by Jed Pressgrove
The most distinctive aspect of Disco Elysium is how it focuses on the mental. Although this odd RPG follows Planescape: Torment’s lead (see: the hero with amnesia, the heavy dialogue, the uneven point-and-click-based character movement), it emphasizes psychology over morality as it unveils a tale about a loser cop trying to solve a case after a nasty binge with alcohol. In some respects, Disco Elysium pulls off its intent quite well and in comical fashion, but the more one pays close attention to the script, the more one might tire of multiple limitations in the writing.
The protagonist of the story is an irresponsible, questionable, and sloppy gumshoe. Movie fans may recognize the character type as an extension of what Robert Altman and the Coen brothers respectively explored in The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. Disco Elysium’s novel idea is to muddy up the text-based dialogue with voices from within the detective’s head. These voices show up more or less based on how the player distributes skill points. For instance, if you put a lot of points into “rhetoric,” the Rhetoric Voice promises to interject in more discussions to clue you in on what characters are actually saying with their words. The catch is if too many points are put into any single category, the related voice can become a hindrance to the officer’s investigation of murder and other crime, as it will always be battling for space, creating psychological noise.
Initially, this concept of competing voices impacting the flow of the game seems like nothing but a good thing because of its dynamism. It’s fascinating to see how specific attributes will result in chaos or, often unexpectedly, insight. Disco Elysium also offers specific thoughts, most of which are high concept or convoluted, that the cop can dwell on for skill increases or decreases (sometimes it’s preferable to have less of a skill, as previously suggested).
Disco Elysium couples all of this with the hero’s memory loss in order to produce as many hilarious moments as possible. To lead designer and writer Robert Kurvitz’s credit, Disco Elysium has its fair share of remarkable dialogue. The detective’s baffling responses are often comedy gold, such as the instantly memorable “What is money,” a phrase that parodies the conceit of a story featuring an amnesiac lead. The humor can go from absurd to vicious, as when the Conceptualization Voice says of Cuno, the profane child who throws rocks at a dead body: “If there ever was such a thing as an ugly kid, then this is it. He’s almost exquisite in his ugliness.”
The more I was exposed to this style, however, the more the act grew a bit thin. At times, these voices simply make a scene longer, and this is precisely when the premise of the game appears more contrived than inspired. In this way, the game’s greatest strength, randomness, becomes its most annoying feature. For instance, at one point the slimy union leader Evrart Claire says, “I’m just kidding, of course.” It’s immediately obvious Claire isn’t joking based on everything that can be observed about him. Unfortunately, the script, in its overanxious attempt to be clever, will rub this fact in one’s face based on a particular skill point distribution. After Claire’s lie, Authority Voice can chime in with “Is he [just kidding]?,” and then Rhetoric Voice can reply, “He’s not.” With two short lines, Disco Elysium calls more attention than necessary to Claire’s fundamental dishonesty, which had already been beaten like a dead horse.
This sort of repetitive writing raises the question of whether Disco Elysium represents a conscious attempt to create maximum potential for internet memes. (God knows that independent releases need all the references they can get. “Indie,” after a few years of receiving considerable attention from a curious public, has not been a fresh or even strong marketing label for some time, as big-name games like sequels, franchise spinoffs, and “new IPs” — that loaded bullshit term — from beloved companies continue to dominate the pop landscape.) Even though the psychology-based premise is innovative, comedic timing still trumps all. If the audience begins to predict the approach, the laughter won’t be there. This is the downside of tying the protagonist’s inner voices to the mechanics of the game. The dialogue should be unexpected when it is, in many cases, expected. This contradiction results in a significant number of weak punchlines.
More troubling is how the writing spoils its overall illustration of humanity’s struggle by drawing attention to Kurvitz’s confusing political perspective. Disco Elysium’s setting is a dangerous section of a city. The infrastructure is a joke, the population suffers from poverty, and the powers that be are corrupt. Not many trust or respect the cops, and the union is more of a criminal organization. The implication is this place suffers primarily because of structural, not individual, factors. Not only does this allow us to have sympathy for the characters, even if they’re destructive or unlikable, but we may also presume Kurvitz leans left.
This assumption is confirmed by an act of self-censorship. When Cuno, the aforementioned hellish brat, uses a slur against gay people, only the first letter is spelled out. This example by itself might beg for a tangential debate about what an artist should do or whether it even matters since we all know what is being said. But the incomplete word essentially repeats to us that, yes, the designer leans left. And yet, later on, Cuno hurls an uncensored racial slur at Kim Kitsuragi, the detective’s fellow officer. On the surface, it’s a technical inconsistency in the writing. In reality, it’s an oversight that underlines how hypocritical and pandering a progressive can be. The suggestion that certain slurs should be censored over others is one of the most idiotically distracting things I’ve seen in any work of art, and so, in line with the rambling style of this game, I’ll end on that red herring.