As I mentioned on Twitter recently, roughly four days into this month and I found myself rearranging all of my gaming plans. For the most part. I’d wrapped up my progression stuff on LOTRO earlier than expected and playing Witcher 3 ultimately prodded me right back into the arms of Elder Scrolls Online. But what was the most striking is that I couldn’t help but dive deep into the oddly alluring Disco Elysium.
I only became aware of this CRPG late last year, when it popped up on all sorts of “Best of 2019” gaming lists. I went from “intrigued” to “drooling over” after reading up on it even more, and I bought it for myself as a Christmas gift, thinking that I’d play it in February or March. But I couldn’t resist — don’t you love when you can’t resist getting right into that game or book you’ve found? — and now I’m deep into this demented detective tale.
If I had to describe it in comparison to other video games, Disco Elysium would be in the very rare company of Fallen London and Planescape Torment. It’s a wordy, bizarre CRPG in which your own character is an unreliable and unstable narrator and the game might take off in a very unexpected direction at a moment’s notice. There’s little like it, which makes it a welcome relief after being saturated with tons of standard fantasy tropes.
Disco Elysium does begin with one big honking trope of its own, however: It’s a film noire setting in which you, a detective, awake with amnesia. It kind of works in the context of an RPG, allowing you to mold and shape your new consciousness after apparently have gone on the mother of all self-destructive benders in order to destroy your old one.
So my unnamed (and, so far, un-faced) detective awakes without a clue where he is or what he’s doing. Where he is happens to be a pseudo-European island on a world that has some passing similarity to ours. He’s part of a police force that nominally patrols the islands, but this particular isle is in fact controlled by a labor union and its brutes. Why he’s there is that there’s a dead body hanging from a tree — for over a week — and that’s about it. Who that person is, what happened, and how it ties into everything else all around is part of the ongoing and unfolding investigation. The detective gets a temporary partner from a rival precinct, and from there just about anything can happen.
Seriously. Apart from Torment, this is one of the most out-there RPGs I’ve ever played. You CAN play the detective very straight and normal, but even then the game gets bonkers at times. It’s much more fun to go off the rails and shape the private eye the way you want — as a supercop, as a drunkard, as an insane lunatic who gets obsessed with cryptids and desperately wanting this case to be “sexy.” Me? I’ve been going all over the place with him, picking whatever options amuse me and seeing what happens.
Another similarity to Torment is that this isn’t a fighting kind of RPG. Instead, there’s a bunch of skills and the game keeps making dice rolls against them to see what happens. You can invest in a detective who has better hunches, or can lay out a crime scene very well, or is physically intimidating, or all of the above. In an interesting twist, many failed skill checks can be retried in the future if you invest another skill point in that field.
I think that the familiar-yet-alien setting is the most fascinating to me. There’s a lot about European politics and governments that kind of goes over my head, but the dev team obviously went to great lengths to give us an alternate universe version of our world where the cars were designed differently, people still wear armor, and reel-to-reel is still hot tech.
I’m only on Day Two (Tuesday), and while I’ve got a long way to go, I’ve certainly… seen… some things so far. I’ve met the Light-Bending Rich Man and the cryptozoologist, I’ve freaked out a whole bunch of union guys by being irresponsible with a gun, and I’ve solved several smaller mysteries. It’s one of those rides that you really want to slow down and enjoy because you know you’ll only ever experience it for the first time once, and you want that to last as long as possible.