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a naked man sits alone on a chair in a shack in Disco Elysium Image: ZA/UM via Polygon

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Disco Elysium review: Become a hot mess in a ridiculous adventure

Don’t play to win — play to become someone else

Filthy and exhausted, my middle-aged character had somehow convinced himself he was a rock star in hiding.

Despite all signs to the contrary, he decided that if he went out and sang for a crowd, they would all be in awe of his talent and he would be whisked off to a well-deserved life of luxury. After going on a multipart quest to find a tape with a ballad on it, practice it alone in my room, and convince a man at the bar to let me sing it at karaoke night, I fail a roll to keep my nerve.

My reward is watching my character spend nearly three full minutes warbling that ballad out of tune. I wasn’t upset; I laughed and smiled, soaking in my failure. I was a mess, but I was owning it.

And that is Disco Elysium, an idiosyncratic top-down role-playing game on Windows PC with enough charm to make just about everything else on the market look boring.

The character is the conflict

Most video games that take inspiration from tabletop role-playing sessions tend to focus on traditional aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. Divinity: Original Sin 2, for instance, takes after combat-focused D&D iterations like the 3rd edition, sending groups of players on quests to battle tough monsters, manage limited resources, and maximize their combined abilities as a party.

Disco Elysium feels like playing a tabletop role-playing campaign with a DM who got into the game through 5th edition tabletop podcasts, and who doesn’t mind getting very silly with things. There’s no reliance on established lore and settings, but there is a much heavier focus on role-playing a consistent character through an interesting story.

Combat is minimized as much as possible, reduced to narrative choices about whether to pick a fight. The game’s core loop is more about understanding who your character is and playing them truthfully, rather than building them to win mathematically.

Disco Elysium tells the story of a grizzled detective who got so drunk he forgot who he was, and now has to solve a murder. He’s working in a town that’s mysteriously out of time: Disco music is all the rage, and there are record players everywhere ... but modern technology also sometimes crops up as if it’s no big deal.

It’s up to you to split your time between reassembling your sense of self, and working out why there’s a man hanging by his neck near the center of town. Everything seems to be working on dream logic, and the quicker you’re able to meet the game on that level, the better.

And what makes Disco Elysium so unique mechanically is its ludicrously detailed character creation and leveling system, and the amount of control it gives you over how you play your character while leaving plenty of room for surprises coming from the game itself.

Players get four main stats to invest a set of 12 points into: intellect, psyche, physique, and motorics. Each stat impacts your starting level and maximum level cap on six related in-game skills, for a total of 24 skills to spread your points across once the game begins. Your scores in those initial four stats are unchangeable, and will impact where you can put points for the rest of the game.

A look at the character sheet of Disco Elysium, with ratings for Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics
The character sheet can get a little chaotic, but that’s part of the fun. Be messy!
Image: ZA/UM

Intellect governs skills that turn you into a modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes — great at raw logic, but not great at people skills. Psyche skills are based around connections with other humans. They allow you to sweet-talk people, but can also lead you down a path to feeling other people’s pain, whether you want to or not.

Physique is a broad interpretation of strength. You might get more sturdy when faced with physical or emotional harm, but you’re also less frequently impacted by the negative aspects of drugs, which can lead the player down a road toward addiction.

Lastly, the motorics stat governs skills related to fine motor control, as well as detail-oriented tasks like perceiving people’s nonverbal tells. You could end up a top-notch computer hacker who is great at intricate card tricks, but your high level of perception and attention to details around you could manifest in reacting to threats that do not exist as you overanalyze your environment.

All of the 24 main skills that you level up throughout the game are based on aspects of the main character’s mind, and generally have drawbacks built into maxing them out. For example, Esprit De Corps gives you a better insight into what the police force is up to, but can also give you paranoid flashes about how the cops all secretly hate you and think you’re bad at your job. Inland Empire is essentially your imagination skill, allowing you to make intuitive leaps of logic based on clues that may not immediately make sense together — but it could also lead you to assume that every problem has a supernatural solution.

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.

a group of people gather in a dystopian city in Disco Elysium Image: ZA/UM

Feminism increases empathy, but your ability to handle drugs dips once the idea is internalized. As in the real world, internalized concepts are hard to shift, with Disco Elysium requiring you to spend an upgrade point to remove internalized ideas if you dislike their stats — which is then one fewer point you can spend on those other 24 abilities.

