The best visual novels seamlessly blend with other gaming genres, weaving gameplay through the fabric of the narrative. Disco Elysium is a visual novel, and also an RPG, a “choices matter” title, a point and click adventure, a film noir thriller, an RNG-based dreamscape and a metaphor for mental illness.
Disco Elysium takes so many pieces of gaming, of music, film and literature and stuffs itself thickly. It is above all memorable. A memory you will carry with you long after the whimsical conclusion. A memory of an amnesiac detective and his lucid, empathetic, yet mechanical partner, investigating a murder in a town which both is and is not situated on the French coast.
The world is what allows Disco Elysium to embed itself deep within you. A sense of unease, a creeping deja-vu, these perceptions are written through the streets of Revachol. Everything tumbles down the uncanny valley. Some allusions to our mortal realm are transparent such as your partner’s ‘Seol’ heritage, but as you peer through they become cloudier than clearer. When you learn his name is Kim Kitsuragi, a mix of common Korean and Japanese surnames, you are no longer sure which culture he is supposed to represent. That is intentional.
It is not just cultures that are distorted through the lens of Disco Elysium. Races, foreign languages, political affiliations, accents, common parlance, history and myth all spark the synapses in your mind related to familiarity, while also triggering your fight or flight response. Something is not quite right. It is clever. Using this technique links you so tangibly with the protagonist, an amnesiac whose past you personally write through your actions. You simultaneously know, and cannot quite grasp what exactly is going on.
This technique is mostly successful, but requires pruning to prevent cognitive overload. What Disco Elysium is, is a dense, historic novel. When the player chooses to participate in the numerous side quests wading deep into the world’s lore, the intense number of new theories, concepts, and even basic vocabulary can begin to overwhelm.
Just as you do not follow every aspect of the world we now inhabit, those same topics will be unlikely to pique your interest in Revachol. Yet, you are often six options deep into a conversation with an NPC concerning communism, revolution or racial purity staring down the twenty other branches on the dialogue tree, before you realise the business is not really your thing. Completionists will then still feel the counter-intuitive compulsion to continue creeping through the leaves.
The world is driven by the powerful voice acting. Every single character is fully voiced using a dizzying array of accents and dialects. It is impossible to understate the work this involves. Not only is there literally hours of speech, breathing life into the story, but their tongues twist masterfully through the tricky syntax and non-native narrative.
The eclectic use of voice complements the genre-bending yet cohesive soundtrack. Aspects of jazz, low-fi, post-rock, and electronica, the collection of ambient sound syncs you with the landscape. Imitating paintings rather than graphics, the art in Disco Elysium blurs the line between game art and fine art. It all just fits. As the writing aims for high-culture, so do all other aspects of the experience.
Games as a medium are consistently playing with how the unique features of the platform can enhance the art form. As the only artistic medium which integrates and encourages interactivity, any game which aims for high-art has this as a possible strength and additional weakness through its complexity. Disco Elysium lays a complex web of gameplay features that personalises the individual experience. Your protagonist can be a drug-addled bruiser, or an intelligent empath. Paths through the game are opened up dependent on how you choose to play it.
Where Disco Elysium succeeds is in making these narrative paths equally viable and obtainable. Unravelling the murder at the heart of the story, punching your way through every in-game obstacle will in no way disadvantage you to a silver-tongued, or Holmesian player. Many in-game tasks can be attempted several times, or in different ways. XP is distributed in a balanced rate, making the gambit never too easy or difficult. While paths are open you may still feel disappointed by the extent which your choices matter. The story is meticulously crafted, meaning no matter your input the outcome is similar. The illusion of effect is purely tantalising.
The ability to complete actions is based on statistics. Depending on which mental trait you have chosen to expand will increase your chances of success. Put simply, if your detective is a beefcake he will have a higher chance of success in combat than a delicate genius. Still, no option is off-limits. As task completion is decided by the roll of the dice, you can even pull off a low 3% gambit, or fail a certain 97% one. Doing so shocks your system with hit of dopamine, the body’s own happy drug. It feels good.
Until you begin saving and reloading before difficult decisions.
This is both possible and unfortunately oftentimes prudent. Discovering this cheater’s paradise of re-rolling luck feels dirty as it abuses the experience the developers have carefully laid out for you. However, there are choke points in the game. Tasks which need to be completed in order to continue with the story. While they are generally high probability, around 80% or higher, this still means there is a chance to fail them. If you then run out of skill points you would have to complete more side quests beyond what interests you.
Unfortunately, what made the save and re-load trick necessary for me was the performance issues on the Switch. In my 30 hour playtime Disco Elysium crashed more than 20 times. Relying on auto-save could send you back hours. It lags, stutters, and the graphics glitch. The isometric view paired with the painterly style can make pathfinding difficult and moving on the map can change the direction you are supposed to hold. The controls do not function well for this movement and the characters must clunk awkwardly into position when interacting with objects. Disco Elysium also loads between every scene and these load times are often north of two minutes each. All of this functions to make losing your progress excruciating.
While you may want to wait for promised patches before diving into the world of Disco Elysium, when you do it will envelope you. It is dense. Dense in world-building, dense in dialogue, in character depth, in pathways, simply in experience. Take it slowly. Allow yourself to be absorbed. Allow yourself to be invested in the people and their plight. If you do you will find a story amplified ten-fold by the interactive medium. A story that could not exist outside of us. A story where the protagonist is the ultimate blank slate, ready for you to write. Write yourself in.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is available today (October 12) on the Nintendo Switch.
Technical issues currently hamper a truly individual gaming experience. The well-written and deeply detailed world, characters and story will absorb you into this film noir, while the dopamine hit of RNG will keep you anchored in a reality you both do and do not find yourself in.
- Intricate story
- Psychologically smart
- Engaging mechanics
- Bugs and crashes
- Choices don’t always matter