Disco Elysium is a Good Game everyone should play [GG #5]

The GG series, published weekly, highlights Good Games everyone should play at least once, with links out to fantastic writing. Scroll down to the bottom for a list of previous GG posts — and if you enjoy these, considering sharing them with a friend. You can subscribe here.

I’m a latecomer to Disco Elysium (2019, PC), which topped many game of the year lists in 2019 — and it was worth the wait. It’s a narrative masterpiece; rich, sad, thoughtful, and laugh-out-loud funny all at once. If you have any interest in storytelling in games, you absolutely have to play it. And yes, it’s PC-only, but it’ll run on pretty much any laptop or Mac, and it’s coming to Switch later this year (and other consoles in 2021).

What is it?

A role-playing detective game without any combat. You play an amnesiac police officer who wakes up with the world’s worst hangover, and, once he’s sobered up, has to work out who killed the man hanging from the tree outside.

Story threads amass quickly once you leave your trashed hotel room, about the murder, your own identity, the politics of the world, war, morality, love — you name it, Disco Elysium tackles it with grace and humour. Dialogue is enlivened by a cast of NPCs that live in your head: Basically, every “skill”, of which there are 24, has its own personality, and they’ll butt into your conversations, competing for your attention (PC Gamer’s Jody Macgregor, @jodymacgregor, describes the system in detail here).

It’s text-heavy, and brilliantly surreal. Within the first ten minutes, you’ve already had an identity crisis trying, and failing, to make out your face in a bathroom mirror — and had an entire conversation with your tie, which is dangling from a nearby ceiling fan. Trying to unhook it can literally give you a heart attack, ending the game.

What makes it so good?

Where to start? The writing is the star: Those skills feel like individual people with their own agendas and expertise. They’ll lead your thoughts on wild tangents, to the point where simple tasks — such as opening your eyes at the start of the game — turn into epic internal monologues.

Disco Elysium also makes failure fun. Most actions require you to roll a virtual dice, with your chances of success based on how many points you’ve dumped into the tested skill. Win or lose, you’re bound to get a surprise, and a wonderful line of writing to go with it. It may not look dramatic on screen — your character mostly just stands there — but the description, and the way characters react, make it believable.

Last, it manages to jump around different, weighty ideas without feeling scatterbrained. It is a deeply political game (see Extra Life below for some writing on that), and also tries to tackle what are fairly abstract ideas about existence and morality. But it makes it all feel grounded: Arguments are embodied by the people around you, and their worldview runs through everything they say. It’s therefore easy to engage with what Disco Elysium has to say, where in another game you might switch off.

Where can I buy it?

Right now, only on PC — and it’s not cheap. It’s £30/$40 on every store right now, but trust me, that is absolutely worth it. It will also run on pretty much any laptop, including a Mac.

It’s supposed to come to the Switch this year, and to other consoles in 2021.

Extra Life… (bonus questions and links to brilliant writing)

Best skills to specialise in?

You pick a signature skill at the start of the game, which raises both its current level and the cap for how many points you can put into it. It’s very hard to go wrong, but I’ve found the “Psyche” skills (one of four groups) produce the best dialogue options.

The Inland Empire skill is a good place to start. It basically gives you more hunches and sharpened — if overly imaginative — instincts, alongside more conversations with inanimate objects, which are always a laugh.

Empathy and Authority are perfect for good cop or bad cop role-plays, while Conceptualisation gives some of the most creative lines in the game.

But I’ll repeat: You can’t really go wrong. There aren't any “bad” skills, and failing a skill check is often as entertaining as passing it.

Any guides to read before I start?

Yep, a few, and they’re spoiler-free. Here’s some basic tips from Polygon, a character creation guide from Rock, Paper, Shotgun, or, if you prefer video, six ways to make the most of Disco Elysium, courtesy of Logitech.

Links to great writing about Disco Elysium

A: “Disco Elysium is a landmark RPG about the politics of our broken world” — an excellent, in-depth review from Cameron Kunzelman (@ckunzelman) for VICE Games.

B: “Why Kim Kitsuragi is Disco Elysium's breakout star” — a tribute to your understated partner from from Lauren Morton (@ComradeCupcake_), writing for PC Gamer.

X: “Disco Elysium’s Dialogue Is Like A Good Tweet” — Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson (@Vahn16) on the game’s snappy writing.

Y: “The making of Disco Elysium: How ZA/UM created one of the most original RPGs of the decade” — a meandering dive into how the game was made by Alex Wiltshire (@rotational) for Edge magazine.

Bonus bonus audio: A spoiler-heavy podcast from the Waypoint crew about Disco Elysium’s politics, and how it got them thinking about the future of games — and the world. Scroll back to January 20, 2020 in your podcast feed to find it (and if you want more podcasts, check out a list of five that I couldn’t do without).

Previous GG posts

GG #1Hades (2020, PC, Switch)

GG #2Dishonored 2 (2016, PC, Xbox One, PS4)

GG #3The Witness (2016, PS4, Xbox One, PC, mobiles)

GG #4: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)