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Disco Elysium

Developer: ZA/UM Studio Publisher: ZA/UM Studio
15 October 2019
Disco Elysium - cover art
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115 Ratings / 3 Reviews
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Disco Elysium The Final Cut
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Disco Elysium The Final Cut
2021 ZA/UM Studio  
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GB FR 0 811949 033765
Disco Elysium The Final Cut
2021 ZA/UM Studio  
Disco Elysium The Final Cut
2021 ZA/UM Studio  
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Disco Elysium The Final Cut
2021 ZA/UM Studio  
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Disco Elysium The Final Cut
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XNA 8 11949 03370 3 LA-H-A5WYA-USA
Disco Elysium The Final Cut
2021 ZA/UM Studio  
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Disco Elysium The Final Cut
2022 ZA/UM Studio iam8bit  
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Title
The words 'great writing' are writ large right across the discourse surrounding Disco Elysium, but it's worth taking time to examine exactly what we mean when we say that, because 'great writing' could mean a multitude of things in any given context or medium, and I think it's important that we be specific about it when it comes to this game.

Part of that is because, quite simply, Disco Elysium is a game, and when the words 'great writing' appear in a game review, they don't tend to mean the same thing as they do when they appear in a review of anything else. In this realm, 'great writing' has historically tended to refer to dialogue alone, as a natural and obvious consequence of dialogue being the only literal writing that exists in many games. This has changed to some extent recently, but when I see a player talk about a game's writing, I still tend to assume this is what they mean - essentially, that the words the characters speak don't make them cringe. (I'm old enough to remember a time when the bar was very, very low.) But while Disco Elysium has some extremely fine dialog, that is absolutely not what people are talking about when they say it has great writing.

That's no doubt why so many people were so excited by this game - it's very rare that we're able to talk about the strength of a game's writing in the way that a literary critic would talk about the strength of a book's writing. Even when games do try to reach beyond gaming and compete with the best works in other mediums, it's TV and cinema they go for almost by default, but there is no doubt that Disco Elysium's ambitions are specifically literary. 'Great writing' here primarily means rich, detailed worldbuilding, creating a space that the reader/player can feel like they're truly inhabiting and deeply understanding. Plenty of games have done that through visuals, but to do so almost entirely through a character's internal monologue and his conversations with those around him is a very different skill and a very different experience; I do not walk around Revachol thinking 'I want to go to that mountain' or 'I wonder what's inside that forest', I walk around it wanting to know more about its history, religion, economics, culture, and politics. I mean, Hyrule's great, but I've never found myself wanting to know more about the writings of a historical materialist who lived there fifty years earlier and how they inspired a popular revolutionary uprising that was crushed by a coalition of foreign governments, nor wondering how the modern citizens of those foreign governments feel about a political and religious figurehead from three hundreds year prior who may have been the actual messiah or may have been a power-mad war criminal depending on which parts of her mythology you choose to take as real events. They're not comparable.

So it is absolutely correct to talk about the quality of Disco Elysium's writing here; this town feels diseased, dirty, broken, abandoned, but it also feels absolutely alive, truly three-dimensional. Characters get into lengthy arguments about politics and I wish they'd go on longer. Seedy underworlds and shadowy undercurrents of power are exposed and you're given a complete picture not just of how they operate, but of how they came into existence and why they've been allowed to fester and thrive, 'bad guys are bad' replaced with 'the systems that should prevent this are fundamentally broken'. That's thrilling, as any experience is when it feels this good and this truly new. All of which makes Disco Elysium sound like a nailed on five-star masterpiece - and yes, there are absolutely times when it feels like it is.

However.

'Great writing', truly great writing, should also be courageous. It should stand for something, mean something, tell us something, hold the power to change our minds and lives, and it feels like there's a void at the core of this game because it so studiously avoids ever doing any of that. Disco Elysium is a game that will gleefully and mercilessly mock you for believing in anything no matter what it is (and credit where it's due, it's often quite funny with it), but it is also a game that is too cowardly to believe in anything itself, lest it invite any mockery in return. We've all known people like that - most of us have been probably been people like that in our teenage years - and we all know they're absolute chuds, and I can't deny that I find it a little disappointing that Disco Elysium, otherwise so very deeply and carefully constructed, falls into this trap. For something that largely feels so brave in stepping outside the accepted boundaries of games, it's a shame that it doesn't confront and challenge the medium's most crippling boundary of all, and ultimately does politics in a way that won't upset people who think politics is somehow beneath them and that caring about anything at all is a sign of weakness. (We all know the wider world of gaming is positively littered with those people, so the temptation is to consider this as a commercial decision - but how likely was it that any of those people would want to play this anyway?) It jars that the game plays it so safe on this point, having been so adventurous with almost everything else. There are other flaws (the pacing is....not great in the first couple of days, and without a walkthrough you're liable to spend large stretches of time ambling around wondering what you're supposed to be doing, speaking to the same people repeatedly just in the hope it advances the story somehow), but only this one feels critical. It's not fatal, not even a particularly massive deal, but it is enough to put a small asterisk next to its name, to make it feel more like one of the 100 best games ever than one of the top 10.

