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At the TGA Game of the Year Awards three years ago (2019), Disco Elysium was a deserved dark horse entry, winning several awards, including Best Narrative and Best Indie Game. The highly literary RPG also provided several new ideas in the narrative for indie game makers in general.
1. Game Background
Disco Elysium is a detective-style CRPG developed by ZA/UM, a small, otherwise unknown Estonian studio. Players take on the role of a police detective who has completely lost his memory and finds clues to solve cases in a port city full of corruption, chaos and conflict while constantly piecing together clues to understand himself and the world. The game is the first title produced by ZA/UM Studios and is based on the novel Sacred and Terrible Air, released in 2013 by the game’s head writer Robert Kouvez. He says he has a particular affinity with communism, not only because his preferred language of translation was Chinese but also because in the introduction to the Chinese version, he describes Disco Elysium as being like the last letters sent from the Soviet Union. He believes that Chinese gamers will understand what the game is about because they too have lived through the communist revolution.
Before he started making the game, Robert had published a novel, Sacred and Terrible Air, which was the setting for the world of Disco Elysium. Although the book was well received, it was a commercial failure, selling just 1,000 copies, which led to Robert’s severe alcoholism. After receiving encouragement from a close friend, he chose to create a video game based on the setting of the novel. In order to keep the narrative coherent in the game, he decided to give up all his vices, including smoking, drinking and “other things that Eastern Europeans sometimes do”. He watches his diet, exercises regularly and monitors his anxiety levels in order to become a “warrior monk of video game development”. After the game was developed, he turned his attention more to tabletop games.” Because when you are making video games every day, going back to something else reminds you too much of what you do”, he says. Moreover, he believes there is more innovation in the much lower-budget tabletop gaming sector than in video games.
As most people know, the game has reaped very positive reviews from gamers and the press. Players have given the game a 94% positive rating on Steam, and most media have given it top marks. PCGamer even praised the game as one of the best RPGs on PC.
In the book, The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell presents Elemental Tetrad: the four essential elements of a game. Mechanics are the rules by which players and games interact. At the same time, mechanics are the elements that distinguish games from other non-interactive media; they include rules, goals, modes of player interaction and other formal elements mentioned by Fullerton. Aesthetics explains how games are received by the five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. From the original game soundtrack to the character models, packaging and covers all fall within the scope of aesthetics. The element of technology covers all the technologies that are used in the game. It partitions the essential elements of the game that initially belonged to different teams: designers for mechanics, artists for aesthetics, writers for the story, and programmers for technology. However, the limitations of this method of analysis are clear: it only analyses the game from the developer’s point of view in a one-sided way. If we want to dismantle a game in its entirety, we must also consider what the game’s player ecology is like and how the community perceives the game.
Here we have divided the overall methodology into a 3-layer structure, the Inscribed layer, the dynamic layer, and the cultural layer, distinguishing them by focusing on the shift in ownership of the game from the developer to the player. Everything in the Inscribed layer belongs to both the designer and the developer and is entirely within the developer’s grasp. The dynamic layer is about the experience of the game, so the game designer needs the player to take action and make choices to experience the game. Through the player’s decisions and influence on the game system, the player owns part of the experience, but in general, it is still under the developer’s control. In this way, the player and developer share the dynamic layer.
The game is out of the developer’s control at the cultural layer. Therefore game mods apply to the cultural layer: through game mods, players can control the game’s content. Of course, most games keep their content intact, while specific elements are left up to the players. This is also why licensed adaptations are excluded, as the process of game ownership by the players and the community defines the cultural layer. In addition, the cultural layer includes the perception of the game by non-gamers in society, which is influenced by the gaming experience represented by the player community. People who do not play games learn about them through media, and they read content written by gamers. Although players largely control the cultural layer, developers and designers still have a strong influence and are responsible for the social impact of games.
I have therefore chosen this method of analysis to give a more holistic view of Disco Elysium. However, this analysis only focuses on the content in the inscription layer, with the design content of the game developers as the main object of analysis.
The gameplay is simple enough to be summed up in one sentence; it is a detective-playing game that uses dice rolls to check to advance the dialogue. The use of dice makes it look more like a game based on a TRPG. But this summary does not reveal the core appeal of the game, which is more literary than playful, to be precise. In Disco Elysium, it is not easy to define someone in terms of black or white. Just as in the real world, the evolution of history has brought about a liberal economy, internationalism, democracy, and others, all of which cannot be generalised in terms of good or bad. Policies and changes can benefit some people and hurt others. Each person will have different opinions and positions on history and politics depending on who they are and their situation. In short, in the NPCs of Disco Elysium, players can see the complexities of human nature.
