Hitbox First Impressions: Waste Not, Want Not — Disco Elysium

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

Disco Elysium contains a world and story with more depth than the Mariana Trench. It also has more replayability.

Developer: ZA/UM

Release date: Oct. 15, 2019

Platforms: PC

Price: $39.99

Disco Elysium is an isometric role-playing game, or RPG, about solving a murder. Players take on the role of a detective with amnesia after a night of particularly heavy drinking. The detective has no idea who or where he is and has lost almost all of his possessions. What few clothes of his that he can find are scattered around his motel room and is all the player begins the game with.

In conversations with non-player characters, or NPCs, the player’s amnesia can lead to all sorts of fun interactions, such as bluntly asking what year it is and where he is. The NPCs act like real people and are always surprised at such questions.

Patting or kicking the mailbox in Disco Elysium will reveal exactly what kind of person the player is. Screenshot by John Novotny.
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Because the player character has amnesia and gradually finds out more about himself throughout the game, it presents a perfect opportunity for the player to act however they want. Similar to other RPGs, dialogue choices are one of the main modes of expression available to the player. In Disco Elysium, it’s the only mode of expression. Weapons and combat are a mainstay of RPGs but are nowhere to be found in the game, at least in the nine hours I’ve played so far. So, fleshing out the player character and choosing which dialogue options to pick is essentially the entire gameplay loop.

There are clothes — which alter the player’s stats — but are few and far between. Don’t expect to be finding hundreds of dollars to spend at shops. Without combat as a key component of gameplay, items are pretty rare, but that also makes each one more meaningful.

With the importance of dialogue, it’s a good thing that talking to people in Disco Elysium has been the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had with NPCs. It also makes me feel incredibly dumb and insecure about my knowledge of political ideologies. More on that later.

Disco Elysium’s range of dialogue options is astounding. If the player wants to declare themselves an “ace detective” and introduce themselves that way to everyone, they can. Conversations can range from silly to heartfelt. One of the most memorable interactions I had was with a bookstore owner and mother who had her young daughter stand outside and advertise the store. Depending on how the player interprets that situation with their own personal beliefs, they can have a meaningful impact on that family.

On one hand, the hard work the daughter is doing could be seen as a good thing that builds character. On the other, the mother could be seen as exploiting her daughter for free labor and ruining her future by pulling her out of school to work. Or perhaps the player doesn’t think it’s the business of a police detective to get involved in family matters.

I held the belief that compromising a child’s future by making them work instead of going to school was a terrible thing to do. So, I talked to the store owner and persuaded her that it wasn’t fair to the child. After coming to that realization, she had her daughter come back inside the store. When I came back a few minutes later, I could see the daughter doing homework in the back of the store. Although, when I talked to her again, she complained about the difficulty of her homework.

Disco Elysium’s skills sometimes talk to you during conversations like companions in other role-playing games would. Screenshot by John Novotny.

It’s difficult to articulate, but after that interaction, I came to a sudden realization that I could actually make a meaningful difference in these peoples’ lives. Instead of begging for money every time I was given the option, I started taking it more seriously and viewed that as a bribe. As a policeman, I was in a position of authority and it would be immoral to abuse it. That was the moment I shifted my mindset from simply playing another RPG to being fully immersed in the world. It’s a striking testament to how much freedom the developers have given the player.

I mentioned earlier that Disco Elysium often made me feel dumb. That’s because of how much the game references political ideologies, such as communism, fascism and right-wing libertarianism. Just to preface this part, it’s obvious that fascism is awful and the game doesn’t actually allow the player to take on that ideology. There are bigoted dialogue options and characters. However, I’m not sure how the game reacts to those choices.

In fact, Disco Elysium seems to be making fun of all those ideologies that I listed, it’s just that most of the jokes are going over my head. I’m guessing that it’s referencing works such as “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but I’m too ignorant to know.

Skills aren’t exactly unbiased either. They have their own perspectives and agendas. Screenshot by John Novotny.

It doesn’t seem like this type of knowledge is crucial to enjoying Disco Elysium, but it would probably help. I think you could play through Disco Elysium without any prior ideologic knowledge and it would still reveal more about your beliefs.

Will I be playing more of Disco Elysium?

Absolutely. It takes forever to just have one conversation or look around a single building, but that’s the magic of Disco Elysium. Exploring a single city over 30 hours is going to allow for infinitely more story depth than a giant open-world ever could. This is the most excited I’ve ever been to meet new characters and just talk with them.