Disco Elysium Review – Pure Dynamite

Memories can be painful. Recalling them can result in feelings of regret, anger, shame, embarrassment, and worse. Much, much worse. In Disco Elysium, a mesmerising, hilarious and at times harrowing narrative-heavy RPG, recollecting a memory can prove fatal. For an amnesiac, alcoholic cop struggling with a new murder case with elusive details, and the world’s worst hangover, remembering the person he was offers a path to redemption for the person he might become. After all, memories that don’t kill you make you stronger.

Disco Elysium presents as an RPG in the mold of Baldur’s Gate or Divinity: Original Sin. Indeed, it opens with a nod to Planescape Torment with a semi-naked figure lying on a cold, hard slab before slowly rising to his feet–only the slab isn’t in a mortuary, it’s in a cheap motel room, and the figure wasn’t recently dead, he’s just still drunk. Very, very drunk. It proceeds with the traditional top-down view of the world, your party members traversing beautiful, hand-painted 2D environments, pausing to inspect objects and talk to people. There are quests to initiate, experience to gain, levels to up, dialogue trees to climb, and skill checks to fail. Yet in all kinds of other ways–thematically and mechanically–Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.

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On the one hand, it’s a detective game. Your amnesiac cop quickly discovers he’s been assigned to investigate a murder–what appears to be a lynching–in a small, seaside town. You and your new partner, the unflappable and eternally patient Kim Kitsuragi, at first inspect the body, interview potential witnesses and generally gather clues to identify the victim and track down the perpetrator. Played straight, there’s a meticulous satisfaction in assuming the role of by-the-book cop. You can grill suspects about their movements on the night of the murder and look for holes in their stories about what they saw. You can call in to the police station and request they retrieve further information about leads you’ve uncovered and, if there’s anything your booze-frazzled brain has forgotten, Kim is always there with a gentle reminder of the finer details of effective police work.

Of course, you don’t have to play it straight. Disco Elysium provides a staggering amount of options, letting you choose and role-play the type of cop–indeed, the type of person–your amnesiac detective is going to remember himself to be. As such, you’re welcome to walk out of your shitty motel room with just one shoe on, and you’re able to tell the manager you’re not paying for the room, nor the damage you caused, and he can frankly go screw himself. In his impeccably dry way, Kim will suggest this is not exactly appropriate behaviour, but he’s also not going to stop you from reinventing yourself as a cocky superstar cop, a rude asshole cop, a wretched nihilistic cop, a bungling apologetic cop, a mortified repentant cop, or some tempered combination thereof.

Even during what could be considered rote casework, Disco Elysium provides so much opportunity to express yourself. There’s a scene in which you and Kim are conducting an autopsy; while Kim got his hands dirty, I opted for the paperwork. It’s a very lengthy back-and-forth between the two cops, you prompting him through a dialogue tree of step-by-step instructions and filling out the proper sections of the form, and Kim voicing his observations as he examines the body. This scene, which should be aggressively dry, is instead wonderfully written, creative and entertaining, every new selection of dialogue options presenting you with little decisions about how to play things–do you agree with Kim’s assessment or try to argue with him, or do you just crack a joke instead? And every detail you read about Kim’s actions–his muttered asides, his matter-of-fact commentary on the decaying corpse, his raised brow in response to your nonsense–paints a vivid, indelible portrait of a man you’ve known for less than a day.

The full range of the game’s tonal spectrum is on display in this one scene. There are flashes of surprising camaraderie as you and Kim nod respectfully at each other’s insights. There’s playful humour as you make fun of the bureaucracy that requires such convoluted autopsy forms, and crude gags as you request Kim double-checks if he’s missed anything inside the dead man’s underwear. There’s the more sombre tone struck by the at times repulsive descriptions of the body’s state of decomposition, and threaded throughout is the satisfying accumulation of clues, the central mystery contracting and expanding as new information answers questions and asks further ones.

