Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Wompty-Dompty Dom Center

Disco Elysium has been on my to-play list for years now, almost from the moment it came out. It's the kind of game that people excitedly talk about at parties, and the kind that spawns screenshots posted from accounts that you didn't realize played video games.


It's an RPG, and a particularly precious kind: One that isn't from the fantasy or sci-fi genre. You play a detective, investigating a surprisingly baroque murder mystery. It's a very dialogue-heavy game, but unlike a lot of very dialogue-heavy games, this one has some very crunchy mechanics behind it. You have four main stats, a whopping 24 attributes, ten clothing slots, and a vast array of secondary characteristics that the game tracks. There are two separate health pools, many consumables, XP and money and shops. Oh, and also entire additional systems like Thoughts, where you further develop your character by pondering and eventually accepting specific ideas (which could be moral, political, personal, or whimsical in nature).



The system is crunchy, but (at least to anyone who's played RPGs) not at all intimidating. Skills all make sense, there are many many paths to success, and the core challenge mechanic is a simple 2D6 roll. Perhaps most importantly, failing skill checks does not mean failing the game. I have gotten to a couple of "Game Over" screens, but only by making catastrophically terrible choices (usually after the game specifically warns you against them). Most skill checks are labeled as "White checks", which means that you can try them again after leveling up the relevant attribute or making some breakthrough in the case. The rarer "Red checks" can only be attempted once, but failing these just puts the story down another path, one that might be at least as good. As one example, there's a spot where you can pitch an investment plan to a businessman. You can try to pitch a good idea or a bad idea. If you succeed in pitching the good idea, you get the funds. If you succeed in pitching the bad idea, he turns you down. But if you fail in pitching the bad idea, then you also end up with the funds. Things like that keep the game nice and snappy. I still find myself reloading after failed checks, but that's just from force of habit and not because the game rewards it.



I'd originally planned to write up a post after finishing the game, but I'm digging it enough and finding it deep enough that it seems worth a mid-(?)-game check-in. This post will mostly focus on mechanics; I'll try to save the plot and character stuff for a later post.

Somewhat like Planescape Torment, you play a single (initially nameless) PC, who has a predefined backstory but who you can build in pretty much any way you like. My initial skill allocation was 4 Intellect, 6 Psyche, 1 Physique and 1 Motorics. Whenever I have the chance, I like to make RPG characters who are more talky, hence this loadout. It's worked fine - I'm sure all builds are viable - but I am wishing that I'd gone for something more like 3/5/2/2. First of all, starting with a single point of HP means a single point of damage can kill (at least until you pick up healing items). I'm also limited to only investing a single skill point into half of my attributes. As I'm getting further into the game, I'm seeing how this limits me from unlocking quite a few passive dialogue checks.



More broadly, the attribute breakdowns are a lot more diverse and interesting than my assumption of "INT / CHA / STR / DEX" went. Psyche includes things like Suggestion and Empathy that I use a lot; but it also includes things like Authority that I shy away from, or Esprit de Corps that I don't have a whole lot of use for. I'd assumed that Physique was for more of a dumb, brute-force approach; but really it's more about being in tune with your body. It has some really cool stuff, like "Shivers", which is a kind of sixth-sense that alerts you to what's going on in the city around you. Likewise, Motorics includes things like Interfacing (stealing or picking locks), but also Composure, which is more about how you hold and present yourself. In some situations, Composure might be more helpful for navigating a conversation towards your desired outcome than a more seductive approach would be.



For a while I was pushing all of my skill points into my preferred Psyche attributes, then into the Intellect ones. From what I've seen, though, the benefits start tapering off around a level of 8 (including your clothing bonuses). Levels beyond that can actually start to sabotage you: an excessively high Empathy might cause you to take the side of a serial killer, or a very high Authority might make you get into fights you cannot win. So now I'm trying to level up my lower skills  as well. 


Clothing is a great way to fine-tune your stat loadout for specific checks. Early on most of the items you pick up give balanced bonuses and penalties, like "+1 Electrochemistry, -1 Rhetoric". As you get further into the game you find more items that give net bonuses. I do kind of wish that there was a better UI for this: all of your clothing items are in one big jumbled category, which isn't bad at first but gets unwieldy once you have a couple of dozen things in there. It would be great to sort them by body-part category or by skill type.


Leveling is pretty fast in this game: you get little dribs of 5XP while noticing things during your investigation, and larger rewards of 30XP or 70XP for making progress in one of your (many!) tasks. Every 100XP gives you a new skill point to spend. Instead of increasing an attribute, you can also unlock a Thought Cabinet slot, which you can then use to learn a Thought. I'll admit that I cheat and look up the rewards for potential thoughts before researching them; that isn't strictly necessary, but you have limited slots and I'd rather not spend additional levels in forgetting a thought.



Thoughts present themselves to you in dialogue, or more often monologues, as your character reflects on something they've seen, heard or felt. This usually ends with the choice to "Accept thought" or "Discard thought". From what I can see, you should always choose "Accept thought". Doing this just adds it to the list of available thoughts to internalize; you don't have to learn it, and accepting will keep that option open.

