Tabletop and Video Games

Disco Elysium: A Video Game Review

Developed by: ZA/UM
Release Date: October 2019
Playtime: 38.8 hours

The winner of a ton of awards, Disco Elysium is a relatively new computer game that completely absorbed my evenings for a week straight. Thank goodness it is only a 30-hour(ish) game, or I would still be rushing home from work to dive into Revachol and spend some time with Nameless Protagonist and Kim Kitsuragi.

Disco Elysium is a point and click adventure of discovery: both of the identity of the murderer of a mysterious hanged man behind a hostel, and more importantly, of your own identity. The game begins with your Nameless Protagonist waking up from a massive hangover and implied suicide attempt. Throughout the game, you construct your personality with an ingenious character points tree that is more D&D than RPG. I of course leaned heavily on Empathy, which created a double edged sword: I was able to relate better to people around me, but I also felt the pain of my past more acutely without the ability to shove it down. I promise this is a game and not a therapy session.

Although the plot of Disco Elysium is excellent and will be discussed, developing your character is truly a unique highlight of the game. As you talk with people at the hostel and beyond, you get a sense for what you’ve been like the previous few days. You can also find personal effects in likely and unlikely locations (how embarrassing, having to be a detective to find your lost detective items) which will trigger memories of who you are and what emotional minefields you are fleeing from. It is honestly SO satisfying to watch your character grow….in any number of directions, as you can double down on paranoia and preach the end of days, get straight-laced and sober and sorry, or any number of unique paths.

In addition to the personality points system, another element of the game that is extremely D&D are all of the ability checks that you make throughout the game. In fact, that’s how every interaction between people and objects is judged. Want to figure out if someone is telling you the truth? Roll the dice with your drama modifier (this is calculated automatically) to determine your success. Want to use a crowbar to break into a freezer? Roll the dice with your physical instrument modifier. If you fail, you must either interact with the world in such a way as to increase your odds (talk to the person further, find a bigger crowbar) or level up so that you have a new point to assign to the necessary personality aspect.

This conceit applies to combat as well. In the rare (but so emotionally powerful!) scenes where violence occurs, time slows and every interaction is a dice roll – gauging people’s anger, dodging attacks, trying to talk people down, warning people of danger. It is super stressful and realistic as you attempt to make a shot, but roll poorly and face the consequences.

Okay, but what about the actual plot? It’s also great! You play a detective sent to Revachol to investigate the murder of a hanged man behind a hostel. You are assigned a partner in Kim Kitsuragi, who feels like an incredibly real character with meaningful depth. Together, you follow leads that twist in on each other – is it a political dispute gone wrong between the union and Wild Pines, or is it something more personal? Along the way, you uncover the (exhaustingly detailed) history of Revachol, the quirks of its inhabitants, and complete a side quest or two. These can cover ground from the mundane (convince a shopkeep to let her cold daughter inside) to the fantastical (set bug traps for a cryptozoologist) to something in the middle (set up a rave club inside a church while a scientist measures a hole in the world with their music equipment). The pace unfurls at the perfect pace to keep your attention focused on solving the murder while allowing detours to explore everything around you.

At times dark but with an enormous amount of heart, Disco Elysium has a lot to say about the human condition, about what is possible, and how we can rebuild ourselves after trauma. 10/10 recommend.

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