium employs them to affect how the character perceives the world, how he interacts with those around him, how he deals with his inner demons, and how he handles a multitude of verbal and physical challenges.
Backed up by fantastic and extensive writing, the clever gameplay concepts of Disco Elysium amount to one incredible ride. Given the bountiful alternatives at hand, players are free to make the detective behave in whatever way they feel like, be it a sorry cop who apologizes for his mistakes, an alcoholic lunatic who basks in his substance-abuse, an emphatic officer who prefers to use dialogue instead of force, and the list goes on. Likewise, regardless of the kind of detective they choose to build, players can reach multiple conclusions for the core mystery of the quest, including endings with: a spectacularly solved crime; a case that is concluded with minor hiccups; a cop who loses his morale and goes insane; a cop who loses his health and a has a fatal heart attack; a cop who loses his remaining sliver of dignity when he runs out of money to pay for his stay at the local inn; and a myriad of other alternatives, some quite dark and others just plain hilarious.
Sadly, however, Disco Elysium has a couple of significant hiccups. Firstly, there are its loading screens; although the external part of the game’s world can be traversed without such interruptions, any transition to interior spaces, even when it comes to different floors of the same building, will entail a degree of waiting. To some, these interruptions ought to be manageable, but when goals of a task are separated by many such transitions, it is easy to wish they were not there. In fact, there is one specially annoying segment of the main quest in which the detective must go back and forth between two spots that have a whopping four loading screens between them even if they are quite close to one another. It goes without saying that this segment is not particularly pleasant. Secondly, there are the crashes, which happen every once in a while on the Switch version of the game that was available upon release. What is notably anger-inducing about them is that Disco Elysium is not a game that autosaves often, meaning that if players are not careful enough to manually save every fifteen minutes or so, crashes can end up leading to loss of progress.
As a role-playing game that completely shuns combat to focus exclusively on dialogue trees, Disco Elysium is certainly not for everyone, especially considering its philosophical inclinations and literary pretensions. Yet, anybody with a love for story-based titles is likely not just to fall in love with the game, but also perceive it as the full maturation of a trend that has been prevalent for quite a while; one in which gamers are given a high level of control over what characters will do, how they will act, and how they will solve the problems that are thrown their way.
Disco Elysium can be dark, depressing, disgusting, political, psychological, and also surprisingly hilarious due to some of its more extravagant dialogue choices. Besides, more than any of the games that came before it and also aimed to change players’ experience according to the choices they make, it brilliantly succeeds in radically altering the flow of its textual core between playthroughs thanks to a smart, simple, and effective system of stat checks. Because of that, Disco Elysium takes that type of gameplay to an unforeseen level, and after its arrival, any title that tries to let gamers influence the environment that surrounds them will have to be measured against the rather elevated bar that it has set.