One of the first thoughts I unlocked was the "Sorry" copotype: my inner monologue noticed that I was apologizing for everything, and had decided that that was my primary characteristic. I was initially indignant: How dare you call me that?! I don't want to be a "Sorry Cop"! But on further reflection I realized that I had, in fact, been almost non-stop apologizing. For good reason - there's some rough stuff that apparently went down before the start of the game, and it's in my nature to say "I'm sorry" when someone mentions how bad they're feeling. Anyways, unlocking that Thought was kind of a wake-up call for me. Yes, I had been acting sorry, but I didn't want to be The Sorry Cop, so I made a deliberate choice to stop apologizing for everything and work on being more interesting. And it worked! There are some other really fun copotypes to unlock; I'm currently an Art Cop, but Apocalype Cop sounds really fun too, not to mention the iconic Hobo Cop.



Hobo Cop is one of the few specific things to have penetrated my consciousness during the last few years of not playing this game. As is often the case, I feel like I've been rewarded for my tardiness, as I am playing the "Final Cut" edition. This has a few minor additions, and also the big change of being fully voice-acted. The voice-over actors are great, but it's just SO MUCH, man. I read quicker than I hear, and from early on I've gotten in the habit of skipping forward during dialogue.


The game's tone varies a lot. It's often sad, sometimes grim, occasionally macabre. I find that I'm playing this game in shorter chunks than usual, as I need to step away from the mouse for a bit to digest and recover. But it's also really funny, and has some genuine moments of sweetness.



Early on I thought that the game was set in our world, and went through the first half-hour or more of the game trying to place the "Insula" and figure out where the various countries were located. (I'd pictured it as something like a "The City & the City" situation, with a fictional city set in our real world.) I eventually figured out that the whole world is original, which is cool. I'm on record as disliking having to learn entire new mythologies every time I pick up a new RPG, but this one is so different in setting and tone that I don't mind at all.


It is interesting how real world phrases will occasionally slip through, like "Franco-Nigerian". That makes me curious if there is some connection between our worlds after all. It seems plausible that this case is playing out during a dream, with the dream-like quality of being evocative of the real world but different in all the details. The highly impressionistic art style seems like it might support that idea. Or this could be a world we've entered after death, and are processing our life experiences. The title "Elysium" seems to nod to this interpretation, as does a later conversation with the White Pines negotiator Joyce.



I do really love the alternate "history" shown in this game. Political factions are similar to our own world, and they have familiar cadences but take place in different years and countries and with different people. One of the most obvious example is that communism was invented by Kras Mazov, who seems a clear doppelganger for Karl Marx. In this world, though, Kras actually participated in a revolution. As in our own world, a business-oriented liberal order has become ascendant, while communist and fascist factions try to make up for their smaller numbers with boisterous action.


Besides the political stuff, though, the technology itself is intriguing. They have "Radiocomputers", which use tape; when someone explains how they work, though, you realize that their tapes are different from how our own were constructed. They have air travel, but since jet engines can't penetrate the Pale they rely on ballistic airships instead. Nuclear power is well advanced and carries the same hazards as on Earth. Automobiles exist but have very different styling, and you eventually learn that their inner components are different as well. The genre as a whole is kind of uncategorizable: it's too modern to be steampunk, not advanced enough to be science fiction. It might be adjacent to weird fiction, but with a much lower emphasis on eldritch horrors.



The reactivity in this game is absolutely insane. Having written some reactive RPG dialogue in my time, I'm in absolute awe at all of the variables the game tracks and all of the ways the narrative can change, while still seeming coherent and natural. As one specific example, one of my very first tasks was to perform an autopsy on the corpse. I failed to get the body down, and got sidetracked doing other things for three days. In the meantime, though, I was vigorously chasing down witnesses and interviewing suspects, and had uncovered basically the whole story of what had happened from my conversations with the Hardies and Klaasje. So when I finally did the autopsy, Lt. Kim and I knew what we were looking for, and the dialogue was all about how the evidence fit (or didn't fit) the story. But if I'd done the autopsy first like I was supposed to, I'm sure that all of my later interviews with those witnesses would have referenced the evidence I'd found. Likewise, throughout the autopsy we referred to the victim as "Lely", which was the name Klaasje knew him by. But if I hadn't met Klaasje yet, he would have just been "the hanged man". Shortly after finishing the autopsy, the search for his boots completed and I learned that his real name was Ellis  Kortenaer; if I'd called the station before the autopsy, that name would have been used instead. And, again, this is all voice-acted! Unreal.


Disco Elysium is living up to the hype, which is saying a lot. It's ticking all of the boxes that I'd hoped Torment: Tides of Numenara would: an unusual RPG with immense player choice and huge reactivity, grappling with large themes and philosophical ideas. Disco Elysium also feels incredibly grounded, though: despite being fictional, the characters are highly relatable, their struggles are our own struggles, and so those philosophical ideas have a heft that's often missing in RPGs. You can have a blast focusing on solving the murder mystery, but I think pretty much everyone will get caught up in the swirl of ideas and challenges the game has to offer.

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