Disco Elysium

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Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium Poster.jpeg
Developer(s)ZA/UM
Publisher(s)ZA/UM
Designer(s)Robert Kurvitz
Artist(s)Aleksander Rostov
Writer(s)Robert Kurvitz
Composer(s)British Sea Power
EngineUnity[1]
Platform(s)
Release
15 October 2019
  • Microsoft Windows
  • 15 October 2019
  • macOS
  • 27 April 2020
  • PS4, PS5, Stadia
  • 30 March 2021
  • Switch, XONE, XSX/S
  • 12 October 2021
Genre(s)Role-playing
Mode(s)Single-player

Disco Elysium is a role-playing video game developed and published by ZA/UM. The game takes place in a large city still recovering from a war decades prior to the game's start, with players taking the role of an amnesiac detective who has been tasked with solving a murder mystery. During the investigation, he comes to recall events about his own past as well as current forces trying to affect the city. Inspired by Infinity Engine–era role-playing games, particularly Planescape: Torment, Disco Elysium was written and designed by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz. It features a distinctive oil painting art style, and music by the band Sea Power. It was released for Microsoft Windows in October 2019 and macOS in April 2020. An expanded version of the game, subtitled The Final Cut, featuring full voice acting and new content, was released for consoles in 2021 alongside a free update for the PC versions.

Disco Elysium is a non-traditional role-playing game featuring no combat. Instead, events are resolved through skill checks and dialog trees via a system of 24 skills that represent different aspects of the protagonist, such as his perception and pain threshold. In addition, a system called the Thought Cabinet represents his other ideologies and personality traits, with players having the ability to freely support or suppress them. The game is based on a tabletop role-playing game setting that Kurvitz had previously created, with him forming ZA/UM in 2016 to work on the game. Disco Elysium was critically acclaimed, being named as a game of the year by several publications, along with numerous other awards for its narrative and art. A television series adaptation was announced in 2020.

Gameplay[edit]

Gameplay screenshot showing conversations in white and choices in orange, atop the current scene the character is in

Disco Elysium is a role-playing video game that features an open world and dialogue-heavy gameplay mechanics.[2][3] The game is presented in an isometric perspective in which the player character is controlled.[4] The player takes the role of a detective, who suffers from alcohol and drug-induced amnesia, on a murder case.[5] The player can move the detective about the current screen to interact with non-player characters (NPC) and highlighted objects or move onto other screens. Early in the game they gain a partner, Kim Kitsuragi, another detective who acts as the protagonist's voice of professionalism and who may be able to offer advice or support in certain dialog options. Other NPCs may be influenced to become temporary companions that join the group and provide similar support.

The gameplay features no combat in the traditional sense; instead, it is handled through skill checks and dialogue trees.[6] There are four primary abilities in the game: Intellect, Psyche, Physique, and Motorics, and each ability has six distinct secondary skills for a total of 24.[7] The player improves these skills through skill points earned from leveling up. The choice of clothing that the player equips on the player-character can impart both positive and negative effects on certain skills.[6] Upgrading these skills help the player character pass skill checks, based on a random dice roll, but potentially result in negative effects and character quirks, discouraging minmaxing. For instance, a player character with high Drama may be able to detect and fabricate lies effectively, but may also become prone to hysterics and paranoia. Likewise, high Electrochemistry shields the player character from the negative effects of drugs and provides knowledge on them, but may also lead to substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors.[7]

Disco Elysium features a secondary inventory system known as the "Thought Cabinet". Thoughts are unlockable through conversations with other characters, as well as through internal dialogues within the mind of the player character himself. The player is then able to "internalize" a thought through a certain amount of in-game hours, which, once completed, grants the player character permanent benefits but also occasionally negative effects, a concept that ZA/UM compared to the trait system used in the Fallout series.[8] A limited number of slots are available in the Thought Cabinet at the start, though more can be gained with experience levels. For example, an early possible option for the Thought Cabinet is the "Hobocop" thought, in which the character ponders the option of living on the streets to save money, which reduces the character's composure with other NPCs while the thought is internalized. When the character has completed the Hobocop thought, it allows them to find more junk on the streets that can be sold for money.[9][10]

