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Disco Elysium, a look one year later

A look back at what could have been game of the year.
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Disco Elysium was never on my radar until I saw the results for best narrative in the Game Awards last year. It beat out The Outer Worlds and Control for best story and the last time I wondered about that was back in 2016 when Oxenfree was one of the nominees for the award. I bought Oxenfree when it went on sale (alongside co-nominee Firewatch) on PSN and I was floored. It was a brilliant exercise in interactive storytelling clearly illustrating what a time loop can feel like. The story elements weaved seamlessly with the gameplay and invited me for seconds. The game was easily completed within 5-7 hours and I’ve scoured every nook and cranny by the 20th hour, taking home the platinum to boot. Thus, when Disco Elysium took home the narrative award, ZA/UM’s indie darling shot from obscurity to the top of my gaming radar.

Lacking a workable gaming laptop, I had to wait with the rest of the console plebeians as the PC Master Race lavished in its spoils. It would be late 2020 at best as I remembered it took forever for Darkest Dungeon to drop on PSN. To my surprise, they released it on the Mac late April. All the stars aligned: The Working Class update allowed the game to run on 2012 Macbooks, the game was 25% off on Steam, and I was looking for a new game to sink my teeth into—I didn’t even think twice.

It’s been three years since I last navigated Steam, and the interface on the Mac didn’t change much. Besides not being able to play most of my early access games (now on Beta stages three years later), Steam empowers Mac gamers to be able to access some of the games the PC Master Race have monopolized for years. After purchase, the 11 gig game was quick to download and I was ready to have my mind blown.

Unique Character Creation

disco elysium character creation

The generated character archetypes already drew me in. It reminded me of World of Darkness archetypes and it was a refreshing break from the mute warriors taking on the same quest of saving the world from their androgynous BL pairing on JRPGs. Of course, I had to choose the “Sensitive” archetype because my characters in Fallout, Mass Effect and Dragon Age usually talk their way out of things. If I was a scrappy DPS with the “Mentalist” archetype that cuts their way to the top, I think I already had my fill with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Bravely Default for that.

Upon checking out the skill sets, I was instantly in love. I hated David Lynch’s Inland Empire, but this skill with the same name I’m in love with. I like a skill that allows me to see the fabric of reality in-game. It’s great that ZA/UM thinks of neurotic gamers like us. What drew me to Persona and even the Shin Megami Tensei games in general is this unspoken existential dread that lurks in the underbelly of its normcore world. While Persona 4 onwards touches on it, it drops the Jungian psychobabble and maxes out the waifu BS to the wazoo.

The game opens to an internalized dialogue between the layers of your brain. At this point, if this is not your cup of tea, I warned you. The dialogue is sardonic, existential, and really creates a strong first impression on what we’re about to expect. Of course, being deliciously Kafkaesque (or dare I say Lovecraftian?), I kept digging, descending into the proverbial rabbit hole of madness. Or what I’d love to call Mondays before my weekly Zoom meeting. The game starts off simply enough. It really reminds me of days where I go on an uncontrollable bender and I can’t seem to get a grasp of reality. This existential discombobulation really is relatable to a good part of us almost 40-somethings. A good 30 minutes of game time is spent trying to get dressed and a good deal of gameplay really delves into how the character thinks. Hell, even finding a shoe is a side quest on its own!

Adventure Time!

disco elysium quests

As I explore the hostel I woke up in with no recollection of the past, I run across its denizens and make conversation. Social skill checks start to happen, so what do I do? Save and Reload to get the best possible outcome. The irony is that failing actually gets better results, narrative-wise. Another awesome feature is how your own brain launches you into caving into your physiological urges like smoking and impulsively singing karaoke, turning them into quests. It’s a trap for pseudo-completionists like myself because I would do it for the experience points.

Not getting deep into the story, but trying to remember your actual home address causes another feature to unlock allowing you to delve into your psyche as a “internalization project” where game time is spent unlocking it. Speculating into the future, I feel that the game has a time limit of sorts, kind of like in Persona where you move in a linear fashion and days that went past cannot be returned to. So pick your overthinking projects carefully.

Mac Gaming 101

disco elysium quests 2

I was enjoying the dialogue and the atmosphere until I went outside. And the game crashed. I tried it again, and the game crashed again. I restarted the Mac and it continued to crash. After a few fruitless quests to the message boards and Google, I decided to lower the graphic performance so I can actually progress through the game. The last time this happened to me was when I was trying to run Police Quest 4 on my dilapidated Power Mac back in 1995! Ironically, this entire ordeal to get my game to work became a side quest IRL. Minimizing my specs and going back and forth through full screen and windowed gameplay is a chore in itself. I don’t even want to think about how this will affect combat as the game continues to crash as I explore outside.

What makes the game so frustrating is that lower graphics actually take away from the experience! The game is telling me that it is winter now, but when I go outside, it seems like a fine day. Then when I maxed out the settings again, snow started to fall! In the end, I’m applying a workaround to my system issues while trying to enjoy a game and this would definitely take away from the experience. I might even buy this on the console…

Yet with my misadventures in Divinity 2 for PS4, I realized that isometric games are best played on the PC. There’s just this organic way how you can hover your mouse on assets and it expands your world. The controls on PS4 take away from the experience and the loading times delays momentum. I feel that if there’s a console I’ll probably enjoy this, it would be on the Nintendo Switch as it has touchscreen functions that would take the place of the mouse.

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Disco Elysium is quite the treat and is one that really spoke to me. It isn’t for everyone, but it is for someone who loves a good story behind the games they play. If you love isometric adventures with hard RPG elements and witty dialogue, Buy it, it’ll be worth your time. Wait For It if you don’t quite have the time right now and still want to see what the hype is all about. Avoid It if you like your games with less reading and more fast paced action.

Author

Vincent Ternida moved Vancouver, Canada in 2006 and called it home ever since. He spends the lockdown catching up with his Japanese RPGs, writing his new manuscripts, and figuring out why he suddenly became the main character of the latest Haruki Murakami novel.

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