It seems that not a year can go by where I don’t end up missing one critically acclaimed indie title that I’d really enjoy. In 2018 I missed out on Return of the Obra Dinn which I thoroughly enjoyed once I played it. History repeats itself with Disco Elysium. I just recently got to playing this 2019 title and think it’s good. Really good.
For those not in the know, Disco Elysium is a detective RPG where you take on the role of a police officer investigating a lynching. You, unfortunately, have a case of anime amnesia which came on after completing a week long bender where you’d hoped to end your miserable existence. From this blank starting point you’ll make a number of decisions about your character that define them over the course of your investigation. And it is this defining of the character that I want to talk to today.
Similar to protagonists in traditional role-playing games, Detective Drunkypants has attribute points. These points are assigned across four categories and this will define his innate ability with the skills belonging to each for the entirety of your playthrough. The attributes are as follows:
Intellect: refers to raw intelligence and contributes to your critical thinking and conceptualizing prowess
Psyche: refers to emotional intelligence and gut instincts allowing you to better understand people and follow your detective intuition
Physique: refers to physical strength and constitution giving you a greater pain tolerance and the ability to solve problems with brute force
Motorics: refers to dexterity and cunning increasing your perception and ability to interface with the world around you
Each of these four categories offers very different skills which will determine how you approach problems throughout your play-through. And it’s those skills that largely contribute to Disco Elysium being so enjoyable.
Within each of the four attributes there are six distinct skills. Wherein other games these might be attacks or passive buffs, in Disco Elysium skills represent facets of your being. What exactly does that mean though? Elysium is a largely dialogue driven game and as such the writers decided to give each skill a unique voice in your internal monologue. Thinking through a problem is represented by having the strongest of your relevant skills chime in to offer their perspective. This leads to a number of benefits that lend to Elysium being a stand-out role-playing experience.
Firstly, your skill choices dramatically alter dialogue. Because your skills are a cerebral element of your character they contribute to your thinking process. With that all taking place through text you’ll be given very different angles for looking at and thinking about problems depending on which skills you’ve chosen to invest most heavily in.
For example, the intellect skill drama was a stand-out in my play-through. Drama is characterized as your ability to both detect lies and tell them convincingly. Whenever I was interviewing someone and they lied, drama would pipe up to inform me it thought something was amiss. This led to additional dialogue options where I’d be able to press the person to gain additional, more truthful, information.
Secondly, your skills provide different angles to approach quests. This is fairly inline with traditional role-playing, but I found how it was implemented to be more interesting when compared to the common options in other games. Because the skills are abstract they manifested in a variety of ways whereas lock-picking or pick pocketing are skills that always produce a consistent expected result.
For an example of how skills affect quests we’ll take another look at my favourte skill: drama. There is a quest where you learn how the local commercial area has suffered from several failed businesses and thus everyone thinks it is cursed. One of the few remaining store owners believes so strongly in the curse that she has spiritual wards setup to protect her livelihood. With a little help from drama you can deliver an incredibly convincing performance, much like a TV pastor, and have her believe you’re capable of dispelling curses. It’s a highly entertaining option that is made available through utilizing one of your numerous skills.
What’s potentially more interesting is how you’re also made to select appropriate dialogue options to fully utilize skills. You know how in most games when you pass a persuasion check you simply select a single correct dialogue option and you’re good to proceed? That is not the case in Elysium. In the above example I was given numerous options once drama had triggered and I had to select the appropriate one to achieve the desired result. In this way skills don’t only open up additional dialogue or quest options, they also open up additional game-play. You’re still making decisions to progress forward as simply having and using the skill isn’t enough.
In addition, throughout Elysium your skills will occasionally chime in with an additional thought during a conversation. If you indulge the tangent thought you’ll gain the ability to internalize it. This is meant to represent thinking deeply on something thought provoking. Choosing to internalize a thought can provide passive bonuses to Mr Detective and in several cases allow for alternative dialogue or quest routes that aren’t normally available.
The most interesting time I tried to leverage the thought system for a quest was when I was trying to get into a storage yard. It was being guarded by a brute of a man who was incredibly racist. After querying the man about his beliefs my rhetoric took it upon itself to suggest that we could debate his ideology. I ended up spending some in game time stewing on his racist doctrine and returned to debate it with him hoping to persuade him to let me through. I won’t divulge how that went over, but it created a very funny situation at the time and also led to future kerfuffles.
Spoilers over for real now
In thinking back on my time with Disco Elysium it is always the moments that came about thanks to my skills or internal thoughts that helped to elevate the experience. What could have been forty hours of text walls is made so very interesting thanks to how you’re allowed to role-play within that context. Skills help to offer unique angles from which to approach quests and reframe your own view into what is going on. Disco Elysium is truly a masterful role-playing game and you should absolutely check it out if you haven’t already.