In the beginning, there was only darkness. The vast expanse of non-existence, delightful in its silence. That silence is broken by awareness. A voice, the one that lives in the most ancient part of your mind, acknowledges the emptiness. You can try to ignore it but once awareness flickers on, it is only a matter of time before the quiet of oblivion is shattered by the noise of existence. Whether you want to be or not, you are, and with that comes all the complications and unpleasantness of being alive.
This is the opening of Disco Elysium, and the existence to which you have awoken is that of an amnesiac detective. Lying naked except for your briefs in a stinking room with broken glass on the floor, you must pick up the pieces of your life – starting with your clothes – and get back to work on a case for which you are many days late. It’s an opening premise that tosses you right into the “action” of Disco Elysium: investigating, picking up what you can find, talking to people, and asking questions. But before all of this, even before oblivion itself, there is character creation.
Disco Elysium features 24 skills attached to 4 main stats, 6 skills per stat (pictured below). Your stats influence the strength of your body (physique), the knowledge within your mind (intellect), your emotional intelligence and charisma (psyche), and your senses and motor skills (motorics). The quality of a stat determines not only the initial potency of the skills associated with it but also their potential for growth; how many points a stat starts with is also how many more points can be invested into the skills underneath it. Additionally, the number of points in a skill is a direct modifier when taking actions during the game.
Actions take place in the form of skill checks, a roll of the dice compared to a target number for the action. Your dice in Disco Elysium are 2d6, or two six-sided dice. You then add your modifier to the roll to get your final result. If the result is equal or better to the target number of the check, you succeed. Otherwise, you fail. Success and failure each have unique consequences for the story, with the consequences for failure varying in intensity based on the check. White checks can be repeated when the circumstances change, such as leveling up or getting an item that increases your modifier. Red checks can never be attempted again – their consequences irreversible.
Now if this all sounds somewhat mundane to you, that is because I have intentionally been waiting to share the most compelling aspects of your skills: they have personalities. Each skill is a voice in your head, an aspect of yourself that will chime in when appropriate (or not, depending on your stats) in order to share information, give advice or opportunities, and tell you the consequences of success or failure. While these voices are all literally voiced by the same actor, their tone and manner of speaking varies based on the skill being conveyed. Encyclopedia, for example, is an insufferable know-it-all who at high levels may give you random trivia even when it is not asked for. Composure helps you keep it together but also informs you when you are not, in fact, keeping it together.
The ways these skills interact with your character and the world is an intriguing aspect of Disco Elysium’s mechanics, changing the information you have available and the actions that come easily to you based on how you build your character. My version of the detective is smart with good motor skills but physically weak and deeply uncharismatic. He’s good at arguing and lying but struggles to make genuine connections; his empathy rarely speaks but his drama and rhetoric love to tell him how to manipulate a situation to his advantage. The skills I chose change my dialogue options and change the nature of the voices in the protagonist’s head, giving me a specific view of the game’s setting and scenario to work with during my playthrough.
Here are some practical examples of how this works. My highly intellectual character can get advice from his rhetoric or logic when questioning a witness (pictured above), getting advice on the best order to ask questions in order to trap them or get the best quality of information. That same intellect, though, later gave my detective a penalty when reviewing an autopsy. Why? He is so assured of the quality of his logic that he sees no need to double-check it. His intellect is accompanied by the belief that he cannot make mistakes. In another situation, my character’s very low empathy made him completely unable to get a correct read on the relationship between two other characters. This misreading (along with a healthy dose of misogyny) lost him significant credibility with a witness because he offended her and made an ass of himself.
“Hey Ian,” you might say, “your character kind of sounds like an asshole.” He is, and the game makes no secret of it. One of the things that caught me immediately about Disco Elysium is the tone. While the game doesn’t have a formal narrator, the way your dialogue options are written conveys a specific attitude about your character and the way he conducts himself. It is clear, for example, that your character thinking of women as purely “transactional beings” is frowned upon by the writers. The tone of the game is quite satirical, a tongue-in-cheek examination of political and social issues that is not afraid to let you know that your “hero” kinda sucks. He’s a cop in the worst sense of the word, and his over the top relationship with that role is examined critically at every step.
I’ve only played a small portion of the game so far, not enough even to leave the first area you explore or to learn my character’s name. But for me the magic of the experience is immediately visible. The way your character interacts with the many voices which represent your skills and the snarky nihilism of the writing work together to establish the tone of the game as immediately compelling. I’m excited to dive deeper and see more of the mechanics at work, and how the way I built my version of the hero influences the conclusions I can reach.