Disco Elysium: Dice, Sex, drugs, disco and political theory
Disco Elysium was a game that you might have heard of last year, the winner of multiple game Awards (four wins total from the Game Awards). Many critics have adored this game and for good reason. Disco Elysium is a bloody fantastic, old fashioned RPG, with style and gameplay that has not been seen before. Disco Elysium is definitely one of the best RPGs out there, from a writing perspective; we are talking Witcher 3 levels on terms of the quality.
(This review will examine political theming within Disco Elysium, due to prominence in the over aching story. Spoilers will be present when discussing Disco’s political nuance and appetent neutrality in opinion. My opinions are my own, and I will not force them on you.)
Disco Elysium takes place on the realistic (but never the less quietly fantastical) world of Elysium. In this world, in a struggling hotel, you wake up from a mad night of drinking, your memory a complete blank, your hotel room totally trashed. As you gain your bearings, you discover that you are in fact a detective. A lynching happened a week ago and it is up to you to figure out what has happened. In a world torn apart by political strife, failed revolutions and disco, you and your trusty (if constantly irritated) partner Kim Kitsuragi, have to solve the case before tensions boil over.
If I wanted to cover everything this game offers, I would be forced to write an essay (not that I am complaining about that prospect). But instead, I will look into at least four sectors that make up Disco’s great writing.
Long suffering Kim
Poor Kim Kitsuragi, not only does he have to try and solve a case with increasingly higher stakes and deal with racism. But he also has to put up with his superior, Harrier Du Bois’s strange bumbling antics. The contrast between Harry and Kim Kitsuragi is stark, and provides a lot of the comedy. Kim is the straight man to Harry unfocused (sometimes childlike) interactions, with the world around him. But Kim is not just a boring stone faced foil, he is a character in of himself.
Kim (unlike Harry depending on your choices) is the cold professional; he speaks with a cool air that is inherently disarming. Kim uses a note book, indicating his professional nature and contrasts with Harry’s, otherwise unprofessional behaviour. He also has had his fair share of drama, his struggle to talk to juvenile delinquents relates to past trauma, along with a hatred of pinball. These qualities make Kim feel like a real person.
He has quirks and dislikes, I love how his stoic persona sometimes breaks. For example, if you dedicate a disco song to Kim, he will smile for the briefest second. At a particular moment in the game he will help you cover from an injury. Kim is a fantastic character, both as a comedic foil and as a character in of himself, a human who tries to hide his flaws and weaknesses, under a formidable mask.
Harry the loveable loser
Harry (or Harrier Du Bois) starts Disco Elysium, waking from a drunken stupor, in a trashed hotel room, almost naked and with a completely blank memory. Not the most glorious entrance for our protagonist no? Well you would be right, Harry starts out as a complete mess, a loser who you at first wonder why he is even a detective. But the further you get into Disco, the more you ease into the role of one. Disco sets up a character arch for Harry, will he arise past his failures and regain his (near mythical) status, as a great detective? Or will he sink into drink and drugs, and break from stress (more on that later).
Harry might be a loveable loser, but when you see him becoming the great detective he once was, it makes you like him all the more. You want to see him become a better person, and you cheer when you see him become a better person. Harry is also a hilariously loveable loser; many of his interactions with the world can reap some farcical situations.
More so when you fail the dice roll, for example Harry has the chance to flirt with a woman. The suggestion roll is very low and if you fail, Harry blubbers something completely ridiculous. And she remains totally oblivious to everything. We laugh at both the result and the outcome. We cheer when he discovers the joys of dancing. Harry might start out pathetic, but he never stops being a fun loving individual, who soon becomes a badass.
All this and political theming
I love the Bioshock series as much as the next guy. But one cannot really argue that Ken Levine didn’t present the most...nuanced perspective, on Libertarian philosophy or Objectivism. At least when compared to the likes of Disco Elysium. While Bioshock does do a pretty good job at examining the flaws in human free will and the impossible nature of a utopian (Greek for no place) society, it might necessarily shine the most nuanced view on Libertarian ideals (at least according to Libertarians I have spoken to ).
“GH,” I hear you say. “Why you talking about Bioshock, when this is supposed to be about Disco Elysium?? I am so angry I will whine about it on Twitter!!” Please calm down, my little internet reader. I am explaining that media tends to not really depict ideology in nuanced light. Often resorting to caricature version of the ideology, I use Bioshock because, even though it is one of the more intelligent portrayals of an ideology, it is still a modestly cartoonish version of that.