The 24 skills also play into the dialogue trees, creating a situation where the player-character may have an internal debate with one aspect of their mind or body, creating the idea that the player is communicating with a fragmented persona. These internal conversations may provide suggestions or additional insight that can guide the player into actions or dialogue with the game's non-playable characters, depending on the skill points invested into the skill. For example, the Inland Empire, a subskill of the Psyche, is described by ZA/UM as a representation of the intensity of the soul, and may come into situations where the player-character may need to pass themselves off under a fake identity with the conviction behind that stance, should the player accept this suggestion when debating with Inland Empire.[11]

Synopsis[edit]

Setting[edit]

Disco Elysium takes place in the fantastic realist world of Elysium, developed by Kurvitz and his team in the years prior, which includes a fleshed-out six-thousand-year history of conflicts, with the game taking place during the setting's most modern period, known as "The Fifties".[8] Elysium is made of "isolas", masses of land and sea that are separated from each other by the Pale, an inscrutable, mist-like "connective tissue" in which the laws of reality gradually break down. Prolonged exposure to the Pale can cause mental instability, and traversing the Pale, which is typically done with aerostatics, is considered highly dangerous.[12]

The setting's political and cultural history is also markedly different. Nations and people within Disco Elysium generally follow four main ideologies: communism, fascism, moralism, and ultraliberalism. Communism, also called Mazovianism, was founded by an economist and historical materialist named Kras Mazov, and rather than being associated with the color red and the hammer and sickle, the ideology is instead represented by the color white and a pentagram flanked by a pair of deer antlers. Moralism, despite being a centrist ideology, carries religious overtones due to its association with Elysium's largest religion, Dolorianism. One of Dolorianism's dominant features is its "Innocences", saint-like figures who are said to be "embodiments of history" and wield great religious and political power during their lives, akin to the position of pope. The greatest and most influential among the historical Innocences was Dolores Dei, a woman of mysterious origins, who allegedly had glowing lungs and founded many of the world's modern institutions. Due to Dolores Dei's influence, the symbol of love in Disco Elysium's world is a set of lungs rather than a heart.

Events in the game take place in the poverty-plagued district of Martinaise within the city of Revachol on the isola of Insulinde.[2][12] Forty-nine years before the events of the game, a wave of communist revolutions swept multiple countries; the sclerotic monarchy of Revachol, which up to that point had been a powerful kingdom with colonies across Elysium, was overthrown and replaced by a commune. Six years later, the Revachol commune was toppled by an invading alliance of moralist-capitalist nations called "the Coalition". Revachol has since been designated a Special Administrative Region under the Coalition, which holds a strong grip over the city's local economy and keeps its autonomy at a minimum. One of the few governmental functions that Revachol is allowed to have is upholding day to day law and order, which is the task of the Revachol Citizens Militia (RCM). While starting as a voluntary citizens brigade, the RCM has since grown and evolved into a semi-professional police force.

Plot[edit]

The player character wakes up in a trashed hostel room in Martinaise with a severe hangover and no memory of his own identity. He meets Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, who informs him that they have been assigned to investigate the death of a hanged man in the cafeteria's backyard. His identity is unclear and initial investigation indicates that he was lynched by a group of people. The detectives explore the rest of the district, following up on leads while helping residents with a variety of tasks.

