Disco Elysium is not at all what I expected. The so-called “detective RPG” stars an amnesiac cop in a bizarre, post-communist world that is not our own. It owes as much to Planescape: Torment as The Continental Op. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to talk about without getting into spoilers, so I won’t even try. Be warned!
What I did expect from Disco Elysium was a post-apocalyptic mystery with some light, isometric combat and a lot of dialogue choices. And while there are overtones in the story about the end of the world, the annihilation is both slow and buried in the past. The city of Revachol was once a hopping (i.e. deeply corrupt) monarchy — the capital of the world. The aristocracy fell to the invention of communism, while the communists caught a genocide from the rest of the planet’s united capitalist nations. I hope I’m getting all this right… there’s a lot of lore to cover.
The game begins 50-ish years after that: in a rundown hostel in a part of town where what pass for cops in this new fiefdom never go. It turns out the cops in this country are a citizen’s militia that exists at the pleasure of, but also in opposition to, the NATO-like organization that rules Revachol now. You are one such semi-cop, but only just barely at that. Only you don’t know it at first. Some initial investigation into your memories reveals you have last your memory.
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Disco exists at this point in Disco Elysium. And it’s as out of date in that world as it is in ours. Your character’s obsession with the genre is an early indication that they are a relic. But they are a particular kind of relic. They’re the sort of sad sack, once-venerable, now pitiable older white dude that may or may not redeem themselves for a lifetime of drowning their sorrows in work and vices. He has divorced dad energy.
The Chapo Trap House dudes do voices in this game, too. That’s apt. They’re the best avatar for Disco Elysium at its worst. The game sometimes substitutes that brand of arrogant, cynical snarling at existence for insight. The vibe is certainly left-leaning on the grand scale. But its main representative of corporate interests is a likable, self-loathing older woman who wishes she was born 10 years earlier. That way she could have died a revolutionary instead of ceding to the “ultraliberals.” Whereas a labor union that runs roughshod over the town is mostly violent, corrupt, and possessed of a “low cunning” that lets them get away with murder.
I get the sense Disco Elysium thinks flipping the script on these two factions will, like, really make you think, man. Instead it just feels tired. I mean that both because of the stereotypes about working class people, and because RPGs have used “the good side is actually bad” as a replacement for depth forever.
Death Comes for Us All
Most of the time, though, Disco Elysium has depth on its side. The game is set almost entirely in a single neighborhood. You get to interact with nearly everyone who lives there in some small way. And the RPG elements of this RPG come from a frankly illegal number of dialogue options and skill checks. Disco Elysium is thorough. That thoroughness often means representing — and even letting you agree with — crappy philosophies.
I like to play the protagonist as someone who is deeply interested in the world. If there are shitheads out there, I want to know what kind of shitheads. If my character was one of those shitheads, as well, I want to know how deeply. That way, I’m better armed to right wrongs and fight wrongdoers. Disco Elysium, in all its thoroughness, is great at making sure that information doesn’t go to waste. Dialogue unlocks and changes accordingly. Skill checks get eight or nine percent extra likelihood of succeeding.
But when they fail… they fail spectacularly. Very early in the game you discover you’ve run up a bill at the hostel where you’re staying. I had about a 50/50 chance of walking away smoothly without paying or drawing attention. I failed. Except I had failed at being “smooth.” The consequence was that the protagonist flipped out and leaped for the door — giving the concierge the double birds on the way to the ground.
I tripped and lost one hit point. Except I also spec’d my character for empathy and reflexes, not physical strength. I only had one hit point. Then I died. I was so bad at exiting an awkward social situation that I literally fell down and died.
Piecing Things Together
Earlier, I turned on a ceiling fan light while I had a hangover… and died. Later on, I tried to jump five feet off a balcony, but failed a check that caused me to chicken out at the last second. That one did not kill me. But the heart palpitations from sudden vertigo did deal damage. So I tried the jump again in my underwear. My unflattering pants had a minus one to “Savoir Faire,” you see, and leaping off the building in my tighty-whities made me just cool enough to make the gap.
I also like to play Disco Elysium as someone who wants to know about his past. The detective does not get to just wipe his hard drive with vodka and start all over again. That means I’m constantly asking people basic questions about him and his world (e.g. how old he is, the name of the planet everyone lives on). To everyone the detective meets, he is the stupidest man in the world — a true brain genius running mental calculations before their very eyes to literally remember what money is.
The unexpected slapstick shows Disco Elysium doesn’t put its wryness on a pedestal, too. It pokes fun at its damaged copper. Even as the deep, deep dialogue rabbit holes show just how damaged this slice of the world is. The blend makes me believe the game has teeth, but isn’t exactly mean. A drug-addled child, throwing rocks at a corpse, shows that this is a post-war world with very real consequences for the poor and disenfranchised. Just as a young woman who makes custom dice for tabletop RPGs shows those same kinds of people just doing their best.
My “best” in Disco Elysium usually means making a horse’s ass of myself. Or dying because I kicked a furnace. Or both. Or being insulted by my own subconscious. This game whips ass, is what I’m saying.