And now onto Disco
Disco Elysium does not cover one, but multiple different ideologies, from Communism to Fascism and everything in-between. A daunting task for any game, even more so when it comes to depiction. In a lesser game, it would have been easy to serotype these people and ideologies. But Disco doesn’t do that, instead, it depicts normal people, leading normal lives. The sort of people you might see in a crowd, who just happen to be Fascists, Communists or (worst of all) a LIBERAL(!!!).
This adds a wonderful sense of realism and maturity to the world. Because in reality, ideologies, rarely make up the entirety of a person’s being. Gary just happens to be a fascist but is also just a scientist. Racists are met with disgust but not much else. Ideologies are driven by real people (no matter how mad the beliefs) not cartoon characters. As a result, the world feels real, like a place that is crippled with political tensions. Like a place where the history of failed communist states and revolution haunt ever street. Political narratives, much like Revachol’s history, are baked into the very fabric of it’s being.
How it relates to the story
There is also the fact that the murder is stimulated by political ideology. The killer is an ex solider from the revolution, completely deluded into a Communist worldview, and sees traitors and degeneracy wherever he goes. To him, seeing the victim reminded him of the ever present, ever amorphous bourgeoisie. And killed him because of what (in his damaged mind) represented what he hated. Politics, and history (both in real life and in Revachol) are entwined, always present, effecting the past, present and future. Politics affect history, history then affects the lives of those within the country. Disco Elysium perfectly depicts this fact of life, how the actions of ideologies shape the very core of a country.
Another more humorous way Disco presents ideology, is by having it explained in the most outrageous way possible. For example, teaching the virtues of the Free Market involves you snatching and counting pennies. Another example would involve the homosexual underground, which theories about secret socialites of gay people (who only exist in the minds of the most paranoid homophobe ever). Disco describes every ideology Harry can take on, from the view of the opposition. The clever use of hyperbolic language brilliantly satirises both the proponent and the opponent.
Failure from embarrassment
You can ‘die’ from mental breakdowns and embarrassments; in fact, you can die very easily, early game from the shame of losing your gun. Maybe vomiting from smelling a dead body, if you lose all your moral points, Harry gets disillusioned by the police force and quits. You can also die (this time for real) by a heart attack, when trying to get your tie down a spinning fan.
It is worth noting that you can get a game over easily in the early game, before gradually becoming less of a threat (as you get more healing items and more charges). Consequently, this could be a clever mergence of gameplay and story, showing Harry’s character arch, from drunken dope to ace detective. His mental state and physical strength becoming more assured, less at risk of breaking (or I am just THAT DAMN GOOD).
From a gameplay perspective it does make Disco slightly easier with each day (after day 2 I never ‘died’). But it does provide a great sense of narrative catharsis, we see Harry become a stable individual, confident and unlikely to break under pressure. The gradual loss of an overt threat to an end game failure state, represents Harry’s character arch, both from a story and a gameplay stand point.
There is no combat in Disco Elysium, which (in terms of RPGs) is something of a unique selling point, in of itself. You mostly make your way through the world, by talking to people and solving logic puzzles, also dice rolls (so many dice rolls). This further does match real world police procedure, mostly puzzle solving, quick wit and the very occasional gun fight.
Talking through boss fights
There are two particular interactions that I want to talk about in this section. Namely the Evrart Claire and Ruby encounters. While in practice and theory, they are just dialogue sections, ZA/UM cleverly designed boss fights into the dialogue. With Evrart Clare, his boss fight is one of endurance, both physically and mentally. The chair you sit in hurts your back, the memory of losing your gun and whose hands it might be in, all eat at your selfesteem.
You need to get successful dice rolls or stock up on enough healing items to withstand the shame (or sore back). Once I realised what was happening, I was quite impressed. By ridding themselves of conventional boss fights (shoot the thing until it falls over) ZA/UM put the core mechanics of dice rolls and conversation into a different from of a boss fight.
Another boss fight is later in the game, with Ruby. In this encounter, Ruby has both Harry and Kim, paralysed by a sound compressor. Ruby has complete control over both detectives, and can crank up the volume whenever she gets upset. This puzzle simply has you asking questions (as would be expected of a detective) and not angering Ruby (which results in a loss of health). This boss fight puts your ability, to read people to the test, to try and get to the bottom of the mystery without upsetting the person being interrogated, is quite tricky as it turns out. Disco Elysium is able to use the restrictions of its systems to great effect, creating something that is both original and memorable.
Dice rock and roll
I don’t really enjoy randomised outcomes in games. To me they are not a testament of skill or intelligence, but that of luck totally out of control with the player. It is an enjoyable (if somewhat hollow once the dopamine wears off) victory when in your favour, and a tedious annoyance when it’s against you. Granted, with the knowledge acquired from YouTube series’ like Game Maker’s Toolkit (whose video on the subject can be found here), I am not as against the idea now as I was then. But I still consider randomised elements to (at least when it comes to gameplay) to a surprise Lego piece on the floor.
