I’ve had so many opportunities to be the bad guy in role-playing games, but I rarely take the bait. I never put someone out of their misery if I can patch them up instead. If I see a debt collector bothering a haggard old man, I always come to the old guy’s aid.
Choice-based RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins or The Outer Worlds often offer me the option to be the “bad” guy, or at least the far more pragmatic one, but I’m a softie. Being bad never feels particularly fun or fair to me. I take my enjoyment from being the honorable influence in each new environment.
Or, at least, that’s how I felt up until Disco Elysium. This is the first game where I find myself hungry to chase down the worst possible solution to any problem. I’ve taken a swing at a kid, and it wasn’t even justified. When my poor, overworked partner offered me the use of his vehicle, I used the dashboard phone to call a poor barmaid I had previously hassled during a bender. She was sick of my shit, but I had some justifications to make about the drinking, the parrot assault, the yelling, and the eventual stripping.
If I see a chance to beg for money, I go after it like a dog with a bone.
The beast is fully unleashed, because I can’t get enough of being an absolute asshole. While I act as a tornado tearing through the city of Revachol, I can’t help but admire Disco Elysium’s developers, ZA/UM, for crafting such a chaotic path through its sandbox.
Good cop, bad cop
In Disco Elysium, I assume the role of a detective who just woke up after a long bender with no memory of who I am or what I’m doing here. I’m meant to investigate a murder, and the city of Revachol is just different enough from the real world that it lends a surreal, fantasy-tinged tone to the entire sordid affair. My poor police partner is doing his best to keep me together, but it’s like putting a leash on a tornado. He’s making an effort, but he’s woefully unequipped and underpaid to handle a disaster of my scale.
There’s an upper limit on how good I can be, of course. Not only am I working within the complicated systems of a society in revolution, but I’m in terrible shape. I nearly had a heart attack and went to the brink of death in the process of trying to pluck my tie off the rotating blades of a fan. Very few of my choices come down to clearly marked binary decisions. Instead, Disco Elysium asks me to define my detective’s morality by internalizing concepts he encounters in the world.
The Polygon review of Disco Elysium explains this complicated concept well: “Additionally, while progressing through Disco Elysium, ideas are unlocked as you interact with the world, before being added to your inventory as items. If you decide to regularly talk positively about women, you might unlock the “idea” of feminism, for example. You can put that idea in an active slot to mull it over, giving you one set of stat buffs, until it gets internalized and its stats change.”
My detective’s available choices depend not just on what he encounters, but who he is.
That’s a fascinating way to approach an RPG, especially if you bide your time and really explore the world around you.
On my first playthrough, I didn’t do that at all. Instead, I had the option to go down the path of the Hobocop, a cop who relishes in his detachment from polite society and his residence among dumpsters. From there, things rapidly deteriorated, and the first day of my investigation of a murder ended with me on a borrowed phone to my police precinct, with literally everyone I work with howling with laughter as they mocked and taunted me.
OK, sure, I had to call in because I couldn’t find my badge. Or my gun. And my tie was talking to me? I also had to fish to find out what my name was, but putting me on speakerphone so the entire department could roar with laughter at my predicament was a little harsh. So yeah, I fired back and implied I slept with one guy’s mom. I don’t regret it. I didn’t decide to be an asshole; the game just kinda created a situation in which it felt natural, and maybe a little warranted, and I took it from there.
Then, adding insult to injury, I had no bed to sleep in because I couldn’t pay the fees incurred by my alcohol-fueled bender.
Shades of gray
The truth is, my Disco Elysium detective was objectively a pretty bad person — at the very least, no one in their right mind would want to spend time with him. But I relished the opportunity to play as him, and I never flinched from my self-appointed path of becoming, or maybe just being, an absolute disaster.
The truth is, I often find morality systems and factions in RPGs to be a tricky thing for developers to truly and effectively pull off. It’s an incredibly hard balancing act.
I loved the four distinct factions in Fallout: New Vegas, each offering its own set of ending conditions for my story in post-apocalyptic Nevada ... but why would anyone want to join the brutal, misogynistic, oppressive Caesar’s Legion? In Dragon Age: Origins, I could be cruel as much as I wanted, turning the order of the Grey Wardens into a mockery of its noble intent. In Mass Effect, I could play Renegade Shepard and punch my way through the galaxy, cutting through red tape and flipping everyone off as I did so.
Despite these options being available, I found myself rarely choosing them, because they often feel so cruel. In Dragon Age: Origins, a member of the Wardens who had failed his initiation crawled up to me, trying to warn me about some kind of threat. On my first run, I had helped him to the best of my ability. On my second run, I took the evil option ... which was crushing his head. Everyone traveling with me hated that. I hated it! It was so brutal and unnecessary, and the idea of using my treasured escapism to turn into some kind of murderous warlord didn’t feel great.
In Mass Effect, Renegade can be all over the map. I definitely took some Renegade choices, like firing on a gas tank right under a bad guy as he paced on the catwalk and made his big speech. There are times in the trilogy where Renegade comes across as a great set of pragmatic, ruthless options. There are other times where it feels as though the developers intended it to be the bad guy route. I can have my Shepard brawl her way through social problems, like punching out a reporter, or knocking out the victim of a hideous alien attack who’s terrified and rambling about nonsense. Paragon feels more consistent; I’m a big damn hero who’s doing the right thing, even under seemingly impossible circumstances.
And then there are just evil factions who have no redeeming qualities. Caesar’s Legion are misogynist imperialists who run murder lotteries and execute people for the slightest hint of degeneracy. Why would my female Courier back them?
I’m not implying that these were bad or poorly implemented systems; they just didn’t tickle me in particular. I had a blast with these games, but I always took the role of the good guy. For me, I had the most fun doing the right thing and helping those in need.
Getting mean and messy
Disco Elysium is the first game I’ve played in quite some time where I don’t immediately go for the most altruistic option. Instead, I lean hard into being a massive trash disaster who everyone around me kind of hates. Being a hot mess is an easier pill to swallow than being a sociopath, and it’s opened up fantastic role-playing options for me. And it works because the game provides reasons for my slow, or maybe rapid, collapse into utter self-absorption. I’m not trying to be a good or bad guy — I’m just trying to hang on, and sometimes that means becoming a complete asshole just to be able to play the hand the game has dealt me. And reader, I am here for it.
It helps that ZA/UM has done a fantastic job of supporting lots of role-play options. Not only am I a hobo cop, but I’m a hardline communist. Revachol is a city built around the bones of a failed uprising years ago; the communists rose up, they fought, and they lost. Now, I epouse their philosophy in a vain, one-man attempt to reignite that fire. It’s an attitude that inspires pity and scorn from everyone else.
The writing is genuinely funny, but my choices also mean that I’m often the target of that humor. And so, my hot-mess approach has developed into a genuine bitterness that I’m playing out. It’s not a matter of good or evil, wrong or right — it’s about my cop’s place in a complicated world, and how he chooses to handle it. And I tend to handle it very poorly, to the detriment of those around me.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a grudge against a pet parrot I need to settle.