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But Disco Elysium is not just a commendable detective game. It is a deeply political game that tackles issues of ideology, privilege, racism, and class in a thoughtful and provocative fashion. The small, seaside town you’ve been summoned to is in fact the neglected working class district of Revachol, a city built to “resolve history” in the wake of a failed communist revolution that now sees it governed by a coalition of foreign nations.

The murder you’re investigating at first seems tied to a months-long labor dispute. Negotiations between union and corporate leaders are at a stalemate, striking workers have shut down the harbor, scab laborers are picketing in the streets, and road transport in and out of town is at a standstill. More deeply ingrained are the painful memories of the wars that first beheaded the Revachol monarchy and then quashed the revolution, and the lingering darkness of centuries-old racial resentments fuelled by the “economic anxieties” of industrial change. It’s a remarkable, nuanced circumstance–tensions are high, violence feels inevitable, and the future of Revachol has never felt more uncertain.

…in all kinds of other ways–thematically and mechanically–Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.

The case you’re working intersects with the political arguments of the town. Navigating such intricacies can be tricky, though the amnesia conceit gives you a good excuse to ask what might otherwise seem like basic questions. You’re given openings to sympathize with or reject various political views, and your character stats do in fact track how much of a communist, fascist, ultraliberal, or moralist you are. There’s a tongue-in-cheek approach here, as when you’re given the option in favour of your preferred ideology it’s, without exception, an utterly extreme version of it. Moderate paths don’t exist–there’s no room for a “public option,” the communists are all about jumping straight to the “eat the rich” stage.

Indeed, Disco Elysium isn’t especially interested in the typical binary ideologies explored in most RPGs. It pokes fun at extremism and at the same time chides you for any attempt to retreat into non-committal centrism, and it’s even less interested in trying to dodge politics. Instead it wants you to focus on the dynamics of power that structure society and the systemic changes required to repair the inequities of those relationships. This is a game with a specific, if complex, point of view and it’s not afraid to remind you of it even when it’s leaving room for you to explore other ideas.

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At the centre of all this ideology is the matter of your privilege. Disco Elysium remains very much aware that you are playing a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man–a policeman, no less–and that fact grants him a heightened degree of privilege to express himself. You’re able to reinvent yourself, to choose to be this or that type of person, without much in the way of repercussions, save the odd disapproving glance from Kim. Meanwhile, many of the characters you meet aren’t possessed of the same privilege; they’re the downtrodden, exploited by authority, trapped in systemic poverty, or just desperately trying to escape their circumstances. The contrast makes this point with piercing clarity.

Yet Disco Elysium isn’t just a formidable game of politics and detective work. It also jettisons a bunch of standard tropes of RPG interaction and replaces them with new systems that delve deep into your character’s psyche. There is no combat to speak of–at least not in the conventional sense. There are moments where you can suffer damage to your health and morale, the two stats that determine whether or not you remain alive. For example, one early incident saw me discover that reading a book can cause actual physical pain. And there are certain, shall we say, encounters that play out like combat analogues, except you’re not choosing to attack or defend. Instead you’re picking from a selection of actions and lines of dialogue, where success or failure depends on the skills you’ve prioritised and the luck of the dice.

During character creation you cannot alter the physical appearance of your nameless cop. You can, however, drop points into a bunch of entertainingly unusual and evocative skills, 24 in total across four broad categories. Among them, Drama allows you to lie convincingly while also detecting the lies of others, while Inland Empire, refers to your gut instinct by way of David Lynch; Savoir Faire assesses your expertise with the intersection of grace and style; while Shivers–my favourite skill–to “raise the hair on your neck” and, in essence, gain a greater awareness of the physical environment, both immediate and occasionally miles and miles away.

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Disco Elysium’s skill system is refreshingly original. The entire fascinating suite it posits serves as a captivating exploration to your character’s inner life and echoes his journey of self-rediscovery. Skill checks are being rolled all the time to see if there’s something you should know. It could be as simple as checking whether your Perception means you notice a particular object. Maybe you see or hear a word you don’t recognize and your Encyclopedia skill interrupts to provide a definition. Perhaps you’re walking down the street and, Shivering, gain a deeper, more poetic understanding of your place in the world. These pop up like typical dialogue boxes on the right edge of the screen and you’re often able to conduct conversations with your skills, digging for more information or telling them to pipe down, a little chorus in your head filling the gaps and prodding you into action. These competing, often uncalled-for, voices add up to a remarkably successful simulation of how the mind works.