By logic and opinion that I: Good Hunter have expressed. I should hate this game.
Regardless of outcome, the end result is still entertaining. Even with a three percent chance of success, I would still try it , just to see the outcome, which is often hilarious. Consequently instead of simply rewarding or punishing the play on a whim, Disco Elysium presents failure as another way to experience the story. Most dice rolls can be tried again, once more points have been put into reverent skill, and those that cannot be done again, are rarely directly fatal. The outcome can see some truly funny results, like the previously mentioned attempt to flirt or when Harry tries to sing, which could go really well or really badly.
Environments and circumstance too play a role, everything from what you are wearing to, to what questions you have asked the suspect previously, can all affect the chances of succeeding. As a result, there is a subtle challenge to interactions, you have to think through what questions would be appropriate, and what is best to share with suspects and your surroundings. Instead of a number of dialogue options that you mindlessly press through to see everything, Disco forces you to be just a little care with how much you say and do. Plus when you succeed, you get the Dopamine rush and if you fail, the ending can still be amusing.
Map size and content
If you are expecting a Skyrim or Witcher 3 size map, then you are going to be disappointed. At most it will take you a couple of minutes, to get from one edge to the other. But, this is a good thing, there is always something happening in Revachol. Whether you are investigating the creepy legend of the Doomed Commercial district, (definitely not caused by an economic depression) or debating race theory with a massive muscle-bound black man, there is always something to do, always something to discover in Rovachol.
It is interesting to note that you cannot complete every objective within one day. Some parts of the map might only become active in a couple of days, this simply encourages the player to explore, not just to find more quests, but just to discover more social interactions. To chat with the strange and wonderful inhabitants, try your luck at another dice roll and enjoy the result. Even if you cannot always complete every quest instantly, there is never a lose end (hell you can even play a board game if there is nothing left to do).
Mind map upgrades
Instead of getting skilled in guns or such the like, instead you can receive upgrades in concepts like empathy, Inland Empire (emotional sensitivity) and visual conceptualization. Putting points into any of these (or more) and you will be more likely to score at a dice roll, related to these particular traits. This might sound like a broken system at first, you just put as many points into as many skills as possible, and just plough through every roll without trouble.
Except that you won’t, firstly due to the limit of skill points you can get within a single play session. I ended Disco with 30 points invested into improving my character and three invested in thoughts. As you might be able to tell, there was more than enough space left over. The other reason would be how Disco balance’s itself, simply put the more you put into a certain skill; the more sensitive you become to the effects.
This means that if you place too much into Inland Empire, you will become too immersed in your head to proceed with the investigation. Being too empathic could see you cry from the pain and sadness of others. Placing too much into a single skill could see the law of diminishing returns come into effect, preventing you from doing your job properly. ZA/UM successfully prevents the fantasy Terminator problem, by encouraging the player to diversify their limited resources, in order to be productive, insuring they do not become too powerful. As a result, insuring the dice rolls maintain their fun risk reward chance.
Disco is quite the replayable game, not just because of the various once off red dice rolls, which you have to perform. Failing or succeeding can lead to very different outcomes, deciding on your political affiliation, can see people treating you differently, with new dialogue options. Whatever you start off as, be you be intelligent but lacking in social (such as my playthrough), or good physically, but dumb as a pile of rocks.
Harry’s perception of the world changes in accordance with your starting stats. You can customise Harry as well, deciding what to start with, thus creating a whole host of different situations and interactions. Disco is not only a great single player experience, but one that offers a ton of new experiences with each play through.
Graphics and art style:
The 3d models are somewhat low quality, when you zoom the camera in. However, it is hardly a noticeable negative. The game is positioned in an overhead view, obscuring the lacklustre texturing. Consequently, Disco Elysium makes great use of style, backdrops have the air of water colour paintings.
The colours, even if they are rather drab, mix well together. To clarify, the colours are drab and bleak, because the world is bleak, a failed Communist state in a endless cycle of poverty. Beauty is found in the hopelessness, colours blend together, reds and greens stand out in the snow. There is contrast, stark and subtle in how colour appears in the world. There is beauty in the bleakness.
Minor frame rate slowdown (very rare), some screen tearing. However, both of these problems are nothing too bad, nor do they damage the game.
Disco Elysium is an amazing title, there very few games that are able to explore so many different ideologies, without resorting to straw men. I think this is the first game with random elements (as a core feature) that I didn’t hate to the depths of my soul. Disco Elysium made me laugh, it made me cry and smile. A fine game that deserves all the praise it gets.
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18/04/2020-Edit: Fixed comma problems