The impact that good writing has on video games is often underestimated. Since a lot of games still rely on simplistic plots and cliché character motivations, critics sometimes dismiss the writing in a video game easily. Some games, however, take their words to the next level, and such is the case with Disco Elysium.
Characters in video games usually have fairly direct goals—rescue the princess, defeat the bad guy, find the macguffin, and so on. Disco Elysium tosses all that out of the window. While the immediate goal is obvious and involves solving a murder, this is only the first and clearest layer of a complex and multi-layered narrative.
Traditionally in video games, the progression of the character does not really relate to the ongoing narrative. This can lead to the phenomenon whereby your badass level 99 character is owned in a cutscene by a monster that could be taken out in two strikes in normal gameplay. Disco Elysium takes a wildly different tack, tying the narrative to character progression. As the player moves through the game, certain choices unlock different traits, and those traits in turn influence the course of the story.
Disco Elysium draws heavily upon the traditions of table-top gaming. The most obvious manifestation of this are the dice rolls that result from certain choices, but the influence goes much deeper. Table-top roleplayers will know of many different types of GM (or game master) and their style controls the course of the game. Some GMs emphasise combat and collecting loot, others prefer to weave a complex narrative, but many consider the best GMs to be those who work in collaboration with the players
Through extremely clever game design, developer ZA/UM has managed to replicate the experience of having a talented, collaborative GM. The result is a game where no two playthroughs are alike, and where the player gets to decide exactly what sort of character to play, excavating the personality of the protagonist from underneath a layer of drug and alcohol abuse and work burnout.
The character development and progression are not the only areas that shows signs of skilful writing and design. The world of Disco Elysium is complex and well-crafted. The environment bears an air of steampunk, but this is not just a thin layer of cogs and brass over a standard modern Earth setting. Instead, the writers have carefully sculpted a completely different world history for the setting, where a once-proud island nation is subject to repeated invasions and a failed communist revolution, which results in declining fortunes, fuelling a surge in poverty and violence. All this shapes the characters the player interacts with and gives the impression of a complete, living world.
One of the more notable aspects of Disco Elysium’s storytelling involves the occasions where it slips into surrealism. In the hands of less accomplished writers, the surreal elements can go over the top and become incomprehensible and off-putting. Disco Elysium takes cues from the works of David Lynch, juxtaposing the bizarre and surreal against the mundane, while simultaneously treating the surreal elements as though they are expected.
In many ways, Disco Elysium defies description, as the game can be so many different things depending on the player. This in itself is a triumph of interactive media and proves once again that video games can be art.