A choice of 3 preset characters and custom characters
At the beginning of the game, the player can choose his favourite attributes of the detective character and then wake up with a hangover in this dystopian and realistic anti-utopian world. The protagonist has forgotten everything about himself and does not know who he is or what he is doing; he is like a blank sheet of paper. However, he is later told that he is a detective and needs to find out who is responsible for a murder, which is the player’s main objective at the beginning of the game. The player can choose from one of three pre-determined character detective archetypes; the thinking faction focuses on the deduction, the sensitive faction on persuasion, and the physical faction on coercion. The differences in initial attributes and skills determine how the plot is chosen.
The four attributes of the character in the game
Compared to other conventional CRPGs, Disco Elysium has a reduced number of attributes and has added another process attribute in addition to life value: morale. Understandably, attribute reduction is natural because this game has no combat. All the basic attributes whose ultimate role is to obtain information to advance the plot. It is divided into different forms of means, reasoning, persuasion, or coercion, to match the plot. Some information can only be obtained by specific means, allowing for the combination of a rich and varied branch of the plot.
The red one on the left is blood, and the blue one on the right is morale
One of the more distinctive points is the addition of the attribute morale. Usually, in RPG games, physical damage leads the life value to zero and goes to the end of the game. In Disco Elysium, the addition of a spiritual dimension to the end of the game, combined with a plot that is perhaps the brutal equivalent of death, in a world of absurd humour, ideological contradictions and everyone’s swinging Eastern European simulation, where spiritual self-abandonment is the norm. The developers of Soviet origin have very eloquently shown the helplessness of the spiritual desolation of the era with this one small design.
Use of dice to determine the probability of success of an event
The previous gameplay overview mentioned a keyword: dice roll check. This act is, in fact, one of the most common core rules in TRPGs, such as the 20-sided dice used in DND. The game uses the size of the points rolled plus the protagonist’s ability level and adjustment value against the difficulty of a particular decision to determine the success of the protagonist’s actions and to decide the direction of subsequent dialogue, giving the necessary information and advice on replies. Adjustment values are associated with discovering certain clues or realising certain events prior to the check. Depending on the importance of the plot, more or fewer adjustment values are awarded. By the above design, Disco Elysium nicely simulates the principles of judging the success of something after it has been executed in the real world. This design creates a self-consistent worldview immersion. Most actions in the game give visible feedback, allowing the player to become more integrated into this virtual but real world.
Thinking skills in 24 different directions
Another distinctive feature of Disco Elysium is the protagonist’s “brain”, which comprises two parts – 24 thinking skills in different directions and a thought phrase that can be optionally internalised. zA/UM explains the thinking skills as follows. “The best way to draw the player into the story is to target the individual player. During the story, the voices in the player’s head will be like a symphony, as if these skills suddenly wake up and the words of the individual skills become entwined into a point of disagreement that allows the player to choose. The player gets a chain reaction of different versions of these skills. The most interesting point is that because everyone is talking about their understanding of the current situation, they also ensure that the players understand what is happening at the moment.”
These 24 skills are like aspects of the human brain’s thinking and behaviour. When confronted with a complex situation or case, the player may have a wild imagination, analyse it based on logic, or choose to respond physically. These skill dimensions ‘talk’ to the player, giving the player the potential to explore their thinking and make choices of their own volition. Because the skills are multi-dimensional enough, most players will always be able to find a combination of thinking and acting in a way that is more like them.
The other Thought Cabinet is formed by internalising several thought words that the player uses throughout the game triggers. The player is exposed to many concepts during dialogue and exploration. If the player identifies strongly with such concepts or is very interested in them, they can internalise them as part of themselves. The internalised thoughts will have a knock-on effect on subsequent choices. This part of the game incorporates more of the game’s worldview into the player’s thinking. It encompasses political positions, doctrinal perceptions, scientific knowledge and even all sorts of pie-in-the-sky self-created concepts, giving the player the freedom to choose what kind of person they want to be.
In short, the presence of the ‘brain’ in Disco Elysium is a simulation of the real human consciousness, giving the player a wide range of choices.
