Disco Elysium: The Final Cut – High and Dry
Despite my love for the medium, I find so few video games say anything that lingers with me a few hours past a playthrough. One could argue that many titles aren’t overly interested in or even able to provide this kind of textual depth, hamstrung by the control relinquished to the player in service of interactivity when compared to other artistic mediums. More likely, I’m just not playing the right kinds of games. Regardless, there are not many occasions where I find myself examining the thematic elements of a video game to the same depth I would a piece of cinema, let alone an isometric CRPG styled adventure which is more akin to an interactive novel than the latest big budget, third-person action title. Estonian art collective ZA/UM have exploded out of the gate with Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, a title which oozes substance from every pore and captivated me, even as it made me feel very lacking in political intelligence.
That’s not to say Disco Elysium made me feel unintelligent – perhaps one of the best things about its writing is how much of it works to intrigue the player, encouraging exploration and discovery of unfamiliar topics rather than speaking down to the audience. The result is a fantastic amalgamation of both low and high art, not shying away from mature themes outside of violence – in fact, the game eschews explicit acts of player violence with a complete lack of any combat system. Discussing the plot and characters of Disco Elysium in any detail is difficult due to its incredible implementation of the exceedingly cliché ‘amnesiac’ trope via the main character, whose name is not even revealed until hours into the proceedings. This mysterious protagonist awakens following a drunken rampage in their hotel room, partway through the investigation of a murder case in Martinaise, a run-down and decaying area in the city of Revachol, propped up by the local dockworkers union and its corrupt overseer Evrart Claire. Much like any good serialised whodunnit, Disco Elysium interlocks and layers numerous mysteries and twists which ensure the narrative is engaging right up until the end credits.
As a CRPG inspired adventure, Disco Elysium provides a framework of skills which influence not only the physical capabilities of the protagonist but also the way they perceive the world and interact with the numerous other characters that populate it. Dice based skill-checks abound in both dialogue and actions, with some options disappearing after a single failed attempt. Skills can be further enhanced via outfit combinations or drug use, but even these temporary measures won’t always guarantee success. However, the way the designers account for varying playstyles and builds amongst dialogue and option trees ensures that one never feels like ‘save-scumming’ is worth the effort; in fact, prior to the latest patch which reduced Switch loading times by 80-90%, it would be an absolutely excruciating way to experience the game.
A unique feature to Disco Elysium is the ‘Thought Cabinet’, ideas and ideals which can be pondered over a set time by the protagonist, many of which are unlocked via dialogue trees. While they are often detrimental to skill levels during the processing of the Thought, they can provide multiple benefits when fully realised such as raised skill caps, increased skill points or more dialogue options with certain characters. However, there are only so many slots available in the Thought Cabinet and skill points are required to unlock new slots or forget old thoughts, occasionally useful when a Thought is no longer providing a desired benefit or indeed any benefit at all. The Thought Cabinet serves to substantially increase replayability via unique content available for different builds or player attitudes, something that isn’t unique to Disco Elysium but manages to put a twist on such an inclusion.
Journeying through Disco Elysium, I was struck with the thought that the overall experience – this quality of worldbuilding and dialogue, the way the game world immerses the player despite the technical limitations of its production – brought to mind the many anecdotes that I’ve read so often in regards to Planescape: Torment, a poster child for great storytelling in games if there ever was one. The world of Elysium feels lived in, a melange of elements from real world history sprinkled with magical realism which makes it come alive, a setting both familiar and strange at the same time. The kind of setting that could easily be over-mined, every scrap of its allure explained away in dry detail via prequels and sequels and spin-offs like so many others have, executives eager to provide content to those audience members unable to comprehend that the true magic from these texts is born of the gaps, those areas in which we pour ourselves rather than our dollars. I am guilty of this too – I hunger for a sequel, something that can quell the questions that run through my mind about this world and these characters. With an Amazon series on the way and a proper sequel presumably in production, my only hope now is I don’t have to wait too long until my next trip to Elysium.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using code kindly supplied by the publisher.