Yet isn't that just an amazing thing to be able to criticise a game for? It is an unrecognisable line of thought for video game criticism; the framework that supports this kind of conversation simply does not exist in 99% of the things you'll ever play. Disco Elysium feels like a significant breakthrough, one that opens up all manner of doors and possibilities and leaves enough room for improvement to make contemplating those possibilities an exhilarating thought - and if history does not regard it this way, if it is rendered either as a total one-off or as merely the starting point for one single developer to spend their career kicking against the wider industry, then gaming as a medium will be significantly poorer for it.
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Iai 2019-12-27T14:35:23Z
2019-12-27T14:35:23Z
4.4
8
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Title
Sure to be relevent conversation at your next dinner party, so get on it.
Recommended for: people who don't realise they live in Eastern Europe yet.

Whether implicit or explicit, the "point" (or whatever could best live up to it) is blunt. Ideology failed, the symbolic/ social order collapsed. As the amnesiac, middle-aged child of the world that has been called post-modern, your task in the "game" (or something that might live up to it) is to find out what exactly went wrong.

You play someone who doesn't remember their name. You are a detective, apparently, and possibly not a very good one either, investigating the brutal murder of a man in The Zone. This mostly involves approaching various movers and shakers of Revachol with the question "what went wrong?" All under the surprisingly patient gaze of a new partner, Kim, who grounds the game in detective-noir, smokes a single cigarette a day, and looks devastatingly cool while he does it.

The first thing you need to know about Disco Elysium is that it is both really good and probably more interesting to people who don't call themselves gamers than to those who do. Talk to your girlfriend about it. Bring it up at breakfast. Don't be ashamed anymore.

Pontificate all you want. Finally we got a game that wasn't written by surburban nerds who create their reality by blurring together the last few years of American TV. A 10000 word essay or 1 hour video on the philosophy of Disco Elysium is completely unnecessary: pontification only happens when income draws from Youtube watch hours. Disco Elysium "works" (for all the sickening adoration), because it's meaningful, applicable, "relevent," not-entirely-escapist and, despite its reputation as a European art-piece, easily understood.

I laboured through Twin Peaks part 3 to the eighth episode and finally started to get it a little bit. Fuck. This is weird. Imagine if TV had grown up like this and I could be flicking on to channel 5 as a kid for a live synthesized Decasia mini-series or to watch atoms jerk out in a nuclear blast for 10 minutes. Beats The Office.

Disco Elysium casts the history of video games in the same light. Planescape: Torment happened, then "gamers" got 1000 versions of "good enough" narrative pulling from half a century of "good enough" cinema.

It gives you the words to say "is that it? Did all of that "limitless potential" of 64-bit games in the early 90s have to culminate in 100 pastiches of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings?"

Often overlooked: the game overcomes savescumming - of rebooting a save until an unwanted randomised event does not occur. It avoids the ancient frustration of failing a dice-rolled skill check with good writing, an intuitive system that allows the player to retake checks if they later level up the associated skill, and by investing the player in commiting to their choices, whatever the consequence.

To this day, high-profile CRPGs fail to acheive this. For all its epic scale, Pathfinder WotR never comes close. Baldurs Gate 3, for all its budget, can't do it either. This is the overdue knife cutting through decades of horrible videogame writing and uninspired design.

Also overlooked: Disco Elysium is easy to read. It's a text-based game designed to mirror Twitter with vertically-oriented text. Easier to read than the horizontal norm, mirroring the way we (on average) read 1000s of words a day without a thought. Shadowrun did it. Did anyone else? "Oh but we've always done it horizontal like this..."

Criminal to overlook: the watercolour am-I-drunk-or-just-an-impressionist art style and (Britist) Sea Power's score. Phenominal.

Disco Elysium will not be remembered for its impact on the video game industry. Its innovations have not been adopted by its genre, even if they are as simple as vertically organised text or a way to redo skill checks. Its writing, too, has not been matched, though perhaps we can point to "Gamedec" as a game that at least tried. There is resistance in the medium: nostalgic conservativism meets market pressure meets lack of ambition and talent and suddenly another Disco Elysium can't happen. Instead we get to look forward to Fallout rip-off number 112, or is that already out?

