Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

Disco Elysium

I have purposefully avoided any most news about Disco Elysium (formerly known as No Truce With The Furies) as it was being developed. It sounded too good to be true and there was no way it would not end in a huge disappointment. Well, the joke's on yours truly.

While it is a an genuine impossibility that such a game could exist today, somehow it does.

The Beginning

Hooked me right in. At the character creation screen even -- which was quite surprising. I'm the opposite of a stats nerd and all my character customisation is dedicated to finding ways to avoid combat and maximise dialogue options and exploration (combat is bad, dialogue's good -- this is true in pretty much all RPGs and almost all games).

You get to choose between four main traits (more or less the equivalent to strength, dexterity, intelligence and charisma) which then determine your baseline and limits for the subskills skills each trait has.

In most games, you would kind of want to build a well-rounded character with one dominant skill (generally some sort of combat proficiency). I, of course, wanted to put all the points into intelligence and charisma and none to strength and dexterity, but that would surely render the game unplayable.

But the premade character builds were all following a similar pattern -- one of extremes. So I went for it and played the whole game through that way. And it was perfectly fine! Better than fine -- it clearly provided unique challenges and opportunities and it's obvious that selecting a different set of skills would lead to a wildly different experience.

It also meant my character had a single health point. Due to his lackluster physical state, he got a heart attack when he tried to get his tie down from a ceiling fan. And died. Not even five minutes into the game. This was excellent, but also worrying.

Dear reader, have no fear. When you lose health, you can quickly use a healing item (assuming you've got one) to stave off the inevitable (just click the healing item button right above your health count). It took me a while to figure this out and until I did, I was wondering if this is going to be problematic -- some dialogues will force a health loss on you unconditionally, sometimes multiple times in a row. But yeah, it's fine, just keep those Nosapheds handy.

Anyway, the tie is actually a bit of crazy arsehole and an all around bad influence on our Nameless One (you don't remember anything), so you might as well just leave it alone to brood. Though a hardened RPG player that I am, I did engage in a little bit of save-scumming and it was not the last time. But. BUT: despite the fact that you can save and load to your heart's content, I found myself doing that very rarely. And indeed, this is one of the super rare games that actually delivers on the "failures can be just as interesting as the successes" promise.

The Detective

You're playing a concrete character (like say in The Witcher, Mass Effect or Planescape: Torment). A man, detective, in his... forties? (you don't remember your age either), deeply depressed, sick of everything and on a crystal clear downward spiral to hell. You've spent the last three days in a haze involving heavy drinking, property damage, insane antics, insults, embarrassments, amassing huge debt and a complete and utter amnesia.

Oh wow! Really? Amnesia? In an RPG? Whoa! What an original and fascinating concept!

Let's get this out of the way. Like it or not, not knowing anything about yourself and the world around you is a really good set-up for an RPG. You the player don't know anything, you've never set foot in that world. You learn about it as you navigate it, but you don't even know how the metaphysics works, what the political and social situation is, where is your home, where's the tavern, who runs the city, who your friends/colleagues/enemies are. You don't know anything.

Whereas your character has typically lived there for well over a decade and this disconnect can be jarring. In Fallout 2 you get chided for not recognising your aunt who lived in the same village you did for your entire life. Your character knows her, but you don't. They make it work but it feels weird.

There are other ways to deal with this, but amnesia is an extremely simple and relatable way to solve this. That's why it became the RPG staple. Of course, that's what makes it boring and cringy, but oh well.

On the other hand, playing someone who's been on a three day joy-ride of alcohol and utter self destruction, it at least feels plausible.

Anyway, you're a detective on a murder case in a bad part of town and due to inter-departmental politics (what's "politics"? What's a "department"? What's a "detective"? What's this "money" the innkeeper demands? The amnesia is great in this one) you've been assigned a partner from another district. And so you go look at the body, puke your guts out and somehow, slowly, try to put your shit together and figure out what the hell happened. And if not who you were, then at least who you are now. Who you're going to be.

There is an obvious comparison to an earlier game I consider in the highest of regards: Planescape: Torment. The news and reports kept mentioning it which was one of the reasons I didn't pay much attention. PS:T is one of my absolute favourites. The pinnacle of the classic RPG genre that few other games even got close to. I simply refused to get excited by that hope.

Well, it's true. Shit, I don't know how the fuck did they manage to do this, but this is the second game (third if you count Tides of Numenera which was really cool, but not reaching the heights of Planescape or Disco Elysium) in this sub-sub-sub-genre that I loved so much and started to believe will only ever contain one exhibit.

The Impossibility

I keep saying this game can not possibly exit (an opinion I'm not alone in voicing). It's an ambitious RPG (one of the most difficult game genres to build, barring it's MMO cousin) made by a small team, with (to my knowledge) no outside funding by people who aren't even game developers! When I heard that, all my hopes for this being a proper game -- an actual RPG -- vanished. Sure, it might be a good experience, that will make me think and feel, but it won't be a game I was looking -- hoping -- for.

