Almost 20 years ago, Planescape: Torment made a promise. It demonstrated that video games as an art form are capable of delivering writing on par with the best narratives that exist over all forms of media. The world of Planescape offered prose so invigorating and eloquent, storytelling so pristine and cohesive that it captivated creative minds for decades to come.
In its stead, many games posed to be the promised heroes, ready to cash in on that promise but unfortunately, no one managed to soar as high… until now. Of all iterations that could have been, few could imagine that the savior of video gaming prose would take upon such an interesting form: bare naked, hungover, laying in his filth in the middle of a ravaged motel room, awoken from eternal slumber by a hellish clarion call. Rise and shine, detective. Welcome to Revachol.
The best way to describe Disco Elysium is as a well-thought-out tabletop RPG session, with a narrator, so dedicated to their craft that they have abandoned reality to refine their world to the very finest detail. The city of Revachol, where the events of the game unfold, is but a speck of the setting meticulously created by ZA/UM. It is a world with a deep history, the political alliances made and broken, the wars waged and lost. Its inhabitants are echoes, reflections of the universe’s complicated history, their existence defined by the roles which they are (un)willingly playing.
It would be enough if this convoluted history and mythos existed as a mere expository dump, stashed away in some conventional codex tab or given out without a care in the world by some “Librarian” trope of a character. But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it? Somehow, the legacy of this war torn world circles back to the murder case, which our detective must unravel. It is so dense that a singular play through is not enough to chip away at the interconnected web of events and circumstances which lead up to a singular moment of a broken man rejecting the eternal slumber to do what he does best – solving crimes and doing drugs.
Post-revolutionary Revachol is a city that somehow stumbled through its disasters and defied the odds to procure an amalgamation of thoughts and culture so contradictory that it is a miracle it has not fallen apart. In that sense, our detective is Revachol made manifest. He is a man of internal conflict and turmoil, so overwhelmed with pain that he had drunk himself into amnesia, his memory a blurred mirage of a man that he once was.
Memory loss was not the only consequence of a days-long binge: detective’s mind became so destitute, that conversations with himself are elevated to a whole new level. Rather than treating his inner monologue as a singular voice, detective’s mind is a kaleidoscope, with concepts such as Logic, Volition, and Perception becoming personified, eager to chime in on anything that is currently happening.
Effectively, these skills substitute for the party assembly in the traditional isometric RPGs. Invest more points into Rhetoric and it will increase its presence, talking over conversations and pointing out the inconsistencies in the words of others. Become too obsessed with it and you would be prone to derailing the conversations into the declamations of your political manifesto, earning yourself some weird looks from the citizens of Revachol and your partner in crime – Precious Cinnamon Roll, Lieutenant Kim Katsuragi. When everything else fails, Katsuragi will be the one to pull you back to reality, whether you like it or not.
Like a tale weaved by a great Dungeon Master, Disco Elysium reacts to your failures in the most surprising ways. Years of gaming has conditioned us that failure is objectively a bad outcome, one which should be avoided at any cost. Here, the failure – which means failing to pass a critical skill check – is not only an opportunity for the game to flex its humor muscles but also an avenue for new opportunities, as it opens new ways to deal with witnesses and handle quest outcomes.
It took me some time to get used to it and to stop save-scumming. ZA/UM’s dedication to letting the player act out the story the way that they want to is something that I haven’t experienced in the last few decades of playing RPGs. During one of the replays of the game, I have found that failing a quite early skill check completely trivializes the task that I have beaten my head against in the initial play through. So, the next time you will want to min-max in this game, think twice before doing anything.
If after several failures you have not realized that ZA/UM really does not want you to stress over stats that much, they introduce you to the Thought Cabinet (THC). Now, whenever you say something way too much, the game will take note of it, presenting you with a new thought. Once acquired, you can internalize it in THC, and it will give you some tweaked dialogue options as well as stat bonuses.
Here is the catch, though: you do not know what bonuses and fines you will get before the thought is internalized. This clever design trick nudges you to play the character, not the stat-sheet, keeping things just because they are interesting or fun, not because the calculations showed that it gives you the biggest deeps. Because of the depth of character customization provided by Skills and Thoughts combinations, not a single play through will feel the same, and even after the six play throughs I’ve done, there are still details to unpack about detective’s past and the world’s history.
I’ll have to be frank with you. I’ve played games since I was 4 years old and I have played it all, across many genres and platforms. In all these years, I have never enjoyed a game as invigorating and satisfying as Disco Elysium. It is truly a historic landmark for the industry and how blessed we all are that we can be a part of it. So, if you have not tried it yet, I would strongly insist that you do. As for me, I will just be sitting here, eagerly awaiting for what the insane minds at ZA/UM have in store for the future.