The player character gradually learns that he is a decorated RCM detective, Lieutenant Double-Yefreitor (meaning he twice declined promotion from his current rank) Harrier "Harry" Du Bois. Harry experienced an event several years ago that began a mid-life crisis, and on the night he was assigned to the hanged man case he finally snapped and embarked on a self-destructive bender around Martinaise. Through Harry and Kim's work, they discover the killing is connected to an ongoing strike by the Martinaise's dockworkers union against the Wild Pines corporation. They seek out representatives of the dockworkers and the Wild Pines corporation, meeting up with union boss Evrart Claire and Wild Pines negotiator Joyce Messier. Joyce reveals that the hanged man, named Lely, was the commander of a squad of mercenaries sent by Wild Pines to break the strike and warns that the rest of the squad has gone rogue and will likely seek retribution.

This leads them to discover that Lely was killed before the hanging. The Hardie Boys, a group of dockworkers who act as vigilantes, claim responsibility for the murder. They assert that Lely attempted to rape a cafeteria guest named Klaasje. They meet with Klaasje, who reveals that Lely was shot in the mouth while the two were having consensual sex. Unable to figure out the origin of the bullet and fearful of the authorities due to her past as a corporate spy, Klaasje enlisted the help of a truck driver and union sympathizer named Ruby, who staged Lely's death with the rest of the Hardie Boys. The detectives find Ruby hiding in an abandoned building, where she incapacitates them with a Pale device. She claims that the cover-up was Klaasje's idea and has no idea who shot Lely. The player manages to resist or disable the Pale device and tries to arrest her. Ruby, who believes Harry to be a corrupt cop, either escapes or kills herself.

The detectives return to find themselves in a standoff between the mercenaries and the Hardie Boys, the former seeking revenge over Lely's death. A firefight breaks out and the player is wounded, blacking out and waking up a few days later. Most or all the mercenaries are killed and Kim may be hospitalized, in which case street urchin Cuno offers to take his place. The detectives begin chasing down their last leads, determining that the shot that killed Lely came from an old sea fort off the shore of Martinaise.

The detectives explore the fort and find the shooter, a former Commissar from the Revachol communist army named Iosef Lilianovich Dros. Iosef reveals that he shot Lely in a fit of anger and jealousy; his motivations are born out of his bitterness towards the capitalist system Lely represented, as well as sexual envy for Klaasje. The detectives arrest him for the murder. At this point, an insectoid cryptid known as the Insulindian Phasmid appears from the reeds. The player may have a psychic conversation with the Phasmid, who tells Harry that it finds the notion of his unstable mind to be fearful, but is in awe at his ability to continue existing. It comforts Harry, telling him to move on from the wreck of his life.

Harry and his partner are confronted by his old squad upon their return to Martinaise. They reflect on Harry's actions during the game, whether he has solved the case and how he handled the mercenaries. Harry's usual partner Lieutenant Jean Vicquemare confirms that Harry's emotional breakdown was the result of his ex-fiancé leaving him years ago. Depending on player choices, the squad expresses hope that Harry's state will improve in the future, and invites him and either Kim or Cuno to a special RCM unit.

Development[edit]

Disco Elysium was developed by ZA/UM, a company founded in 2016 by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz, who served as the game's lead writer and designer.[13][14] Kurvitz since 2001 had been part of a band called Ultramelanhool, and in 2005, while in Tallinn, Estonia, with the group struggling for finances, conceived of a fictional world during a drunken evening while listening to Tiësto's "Adagio for Strings".[15] Feeling they had a solid idea, the group created a collective of artists and musicians, which included oil painter Aleksander Rostov, to expand upon the work of that night and developed a tabletop RPG based on Dungeons & Dragons on this steampunk-like concept.[15] During this period, Kurvitz met Estonian author Kaur Kender who helped him to write a novel set in this world, Sacred and Terrible Air,[14] which was published in 2013 but only sold about one thousand copies. Kurvitz fell into a period of depression and alcoholism for about three years following the book's failing.[15]