Time changes in the game
The design of time passing in Disco Elysium is also somewhat unique. The conventional design of time passing, like The Sims, which pass according to a particular acceleration ratio, and Animal Crossing, which is synchronised with the objective world time, but Disco Elysium is different. The time in the game only passes with various dialogue interactions, and exploration of all kinds does not consume time, and time stops at next day at 2 a.m. This rule is clearly against the developers’ design principles of fitting the objective world. From my perspective, I can only interpret it as the developers trying to keep the game’s pace manageable to follow the plot. The speed of time passing seems to be controlled by the player, giving the player a sense of control of the protagonist, but with the developer’s design of opening new areas over time, the big rhythm point is still in the open hands.
The overall art style of Disco Elysium is very different from the usual commercial art, as the game style is closer to the traditional artistic expression of painting. This bold style is inquisitive to see how it is established. The art director’s answer was straightforward: “The art style of Disco Elysium is an expressive painting that is the result of a fusion of ideas, techniques, and inspiration that have been accumulated over the years.” He believes that this way of painting, which expresses emotion with a minimum of work, is the most brilliant way of painting and is the key to the art style in the game.
The use of many blurred blocks of colour to represent the structure
The game’s distinctly painted feel and colour mapping practise the idea of expressive painting. They retain brush strokes and colour blocks, giving the game a greater emphasis on relative rather than absolute accuracy. In addition, while conventional 3D model mapping is often skin to record details, Disco Elysium‘s art team used it as a canvas, like a painter splashing colour directly onto a model to make the game look like a painting. They used 3D technology for the character models and scenes but still used hand-drawn normal maps to render the characters. The characters portrayed with oil painting-like texture and brushstrokes give the game expressionism, and impressionism feel.
As a narrative-driven RPG, the primary difficulty during production was how to rationalise the storyline that was coiled together and present it smoothly in the game. Creator Robert Kurvitz said at the Rezzed Indie Games Expo 2018, “I would call this project a ‘mind crusher’ – because it strung out brain cells and depleting life values. It is by far the hardest writing task on the planet.” ZA/UM’s entire development team consists of just 25 people, with writers making up eight of them. According to Kulwitz’s assessment, the amount of work involved in creating the story is comparable to that of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
A dialogue tree sparked by a conversation
Having said all that, what story does Disco Elysium tell? The game occurs in a forgotten corner of a vast world, where an amnesiac detective wakes up from his room and is charged with investigating a murder and its buried deeper story. Players will meet various people who talk to them and tell their history with the world. First, Players encounter the various ideas and consciousnesses wrapped around them and listen to their cynicism and helplessness. Then, as time passes, Players gradually enter their hearts, hear more stories, and touch the carefully hidden glimpses of human warmth.
Once the story begins, there are no limits to the player’s path of exploration. The only pull throughout the flow of the experience is the investigation of the case. Furthermore, as the player searches for clues to the case, he or she discovers more strands – clues to self-identity, past experiences, the stories of others, and the various conversations and events that implicate the worldview and history. With such a narrative design, the player’s experience can take an infinite number of paths, often with multiple missions running simultaneously. It is up to the player to decide which quest to solve. Not even to solve any quests, but to explore the world and unravel more mysteries. As the game progresses, the conclusions of many mysteries emerge, some related to the main case, solving a considerable mystery in the case, and some related to the identity of “I”, inadvertently discovering the protagonist’s buried past. Some are not related to the case or the self but only to make players more aware of the world. However, whichever way the player chooses to advance in the quest, they will eventually get to the end of the case, find part of themselves and perceive part of the world.
Some of the characters who appear in the story
The characters who appear in the main story, both vital and peripheral, are given a strong sense of period by the story. Each character has a complex upbringing and experience and is shown to be multi-faceted in the story, three-dimensional and realistic. In Disco Elysium, players can hardly define a particular person in black or white. Just as in the real world, the evolution of history has brought about a free economy, internationalism, and democracy, all of which cannot be generalised as good or bad. Policies and changes can benefit some people and hurt others, and everyone has different opinions and positions on history and politics depending on their status and situation. In Disco Elysium, the player does not need to find out what is right or wrong but can only “understand” each character’s attitude because it seems to be a given what will happen to him. This helpless “inevitability” allows the player to empathise with many of the characters, whose actions cannot be judged purely in terms of good or evil. In short, in the NPCs of Disco Elysium, players can see the complexity of human nature.
