Thoughts on Disco Elysium
So, I finished Disco Elysium earlier today. I'm currently very exhausted due in part to laying awake the past few nights thinking about it. I don't know why but something sorta hooked me. But the thing is, I don't even know if I... you know, "enjoyed" it or what.
So in some sort of weird attempt to figure things out I'm going to let myself type and see what happens. I will likely spoil any and all plot points throughout, so you know. Fair warning.
So we open with your character's brain shouting things at him in the most over-the-top manner possible. I hate limbic system's voice so much. Yeah yeah something something let's get this show on the road.
Your first few days are spent in what I can only term extreme exposition mode. I think
this may be part of what hooked me - I have a tendency to be sniped by many many facts
and have to sort them all internally before I can shut off - this game has absolutely no lack
of little factlets. I chose the "thinker" build, so I had naturally high
and had a little part of my (game) brain feeling me facts about things at every turn.
This can be useful, as it gives you some context for what's going on and what led to this point,
but if you have to file away facts internally, it can really burn you out fast. I think the longest
play session i managed was about 90 minutes, any longer and I started to phase out and couldn't take
anything more in.
So yes, you start off by trying to figure out reality. Amnesia is typically a rather weak way to justify expositing your world's lore, and I don't think this really changed my view on that. It can be very overwhelming. So you go outside, wander around, accidentally die after kicking a postbox, good stuff. Then you come to the first major hurdle, which is getting into the docks. Coming up to the dock you meet le generic racist man, tell him to heck off, then find out that le BIGGE racist man won't let you in unless you subscribe to his "race theory". Here I was, thinking "uh... I don't wanna do that though - I (the character) am not going to be a racist", but the game seems almost like it's pushing you to do it. There is but one other way in, and it requires you to pass 2 skill checks to do. I feel like this may be trying to be a commentary that it's easier to go along with fashy beliefs than to not engage with them, but still mechanically it's not very satisfying.
Now, speaking of skill checks, they REALLY annoy me in this game. I came into this straight off the back of replaying Fallout new vegas, in which skill checks are a "do you have the skill? (y/n)" - if you invested points into speech, you will convince people and so on. DE does not work on this logic. It works on a dice roll. Now this wouldn't be so bad if the stats would allow you to make the roll a certainty, but they do not. A 1.1 on the dice will always lose. You could have 14 logic (as I did at the end) and STILL fail a 97% skill check because RNG said so. This, I feel, leads neccesarily to save-scumming. There are a few critical skill checks in the game which you will either miss content or have drastically worse outcomes if you fail them. I found myself running the same segment 3-4 times to actually get decent rolls, which I feel massively detracts from any sort of immersion. I built a high-logic high-perception character let me use the skills for crying out loud.
I think that's my main gripe with the game mechanically. Oh, and the pathfinding can be a bit wobbly. But that's ok.
Artistically the game as a whole is very nice, it's all like oil-painting-y. But the standout really is the soundtrack. The first and last tracks in the game (Whirling Cafeteria (day) and Seafort 1 respectively) are super nice to listen to, and seem to capture the aesthetic of the situation. I didn't intentionally pick "art cop" lines, but I still got the achievement for doing so. It's so hard not to. You're in a town falling apart after being left to rot, perhaps as an example, as its people are squeezed to their mental breaking point, all rendered in oil-o-vision, whilst listening to this. How could one not pick lines that comment on the oddly fitting odes to their own destruction exhibited by Cindy and Cuno?
I think this is perhaps the biggest conflict in the story. There may be grand clashes of words and ideology going on up above, your main character might struggle internally as to who and what he is, and what he has done, but none of that matters. It's all just distraction from what's going on on the ground. You can pick crazy and/or pop-culture-referencing speech lines. But that wouldn't feel right. That's what got me - it felt like a lot of the options to "role-play" would be almost disrespectful to the people in the world. A lot of them pick bizarre ways to cope. Cryptozoology, pretending to be streetwise gangsters, throwing rocks at a dead body. I can't act like a "superstar cop" to them, that wouldn't be right.
And maybe that is the biggest failing of the narrative. Or its biggest success. It doesn't feel like many of the choices are viable. Or that I could live with them. Was that the point of the narrative that I as the player am exactly the same as the old communist revolutionary on the island? Cut off from the actual word, looking at it through nought but a small window from which I must decide who on the other side is right and who isn't? Who lives and who dies? Maybe that's the case, or maybe I'm just being pretentous. I didn't get the art cop achieve for no reason I suppose.
Now I've gotten that out of my system I think I'll return to something more coherent. The world-building. It's very clear that the developers spent a lot of time on this, and I cannot fault them. However, as I explained above, I... am almost compelled to categorise things in my head. I'm pretty certain most of the parallels are intentional, but I could not help but internally replace "oranje" with "the dutch" and so on - whilst this was useful in the early stages of the game when a basic idea of the forces at play is useful, but when the world starts diverging from the real one it can hinder your judgement quite a lot. Whilst yes, internally mapping the occupying forces to a sort of vaguely european force does indeed work with their colonialism, when we start introducing concepts like the "pale" it makes your internal map fall apart and you start losing track of who did what, when, and why.
All of this seems to encourage you to take an overly simplistic view of events. Royalists purged, communists purged, liberal "democracy" by not-europe. I think that's what made me lie awake at night, trying to figure out an internal map of this world that worked. And nothing really did, there are just too many names. Too many places. Not enough concrete information beyond paragraphs and paragraphs of history. Is that the idea? That you really can't keep a "big-picture" view of any actual world in your head without simplifying in places and ignoring complexities? Perhaps.
I'm not sure what else to say. I think I've dealt with the urge to just speak about things and bounce ideas around. I guess bouncing ideas off a text editor is as good as anything these days.
Anyhow, maybe play it yourself. Or don't. Eh.