Kurvitz eventually managed to overcome this period of alcoholism and helped Kender to also overcome his own alcoholism. As a sign of gratitude, Kender suggested to Kurvitz that instead of pursuing a novel, that he try capturing his world as a video game instead as to draw a larger interest. Kurvitz had no experience in video games before, but once he had seen artwork of the game's setting of Revachol as easily fitting into an isometric format, as well as Rostov's agreement that they might as well continue taking the risk of failing on a video game together, Kurvitz proceeded with the idea.[15] Kurvitz wrote a concise description of what the game would be: "D&D meets '70s cop-show, in an original 'fantastic realist' setting, with swords, guns and motor-cars. Realised as an isometric CRPG – a modern advancement on the legendary Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate. Massive, reactive story. Exploring a vast, poverty-stricken ghetto. Deep, strategic combat."[15] Kender was impressed by the strong statement, investing into the game's development, with additional investment coming from friends and family.[15] The game was announced as an upcoming 2017 game under the title No Truce With the Furies,[15] taken from the poem "Reflections" by R.S. Thomas and published in Thomas' No Truce with the Furies in 1995.[16]

Kurvitz established the ZA/UM team to create the game, using the name "za um", a reference to the Zaum constructed language created by Russian avant-garde poets in the early 1900s. Its name can be read in Russian as either "for the mind" or "from the mind", while the use of all-capitals and the slash to present the team as "something that definitely exists and weighs eight tonnes".[15] Work on the game started around 2016, with the local team living in a squat in a former gallery in Tallinn. They were able to secure venture capital into the game during that first year which allowed Kurvitz to seek out the band British Sea Power for their music for the game's soundtrack. While in Birmingham to speak to the band, Kurvitz realised England was a better location for the main development team as there were more local resources for both development and for voice-overs.[15] During development, some of the staff relocated from Estonia to London and Brighton, with other designers working out of Poland, Romania, and China.[17][18] Overall, by the time of the game's release, ZA/UM had about 20 outside consultants and 35 in-house developers,[15] with a team of eight writers assisting Kurvitz in the game's dialog.[17][19] The majority of the game's funding was provided by Estonian businessman Margus Linnamäe.[18][20]

As originally planned, the game was to focus on action in a single city location to make the 2017 release. However, as ZA/UM had indicated to investors that this was to be a game that spanned a larger world, they found the need to spread beyond that single location, forcing them to delay the game's release, along with the name change to Disco Elysium.[15] This title plays on a few double meanings related to the word "disco"; in one sense, it refers to ideas that briefly gain the spotlight before burning out similar to the fad of disco music, and reflected in the protagonist's clothing style, while in a more literal sense, "disco" is Latin for "I learn", thus reflecting on the protagonist's overcoming his amnesia to learn about the world of Elysium.[16] Kurvitz had always anticipated the No Truce title to be more of a working title and wanted to reserve it for when they had bundled Disco Elysium with a second planned game.[16] Though ZA/UM had initially planned to publish the game through Humble Bundle, they ultimately chose to self-publish it.[21]

Design, voices, and influences[edit]

The game's art, drawn mostly in a painterly style, was led by Aleksander Rostov, while the game's soundtrack was written by the English indie rock band British Sea Power.[22][23] The voice-acting cast includes progressive metal musicians Mikee Goodman of SikTh and Mark Holcomb of Periphery.[24][15] The original release also had voice-acting by Dasha Nekrasova of the cultural commentary podcast Red Scare[25] and four of the hosts from the political satire podcast Chapo Trap House,[22][26] but these would later be replaced in The Final Cut.[27]