Disco Elysium‘s plot extensively uses symbolic elements to engage the player’s emotions intensely. These are filled with stream-of-consciousness text and dreamlike gameplay images, which often imply critical twists in the main story or key points in the protagonist’s perception. For example, the conversation with the giant bamboo worm on the island at the end of the story is one of the most emotionally impressive points of the experience for many players. Suppose the player has been exposed to all of the mysterious zoologist’s missions in the previous quest and has come back disappointed in one mission to trap the bamboo worm, whether or not the player initially believes the mysterious zoologist and his wife’s “gibberish”. In that case, it seems to be an admission that this magical thing is pure fantasy. However, at the end of the quest, when perhaps even the mysterious zoologist himself no longer believes in the existence of the bamboo worm, the protagonist sees it on the island. In the stream-of-consciousness dialogue, the bamboo worm is pure and beautiful, a seed of hope that seems to remain in the brokenness and despair of the Revachol. As for what the bamboo worm represents, it is a free mind testimony.
A complete, weighty and authentic historical story
Beyond that, the game’s worldview is large and complex enough to support deep and thoughtful discussions. In this open world, what the player experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. The team has created its history, rulers, political formations, economic systems, state structures, thinkers, and even pop songs and rock stars. Although the world is empty, it is a world that, on closer examination, feels like a mapping of reality and a profound reflection on reality, without any hint of fiction. The game’s content is reasonably prosperous and imaginative without losing any of its depth, supported by an entirely realistic worldview. In today’s game design, it is not uncommon to find an empty world, a space where the creator can play freely and facilitate subsequent creation. Nevertheless, sometimes we have to ask ourselves whether we are creating a space for the sake of a space, creating a proper noun for the sake of a proper noun. At least not in the case of Disco Elysium. Thanks to its profound reflection on the real world, the game’s theme has been elevated to a level rarely seen in gaming history.
In the end, getting through Disco Elysium probably feels like finishing a book and completing a journey through a fantasy world. It is enough to feel the vastness and depth of the world of Elysium with just the words, the dialogue and the limited scenes and images. A famous director once said that cinema had tripled people’s lifespan because they can experience a different life in it. The existence of games adds another layer of “interaction” to the audio-visual and textual expressions, and it is on this layer that Disco Elysium gives the player a high degree of freedom. In a few dozen hours of gameplay, the player learns about the world, gets to know himself and solves cases.
However, it is worth noting that Disco Elysium is not a game that gets players hooked quickly. The positive feedback comes exceptionally slowly. During the first few hours of the experience, players will be confused about the entire world’s setting, picking up a dozen or so quests in dialogue without a clue and cases going nowhere. Such a setting also undoubtedly dissuaded a large number of players. It has been questioned by many in terms of gameplay as a result. This design is the downside of the large worldview and fragmented narrative: the whole game can take hours to unfold, and players often become immersed only after the game has been underway for some time. In today’s market, where gamers are generally used to fast-paced experiences, it is a real risk for a slow-burning game that requires a lot of thought and experience to gain traction with users. However, ZA/UM has its way of sticking to its guns, and Disco Elysium requires such a slow-burning approach for players to understand the vast world it builds and its spiritual core layer by layer. In the current gaming market, art and commerce are not 100% compatible, and there are probably very few good games out there. However, thanks to games like this, players can see games that can probably be called “ninth art”.
Gaemsradar (2020) The making of Disco Elysium: How ZA/UM created one of the most original RPGs of the decade. Available at: https://www.gamesradar.com/the-making-of-disco-elysium-how-zaum-created-one-of-the-most-original-rpgs-of-the-decade/ (Accessed: 20 August 2021).
MCV/DEVELOP (2021) “We knew immediately that we needed to make a game with a striking and unique look to accompany the writing” – The Art Of Disco Elysium. Available at: https://www.mcvuk.com/business-news/we-knew-immediately-that-we-needed-to-make-a-game-with-a-striking-and-unique-look-to-accompany-the-writing-a-look-that-would-balance-the-mundane-with-the-unfamiliar-and-strange-the-art/ (Accessed: 20 August 2021).
The Escapist (2019) Why the Creator of Disco Elysium Hasn’t Read the Reviews, and What’s Next for the IP. Available at: https://www.escapistmagazine.com/why-the-creator-of-disco-elysium-hasnt-read-the-reviews-and-whats-next-for-the-ip/ (Accessed: 20 August 2021).
Wiki Fandom (no date) Disco Elysium. Available at: https://discoelysium.fandom.com/wiki/Disco_Elysium_Wiki (Accessed: 20 August 2021).
Wikipedia (no date) Robert Kurvitz. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Kurvitz (Accessed: 20 August 2021).