On My Second Playthrough, I’m Surprised Just How Different Disco Elysium Can Be

Replayability, while not an essential aspect of a good video game, is certainly an appealing one. The games you can return to over and over again and feel like you’re truly having a fresh experience have a value proposition that’s hard to beat. As I’ve gotten older it has become less important to me for a number of reasons – a stronger desire for new experiences as more and more things start to feel familiar as well as a larger selection of games and the financial resources to get new-to-me games more often than I did when I was a kid being chief among them. Many of the games I enjoyed best in the last few years I haven’t gotten around to replaying yet. But recently in out of an abundance of boredom as I save up for two big titles hitting in late June, I’ve been bouncing around between games I’ve played before and seeing which one sticks. As part of that process, one title I decided to revisit was Disco Elysium.

I played Disco Elysium a few months ago in February. I had a great time with the game. I was deeply impressed with the tabletop RPG -esque mechanics in which dice are rolled and added to a modifier in order to overcome skill checks while solving a murder mystery. But it’s more than just the dice – in Disco Elysium, each of your character’s 24 skills is a voice in your head. The voices chime in at different times based on how high or low your skills are and make certain checks easier or harder as a result. And while the main story of Disco Elysium is a nihilistic investigation into a seemingly political murder in the middle of a ticking time bomb of a community, there are so many side stories to explore and neat characters to interact with that this game seemed perfect for a revisit. I wanted to see just how different my experience with the game would be if I decided to take a different approach, emphasizing different skills and choosing different dialogue options during my conversations.

At the time of writing, I’ve made it through one in-game day and some change. During that time I got through most of what I would consider to be the “first phase” of the murder investigation, getting a good look at the victim and getting his body down from the tree where he was hanged. I walked around a decent portion of the town including exploring the apartment complex just north of the murder scene and visiting the pawnshop to the south. I got almost the full extent of the reality lowdown from Joyce Messier, learning about the world in which Disco Elysium takes place, and resolved some of the shorter, simpler side stories available right from the beginning. As far as my build, I’m doing the complete opposite of my original setup. The game features four main stats with six skills each: Physique, Psyche, Intellect, and Motorics. My original build was strongest is Intellect and then Motorics, with weak Physique and weaker Psyche. In this playthrough, my Psyche is my highest stat, with Physique right behind it; meanwhile, Motorics is my second worst stat while my Intellect is a disaster. I’m also being less politically-motivated this run and leaning harder into making chaotic decisions that make me come across as a fucking weirdo, particularly if it involves ranting about the supernatural and the apocalypse.

I might have also, uh, pet the head of a dead man’s body while whispering “there there, baby, it’s okay,” much to the horror of my partner and the two children watching me.

I was impressed with just how early on I started to see differences. Your skills with the highest ratings get involved in conversations the most frequently and they color your perception of the world. In my original playthrough, the time spent getting myself together after waking up in my trashed bedroom was investigative. I was doing visual calculus right away and my encyclopedic knowledge was filling in trivial facts about sounds I heard or objects in the environment. This time, no such information came to me. Instead, my character was much more aware of his body, the ways in which it was weak and failing as a result of what had led to this moment. There were tasks I had previously managed which I couldn’t do this time, like getting my necktie down from the fan on the ceiling. Still, the differences seemed relatively trivial until I got downstairs and really started interacting with people.

Having different skills at high values gave me significantly different information about the world. One noticeable skill that I don’t think I *ever* saw do something in my original playthrough is a skill called “espirit de corps.” This is your character’s knowledge of cops and cop-adjacent things but more specifically his bond with the 41st Precinct, his division back home in Jamrock. It allows you to essentially have visions of what those characters are doing or conversations they are having. During my first playthrough I didn’t know shit about the other cops – had I had visions like this, I wouldn’t have known who they were at all. Now that I’m coming in with some foreknowledge, the information revealed by “espirit de corps” feels significant to me in a way that it might not have during a first run. I also have a greater appreciation this time for “shivers,” a skill that gives you vibes about the city. Now that shivers is a core part of my skills I find it actually being useful more often rather than seeming like unnecessary filler, and the vibe of the skill (deeply emotional rather than strictly factual) fits a lot better with the types of information I’m getting from my other skills as well. I actually get shivers with practical advice, such as a shiver that warned me about a dialogue option that would have led to trouble so I knew to skip it.

A different set of skills doesn’t just mean new information from the voices in my head – it also means I can pass different skill checks than I did the first time and get new information about characters or their motivations, too. I’ve learned as part of this playthrough that I had fundamentally misunderstood some early-game characters and situations as a result of the skills available to me not passing particular checks. An easy example with low-stakes spoilers: the case with the cafeteria manager Garte and his employee who quit, Sylvie. In my first run, my character assumed that Garte scared Sylvie off by asking her out and didn’t question that idea. In this run, I was able to use “empathy” to determine that actually, Sylvie really liked Garte and it was my terrible antics over the past three days which had driven Sylvie away. Her motivation and characterization was totally different than my first read on the situation because my abilities this time allowed for a different set of insights.

Damn it, I was so excited to punch Cuno but now I’m empathetic enough to know his tragic backstory.

Conversely of course there are a lot of things I know I am missing, too. One of the most noticeable, interestingly enough, has been the result of my lacking Motorics. One of the skills in Motorics handles stealing stuff, and without a good ranking in that skill there have been multiple times where the idea to steal something that I *know* from my previous run can in fact be stolen just hasn’t popped up at all. And while my character can be empathetic and read people effectively, he is quite bad at lying convincingly and his rhetoric will lead him astray when verbally sparring with important witnesses. Knowing what I am missing because of having a different skillset is almost just as interesting as seeing what new information I get, particularly with the benefit of foreknowledge from my first playthrough.

Part of what makes this type of replayability possible with Disco Elysium is that there are multiple solutions to every problem, or at the very least tools you can use to address problems beyond your current level of skill. Checks in Disco Elysium are divided into red and white categories; red checks cannot be repeated while white checks can be done again after investing a point in the appropriate skill or exploring the correct conversation options. Red checks can give you meaningful advantages but there’s never a red check that, when failed, locks you permanently out of the game – instead, it forces you to rely on a different solution to the problem, perhaps using a different set of skills or giving a different solution in the game’s fiction. Take, for example, getting the victim’s body down from the tree where they are hanging – if you fail the check to make that happen, you can get help from the dockworker’s union to eventually accomplish the same task. You can impress Joyce Messier by either discovering secrets about the drug trade or just managing to find your police badge. The tools I have this run make some problems easier for me to solve, while lacking the tools I had during my first playthrough means that some scenarios I will ultimately have to figure out a different way to overcome.

So far I’m deeply impressed with how different Disco Elysium has been for my second playthrough. From finding new sidequests I didn’t see the first time to discovering brand new information, a lot of what I’ve experienced so far has felt like new content even as the game’s main story still has the same essential building blocks. I’m excited to continue exploring locations with a “fresh” set of eyes, finding new solutions to problems I resolved in a different way during my first run, and experiencing events in a different order to see how that impacts the way the story unfolds. It makes me happy to see that Disco Elysium had so much still for me to experience so that I can jump into it again and have just as enjoyable a time as I did the first run. I hope that energy continues throughout my second visit with the game.

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