Disco Elysium used to be called No Truce With The Furies, but they changed the title because they felt it wasn’t crazy enough. That alone should give you an idea of the mindset of the developers. Describing itself as a detective RPG which would likely be Hunter S. Thompson approved, the game features a disgraced detective attempting to navigate the odd, dilapidated urban landscape of Revachol. There is a mystery waiting to be solved, a mystery that might possibly drive you insane. This setting, the hint of urban fantasy and the point-and-click and narrative text adventure elements certainly piqued my curiosity. The glowing neon sign at EGX Rezzed helped, as well.
The demo version of the game presented you with a choice of character archetypes. In the full version of the game there is more detailed character creation, but the developers wanted to give people the option of diving straight in. I went with the most general option – ‘detective’, which made sense given that the game bills itself as a detective RPG. This gave my character boosts in intelligence, and with a good encyclopaedic knowledge and skills of observation and analysis. Other character types gave them sensitivity to non-physical aspects of the surroundings, but this may come at a cost to a disconnect from the physical world and the risk of insanity.
The game opened with a lengthy, dream-like sequence where you were floating in infinite blackness. Do you go towards the ‘real world’, where nothing but misery, misfortune and physical pain awaits? Or is it more comforting to continue in this void of nothingness? Are we all doomed to nothingness anyway? Challenging stuff to be confronted with right from the get-go, but eventually, you were birthed from the primordial ooze, or rather, my character fought his way back to consciousness and was met with one hell of a hangover and a complete lack of memory of what had happened over the past three days.
In a dirty apartment room, there were the first few things to explore. A broken record, clothes hanging everywhere, a foggy bathroom mirror. In classic point-and-click fashion, with an isometric perspective that at once felt very familiar, you can navigate your character around and investigate various things. Walking around, examining objects, possibly picking them up for later… It was all standard point-and-click fare, and the promise of a mystery was right on the horizon.
However, as I explored, it became clear that there were a lot of things bubbling under the surface. Every now and then, there would be stat checks that ran as part of the text when examining things. My detective’s instincts and accompanying encyclopaedic knowledge meant that I passed certain stat checks and was able to observe and deduce more detail that would not have been available to other characters. Stepping out and encountering a neighbour, then interviewing them meant that I gleaned a lot of information about my surroundings, where I was, and what the hell I was doing in this dump. Turns out there’s a body out back, my character has been doing god-knows-what for three days, they hate cops here, and everything is falling apart. The city, Revachol, has its own problems that can be seen in the way the citizens curse at you or slink away furtively, and the way that the environment is littered with dirt, broken objects, crumbling surfaces and tightly-locked doors. The dark greys and browns of the environment, and the art style which looked like the cousin of a Francis Bacon painting, felt oppressive and creepy in all the right ways.
The information overload felt like a lot at first – along with what is quite a lot of reading anyway, stat checks run without you realising that it was even a test, and different avenues of conversation open and close accordingly. Sometimes, you were given the option to try things or not, in the form of part of your psyche speaking up. For example, encountering a karaoke machine downstairs with a lonely microphone on the stage turned into a possible sidequest to find the music and sing your heart out with primordial satisfaction. Encountering a drunk guy sitting at a bar meant also noticing the drops of whisky on the counter next to him, and started off a branch of internal conversation as to whether you should lick the precious liquid and satiate your desire, or decide against your baser instincts and move on.
It was an absolutely fascinating way of progressing through a point-and-click RPG, and through it all you very much got the sense that depending on how you reacted to situations, and depending on what you chose to pursue or to avoid, you were not only shaping your character in the game and shaping the story accordingly, but you were internally building the narrative of your character, deciding exactly what kind of cop they are. A quick chat with the devs brought out interesting points around true freedom in games, and the desire to create a game where you can just go somewhere and dance like a lunatic if you want to, not just because you have to in order to complete a quest. While somewhere along the line, there are choice consequences, but overall, the experience is designed to encourage you to explore, and to actively go down multiple rabbit holes.
“You didn’t even look in the mirror,” one of the team said to me with a smile when I had made the difficult decision to pull myself away from the game – it had been something like 20 minutes and I had already lost track of time. “Right at the beginning, you didn’t look in the mirror. You have no idea what your character looks like in their own eyes, no idea how they see themselves.” I admit that hearing that made me mourn for the many other things that I had no doubt missed.
What I saw of Disco Elysium was delightfully dark and weird. My character eventually found the body hanging out the back from a tree, being pelted by rocks by a little brat of a kid who swore at me and spat at my feet with disdain. My partner had found me, and seemed much more put-together than me as he scribbled little notes, carefully observing and possibly covering up my actions, or inaction as the case may be. The body had been hanging there, uninvestigated for three days. The lady next door had told me that I had been screaming and yelling and breaking things last night for some reason. What was going on here?
The game is a fully-fledged RPG so may take an impressive 50 hours or so to complete (according to the team this will largely depend on your play style). There are multiple ways to do things and to experience things. Players may even find themselves going back in with a different character build, and reliving the mystery from a different angle. There is a lot to be discovered here, to be investigated, explored and experienced. I look forward to solving the mystery, or at the very least having an interesting journey through the looking glass as I do so.