Sunday, March 27, 2022

Disco Stu Doesn't Advertise

I've been hearing good things about Disco Elysium for two years now, and I'm pleased to say that it exceeded my high expectations. It's a really original game that's also very fun to play, taking the elements I love best from RPGs and adventure games and doing things I've never seen done before with them.


When describing it to people, I sometimes hesitantly reference Season 1 of True Detective, or Twin Peaks: it's an ostensible murder mystery that explores a colorful community and veers into some mystical-feeling territory. It's a lot more political than those shows, though, and a lot more funny as well. So maybe toss in some of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and, I dunno, maybe China Mieville's The City & the City. I don't have nearly as many video games to compare it to. It's nothing at all like Police Quest, isn't nearly supernatural enough for Gabriel Knight, way more playful and fun than L. A. Noire, plus, y'know, this is an RPG. As I described in my first post, I can't really think of any other RPG that's had a similarly broad yet simple attribute system. I guess maybe the Torment games are the closest analogues, at least in having an amnesiac protagonist and a lot of self-directed character determination, but Disco Elysium has far more varied and reactive possible paths through the game.


A few quick gameplay notes before getting into plot:

I'd mentioned before that, while the voice acting is very good, I found myself skipping through most of the lines. Fortunately, there are several options available in the game to modify the use of voiceover. About halfway through the game I switched to "Classic" and I absolutely love it: it works kind of like old-school Baldur's Gate, in that when you start a conversation you'll hear the first few lines spoken by the character, but from then on it's text-only. That works way better for me in a game like this with a ton of text. We're now almost a decade into the isometric RPG renaissance, which has long had an awkward relationship between copious amounts of text and long voice acting, and I really hope that more games offer Disco Elysium's options in the future to switch between different modes of voicing.



I tried to stay spoiler-free while playing this game, but whenever I got a new Thought option I looked it up on the wiki to see if its results would be worth taking. I prioritized Thoughts that granted bonus XP; I didn't exactly min-max, and I'm sure a thorough playthrough would get more levels than me. Anyways, by the end of the game I had enough skill points to raise all of my Intellect and Psyche skills to 8 and to put three pips into each Physique and Motorics skill. Just something to keep in mind for builds. (My initial attribute allocation was 4/6/1/1, but I took a Thought that raised all learning caps to 3.)


Similarly, by the end of the game I was able to buy every purchasable item except for a vanity thing that cost 700 Real, even without selling much of value. Money feels tight and scary on Day 1, but after two particular encounters and making it to Day 3 there isn't anything to worry about for the rest of the game.


Don't be afraid to fail Red Checks. It's often necessary to proceed in the game.


Clothing isn't as critical as I had initially thought. Swapping clothes can make a noticeable difference in passing White and Red checks; but there are an order of magnitude more passive checks than active checks, and you won't typically be notified of failed passive checks. Once you have a stable outfit, it's probably best to spend your Skill Points to fill in gaps and bring as many skills as possible up to the higher levels. Passive checks are usually just fun and for flavor, but they'll also often open up new lines of questioning, and while out in the world they can do things like reveal hidden rooms or items.


After my previous post, I continued my hard-core Communist run through the game. This leads through an interesting encounter with a Communist "cell", which you soon realize is just a glorified book club. It seems a bit silly and close to pathetic, but culminates in a surprisingly beautiful moment of wonder and grace.


I also recovered from my initial Boring Cop snafu and pivoted into Superstardom, which was fun but I didn't feel as invested in that angle as the Communist one. I had almost no Apocalyptic points in this run, but I think that could be a really fun angle for the future: I can imagine a full-on Crazy Harry approach where you take speed and smoke and mutter about the end of the world.


While I took care to become more interesting, I still continued my standard RPG behavior of trying to make everybody like me. Fortunately, that isn't incompatible with being weird. As long as you aren't calling people racist names they'll generally tolerate your eccentricities. (As a rule, people do not like being called racist, but that didn't stop me! I don't need to be friends with those people!)


Your relationship with Kim is the most important, and we struck up a good rapport early on. He could see how hard I was trying, even if I kept failing, and I thanked him profusely for his orientation and help.


Alongside all the humor, there's also a lot of powerful emotional content here, including an achingly poignant portrayal of the heartbreak and grief that follows the end of a romantic relationship. In this area especially, it's fascinating to think about how all of the various parts of your psyche are acting to protect you, but in the process encouraging maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors. I don't think that this is necessarily a game about psychology, but stuff like that really hits home and feels like a thoughtful and serious treatment of how our minds work.


Oh, and the worldbuilding is really impressive too. I mentioned before that it took me a little while to realize that this was a completely original world, and not just a fictional country in our own. By the end of the game, I'm pretty sure that it's a straight-up different universe and not just a dream or purgatory of our own. That sense of familiar things actually being different continues throughout, though. Communism is a great example: upon hearing the name, you naturally assume that it's the same as our world's Communism, with Mazovian Socio-Economics primarily concerned with the ineluctable forces of history devolving power downward and ending in the hands of the workers. In Disco Elysium, it has very similar vibes - pro-proletariat, anti-fascist, egalitarian and communal - but the underlying philosophy seems to be pretty different, deriving from metaphysics more than dialectical materialism. Similarly, the musical genres mentioned in the game exactly match ours: rock, disco, hardcore; but "rock" is sad and slow, a reactionary music of the bourgeoisie.


Also! I can't close this post without talking about how I deeply, DEEPLY loved the nightclub plot. I think it's insane that Disco Elysium has a better club than any modern Shadowrun game. It's everything that I ever wanted: doing the work to find a venue, prepare it, upgrading the sound system, collaborating with musicians to make the most HARD CORE music ever. And dancing! Seriously, the high point of this entire game was, without a doubt, the moment that I convinced Kim Kitsuragi to get down and funky on the dance floor. I love this game so, so much.


Favorite Attribute: I thought Psyche, but turns out it was Intellect!

Favorite Skill: Shivers. Runner-up: Inland Empire.


Favorite Clothing: That jacket.

Favorite Person To Beg Money From: Mega Rich Light-Bending Buy.

Favorite Tool: Your journal.


Favorite Voice: Hard to pick one! The narrator, I guess, despite turning him off. Character-wise, perhaps Evrart, who is super-interesting to listen to.

Favorite Ally: Kim Kitsuragi.


Favorite Enemy: The Deserter.

Favorite Adversary: Gosh, lots of great choices. Perhaps Ruby, despite her short screentime.


Favorite Thought: For concept, Inexplicable Feminist Agenda. For mechanics, Actual Art Degree.


Favorite Book: Lots of great choices! A Brief Look At Infra-Materialism was pretty fascinating. I had an especially great time playing Suzerainty (I got two points!), and loved my breathless reactions to The Man From Hjelmdall.

Favorite Music: Maybe the Smallest Church in Saint-Saëns? It has a really cool Tom Waits sound.


The Whirling-In-Rags theme is wonderful too.


And don't forget the final mix of Hard Core Anodic Disco!

Favorite Minor Character: Arrrrrrrggggghhhh, don't make me choose! (Egghead.)

Favorite Map: Maybe the basement of the Doomed Commercial Arena?

Least Favorite Activity: Walking all the way to visit Evrart and then walking all the way back. I really wish there was a fast travel point near the shipping container.

Favorite Visual: The camera slowly panning out to reveal the high spire of the church. Runner-up: Hypothetical bullet trajectories traces in Klaasje's room.


Favorite Animation: Harry's sick dance moves.


Saddest Scene: Geez, so many to choose from, but I'll probably pick the recurring dream of Dora.

Coolest Psychological Development: Volition discovering that your instincts have been compromised. Runner-up: Encyclopedia being 100% useless during the examination of Moralism (along with the cross-chatter of your other thoughts seeking to avoid the mention of Dolores Dei).

Favorite Quest: Finding the reckless driver.

Favorite Achievement: Biggest Communism Builder.


Favorite Artwork (In-game): "Un Jour Je Serai De Retour Près De Toi". Runner-up: The ruined stained-glass window featuring Dolores Dei and her retinue.


Favorite Portrait: Ruud Hoenkloewen's is really affecting. Lilienne's is good. Egghead's is amazing. I just love the huge range from very abstract to stylized.


Favorite Drug: I don't use that stuff, man. (But I did buy a pack of cigarettes near the very end for an art project.)


Disco Elysium succeeds on pretty much any scale I can think of. It's a great story, with a complex plot that unfolds believably. It's a fun game, with unique but easily grasped mechanics. It's emotionally affecting, somehow managing to meld together horrific crimes and macabre scenes with laugh-out-loud funny dialogue, whimsical flights of fancy and sincere fraternal bonding. It's unafraid to wear its politics on its sleeve, while also recognizing that the world is a big place and too complex to reduce to a slogan. Something beautiful happened here.

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