Disco Elysium is a noire RPG in the style of classic computer RPGs, developed by Estonian studio ZA/UM. It takes place in Martinaise, a dreary, industrial district of the occupied city of Revachol. It’s a strange, gloomy detective story about class and politics, filled with both dark humor and unexpected sincerity.
I struggled to find a good way to talk about what makes this game so good. Here’s what I came up with: Disco Elysium delivers more effective executions of the oft-advertised narrative elements of modern big-budget RPGs. It has its own take on making “choices matter”, making characters complex or sympathetic, and communicating humor and drama through a bleak setting and aesthetic.
Choices and Roleplaying
Disco Elysium follows an ace detective after he wakes up in an amnesiatic haze with the mother of all hangovers. From the very start of character creation, Disco wants players to see stats in a different light. The categories are unusual, the individual attributes are strange (like “conceptualization” or “shivers”), and each one is personified by a voice inside the detective’s head. His interiority is bizarre and chaotic, and the stat choices change the way he engages with the world. It might seem silly to geek out about the stats system, but it does a great job setting the stage for how the player character engages with the world.
My character often followed paranatural intuition and vague senses to act on wild hunches. He was an absolute idiot who was often inexplicably correct, much to the exasperation of his partner. Disco also gives the player character opportunities to express how he sees the world ideologically — and often to be ridiculed for it. Though there are parts of the game that turn out differently in response to your choices, the game never frames choice as being about power over the story. Often, in fact, choice is explicitly taken away and left in the hands of a skill check. Ultimately, it’s about the player expressing who their character is, rather than selecting the outcomes they want.
I Would Die for Kim Kitsuragi
Disco‘s character writing feels much more literary than video game-y. Martinaise is filled with a broad variety of absurd caricatures, RPG archetypes, ideology stand-ins, and subversions thereof. Though the most extreme characters feel shallow, the majority of them suggest a degree of interiority and express a clear worldview.
While there are a host of memorable characters, the clearest example of the game’s skillful writing is in the detective’s companion character, Lt. Kim Kitsuragi. For most of the game, he’s by your side to be consulted, annoyed, provoked, and depended upon. Kim is a stoic and patient professional, but glimpses of his interiority slip through: his likes and dislikes, inner conflicts, regrets. It’s hard to think of a companion character in an RPG whose pride and respect I’ve wanted so badly to earn.
If the main character is a bizarre, chaotic pastiche of what it is to be a Player Character, then Kim is the inverse. He’s a normal, good person following in the detective’s wake, bewildered and dismayed and impressed by his antics.
Fun with Failure
These antics, and Kim’s mix of professional tolerance and understandable alarm, guide the story through breakneck turns in tone and subject matter. Its most indulgent moments can be a bit grating, but the writing nonetheless showcases an abundance of both talent and restraint. Proper space is given to serious moments to let them be serious. Sometimes they’re existential, sometimes unsettling, and sometimes mundane and deeply sincere. Some of the most memorable moments of the game were small, quiet exchanges with Kim or with side characters.
The veneer of noire aesthetic also gives space for some fun and melodramatic voiceover performances, many of which bring extra gravitas to the spectacular writing. Some skill checks can only be attempted once. When they fail, the story unfolds around them in ways reminiscent of good tabletop role playing. Failure can be equal parts disastrous and hilarious, and often leaves the player with a memorable moment, and a need for new tactics.
Overall, Disco Elysium tells its story with humor, heart, and a stark self-awareness. It’s filled with revolutionary politics and deploys bleakness and grim humor with sincerity, not irreverence or nihilism. Also, it’s a game where you can talk to a necktie, or the personification of “Reaction Speed”. What more could you ask for?