Studio ZA/UM’s (sic) award-winning game, Disco Elysium, is one of the strangest games I’ve ever encountered. I don’t just mean in terms of story but specifically in terms of both mechanics and categorisation. If you had to ask me what type of game Disco Elysium is I’d have to take a minute to answer. But my answer would go something like this:
“It’s an open-world, role-playing, detective puzzle game, where you play an amnesiac detective investigating a brutal murder, with your set in a fictional world with more political lore and backstory than some smaller nations on our world. Its combat scenarios are comprised of successful or failed interactions with the many other characters – of which there are 77 (seventy-seven), some of whom are concepts and brain parts, rather than people – all of whom by now are fully-voiced and have multiple paths of dialogue.”
If that’s not enough, I’d add there are political ideas infused into building your character, highlighted by specific quest-paths and dialogue options aligned to said political spheres: from promoting feminism, bringing back communism or leaning into outright racist fascism. It’s a cop game that allows you to play a quest, whose endgoal is to paint “Fuck the police”, in large letters, on a massive wall.
Amnesia is often a cheap way to develop a story, since you’re letting it unfold backwards, allowing you to replace developing interest with, essentially, using clickbait. But here, Disco Elysium uses this as an actual mechanic to develop your character. By virtue of losing your past, it gives you space to develop a future. Any future. Whether or not The Detective was an actual feminist is irrelevant to whether that’s something you want to make him now.
I mention all this because I find it hard to categorise this game.
I have described it, using various phrases like “open world” and “role-playing” but it is difficult to say that’s what it “is”. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who would like it. Disco Elysium does itself no favours if it wanted to be popular by leaning heavily into the weird. I myself adore its weirdness, its confidence in itself in wanting to tell a story and give us a thoroughly, deeply developed world that is willing to reveal itself to the player if the player gives it the time.
Another fascinating aspect is the sheer volume of work that went into the voice performances as a result of the update, known as The Final Cut. It proudly boasts over a million spoken words in total, almost half of which is spoken by the narrator, Lenval Brown. Brown’s deep, clear, velvet-throated delivery is impossible to remove from the game but it’s the voice that tells you what the world actually looks like: Even though there are beautiful animations, often they will be in loop or static, so it is up to Brown to detail to you what your character is seeing – like a good Game Master for a tabletop or, to my point, the narrator of an audiobook.
And indeed, when I read how much work Brown had to do in Disco Elysium, then calculated I was spending more time listening to him than often touching my controller – without once getting bored, due to the excellent writing, brilliant performance and fascination with the world – I realised what I was experiencing: a good session of a tabletop game.
Of course, games translating the experience of a tabletop adventure is nothing new: Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn remains perhaps the pinnacle of that experience, with its dice rolls and narration of the experiences not being animated in the world before you. Lately, Larian’s Divinity: Original Sin franchise has done wonders with that, especially the sequel, with fully voiced characters and a narrator too.
But Disco Elysium: The Final Cut keeps prompting me with choices, weird scenarios and merely engagement with characters – it offers no combat. So much of roleplaying anchors itself to the combat systems, which are somewhat negated by the complexity, explosions and so forth that good animations in games have overcome. Here: there is no combat. All outcomes that impact your health are narrated to you, they are hardly flashy and most of it arises from talking or reading – sometimes, even just thinking.
Again: It’s a fine delineation but Disco Elysium plays like nothing else. It has these complicated systems, this deep lore, but it is not a fantasy role-playing game. It has gorgeous animations that result in progressing the story, but it’s not an action game. It features a fully-voiced cast with multiple dialogue outcomes but it’s not a simulator like those from Telltale or Dontnod.
The theme of weirdness keeps throwing me off. And my inability to fully grasp what I’m experiencing but nevertheless falling in love with it has me in a confused state with this game. I recommend it but, as this post demonstrates, it’s hard to say why I do other than I love it. It’s akin to trying to recommend Twin Peaks to a friend without them having watched an episode: It’s almost impossible and either clicks or it doesn’t.
The game is made with such slickness, beauty, and clear love and dedication, too – everyone was in top form and it’s a joy now to play on console after all the patches. But again: Whether you love it depends so much on you personally. I think the game is varied and weird enough that I rate almost anyone would love it.
(Disco Elysium: The Final Cut played on PS5; code provided by publisher.)