I recently picked up Disco Elysium, an introspective detective game that launched on PC a couple of weeks ago. Like many people who have sat down with the game, I’ve found it very engrossing. It’s so engrossing that I’m not barreling through the dialogue as fast as I can read it, which I usually do. A lot of that has to do with the voice acting.
I’ll admit that I haven’t given voice acting as much respect as it deserves over my several years of gaming. I can read pretty fast, so I often speed through text, reducing spoken lines to a collection of interrupted syllables. After spending some time with Disco Elysium, however, I find myself slowing down to fully experience the voice acting rather than treating it as disposable window dressing en route to the next encounter.
Disco Elysium opens in blackness, with the main character stumbling through the interminable haze of a hangover. It’s here that players are introduced to several aspects of the broken protagonist’s inner thoughts, which forms the basis of the game’s main narrative hook. The character’s thoughts are comprised of several different voices. The first of these is the Ancient Reptilian Brain, a very real evolutionary holdover of human anatomy that handles lower functions like breathing and balance as well as instinctual behaviours.
In Disco Elysium, the Ancient Reptilian Brain has a voice that drips with malice and a gravelly heft that conjures images of primordial creatures with just one goal in mind: survival. It welcomes you into the nothingness, discouraging any higher thoughts that might interfere with the void’s embrace. The conversation soon expands to include the Limbic System, another aspect of human brain structure that, in real life, supports functions like emotion and memory. Here, it’s a sneering reminder of the protagonist’s pain, both physical and otherwise. As the player gets closer and closer to escaping the main character’s stupor, the Limbic System warns of what awaits in wakefulness with a cowering hiss that feels contagious. Eventually, the detective wakes up, and Disco Elysium begins in earnest.
Mikee W. Goodman, the Disco Elysium voiceover director who performs as both the Ancient Reptilian Brain and the Limbic System, infuses both characters with unique personalities despite the fact that they originate from the same place. These internal compulsions feel simultaneously like foes and allies, two sides of the same coin that recognise their symbiosis despite different agendas. Because this opening scene plays out in complete blackness, Goodman had the added responsibility of portraying them without the support of a visual component, an incredible feat that, I feel, he nailed. This gives the game an opening that is both unsettling in the way it anthropomorphizes basic, subconscious thought and compelling as a foundational narrative set piece.
Not all the voices are in your head, however. Disco Elysium introduces a smorgasbord of characters in its first few hours, such as your partner Kim Kitsuragi. At times, it sounds like he’s trying to tone down his slight accent as he speaks, a character trait that becomes more obvious as you learn his backstory. Kitsuragi explains that his family comes from Seol, a region in the fictional world of Disco Elysium, and when nudged for more info, he claims that he’s never been to Seol himself and doesn’t even speak Seolite. “I’m a regular Revacholiere,” he says, seemingly proud of his allegiance to the fictional Revachol city-state. Somewhere along the way, he was taught to tamp down his heritage, and it comes through in the voice acting before players even learn the details of his life.
Many of the characters I’ve encountered so far quickly grow tired of the protagonist, who I’ve played as a confused, adorable mess. Well, I think he’s adorable, but his schtick generally wears out its welcome. Many of Revachol’s citizens recognise his put-on demeanour as a way of deflecting deserved criticism for the drunken behaviour he exhibited the night before. Since the main character doesn’t have a voice of his own other than the various facets of his inner monologue, the folks who play the annoyed, frustrated masses he encounters help portray as much about his character as they do their own.
Kitsuragi has been a constant presence in Disco Elysium so far, and my detective’s incessant pestering about both his backstory and the basic realities of the world has slowly turned him from a matter-of-fact partner to a curt, unimpressed investigator without the slightest interest in entertaining my bullshit. Garte, the manager of the hostel the main character recently trashed, is a stuffy bore who still has reason to be upset. My opinion on him vacillated between contentious and empathetic thanks to the voice work, his nasally sarcasm somehow both irksome and humbling.
I adore the voice acting in Disco Elysium, but not everyone does. I’ve been told by my colleagues that the voice acting is “awful” and that some folks have even turned it off entirely to keep it from spoiling the experience. Some of the acting, such as the voice work done by the hosts of political podcast Chapo Trap House, is rough and unrefined, and the variety of accents can be a little jarring despite the setting’s status as a bustling and diverse capital city.
Of course, something doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable. I’m capable of putting up with a layer of grime because I can see the slight sheen of something beautiful underneath. The voice work in this game, even when it’s not at its best, serves to make the world of Elysium a vibrant, living thing. When I play Disco Elysium, I don’t feel like I’m hearing voice actors in a soundproof booth taking direction from harried producers. I feel like I’ve been given the ability to listen in on inhabitants of an alternate reality, with all the imperfections that are inherent to actual human beings. I’ve only spent a few hours with the game so far, but I’m looking forward to eavesdropping on more of these inter-dimensional conversations.