When looking for an anecdote to illustrate both the fascination and frustration inherent in Disco Elysium, you need to go no further than its opening minutes. Your character wakes up with a killer headache, no memory of his past life and no clothes on. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can make a grab for your tie, swinging away on the fan in your room. Failing the first of many many checks results in you dying of a heart attack and makes it clear that this game means business. Because while at that point it may all be fun and games to start over with a character slightly less inclined to instantly croak, it’s actually one of many instances in which your body, brain or the outside world are out to get you.
Disco Elysium is built on a rather simple core idea, a noir detective mystery using the conventions of a CRPG. Instead of slaying monsters in fantasy combat, you spend your time sleuthing through the ruined streets of Revachol. The chief attraction then, is how downright obsessed developer ZA/UM is with the roleplaying mechanics of pen and paper games. Here you can invest in a myriad of skills that represent your body, mental state, knowledge and social graces. To keep things interesting you can’t simply max all of them out, so while there are ways to find help, it’s likely you’re always going to struggle in situations your character isn’t cut out for.
It’s a bold way to make sure players never feel like they’re fully in control, and for a while it’s fun to watch your character fumble through an otherwise serious murder investigation. However, the inherent possibility of failure makes it possible to lock yourself out of the experience entirely. I played for seven hours when I had my own version of the heart attack anecdote: through a combination of refusing tasks, failing checks that would lead to alternative avenues and having no further skill points to spend to reattempt said checks, I had nowhere to go. All that mystery, normally so welcome, led me to a crossroads I wasn’t even aware I was on. Afterwards I became an obsessive saver and skill point hoarder. Disco Elysium had shown me the mechanical heart within, and I felt like I could no longer rely on having the dice fall where they may.
Even if this was a likely very specific and rare occurrence, it’s one of several ways in which Disco Elysium ends up destroying the illusion by making you aware of its inner workings. My political leanings get a score (to my absolute horror I have racked up a point for fascism somewhere), as well as my general demeanour (3 points under ‘sad cop’). The obsession with numbers can make it feel so mechanical, although it’s certainly impressive. No two player experiences will be the same, thanks to the myriad ways you can distribute your skills.
In Disco Elysium, your clothes and even your thoughts take influence on your stats. If you commit to a certain train of thought which crops up either randomly or during a conversation, you can then mull it over further in your ‘thought cabinet’ – basically the back of your head. After some time has passed, you have internalised the thought, which will lead you to do better or worse in certain areas. A deep-dive into the history of a famous actor, for example, causes me to lose perception, likely because I’m preoccupied with useless stuff when I should be busy with police work.
Frankly, I become preoccupied with a lot of stuff that isn’t police work quite frequently, because that’s what the game wants. The length of Disco Elysium isn’t explained through a plot full of twists and turns, but by all the ways it’s trying to distract you. Sure, side missions can be important to your overall progress, but in a genre in which you already do a lot of reading ZA/UM underestimated the usefulness of a good editor. Apparently everyone who worked on the game in any capacity contributed to the writing at some point, and that shows, because some conversations stay stubbornly devoid of any rhyme, reason or cohesive characterisation.
That is nowhere more obvious than in the protagonist himself. As an amnesiac, alcoholic and occasional drug connoisseur, the detective is the perfect character to be in-between personalities, his brain basically a drawer in dire need of tidying. Different aspects of your personality butt into conversations randomly, and you can decide whether to hear them out or listen to what they have to say. No matter how low your skill in a certain area is however, all parts of your personality are weighted equally when it comes to taking up real estate in your head, and thus on my screen. Sometimes I can tell Disco Elysium that no thank you, I do not want the encyclopaedic part of my brain to give me a complete rundown of the history of the part of town I’ve just entered. At other times, it will simply go ahead unasked.
These different voices and personalities could either be a representation of a mind in flux, or the result of an unrestrained outpour of content. I suspect the latter, mainly because while the game locks your skill growth, it never actually allows you to commit to any kind of moral compass. If it serves the game that I behave like a fascist, I can do that, and nothing is going to stop me – if I want to, I can discard thought models that don’t work for me later on. It’s confusing player freedom with inciting chaos at every opportunity.
While Disco Elysium shows you a downtrodden suburb in which teenagers take drugs and senior citizens play Boules on earthquake-cracked pavement, Disco Elysium doesn’t allow me to be the type of character I want to be – an even remotely kind one, and I don’t necessarily mean one with a higher empathy stat.
One character and one story may contain multitudes, but Disco Elysium has pushed that idea to extremes, making me a flippant macho and above all a weirdo who stands for nothing. Once the novelty wears off, I feel like I’m playing a game that insistently wants to prove to me how smart it is, and that, above anything, is just really tiring.