Internalized ideas are inherently risky to commit to, but they can provide some really powerful buffs. Internalizing the idea that you’re a rock star, as I did, increases the max level cap for visual calculus, suggestion, composure, and coping with drugs, but this all happens at the expense of your logic.

After deciding how to build your detective’s mind, you walk around the world, investigating objects, interacting with NPCs, and finding clues. This plays out much how you would expect, with text boxes describing encounters and giving you options for how to respond, but the inner monologue running alongside these basic interactions elevates the entire experience.

While you’re hunting for clues and interrogating suspects, the various parts of your brain argue about what you should do. This dictates your interaction options based on where you put your points. Your mind also shows your odds for success with each action, complete with on-screen dice rolls.

Each of these elements of the brain features unique writing and voice acting, bringing them to life with a sense of individuality and humor that makes them feel more like party members in a BioWare game than traditional parts of a skill tree. Drama, for example, may know when someone is lying to you, but it also often thinks it would be fun to watch you get into really bad situations and flail as you try to escape. My personified pain threshold was more interested in the fact that it could withstand things than the physical toll those actions would inflict, so my character was often convinced it could literally tackle any problem while screaming at the top of its very macho lungs.

a shootout in the street in Disco Elysium Image: ZA/UM

The way that Disco Elysium personifies these aspects of the player creates a complex, sometimes contradictory, very human mess of a character. The fast-moving and often uncertain inner monologue brings your version of the hero to life, and makes it much easier to separate your role-playing choices from your own moral feelings as a player. When you’re only offered solutions that are rooted in where you allocated resources, there isn’t much room to worry about how you’d like to do things ideally. You’re trapped into seeing things through the lens of how your brain works, and how your own strengths and weaknesses flavor your perception of the world. It’s how we all operate in real life, but seeing it from the outside is somewhat shocking. Are we all so disconnected from what’s actually happening?

And if you screw up, who cares? You started as a screw-up. This isn’t a game in which you should worry about playing perfectly; the chaos and uncertainty are part of the fun.

And that sense of being messy isn’t limited to your character. It fills the whole game.

Finding the story in the margins

Disco Elysium leaves you to handle the main story at your own pace, taking as many detours as you’d like for side quests, and exploring clues that may not be directly connected to the task at hand. Most of the game, in fact, is found by going off the beaten path, rather than just heading from one story beat to the next.

a dice roll in Disco Elysium
Sometimes it all comes down to the dice ...
Image: ZA/UM

There’s room to explore tales of people in the city — stories that feel real and emotionally resonant, and let you see hope just under the surface of a place full of crime. Or, you know, you can be an antisocial genius with a voice in his head that’s telling him to lie compulsively for no reason other than because it will cause chaos. Up to you.

It’s often the little things that make Disco Elysium feel truly magical — things like the character icon on the UI being a smudged blur, appearing as a detailed face only if you decide to look in a mirror (and even then having its appearance dictated by the character’s view of themselves). The game tracks the conversations in which you discuss your own appearance, and adjusts the image in the mirror appropriately.

Your image isn’t a fact; it’s something that’s based on your own feelings and decisions about yourself. This is heady territory for a role-playing game, but it also feels much more real than the character portraits in most other games in this genre. We can never see ourselves objectively, and having a game own that fact is a freeing experience.

Disco Elysium shines most when it gets weird. I was once pretending to be a psychic medium to get a woman to let me look through her supposedly haunted bookstore for a huge novelty polar bear freezer I could use to hide a very dead human body. I knew there were probably more reasonable options for places to store a corpse, but where’s the fun in keeping it somewhere official and boring? This is what my character thought was best, and I was there for the ride.

The way the game’s systems interact, holding true to their own rules while allowing you to stray so far in multiple directions, turns Disco Elysium into a pure role-playing experience that feels wondrous and unique compared to its peers. I never feel like my lack of certain skills hinders my ability to progress; it simply pushes me toward more interesting solutions. When I play Disco Elysium, it plays back.

I’m not playing as a good or a bad person — I’m playing a man with real talents and deep flaws, and I feel all the more connected to my version of the character as a result. I am a rock star, after all.

Disco Elysium is now available on Windows PC, and is scheduled to be released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2020. The game was reviewed on PC using a “retail” Steam copy purchased by the reviewer. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.