I Really Dig Disco Elysium’s Character Building

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.

Spoilers ahead

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.

Spoilers end

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.

More spoilers

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.

8 thoughts on “I Really Dig Disco Elysium’s Character Building

  1. “Hello, chief! I kinda tried to kill myself last week and now I have amnesia…” – “Man, that sucks. You still coming in on Monday, right?”

    Of course, the “grizzly drunk detective” trope just isn’t gritty enough anymore, so we gotta throw in a nice video-gamey case of amnesia. Why don’t we have his wife/child missing (whom we’ve never met and never gets any build-up), and make his partner the most annoying, one-liner-spewing character since Duke Nukem?

    I have absolutely no knowledge of this game, except for the first paragraph of this post and a few tiny side-notes of Mark Brown and Adam Millard (I know that it’s dice- and dialogue-based, that’s it), but that premise sounds god-awful…

    Or did I misunderstand something here?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wee bit, but it was omitted to keep things as vague as possible because that’s honestly the best way to dive into the game.

      The obvious thing, as you pointed out, would be to have people tell you who you are. The game goes to rather extreme lengths to make sure that isn’t going to happen.

      You wake up in a motel room totally plastered not remembering who you are. When you walk out of your room someone greets you with, “Good morning, officer”. That’s your first clue in to who you are. The person doesn’t know anything about you other than that you are an officer and that you like to party (hence the drug induced amnesia).

      This is followed by you walking into the motel’s main floor diner and having your partner for the game, Kim, introduce himself. Why is he introducing himself? Well because you’ve never met before. The case you’re looking into is one within a district that falls between two different precincts: your’s and Kim’s. You’ve been “on the case” for a week ahead of Kim and him showing up to join you comes about only because you pissed away the week trying to end yourself. The what and whys of this I’m not going to elaborate on as figuring that out is a part of the game.

      You’ll also notice that you’re staying in a motel. Not your home. The motel is closer to the scene of the crime, so you’ve been staying there. As such your family and your co-workers who sent you here to investigate have no reason to assume anything is wrong. At least, that’s true until a little over a week goes by from your last call-in at which point they become concerned. Alternatively, if you call in from Kim’s radio and say you can’t remember anything most of them lose their shit laughing thinking you can’t be serious. How could anyone get that drunk? They later come to investigate the situation, but make no attempts to involve themselves even though it’s painfully obvious who they are (though their are dialogue options that you can use to out them – I didn’t have access to them because of my build).

      So that’s the setup. A painful amount of detail has gone into making a situation where you’re able to define what direction you want to take the character in without having any preconceived notion of how he should act. What’s even weirder is how you dig up details on the cop you used to be and are able to interpret that information and apply it to how you’re role-playing. Maybe you start off playing the game straight laced, but find evidence that you might have been a dirty cop and reform your play-style to fit this new contextual information. Or perhaps you decide that the amnesia provided you with an opportunity at a fresh start and you don’t want to squander it. You as a player get to make that decision instead of having the game tell you what it wants you to do.

      Even the grizzled cop thing is something you don’t necessarily have to lean into. There are certainly options for it, but that’s not necessarily how things will play out. The way I played the game had a flair for the dramatic and a more thoughtful and inquisitive approach. There was almost no grizzled no nonsense detective moments in my play-through because that’s not how I envisioned the character, nor was it how I wished to play the game (it’s totally an option though).

      Does that…address your question? I think it does, but I’m not entirely sure if I addressed it directly enough or danced around it too much by trying to establish the context for your situation and why it works which the game does in about ten minutes compared to the upwards of thirty minutes I took to describe it in text.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As I have said in Discord already, I did not (yet) read most of this comment. I think I could take away my answer from the first few sentences and avoid the rest of the reply for now.

        But I promise I will play Disco Elysium soon and come back to this post and your reply!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting looking game, I like the modern look mixed with the traditional isometric esque layout of the levels and environment, well it looks that way anyway. May need to check this out.

    Liked by 1 person

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