Disco Elysium

Posted on January 19, 2023 by richardgoulter

One Beautiful Moment from the Game

I’d only really call something a “spoiler” if it ruins enjoyment from watching the story.

e.g. The classic show “Columbo” is re-watchable, and we always know that Columbo will bumble around and annoy the villian in all sorts of homely ways, and ask “just one more thing”.. but it ruins the suspense if you remember exactly what the “gotcha” of the episode is.

In contrast, I think the “The Wire” is such a great TV show that hearing what happens doesn’t spoil it. – Or maybe that’s because of the structure of the show; the entertainment isn’t structured around figuring out the mystery.

“Disco Elysium” is a cult classic of a game, often enthusiastically recommended by those who have played it. While I can’t say I enjoyed the gameplay, I found the story to be very well done.

It’s mature.. not in the sense of sexual content or gore, but in the sense that it’s got a bitter taste to it. Kinda like Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” (which is also about a music-loving, potentially charming man who’s not quite as cool as he thinks he had hoped to be).

I think the climax of one of the subplots is so well done, that sharing it doesn’t spoil the game. (Or maybe it’s because of how the game does it).

The shortest way to describe the game’s setting is that we’ve woken up as a detective who has lost his memory, after a bender of a night singing sad songs and trashing his hotel room. We’re supposed to be investigating a murder, which has sparked tensions between rival factions in a beat-down unimportant corner of the world (in an alternative universe).

One thing which becomes apparent early on is that the character used to be married, and misses his ex-wife.

I find the climax to this sub-plot very beautiful.

Because.. as we play through the game, we see the detective can interact well with all kinds of people. He comfortably converses with those who are angry with him, with poorly mannered children, with slimy mobster bosses, with intimidating enforcers.. and he’s able to navigate these conversations and often get what he wants out of them. (At one point, his reputation proceeds him as a “human can opener”).

And each night when we sleep, not conscious, the character’s internal monologue is that of a deep, base resentment of himself. That he’s a failure.

So it’s quite impactful that the game plays differently when the main character thinks about his ex-wife.

In every other conversation, usually it’s possible to end the conversations quickly (even if this leads to less than ideal outcomes).

But, when interactions with the character’s ex-wife, the option to “leave conversation” does nothing; the we can’t just leave a conversation with his ex-wife, the main character is too enthralled.

In the climax of this subplot, the character has suffered significant physical injuries, and takes a nap as he is investigating a fresh lead into the case.

In his dream, he takes himself back to a memory of the time where he last saw his ex-wife, as she’s leaving for the airport. In his dream, she appears to him as the avatar of the very beautiful, saintly holy patroness of moralism. The conversation goes around in circles as he keeps admiring her, and she keeps rejecting him, and saying how things didn’t work out.

It lands so hard.

So, although “talented, unconventional cop with an alcohol problem misses ex-wife” is extremely cliche, I think how it’s executed in the game is a demonstration of the game’s quality.


Disco Elysium certainly a game I’ve seen recommended in several places.

e.g. I’d first seen it recommended by Zero Punctuation, stealthily disguised as a review of Call of Duty.

e.g. The next place I saw it recommended was in the comments of Mandalore Gaming’s video on The Mystery of the Druids. “The Mystery of the Druids” is an adventure game, which features a detective who acts as antisocially as typical adventure game character, but in a world where everyone actually reacts to the antisocial behaviour.

The comments in the video suggested that Disco Elysium is almost a spiritual successor in this regard.

I can see why. It’s an adventure game. And in the same way “adventure game character, but where everyone else reacts like a real person would” is a riff on adventure games, frequently the game will give you dialogue options which are so strange that characters will ask why you’d say such a thing. (It’s a well done equivalent to “we’re not in a videogame”).

Similarly, Disco Elysium’s protagonist can act in all sorts of interesting ways; and the game encourages role-playing into these more colourful roles.

Indeed, Disco Elysium very much is a role-playing game.

I didn’t like this aspect of the game very much.

Whereas, say, The Witcher 3, is more of an Action Role Playing Game. There are dialogue trees which impact the story. (And I did enjoy how the Witcher 3 handled this with its many side quests). But, ultimately the Witcher 3 has lots of action, and you’re just such a powerful character.

Disco Elysium, some solutions are gated behind getting a successful dice roll on a skill check. – I can accept this mechanic during conversations, but I find it strange that I can’t try to open a container again just because I failed a skill check.

That said. While I didn’t enjoy the gameplay.. the game’s execution is so well done, and its story is highly engaging, I also recommend it.

Inside Out

I love Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out”, particularly for an easy and adorable mental model about how people’s minds work, with different emotions taking the wheel.

Disco Elysium’s story has a similar thing: you’ll have internal characteristics like “Drama”, “Volution”, “Persuasion”, “Encyclopedia”, etc. The game uses these as flavourful ways of providing dialogue options.

e.g. With ‘encyclopedia’, you might be informed of the model of a particular vehicle (which can be useful), or it might recall random irrelevant details. – I think that’s really cute.

e.g. With ‘drama’ might pick up that someone is lying, or it might suggest something sarcastic (and unhelpful) to say.


I think part of what makes the game so well done is how it handles “this isn’t a videogame”.

For example, I think it’s an interesting detail that the game starts with the character having amnesia. – It’s interesting because throughout the game, you get to ask other characters details about the world.
– In other games, this might be business as usual. But in this game, there’s a sense the NPC is thinking “ugh, why are you asking me questions about the world”.

I mean, the player character not knowing about the world is ‘diagetic’ in the sense that the player doesn’t know the world (which is the point of the trope), but that this not knowing also plays out significantly in the gameplay. (As opposed to, say, the Bourne Identity, wherein the player’s amnesia drives the plot more than it really hinders the protagonists’ perceived competency).

I think a lot of the writing is like this; it’s almost like the protagonist acts like a detective in a detective videogame (e.g. “I found this item I can interact with, so it must be significant to the case”), and a lot of the writing reminds him that he’s not the protagonist in a videogame.

The game as a whole probably serves as a good demonstration that tropes aren’t necessarily bad; it’s about how they’re used.

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