There are so few pleasant surprises in life, and Disco Elysium is one of them. It reminds me of old role-playing games like Planescape Torment and Baldur’s Gate — strong narrative-driven games that are rarely released by big development studios today. Since the slow digestion of Bioware by Electronic Arts, I haven’t had game scratch the narrative driven role-playing itch for almost a decade.
The story, characters, narrative, and conversation seem an afterthought in modern games, which put such a strong emphasis on combat that there’s almost no room left for exposition. Conflict is an easy filler for role-playing games, which developers tack on as a cheap way to extend gameplay, or as a means to try to entice more combat-oriented players into purchasing a role-playing game. What we end up with is some peculiar hybrid, which does neither combat nor narrative particularly well. The characters are 2D carbon cutouts of the three-dimensional sort we would find in RPG games during their heyday – characters with strong personalities like Minsk and Viconia and enemies that were legitimately intimidating like Sarevok and Jon Irenicus. Enemies that were introduced in such a way that made the prospect of combat with them terrifying.
In modern role-playing games, combat is a filler between narrative. It happens so often that it loses all of its impact. The sound that plays in a JRPG when a monster finds you as you navigate the game world evokes a pavlovian response of annoyance as I want to reach the next story section or battle with a significant character, and I get sick of barreling over every minor enemy that decides to suicide rush my battle-hardened party. I’m left wondering how any commerce happens in these worlds, or agriculture, as my character, one of the elite fighters in that universe can’t take more than a few steps outside of a major city without immediately being set upon by highwayman, monsters, and vagabonds. What chance does a poor farmer have in that scenario? What are these nation-states doing allowing groups to prey on travelers so close to their major centers of power?
Disco Elysium stands apart from these games. Conflict is out of the norm, and characters have a sense of self-preservation. The state – even in an area where there is an imminent breakdown of social order – tries to maintain a monopoly on violence. Your character, a detective with the RCM, has been sent to investigate a single murder. While you travel on the roads and throughout the game world, you’re not leaving a trail of corpses behind you from each suicidal minion you encounter. You have a very specific job to do, and conquest by the sword is not part of it.
The game focuses a great deal on narrative exposition and conversation with the various characters you encounter around the world. They each have their quirks, personalities, and they respond to your specific character traits in unique ways. When you level up, you’re given points that can be distributed into personality characteristics. Some points boost physical strength, which can be used to intimidate other characters, or a player can use points to level up logic or conversation traits that help the character influence others or spot contradictions in testimonies.
As you investigate the murder, your character peels back the layers of politics in Revachol, and chases down leads that take him to poverty-stricken fishing villages and into the churning mass of a communist workers’ uprising. How the murder gets solved is up to your character’s unique traits, and your knack for putting pieces together and chasing down leads.