Month: November 2019

Disco Elysium Review — A Confounding Effort

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.

Ape Out Review — Hotline Miami Revised

by Jed Pressgrove

Early on, Ape Out seems to sell itself as Hotline Miami “if you were an ape,” mainly setting itself apart with a percussion-driven soundtrack that responds to what the protagonist does, such as barging into a room and smashing three or four gun-wielding humans into bloody flesh. A beat accompanies one’s successful kills. The way the audio punctuates the violence is at first attention-getting, even disorienting. The drumming in question is taut and crisp, superbly executed.

After some time the interplay between the music and the action doesn’t matter. Figuring out how to advance through the increasingly difficult stages becomes the point. The drums serve as redundant distractions from the split-second reactions that will keep the ape alive. This is not to say the music is an absolute gimmick; it’s just not as essential as the evolving score of Octahedron, a game where the marriage of sound and imagery is sexier, less contrived, and more fluid.

Once survival instincts and ideas dominate the thoughts of the player, Ape Out reveals itself as easily superior to its main influence Hotline Miami. Despite Ape Out’s graphic violence, it’s easier to sympathize with an escaped ape than with any character in Hotline Miami. That sympathy proves indispensable, as it makes the stakes appear larger and more dramatic. Ape Out’s man vs. nature theatrics are far preferable to Hotline Miami’s self-aware, unflinching cynicism, which is a repetitive nod to the rebellious knucklehead politics of 1990s fare like Mortal Kombat and Loaded.

Even though Ape Out has far fewer methods than Hotline Miami for inflicting lethal harm on opponents, the game demands one to do more with what’s there. During the beginning of the game, progress can often be made by simply punching threats as they appear and running for another room when it looks like the ape might get shot. A little later, such an elementary approach will get exploited by a growing number of gunmen, explosives, and dead ends. The ape has to start picking up enemies, throwing them, and using them as shields to account for the extra firepower of the men and the more maze-like structure of later levels.

The player learns quickly that the basic key to having a chance is keeping the mouse cursor near the protagonist. This positioning allows for quicker changes in direction, enabling the possibility of consecutive individual kills when one is surrounded. The throwing mechanic, however, works best when you move the cursor to the target to achieve maximum accuracy with the throw. Deeper into the proceedings, as the game calls more and more attention to the position of the mouse, as well as to the offensive and defensive opportunities presented by the whole bodies of still-shooting assassins and the scattered body parts of fallen foes, Ape Out achieves a blunt combination of brawn and brains that cannot be matched by many efforts this year.