Skills intrude during conversations with other characters, too. Reaction Speed might let you pick up on an unusual turn of phrase and give you an additional response to pursue, letting you uncover a clue. Sometimes your skills offer conflicting approaches. Drama might be urging you to make a big scene right now–“This is your moment!” it’s yelling in your ear–but Composure is pushing back, coolly arguing for restraint. The specific voices that you decide to listen to may be influenced by your strength in each skill or the type of person you want to become. They also connect back to how the game wears its politics, as many of the unpleasant things you can say are the result of failed skill checks. It can feel weird to have your character do something you didn’t quite intend, or to have your dialogue choices restricted to three equally offensive alternatives, but there’s something pleasingly authentic in the way things don’t always go according to plan.

Supporting the skill system is what the game describes as your Thought Cabinet, a kind of mind map that charts your collected understanding of the world. Critical moments of awareness will enable you to access a particular thought, which you can then research to unlock a range of benefits. An early realization that you are in fact homeless triggered the “Hobocop” thought. While mulling over the very strong possibility than I was more hobo than cop, I suffered a penalty to all Composure checks; once my research was complete and I had decided I was now committed to the hobo life, I regained my Composure and took my dumpster-diving abilities to another level. More than a seamlessly integrated perk system, the Thought Cabinet manages to successfully reposition character development as a kind of intellectual deconstruction. It’s incredibly satisfying to look back on the completed cabinet at the end of the game and see it as a neat summary of your character’s defining moments, the points at which you learned something about yourself and were able to grow.

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Learning to read Disco Elysium, through what can initially feel like a mad jumble of competing voices, is the essential first step of attuning yourself to the type of experience it wants to deliver. This is a game with, let’s be honest, an absolute shit-ton of words to read. Literally everything you do, save walking from one place to another, is conveyed and accomplished through text. There are item descriptions, branching dialogue trees where it’s not unusual to have a large handful of options at any one time, skills interjecting with new thoughts and random asides, and even books to read. I cannot verify the developer’s claim that there are one million words in the game, but I can attest that I spent the overwhelming majority of my 50-odd hours with Disco Elysium utterly enraptured by the words it sent my way.

And what beautiful, bonkers, bold words they are. Disco Elysium is easily one of the best-written games I’ve ever played. There’s a swagger and a confidence here that’s rarely seen. There’s a masterful ability to transition from drama and intrigue to absurdist comedy and pointed political commentary in the space of a few sentences. One moment you’re elbow deep in the grim details of police procedure, the next you’re contemplating some metaphysical wonder; later, some hilariously grotesque joke is followed by a spell of genuinely moving emotional vulnerability. It might sound all over the shop, but it works because it all rings true to the fascinating, multi-faceted central character.

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Your nameless cop can be charming, offensive, understandably confused, brimming with completely unearned optimism, flustered, unguarded, or simply sick of everything he’s had to endure. Your skill selections and dialogue choices nudge him in these directions, but of course the reality is that he’s always all of them. The man whose “armpits are lakes, a scythe of booze” preceding him, as he’s first introduced, is the same man who licks congealed rum off the counter of the bar, is the same man who, locked in a tender embrace with a strange woman, vows to spread peaceful communist revolution one hug at a time, is the same man who passes the time sitting on a playground swing, whistling a tune with his detective partner. A writhing mass of contradictory impulses and behaviour, as human as the rest of us.

Disco Elysium is a mad, sprawling detective story where the real case you’ve got to crack isn’t who killed the man strung up on a tree in the middle of town–though that in itself, replete with dozens of unexpected yet intertwined mysteries and wild excursions into the ridiculous, is engrossing enough to sustain the game. Rather, it’s an investigation of ideas, of the way we think, of power and privilege, and of how all of us are shaped, with varying degrees of autonomy, by the society we find ourselves in.

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