It fucking is. You place this next to any AA game (or even an AAA one) and it will look and feel just the same.

I've played my share of indie RPGs -- it's my favourite genre and there was a period of time where all the mainstream studios shifted their gaze into the hack&slash murderfest or online play (which, both, ugh). So indie I went.

And there are some really cool gems there! But: they are at best ugly or clunky and often both. At worst, they're that, but also drown you out in a shit overlong terribly written exposition and you check out before even getting to the interactive bits.

Disco Elysium feels like a normal game. The controls, graphics, glitches, look and feel -- all as you'd expect from a game that was not made by an Estonian art collective, but say a smaller-scale Obsidian.

The Role

So okay, this is going to be very meandering and I do apologise, but there's so much I want to highlight and it's mostly disconnected unexpected pieces.

I was able to make a Samuel Vimes character. I didn't really set out to do that, but my selection resulted in a fiercely intelligent, observant person who's good with people, but cannot handle the world around him and falls deep into depression and self-destruction.

And so my personal quest was obvious: get out of the rut, focus on the case that's in front of you, solve it the best you can in spite of all the people doubting you and making fun of you. Flaunt the higher-ups who are planning to use your inevitable failure, stay off the booze -- completely -- and SHOW THEM ALL.

And it felt fucking good.

The World

The game's set in a fictional world of maybe 1960s vibe with no obvious magic, but definitely not this world. Some of the technology is different, a lot of the terminology is, the geography and politics too.

You're a detective in the city of Revachol which went through a communist revolution a few decades prior and was than overturned by a military occupation. The fallout of these recent turmoils are still felt to this day -- especially in the district where the game is taking place.

You see the relics from the past, the optimism that went with it, mostly dashed now. You see people trying to make a living, some doing better than others. You hope it will get better but you also feel it's not going to be very likely. It gave me a very similar vibe to the original Fallouts without going full Brown Apocalypse. On the contrary, the world is actually quite colourful.

The game is all set in this one relatively small district called Martinaise and it works really well. I've been long hoping for an RPG that shifts its focus into a smaller area and fills it up with characters, stories, quests and mysteries. Think Baldur's Gate that's all within the city of Baldur's Gate. Or Planescape: Torment that's all just Sigil.

Well, this is the first game that actually does this and again, it works really well! You don't really have that Big Town Paralysis because the area is frankly, not that big. But it is full of places to explore, mysteries to uncover, people to talk to and shit to do above and beyond your main goal.

Speaking of colour, the game has a really strong atmosphere. Great music and visuals. You get a real feeling for the district. It's a place with history, where people did and still do live. And the different areas that are there have their own character -- the union building is very different from the apartment buildings, the commercial area and the fishing village. The place is alive. Withering, but alive.

I did not find the screenshots particularly appealing, but actually playing the game, it is all utterly gorgeous.

The Partner

You're not all alone in this, thankfully (or you wouldn't get anywhere in your state). But instead of a more traditional party of 4-6 people you get one partner. Kim Kitsuragi, from a different district. And he's amazing. I absolutely adore Kim. Competent, has his own interests and quirks and flaws, trying not to steal the show, but also really keen on solving the case. I really like his personality, his suggestions and insights.

Kim rules. He fills a really important role in this setup while having his own personality.

The Lack of Combat

There's no combat in the game. It took me honestly hours to even realise this. And it is absolutely fantastic. I was wishing for an RPG to try that, because like I said (as far as I'm concerned) combat in RPGs tends to be the most boring and frustrating part in the game. So yeah, surely you can make an RPG with no combat sections in it! No one ever tried.

Until Disco Elysium. And it works! Thank goodness it works. And it makes the game so much better.

Now, to be clear: when I say no combat, I mean none of the traditional enemy encounter sequences where you fight using special combat rules and skills and sequences. There are action scenes there (there's at least one shootout, and if you're less of a wimp, I'm sure you can get into a brawl or two). But, you don't go to a separate combat screen where you choose your targets, move around and slowly whittle down hitpoints. These more actiony scenes are directed (just like everything else in the game) via its dialogue interface and of course, dependant on your skills and equipment.

I've heard some people say it's not really an RPG but it absolutely completely is no questions about it (unless you insist the "R" stands for "Rifle" or a "Rocket" and not "Role").

It's got skills, inventory, items, choices, multiple solutions to each problem, a world where you can freely move around and talk to people via branching dialogue trees.

The Words

Is a very wordy game. Comfortably on the level of Planescape: Torment, though I think it's smaller so the total amount of text is probably lower too. You might not be interested in all the text there is. That's perfectly fine and the game doesn't require you to read everything. Even I was not compelled to exhaust every single line of dialogue.

