What I appreciate about Disco Elysium is that it actually backs itself. This is a deeply political game that refuses to let you sit on the fence and, while you can end up adopting one of four political ideologies (communism, fascism, moralism and ultraliberalism) based on the dialogue and action decisions that you make, it’s pretty clear where the developer’s own thoughts on the various positions lie. It’s sad that “this game takes an ideological position” is somehow brave and noteworthy in what is meant to be an art form, but that’s how video games are, and we need to celebrate efforts like Disco Elysium that challenge the medium and its players like this. Otherwise, we’re going to lose games entirely to the interests of the suits and shareholders.
What I love about the game is that it resists sliding into stupid caricatures, and as a consequence, it acts as a serious conversation about different ideological positions and perspectives. At the start of the game, the protagonist that you take control of is presented as both broken, and very much a blank slate. He’s a cop that managed to drink himself so silly that he’s woken up with nearly complete amnesia. That is an RPG trope and could have come across as the most egregious of contrivances, but the developer gets away with it thanks to narrative verve. More importantly, that “blank slate” approach allows you to write the character your way while, at the same time, explaining his backstory as things start to be made clear.
Take for example the fascism path. It’s the most intriguing because rational people agree with the notion that fascism is a horrible ideology and fascists sit on the irredeemable end of the right-wing spectrum. You can deal with the libertarians in the office. You can have Christmas dinner with your traditional conservative relatives. You may not necessarily agree with them, but they’re not inherently terrible people and their positions are usually justifiable debating positions. But fascists… nah. Rational people would not disagree with the statement that they are irredeemable and not worth talking to at all.
When taken down a different path, the same background, but with a different response to it can result in your guy having the communist outlook on the world. Or potentially becoming the ultraliberal. It’s the same backstory, but the butterfly effect of answering situations in slightly different ways can snowball down into a very different, but equally radical take on the world. I can’t stress this enough: Disco Elysium understands that as we search for answers on why populist, nationalistic and reactionary movements have been able to take root all around the world, recognising that people’s pain, frustrations and anger at the world is the same, but a complex web of factors and influences have taken them down a certain path, is critical in addressing the more toxic ideologies. We don’t need to tolerate the ideology, but we need to have a dispassionate understanding of where it comes from.
Disco Elysium’s powerful messaging is backed by some truly incredible writing. Hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of thousands of words of it. The writers combine a blisteringly-sharp and brutally wry sense of humour with some very fine neo-noir aesthetics to deliver the kind of texture and nuance that makes good works of literature what they are. With a relatively simple (though high quality) art style, and that distancing isometric perspective on the action, Disco Elysium relies on its words to convey a sense of time and place, and it significantly overachieves that with memorable characters, surprising (though not arbitrarily so – there are no twists for the sake of twists) story arcs, and some of the best and most on-point soliloquies this side of Shakespeare. Given that narrative trees and those internal monologues often feature dozens of branching options and a number of dice rolls to further determine the direction they flow (more on that shortly), the fact that the narrative is cohesive at all is incredible. I can only imagine how many sticky notes on the office walls the development team must have used to conceptualise this one. The world of Disco Elysium is a dark and grim one, and the writers clearly felt it was important that you felt that every step on the way. But those same writers also understand the value of blending serious discourse with entertainment and wit, and the occasional (or even frequent) laugh that you’ll have before being hit by a new wave of misery makes for a cynical, but not unfair, effort to peel back the layers of modern society.
Disco Elysium is an RPG, though it’s not a combat-based one. Much like Planescape Torment, the game uses the RPG structures to instead model social interactions, with dialogue trees and rolling dice to determine if you know obscure pieces of knowledge or can sleight-of-hand yourself a document that you’re not meant to see. There is a truly incredible number of these dice rolls, and so many different statistics and abilities to track and manage. Impressively the game rarely throws a “make this roll or your game is effectively over” moment at you. Whether you succeed or fail on skill checks, Disco Elysium rolls (hah!) with the punches and the story will continue to spin out in whatever direction you’re taking it. I’ve only played the game through once so far, but the replay value on this thing must be incredible based on just how responsive and consequential everything that you do seems to be.
Really, the only problems that Disco Elysium have on the Switch are technical, but unfortunately, they are significant enough to be a genuine problem. Though most of the game’s areas are small, the loading times when moving from one area to the next can be obscene, leading to a lot of momentum-killing downtime. Though there aren’t that many things to interact with in each area, the game’s AI really hates doing what it’s told sometimes, and you’ll point your character in one direction only to watch as he decides to take the very scenic route (before forgetting what he was meant to be doing in the first place). Given that Disco Elysium isn’t action-based this doesn’t inhibit the game on any great level, but it is an irritation. Finally, I found the interface clumsy, especially given that there were mini-loading pauses to bring up new menus and the like. It’s a marvel that the Switch got this game at all, and it’s playable enough (with the added benefit of portability), but it’s a bit like trying to read a book after someone dropped something sticky on it. Assuming that the book wasn’t destroyed and you can still read it, unsticking the pages is a distraction when you’re just trying to read the words.
There will be essays written on Disco Elysium. This is one of those games that will be studied in universities as Citizen Kane is studied in film and D. H. Lawrence’s work is all-but unavoidable if you study literature. It’s not necessarily the most outright entertaining thing the medium has ever produced, but it’s an important work that explores the boundaries and potential of video games, while also having the nuance and layers it needs to challenge players to think beyond the joy they get from pressing buttons. Even if you have to play the Switch port, as inferior as it is, you should make sure that you play Disco Elysium on something.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb