I’m Kinglink and this week… well, let’s do something different. Two weeks ago I broke down a single level of Titanfall 2. I enjoyed the process and I want to start to do more of that. So this week we’re talking about Disco Elysium.
The problem is this isn’t a level based game, it’s an RPG with rather strange and unique quests. There’s everything from a quest to get alcohol, sing karaoke, and find your badge, so obviously we can’t look at a level. But I don’t want to abandon the idea because Disco Elysium is really different, and I think the best way to look at it would be this style of dissection.
So we’re going to examine one quest of the game. I’m calling this a quest teardown and as such, let’s look at an early piece of gameplay and what Disco Elysium does with it.
I’m going to break this up into five sections. I’m going to set up the quest. Talk about what you can learn, who you can interact with, how you learn information, and then finally conclude with a few more thoughts on Disco Elysium.
So the first part, let’s set up the story so far.
This is an early point in the game, you’ve just woken up in a hotel room, naked or rather in underwear. You find your clothes, come downstairs, figure out you’re a police officer and am now working with your partner, Kim Kitsuragi. He’s a straight-laced guy from another precinct who you are partnered with on a murder.
When you walk out into the courtyard behind your lodging, you find a decayed body hung up. Kim Kitsuragi wants to examine it for an autopsy but to do that, you need to get the body down. This is the quest we’ll talk about. There’s really two parts here. You have to inspect the body as it hangs, and get it down. I’ll also skip the part of the game where the player has to deal with the stench of the putrefying body for the moment.
Seeing as this is the first major quest, this would be a perfect place for a heavily guided tutorial, but it’s not. The player has as much freedom here as he does in almost any encounter in the game. Just like the rest of Disco Elysium, you’ll have chances to be a joker, a proper police officer, or a total mess.
This being the beginning of the game, there are not many spoilers here, and I’m going to avoid some of the larger ones, but this quest should give everyone an idea about what Disco Elysium is about and how it’s set up.
Truthfully, I don’t think I could tell you everything that happens in this one section as this is a complex system, so if I missed something it’s equally possible I haven’t seen it, or I’m leaving it as something to be found by other players. There’s just a ton of small pieces that can happen.
So with this being a game where you’re a detective taking a look at a major crime, a big piece of this game is going to be clues about this murder. Many games would have a simple corpse and you learn one or two pieces that lead you to the next spot on the journey. Not Disco Elysium. Many pieces of this game create threads that you can follow, and our dead body here has a lot.
Before you can remove the corpse from the tree you will start learning a lot about the corpse. You start with a visual examination of the body and puzzle out what happened here.
But there’s a lot that you can discover from the corpse as it hangs there. The corpse is wearing fancy boots. Those are out of place as much of his clothes have been torn off. They are actually expensive ceramic armor. You can find the serial number, or decide to try to steal them later if you wish.
You can also start to do a visual examination of the body and start to puzzle out what happened here. Kim, your partner will take a picture of the body’s tattoos which can be useful to show around and try to figure out what they mean..
Finally, if you look around the body and you have enough skill points, which let me talk about later, you can find footprints of a large group. Pass a skill check and you’ll figure out these are from just eight people. Each of these footprints is a different size, and while the exact measurements seem important, they’re not, however, the discovery will help you link …. Let’s just say the game will make it clear who these should belong to when it comes up.
So already we have three threads. We have the picture of the tattoos, the ceramic armor, and the boots. While we can follow one of those up immediately, the primary goal is still to get the corpse down to do a proper autopsy. So let’s see what we can do.
Since he’s hung up we have two options that the game will suggest. You can either shoot him down or get some assistance. If you go for the former, your partner will take a shot, missing every time, and then you can suggest trying yourself. In this case, you’ll have a skill roll and if you are successful you can shoot down the body. From there the quest is over, and the detective duo will start the next quest of doing the Field Autopsy. Now the Autopsy is a whole different quest so we’re at the end of what I wanted to examine. But shooting down the body can fail, be dangerous, or just be something players are unwilling to do. So let’s rewind and try a different path.
Kim suggests you might want to talk to the leader of the union, Evrart Claire. So let’s go meet some other people on our way there.
Let’s start with this little street urchin, who you may have seen or heard. You may think I’m unfairly criticizing him. Don’t worry, when you get to know Cuno you’ll say much worse about him.
Cuno is Cuno. Honestly, this is perhaps one of the most annoying, interesting, and unique characters in Disco Elysium and to dive into his character requires a lot of spoilers over the course of the game that I will avoid. However, at this point he is just a foul-mouthed distraction. Cuno and his partner Cunoesse taunt the player as he works on exploring the corpse, or just is in the area, usually shouting a particularly offensive term for homosexuals, or bundles of sticks, talking about your actions in crass and rude manners and in general is trying to ruin your day. Or to say all this differently, he’s an internet troll without the internet.
But there’s something great about Cuno in that he represents a big piece of how Disco Elysium builds its world. Disco Elysium’s world is placed in a nation of Revachol which is not doing well. And while 2020 isn’t doing anyone any favors on Earth, Revachol is in a worse spot. Revachol is a dead city in a dead country who is feeling the effects of a failed revolution from almost half a century before. It spasms as the last of its lifeblood is being squeezed out. Cuno and many characters here are examples of this.
So if at first, you dislike how this character talks, I agree, but I’ll say there’s some magic about the flawed character designs in Disco Elysium. Almost every character gives a peek into the universe and the unfortunate situations everyone finds themselves in. This helps the player to understand the state of this world, and it’s not a happy one.
I actually prefer this style of storytelling quite a bit because rather than exposition dumps to tell you where you should go, you will learn far more about Revachol, the failed revolution, and more as you explore and talk to the various people you will meet. It paints a better picture, and it’s one that will stay with the player for a longer time.
Still, we need to meet Evrart Claire and Cuno is not going to help. So there are a few ways to reach Evart Claire such as making a leap from a building to a neighboring roof or going through Measurehead who is the second character we must discuss.
Measurehead is…. Ok listen, Measurehead is a colorful looking character, but when you talk to him he’s a physically intimidating person, but he’s also a racist piece of shit. But just like Cuno, he’s an interesting character.
So of course as a tower Goliath, you have the ability to knock out Measurehead in a very challenging fistfight where you’ll have to show off your physical dominance. That’s certainly one way to get past him, though it is a much harder fight than you might be able to take on right now.
The other way… ok I need to take a diversion here. So when I played Bioshock Infinite, and I got to this scene, where I had the choice to throw a baseball and could throw it at the racist, or the interracial couple, I was chided by my friends for choosing to throw it at the couple. I reasoned that I was undercover and I wanted to avoid being noticed. You can make your own choice on if my action was right or wrong but it doesn’t matter, racism’s bad and Bioshock wants you to know that, so no matter what you choose you’ll have to shoot your way through a lot of racists in Bioshock Infinite and that’s the true depth of Bioshock’s commentary on racism. It’s bad.
That’s how games deal with racism and many issues, and before you say anything, again racism is bad, but I don’t think that Bioshock is going to change anyone’s mind with their morality play. Instead, it can create or support a victim mentality for racists and doesn’t challenge your actions no matter who you are. Disco Elysium does something different.
You can actually discuss Measurehead’s race theory, which a short version is his race, the Semenese, which equates to black people in this world, should take over the Occidental, which I believe equates to white European races here. And don’t worry there are white racists in this game too, though they have a smaller part.
But Disco Elysium then takes another step. If you choose to, you can learn all about how Measurehead views race. This explanation drives Measaurehead’s mentality into you forcing at least your character to hear all of his bullshit. This isn’t required but it is an easy way to get past Measurehead.
If you want to use this, you’ll listen to Measurehead talk about his race theory, internalize his race theory for about 90 minutes, and boom, and suddenly you can pass a verbal check where you can say almost anything and get past him. You then can remove the race theory from your mind, or not.
So I’m sure people are going to say this is just a simple gameplay system, and it is, and I actually found it interesting because at points you can reassure Kim that you’re doing this purely to get past Measurehead. He seems to question you on this but in general, he probably buys it.
The thing is, later on, I accidentally used the word, kipt, at least that’s how I think it’s pronounced, K I P T. This is a racist word for Kim’s race who seems to have heavy Asian influences. The game has the person I was talking to react badly but Kim also reacted sharply to this, pulling back.
I’ll be honest, I felt really bad about this, to the point where I loaded an old save file to wipe it out. Kipt is a made-up word, but the reactions in this game to my unknowing choice, and what the characters saw as casual racism was severe and it jarred me. It was damaging enough to the point where I kind of don’t like that the game has the option to use such a racist word. I mean this is of course a silly reaction, but Disco Elysium makes me feel bad that racism is in its video game world while using completely made-up terms.
The fact that I feel so strongly about this is brilliant, and it shows how a choice to allow a player to be a racist can pay off because it confronts the user, not with condemnation, but with realistic reactions to the use of terms that are meant to offend. Also, I have to admit, having Kim react that way is more powerful because he is your partner in the game and you will grow to rely on him, so personally insulting him means quite a bit more.
Ok, I’m sorry about that diversion but I think it’s one of the more interesting parts of Disco Elysium and how it approaches sensitive matters. There are several political ideologies brought up and discussed as well and I feel those are handled in interesting ways as well.
Anyway, if you internalize the race theory, Measurehead will let you pass, and if you choose the right choice, he’ll even go take down the corpse. Of course, there are a few ways you can get to Evrart Claire without that, so let’s quickly look at him.
Evrart Claire is the leader of the union in the game, he’s a manipulative son of a bitch. One of the only people working in the dock, while his union is protesting and causing havoc. Much of Evrart Claire’s story is unrelated to this quest but he does have a huge part to play in the main quest. He’ll attempt to get the main player to help him out with several matters.
However if you meet him for this issue, you’ll have passed a few skill checks, or handle a little damage done to your body. You can get him to agree to assist you in your duties, and he has you return to Measurehead to get his assistance.
This will play out similarly no matter who helps but once again the body is taken down.
There’s one more person we can talk to. No, I’m going to leave Kim Kitsuragi alone, he does talk to the player quite a bit, but truthfully, what he will add to the conversation isn’t from direct conversations.
No, the person you can talk to is… the dead body.
So I’m sure you’ve heard interesting stuff so far, but let’s get into the real Disco Elysium. This is a game where you can do some really odd stuff, like either pretending you’re talking to the body or using occult powers to do that, I think it’s up to the player to decide which it is. And, after finishing the game, this conversation is one of the more interesting ones to replay, though I won’t talk about why.
But yes. You can talk to the dead body if your skills are high enough. And with that, let’s talk about those skills.
So Disco Elysium is a Western RPG, where you create a character, assign stats and skills, and hope that’s good enough to get you through the game. The stats are relatively normal, Intellect (that’s just Intelligence), Psyche (kind of Wisdom) Physique (a mix of Endurance and Strength), and Motorics (Agility or Dexterity).
But what these stats mean and this page of skills is a much deeper story. Let’s just start with the big difference in Disco Elysium. Disco Elysium is a game with no combat. This isn’t just a clever marketing pitch where they redefine verbal sparring into combat, but rather a change in the game entirely.
That’s also not to say you can’t strike someone or fail with hilarious consequences. Damn Cuno, but none of this is done in an attack and defense cycle, it’s all done through dialogue choices.
Disco Elysium constantly uses your stats, and skills to decide when to give you information. Let me quickly show you what I call my mini playthrough. I took no stat points, my entire character is stat point 1 and my skill has minor value. You can see the first discussion with Kim Kitsuragi is played very straight here. No additional help or information.
Your skills define what you hear in the game and who talks to you. With this character, I hear nothing because I don’t have any ability worthy of mention.
Now let’s see that same segment with a normal character. Suddenly my character is hearing more thoughts, opinions, and advice. As a player, you can think of these voices as instincts instead of actual speakers in the game though each of the skills does have a persona and a unique voice.
And just to be clear, They’re not always good. Instincts can lead you wrong, they can get you in trouble, it’s up to you to decide who to listen to, and much of this system is done behind the scenes. If you’re successful and can hear a part of the conversation, you’ll be told about your success, but you won’t be told about your failure to hear or consider something.
Let’s go back and put this in practice. I mentioned that you have to pass a skill check at the beginning of the corpse examination. You can do this in one of three ways. If you are a magically gifted character you might have enough stats to just stomach the stench. My muscle build was able to do that.
On the other hand, if you go and get some ammonia you might be able to try to pass the skill test a second time, and that’s still a challenging skill roll.
If you fail it a second time, the game does give you the ability to “get your shit together”, another internalized thought over 30 minutes. If you do that, you’ll get a massive boost to your roll, and perhaps beat it that way. Or not. You see, every skill roll that you choose has a 3 percent chance of being Snake eyes, 1 on each die, which fails no matter what, or 3 percent of rolling Boxcars, 6 on each die, and passing no matter what.
So while there’s no combat, much of Disco Elysium is about creating a character, deciding what he says and does, who he talks to , and what he might notice or discover.
On my initial run in the game, I played an agile and intelligent character, with no physique or psyche to speak of, and while that set up gave me an interesting game, it also lacked both mental or health points, but Disco Elysium does offer enough healing items that it wasn’t a major inconvenience after the opening.
But replaying this section of the game over 5 times, with at least four different characters made me start to appreciate what you can do in Disco Elysium and how different the game can become depending on how your skills and stats are allocated.
The footprints for instance can be completely missed by some combination of skills, and just certain observations or parts of the game will become harder or easier depending on how you layout your character sheet.
You can also upgrade skills once a level, though without repetitive combat, you will only gain levels by completing quests, discovering information, and generally exploring the game.
This style of skill though may not be for everyone, but it allows the writing to have a much deeper and interesting style of delivery that I can applaud, because so few games are willing to take an RPG stat system and apply it to a fully conversational dialogue tree, and Disco Elysium does this wonderfully.
And that’s the important parts of the opening quest in the game, and much of the game of Disco Elysium lives by this. Disco Elysium feels like a game about choices, what you discover, who you talk to, and who your character is matters a lot, and will help define your journey. And that’s a good thing.
But sadly Disco Elysium isn’t perfect. This opening quest is a perfect example of what Disco Elysium strives to be and succeeds at for a majority of it’s run time. Disco Elysium is an open exploration of an amazing story. But the third act, or really the final hour of the story is where Disco Elysium lets itself down.
If you’ve heard me talk about an open game with multiple possibilities and many different experiences, that’s Disco Elysium, but Disco Elysium’s end is forced to discard most of that for a singular ending. That ending is a touch too linear for everything that leads up to it.
But at the same time, I also have to think about what I saw with Disco Elysium, not on the first playthrough but as I replayed the same segment with multiple characters, and started to see how varied Disco Elysium could be.
Disco Elysium is not about the ending of the game, it’s not necessarily about solving a whodunnit among many people who have no connection to you and who will disappear when you turn off the game. Rather it’s about the journey you take to solve the case. Will you be a rockstar cop or a hobo cop? An apologetic cop or an authoritarian? Will you be a total mess of a human being as the marketing promised they would allow you, or will you try to make your main character into something better, and avoid drugs, alcohol and try to do the best you can with a trainwreck of a human being your life?
At the end of the day, the solution to the case will always be there the same as always, and as long as you don’t reach one of the many game-over screens, you’ll always end up with the same ending, but the real story is one you create as you play through the game and decide who your character is, and what he’s trying to do.
And that is actually what Disco Elysium is really about.
We once again reach the end. This is a new format, and I personally really like this more focused approach to looking at games. But I can use your help. I’d love to hear what you think about it.
Of course, if you want to just talk about Disco Elysium and talk about what I missed, what I should have seen, or surprise me with some factoid about Disco Elysium, let me know down in the comments because Disco Elysium is a great game and I’d love to talk about it some more, maybe in a couple of months as well.
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I’ll pop up my last video on Titanfall 2 where I break down a single level in that game to figure out what makes Titanfall 2 special. I’ll also pop up something else just for you.
Until next time, I’m Kinglink, and thanks for watching.