ZA/UM cited several works that influenced the writing and style of Disco Elysium. One major influence is the 1999 video game Planescape: Torment, which, like Disco Elysium, features an amnesiac player character, heavily emphasises dialogue, and is rendered isometrically.[28] The television show The Wire was also used as an influence for the game's working class setting, while Émile Zola's writings shared stories on the misery of human life that narrative writer Helen Hindpere said they felt resonated within the game.[28] Other works that influenced Disco Elysium included: the video game Kentucky Route Zero; television shows True Detective and The Shield; the literary works of Dashiell Hammett, China Miéville, and the Strugatsky brothers; and artists Rembrandt, Ilya Repin, Jenny Saville, Alex Kanevsky, and Wassily Kandinsky.[29] The creators have also said that their work owes a lot to the Estonian urbanist poet Arvi Siig: "Without his modernism, Elysium - the world the game is placed in - would not be half of what it is," Kurvitz said while accepting the Estonian President's Young Cultural Figure annual award for 2020, adding that Siig's vision of an international, radical and humanist Estonian culture lives on in "Disco Elysium".[30]

Kurvitz said that an aim was to have a full, complex depth of choices and outcomes, limited by the practicalities of game development. Knowing they could not realistically cover all possible choices, Kurvitz and his team instead focused more on what he called "microreactivity", small acts and decisions the player may make such as an embarrassing comment, and how that may propagate throughout events. The dialog of the player's various skills helped then to provide critique and internalization of how these small decisions had larger effects on the game world, so that the player would become more aware of such choices in the future.[31] An additional factor in writing was the recognition that there was no real solution to the game; while the player may resolve some portions of the story, the primary case is nearly unworkable, similar to the rest of Revachol. They created the companion Kim as a no-nonsense character to help keep the player on track of resolving some part of the game and recognizing that there were some story threads they simply could not fix or resolve.[31]

The Final Cut[edit]

An expanded and reworked edition of the game, subtitled The Final Cut, was announced in December 2020.[32][33] According to lead writer Helen Hindpere, The Final Cut was directed based on input from players of the original game. It included complete voicework for the nearly 300 characters including the game's narration and the player-character skills, encompassing over 1.2 million words according to Hindpere. Because of the importance of the characters to the game, ZA/UM kept voice directing in-house rather than outsourcing the task as typically done with RPG games of this nature.[34][35] It took about fourteen months to complete the global casting and recording processing for the additional voice overs. While they brought back some of the prior voice actors who had read introductory dialog lines in conversation trees for their respective characters, ZA/UM sought out new voice actors they felt were a better fit for many roles, especially for minor characters. They came upon jazz musician Lenval Brown for the voice of the narrator and of the player skills, representing nearly half of the game's dialog, and considered him essential to The Final Cut.[36] Brown spent about eight months with the vocal directors in recording his lines, keeping his voice otherwise constant, slow and meticulous for all of the different characters skills since these were explaining things to the player, but including small nuances to try to distinguish the various facets of each skill's personality.[37] The voice-acting by Nekrasova and the Chapo Trap House hosts was completely replaced.[27] The Final Cut allows players the option to use a selection of voice acting for the game, such as only having the narrator's voiceover while the other characters presented as text.[35]

There are four quests that were cut from the original game but reworked to explore some of the political implications of the game's story, now called Political Vision Quests. These quests were designed to encourage the player to consider how they have developed their player-character and where their decisions have taken the character, and how committed they are to seeing that out, according to Hindpere.[34][35] Additionally, the expansion includes new art and animations,[38][34] including two additional songs from British Sea Power.[35]

Release[edit]

Disco Elysium was released for Microsoft Windows on 15 October 2019.[39] The macOS version was released on 27 April 2020.[40] One of the first languages that ZA/UM had translated the game for was Chinese, which was released in March 2020. Its release had bypassed the typical approval process needed to release games in China as the virtue of its content, which included themes of communism, did not meet the Chinese governmental typical restrictions on content. After its release, reviews left by Chinese players had stated that they were drawn to the game as it reflected similar periods of communism that they had gone through.[41] In May 2020, ZA/UM released an update that improved some of the game's performance on lower-end hardware, as well as adding support for additional language translations, which are being developed by the community and by the localization firm Testronic Labs.[42]