A certain amount of stars align, a game like Disco Elysium happens. Some miserable Estonian alcoholics say fuck it, give it one last go, and knock it out the park. Unlikely to happen again, but sure to be relevent conversation at your next dinner party, so get on it.
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[spoilers ahead]

Disagree with Iai. There is nothing cowardly about Zone-al dwelling in the conclusion that all ideologies failed. Disco Elysium ends by substituting an encounter with the alien, cryptozoological Other for the Religious Experience: something unbelievable happens that gives the game its (otherwise impossible) narrative end. The "post-ideological" Zone is overcome by truth/love/magic/enlightenment. Kierkegaard Knight-of-Faith style.

The opinion reminds me of the critique of US culture: that having won the Cold War, America is trapped in its winning ideology, never being forced to confront ideology as-such as in post-Soviet and post-Nazi Europe. As a result, it cannot recognise what ideology is and the damage it does. It is convinced the way out is another "bold," "couragious" ideology.
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Disco Elysium is the pinnacle of CRPGs as a medium for character writing, world-building, and mystery exploration. The political charge and emotional empathy of the game is without peer in the industry. There are more entertaining, action-packed, thrilling RPGs but you will never find a better or more intelligent one. Make sure you love reading before playing: this is a text-heavy adventure that depends on dice-roll skill checks to conversations and actions reminiscent of Planescape: Torment's nuanced dialogue choices, but with a magical-realism tone rather than wild fantasy.
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DMCrimson 2019-10-25T04:15:14Z
2019-10-25T04:15:14Z
5.0
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Catalog

bigzam420 Disco Elysium 2022-11-26T10:31:56Z
Windows / Mac
2022-11-26T10:31:56Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Aurochz Disco Elysium 2022-11-18T21:55:15Z
Windows / Mac
2022-11-18T21:55:15Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
JGar40 Disco Elysium 2022-10-25T16:04:21Z
Windows / Mac
2022-10-25T16:04:21Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
sinningmantis Disco Elysium 2022-10-08T06:26:18Z
Windows / Mac
2022-10-08T06:26:18Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
cybervampire Disco Elysium 2022-10-01T23:34:27Z
Windows / Mac
2022-10-01T23:34:27Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Robain1 Disco Elysium 2022-09-16T21:39:54Z
Windows / Mac
2022-09-16T21:39:54Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
pavelstarikov Disco Elysium 2022-09-06T12:56:52Z
Windows / Mac
2022-09-06T12:56:52Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
von_Zadrot Disco Elysium 2022-08-25T08:26:59Z
Windows / Mac
2022-08-25T08:26:59Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
1068396 Disco Elysium 2022-08-19T20:45:07Z
Windows / Mac
2022-08-19T20:45:07Z
4.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
abigailkatz Disco Elysium 2022-08-10T19:37:27Z
Windows / Mac
2022-08-10T19:37:27Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
sour_grapes Disco Elysium 2022-08-09T23:52:55Z
Windows / Mac
2022-08-09T23:52:55Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
battered_sphinx Disco Elysium 2022-08-01T12:35:25Z
Windows / Mac
2022-08-01T12:35:25Z
1.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
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  • Previous comments (287) Loading...
  • nightsir 2022-11-13 18:08:49.021298+00
    wish i was less dumb to be able to play this
    reply
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  • Creggry 2022-11-18 03:09:27.919528+00
    The OK Computer of To Kill A Mockingbird
    reply
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  • chasethatfeeling 2022-11-19 23:19:36.671943+00
    Disco infeeeeeeernoooooo
    reply
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  • Fowlawneeshafow 2022-11-22 03:32:13.223783+00
    Still the best thing a dev has given the internet
    https://twitter.com/TheTim...0yY6vA&s=19
    reply
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  • Convalescence 2022-11-24 22:45:42.339429+00
    2019 really just was THE year for great games wasn't it. this, outer wilds, sekiro, pathologic 2, RE2 remake....unreal
    reply
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  • what0519 2022-11-25 01:38:59.925752+00
    For a person who has never beat an Isometric RPG, is this worth playing? Or should I play something else first to get used to the gameplay?
    reply
    • res11 2022-11-26 12:04:42.781229+00
      I haven't played any other isometric game and had no issues getting into this, also became my favorite.
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  • TheRealJimMorrison 2022-11-26 15:20:45.770558+00
    hide Removed by mod
    This post was removed by a site moderator.
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  • fade_away 2022-11-29 20:10:43.933907+00
    Had to bump back up to a 5, really don't think I'll ever get tired of replaying this and there's just so much here
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