When I was a kid I talked to myself. I was an only child, but also an introvert with an active imagination. I never created an imaginary friend that I named, but I did talk to myself a lot. A second version of myself displaced; someone I could argue with to solidify my point of view or show off something cool I did. I’m not going to lie – I still do it occasionally as an adult. Not nearly as often, but sometimes yourself is the best company.
Disco Elysium is a game about talking to yourself. You play as a guy who wakes up in a hotel room with complete amnesia. You don’t know your name, who you are, what you’re doing there, or why your tie is hanging from the ceiling fan. But you do have 24 differing voices in your head that talk to you and you can talk back to them. Sometimes you should listen to them – and sometimes they give you very bad advice.
Disco Elysium is also a game about talking to other people. And while the greater story is an interesting and captivating mystery that you have to deduce the answer to through careful interrogations (or brash, depending on your choice), a lot of the charm and fun of the game are the conversations with yourself. And a lot of the uniqueness comes from your actions determining what kind of person these emotions are piloting. Is he a communist? A feminist? A fascist? A hobocop? How you act towards other people shapes your inner thoughts, and then your inner thoughts get more and more of a say in your outer conversations.
Disco Elysium is a game that spoke to me (ha!) on many levels and that I enjoyed my time with immensely. I’ll spoil the ending of this review right now: if you like dialogue-heavy branching RPGs, just go ahead and play this now, you don’t need my review. But if you want to hear more about this game works and more plot details – read on.
These are your stats. These are also the voices in your head.
When you begin Disco Elysium, you get to spread some numbers out amongst four categories: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics. Intellect is mostly left brain, Psyche is mostly right brain. Physique is mostly brawn, Motorics is mostly dexterity. You have 12 points to distribute between them. In my first attempt at the game I made a character that had 4 Intellect, 4 Psyche, 1 Physique, and 3 Motorics because I don’t really like playing tough characters and thought I’d see how it went.
Five minutes into the game, I failed a skill check and died from a heart attack trying to get my aforementioned tie off the ceiling fan because my health was 1 thanks to my physique being low.
And that’s when I knew this game was special.
On my second try (going 3-4-2-3 just to prevent that insta-death from happening again) I managed to not die immediately and got to see more of the game. And what a game Disco Elysium is. It’s all about the dialogue – inner and outer. If you’re looking for an action-heavy game, this is not it. Action happens, but very occasionally and you’re not participating in it the same way you would in a game like Dark Souls or Doom. Instead you roll a skill check for the proper action-oriented skill and if you pass you throw the punch correctly, if you fail you whiff and fall on your face. Or die from a heart attack.
Half the dialogue comes from interrogations – you find out fairly quickly that you’re a detective and you’re supposed to be solving a case. There’s a dead man hanging from a tree behind the hotel you’re staying at, it’s been there a week, and you’re a detective for God’s sake, why haven’t you gotten the body down yet? You don’t know the answer to that because apparently you drank so hard you destroyed all your memories and are starting from scratch.
You’re in luck though, because you have 24 copilots to tell you how to act. You see, those four initial categories each have six skills in them. And each of those skills is a voice. If you put points into Logic, you’ll hear the rational side of your brain more often. If you choose to put points into Drama, you’ll hear histrionics and have a penchant to act out. The more Electrochemistry you have, the more your body tells you to drink and smoke and take ladies on dates. Perception gives you more insight to things you might not pick up on your own, Composure keeps you, well, composed. And so on and so forth.
Sometimes your inner thoughts are not…helpful.
The way Disco Elysium’s system works is the dice are always rolling in the background. Sometimes you have to perform manual checks yourself, and those will unlock new options upon success or lock you out if you fail. But most of the checks happen passively. If they’re successful, you get a little intrusive thought from one of the 24 stats. Maybe Logic has some input they’d like to add to your current conversation, or maybe Shivers sensed something about the city they need to inform you about. But if these passive checks fail, you don’t hear anything. You’re not told you failed that Drama test – Drama just keeps their mouth shut.