After its original release, Kurvitz announced plans for an expansion for the game as well a full sequel. In addition, a tabletop RPG based on the systems the game used, tentatively titled You Are Vapor, was also announced, with Kurvitz also announcing plans to translate his novel Sacred and Terrible Air in English, which narratively takes place 20 years after the events of Disco Elysium.[43] ZA/UM launched a limited edition clothing line, Atelier, in March 2021, featuring pieces based on the game.[44]

The Final Cut[edit]

The Final Cut was released on 30 March 2021 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Stadia, and as a free update for existing copies of the game on PC.[45][46] The Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S versions were released digitally on 12 October 2021. Physical copies of the game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are set to arrive on 9 December 2021 with physical copies for Nintendo Switch set to arrive in early 2022.[47][48] While the original game was not submitted for rating for the Australian Classification Board as it was only released digitally for personal computers, the planned console release of The Final Cut required a Board review. The game was refused classification by the Board, making it illegal to sell in the country, due to its depiction of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, and violence, as well as showing "revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency, and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults".[49] The ban was appealed by ZA/UM then subsequently dropped, with the game reclassified to an adults-only R18+ rating and allowed to be sold, as the Board acknowledged that the game "does provide disincentives related to drug-taking behavior, to the point where regular drug use leads to negative consequences for the player's progression in the game".[50]

Reception[edit]

Disco Elysium received "universal acclaim" according to review aggregator Metacritic, with it being praised for its narrative and conversational systems.[51][2][57][55] PC Gamer praised the game for its depth, freedom, customization, and storytelling and called it one of the best RPGs on the PC.[2] IGN praised the game's open world and compared it favorably to The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2, despite being much smaller.[55] The Washington Post said that the game is "conspicuously well written".[57] GameSpot awarded it a 10 out of 10, their first perfect score since 2017.[10][58] PCGamesN wrote that the game set new genre standards for exploration and conversation systems.[56] Conversely, Eurogamer criticized the game for not offering enough choice in role-playing and for a distinct lack of focus.[59]

The Final Cut was re-reviewed by IGN and Game Informer, both which praised the addition of voice lines and new quests.[71][72] The PlayStation releases were initially found to have game-breaking bugs that made some of the quests impossible to finish.[73][74]

In June 2020, ZA/UM and dj2 Entertainment announced that a television series based on the game was under development.[75]

The PC version of the Final Cut was placed #11 on the best games of all time list on Metacritic, with a score of 97.

Awards[edit]

The game was nominated for four awards at The Game Awards 2019 and won all of them, the most at the event.[76] Slant Magazine,[77] USGamer,[78] PC Gamer,[79] and Zero Punctuation[80] chose it as their game of the year, while Time included it as one of their top 10 games of the 2010s.[81] The game was also nominated for the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Game Writing.[82]

Year Award Category Result Ref
2019 Golden Joystick Awards Ultimate Game of the Year Nominated [83]
The Game Awards 2019 Best Narrative Won [76]
Best Independent Game Won
Best Role-Playing Game Won
Fresh Indie Game (ZA/UM) Won
2020 23rd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards Game of the Year Nominated [84]
Outstanding Achievement in Story Won
Role-Playing Game of the Year Nominated
Outstanding Achievement for an Independent Game Nominated
Outstanding Achievement in Game Design Nominated
Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction Nominated
Nebula Awards Best Game Writing Nominated [82]
20th Game Developers Choice Awards Best Narrative Won [85]
Best Visual Art Nominated
Best Debut (ZA/UM) Won
Innovation Award Nominated
SXSW Gaming Awards Video Game of the Year Nominated [86]
Matthew Crump Cultural Innovation Award Won
Excellence in Art Nominated
Excellence in Design Nominated
Excellence in Musical Score Nominated
Excellence in Narrative Won
16th British Academy Games Awards Best Game Nominated [87]
Artistic Achievement Nominated
Debut Game Won
Game Design Nominated
Music Won
Narrative Won
Original Property Nominated

References[edit]

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