In real life, if you think over an argument you had with someone, you’ll probably come up with more ideas on what to say to them when you see them again. Video games don’t usually work this way; you get what you get when it comes to dialogue options. But in Disco Elysium, you can devote your character’s brain space to thinking about certain topics, thereby opening up more dialogue options when a certain topic arises again. On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, Kirk told me how “wild” that is. (That’s his word. He used it a lot.)
First, we talk about the games we’ve been playing, which in my case is Destiny 2 and Borderlands 3. Kirk beat Sayonara Wild Hearts before plunging into Disco Elysium. We then break for discussion of the news (32:23), touching on Kotaku’s coverage of Pokémon Go and privacy, Blizzard’s approach to China and Hong Kong, and the Fortnite black hole. We close with off-topic talk (56:53) about books we’re reading, plus Kirk’s music pick of the week.
Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt below.
Kirk: This game is wild. The wildest RPG I’ve played since I can remember, in terms of how it works. Let me try to explain.
Maddy: Is it bad wild or good wild?
Kirk: Very good wild. Very ambitious and creative and just... wild. I’m very early in this game; I played a couple of hours, these are initial impressions. It could be that it turns out it’s terrible at some point or another.
Maddy: It’s all gonna change. It’s gonna get even more wild after the first two hours.
Kirk: I think that maybe it is! This game is made by a studio called ZA/UM. The lead writer and lead designer is a guy named Robert Kurvitz, who I’ve seen some interviews with and read a little bit. He’s been working on this game for 15 years.
Kirk: That’s what they say, 15 years. And that should give you some sense of where we’re going here. This game is legit wild. The closest comparison I can make is Planescape Torment. That’s where this game draws its DNA from. It’s very, very text-heavy. It’s a role-playing game in the truest sense of the word.
It’s all about playing a role, as a person. It takes that using the power of text, because it can go inside, do an inner monologue, and have all of these very complicated stat-check interactions. It’s just not like any other RPG you’ve played that looks like this.
Premise first. It’s kind of like a steampunk detective game. You’re playing a specific character. He’s this guy who wakes up, completely hungover, with no memory of where he is, in this hotel room —
Maddy: Classic noir setup.
Kirk: Classic noir setup! There’s been a murder. He’s a deadbeat cop. At that point, you basically just decide who he is. You can pick any of a ton of different personality traits and play him a bunch of different ways. You walk around in a kind of isometric point of view. It’s very painterly looking. It’s actually gorgeous; the art looks really cool.
I don’t know much about the world, because like I said, I’ve only played a little bit. But it’s very local. I get the feeling the whole game maybe takes place in this one district of this city, and you’re trying to solve crimes and talk to people. There’s probably a whole big story as you’re investigating things.
It’s very, very text-heavy. It’s kind of like interactive fiction meets an isometric game. It all takes place during text, though there is voice acting, which so far I’d say is pretty mixed. Some of the acting is good, some isn’t. It has all the hallmarks of a game that was made by a small studio over a long period of time. Characters will talk a bit at first, then transition to just text.
Now let me see if I can explain the wildness of this game. Your character’s mind is its own whole collection of systems in the game, and each system is governed by statistics and roles, and you interact with it in different ways. So, as a basic example, you’re really hungover and kinda messed up... Your partner comes to get you, you have a bunch of conversations with him.
You go out to his car, and you get on the radio to HQ. You have to call in and tell them that you lost your badge, which is apparently a very, very big deal. This is not going to be good. A lot of this is, you’re learning this world as you go, and what things mean, because you don’t know — it’s a different world. There are different rules. Apparently, losing your badge is really bad. It’s worse than you would think. It’s not just, “Oh, I lost this thing, I need to get another one.”
Maddy: It’s like losing your gun?
Kirk: Well, you lost your gun, too. That actually comes up in conversation.
Maddy: [laughs] That’s bad.
Kirk: It’s a thing that will cause disgrace on your precinct for a generation, or something. So you call in, and the writing is all very funny and very good. It has this distinct vibe, off-kilter and odd, but good. You call in, you start talking to people, and in the middle of the conversation, you make a memory check, and you pass it. This all happens passively; it’ll just be, you’ll remember what the guy’s name is, and then you can greet him by name. There are all these different checks that you’ll make. You’ll make an interfacing check to see if you can remember how to use the button to call in, or if you can’t remember.
When you’re on the radio, you’ll do a composure check, and it’ll say: “Composure check: Trivial. Passed.” And it’ll give you some kind of narration, like, “You now are able to keep your composure as you talk to these people.” They begin making fun of you. You have an encyclopaedia skill that’ll pop up and tell you as your brain remembers something. I’m playing a high-intellect character, so I’m able to remember things.
Increasingly the whole game is governed by these myriad, just unbelievable amount of stat checks that are happening under the hood, in your character’s mind. It’s all about role-playing every aspect of this person and their personality, as their own mind is almost like a foil that you’re working against and changing the flow of the conversation based on how you’re doing.
Maddy: So do you change those stats according to which dialogue options you select? Or are you changing them manually? Or it’s a dice roll? How do you know you’re a high-intellect character, for example?
Kirk: I picked that at the beginning. You can be a brawler, a more direct character, or a high-intellect character. I should say, there is no normal combat in this game. This isn’t a combat RPG. There are fights, but they all play out via the same stat checks, and just through text. It isn’t like you’re taking a critical shot and landing a hit. You do occasionally get in fights, but it’s much more like a detective RPG. You’re trying to solve mysteries and not going out and fighting random enemies.
It’s all happening under the hood. I’ve picked a character who’s smart, so he knows things and remembers things, and I don’t think is very strong or charismatic, maybe? But you can be a smooth operator. I have a feeling that this game totally branches and everybody changes, like everything changes in relation to you, so I think that who you play as and what you do, from what I’ve gathered from the reviews that I’ve skimmed, makes a huge difference.
Andy Kelly, who wrote it up for PC Gamer, said that you don’t want to exhaust every dialogue option, for example, because sometimes you’ll just say some shit you shouldn’t have said and make someone mad at you. Then they’ll remember, and then later, they won’t want to help you with something.
Maddy: That rules, though, because so many games don’t do anything even close to that, and you’re supposed to exhaust every dialogue option. If you don’t, you’re missing out on video game.
Kirk: Exactly. I think there are a lot of RPG tropes that this game completely throws out and replaces with this completely wild system of all of these interlocking inner systems... There’s also a whole system of thoughts, and it’s what your character is currently thinking about, and you can dedicate head space to a certain subject.
If you think about an argument that someone will make to you, you can chew over it for the next little while, and you’ll make progress on that thought and you’ll have new options when you go back to talk to them. It’s so wild. I keep using that word, I guess. But it really feels transgressive, almost experimental, in a way that I haven’t felt playing a game like this in a really long time. It’s a trip.