And that’s where the fun of building your character comes into play. As you get experience from completing tasks and finding solutions to problems, you can put more points into the skills you want. And the more points a skill has in it, the more likely it will pass these passive checks. So as you progress through the game, the voices you hear will be the ones you encourage with positive reinforcement.
The amount you can put into each skill is capped by the number you chose for its category at the beginning of the game, though. So if you went with a big brain, small physique like I did, you only get 1 or 2 extra points into all the physical skills. During my playthrough, I didn’t hear a lot from Endurance, Physical Instrument, Half-Light, or most of the other physical skills because I never bothered putting points into them.
But if you want to get more points in something, you can always do drugs! (Drugs are bad, kid. Don’t listen to Electrochemistry.)
None of this would be interesting, though, if it wasn’t for the writing. And let me tell you, the writing of Disco Elysium is amazing. Not only does every emotion stand out and have its own voice, but all of the characters in the world are also fascinating. Your partner, Kim Kitsuragi, is a straight-laced fellow who just wants to solve the case. He tolerates your eccentricities but is clearly wondering how a supposedly world-class detective can lose his gun and badge. You have to earn his trust, and by God he was the one person I didn’t want to disappoint in my playthrough.
You better believe I ran everywhere blaring tunes on my boombox.
The central murder mystery of the game itself is filled with plot twists and turns that would make Agatha Christie proud. You trek all over the small town of Martinnaise to figure out what exactly happened to the murdered guy hanging in the tree. A slimy union boss, striking workers, a lady who believes her basement is haunted, and a bartender who hates you are all just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to investigating.
But even though the game is mostly about dialogue, it’s also a game that teaches you restraint. Unlike most RPGs where going through every dialogue option is the goal, sometimes exploring every option can lead to detrimental effects. In a minor example, at one point I asked a shopkeeper about a coat that was on display. After asking about it, I had a -1 to the skill check to steal it because I had “called attention to the coat.” While I wasn’t planning on stealing the coat in the first place, it brought to my attention that sometimes saying too much could be a bad thing. And boy, there were a few times I forgot that lesson and ended up messing up much more important skill checks.
I haven’t even talked about the thought cabinet yet, which is basically the game’s perk system. As you solidify who your detective is, certain intrusive thoughts appear in your head. If you choose to percolate on them and add them to your thought cabinet, they’ll give you a disadvantage while you’re thinking about them but eventually give you bonuses to your skills once the thought is complete.
The thoughts spring up based on your actions in game. One of the first thoughts I unlocked was “rigorous self critique” because I said “sorry” a lot and apologized for everything I did before I had amnesia. It was a real wake-up call because at first I was indignant. I wasn’t a “sorry cop!” But it turns out…yeah, I was being a sorry cop. So I lived with that intrusive thought.
And that’s the beauty of this game. If you act like a communist, you get communist thoughts. If you act like a superstar, you get superstar thoughts! The game keeps track of how you respond to different situations and what you’ve done keeps affecting later conversations as the game progresses – all the way to the eventual finale. And while the murder mystery’s solution isn’t super satisfying, everything else about the last act was brilliant. I was on the edge of my seat for the last three hours of the game, determined to finish it as everything ramped up to the final conclusion.
But surprisingly, the strongest moment of the game to me was not involved with the main plot, but rather a small side plot that I could have missed. As you explore Martinnaise, you come across a dead body not related to your case. Just an accident. You can choose to either hand it off to the department or take care of the follow-up yourself.
I chose to handle it myself. And the little side plot ends with you simply finding the dead person’s spouse and informing them that…well, their spouse was dead. That’s it. No complications or twists or last-minute game-y puzzles. Just you, a detective, giving a woman the bad news. It’s a very touching, emotional moment where I felt obligated to navigate through the dialogue options as best I could. Sure, I was a screwball detective with his head in the clouds, who talks to inanimate objects and machines. But in that moment, I wanted to be a good cop. I wanted to show empathy and not drop this information poorly.
Afterwards, when my detective turned to Kim and asked “did I do good?” I held my breath. And when Kim told me that yes, I did a good job, I breathed a sigh of relief.
PLAY Disco Elysium. You won’t regret it.