But you will be dealing with a lot of text. Now, there's a lot of wordy games where the words are shit. In those games, people tend to focus on the loot and combat and I tend to just check out. This is not one of those games.

This is obviously suggestive, but I loved the writing. Absolutely loved it.

But yeah, if you don't like reading in your games, prolly don't even bother with this one.

Also, while there are item descriptions and your typical lore background reading (which you can increase significantly by putting points into the Encyclopedia skill), most of the text comes in form of a conversation.

That deserves a special note: in addition to you, the character you talk to (which can also be you), there's also Kim chiming in regularly and also: your skills.

Each skill is essentially a personality in your head and they have things to say and directions they want you to go on. Often times conflicting directions. For example, Drama might get enamoured by someone else's story and wants you to go for the most poignant response while Logic will point out the inconsistencies and ask you to double down. Empathy will tell you what a character's feeling and Encyclopedia will flood you with interesting and relevant, but only rarely actually helpful information.

Out of these conflicting internal struggles, an outward personality emerges.

Now, this is genuinely really intriguing to play and navigate, but also, to the best of my knowledge, it is a very good approximation of what actually happens in the brain. We don't have a single established personality, rather we're an amalgamation of various urges and influences. So yeah, super cool.

I'd love to see more games adopt something like this. It can provide a really nice way of injecting dynamicism into games that don't want to feature a party of companions.

The Voice

The voice acting feels kind of weird. It seems the quality varies greatly. But, I don't actually think it's necessarily the quality itself, it's just that the volume levels are really unbalanced. Sometimes a voice is really loud and other times very faint and I think that gives an impression of unprofesionalism. I don't think I've actually noticed any terrible performance by the voice actors, although: this is not something I would notice easily. And other people did bring this up.

So yeah, there's some voice acting, but the game's not fully voiced by any stretch (given the amount of text, that would probably increase the production costs hundredfold). Some characters are fully voiced (Kim at least I think), but most say a few opening lines and the rest is silent.

I don't love this approach, but I feel it's a decent compromise between a fully voiced everything (that's the best but super expensive and generally results in less branching and less content overall) and having the characters be completely silent.

Side note: I'm hoping this is a place where we could start utilising the recent text to speech developments. Have the computer build massive volumes of audio that doesn't sound like a toaster.

The Glitches

I haven't noticed any obvious serious bugs, but there are some occasional dialogue flaws (where things don't flow exactly as they should). There's also this little annoying thing about running around.

When you click on the map, your character will walk (rather slowly) towards it. When you double-click, he runs there. I'm assuming most players will always run, because time. But that doesn't really fit the character (at least not my decrepit one) so I chose to walk everywhere. And yet, a few times in the game Kim commented on me running around like a madman.

I have run occasionally, because I'm clumsy and sometimes double-click by accident. But the vast majority of my moving around has been the steady pace of a tired weak old man. Feels like the game should have noticed and adjusted that dialogue (as it did with pretty much everything else).

Again, something Alice Bell noticed too in her review.

One more thing: the weirdly inconsistent word censorship. The text is full of "fuck", "shit" and even an occasional "cunt" flies by (voiced and everything), no problem. But for some reason, every instance of the word "faggot" is written with asterisks and obscured in the voice over. Just that one word.

As far as I could find out, this can't be over-ridden (I foolishly bought it on Steam before realising it's on GOG too -- so maybe you can turn it off there) and I find this really jarring -- especially in the voice overs. Plus it feels really weird that it's just this one word. I don't know, it feels like such a tiny issue, but it jerks me out from being in the game to being in my living room wondering what the fuck is going on.

It's not like this is a kid or even teenage-friendly game. IDK.

The Summary

Being a detective on a case is the perfect setting for an RPG. You get to snoop around, talk to people even when they're not keen, insert your way into private matters and places where civilians wouldn't be able to get to. The role fits really well with what you're actually doing in the game. More games do this please!

I really liked it. The Planescape: Torment comparisons come naturally, and Disco Elysium holds the ground without breaking the sweat. And it really feels like there's a ton of good replay opportunity with different builds and approaches. I went with the redemption/apology/getting-your-act-together approach which has earned me the rating of a Boring Cop. You can instead go on a crazy bend, keep drinking and taking drugs, adopt the many ideologies in there (fascism, communism, mysogynism, racism) and just swing for the extremes. That's not the story I wanted to play, but they're there and they're probably going to be quite different and really intriguing if not exactly fun.

Oh and being able to do a crazy jump or a dropkick or just shoot the gun accurately (because you're not a husk of a human) might be neat, too.

Like in Planescape: Torment, you get to confront things from your past. Much more recent past, but it is there. That is really awesome in putting your current self into a perspective and understanding what went on before the game started.

I'm so glad this game seemingly against all odds and logic got made. And I'm incredibly setisfied with the result. I've been waiting for something like this for over a decade.

Tomas Sedovic on 11 December, 2019