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No one gives Skyrim enough credit for its military campaign quest line. In fairness it’s a combat heavy quest line and combat was never The Elder Scrolls series’ strong point but the beginning of that quest line presents you with such a stark, morally grey choice. Do you side with the Empire with their inclusive ideals but who are in the thrall of dogmatic Elves? Or do you side with the fiercely independent and fiercely racist Stormcloak rebels? That’s where the choices in this quest line end but – as the Dragonborn – it feels like you’re deciding on the fate of a nation. Disco Elysium isn’t about saving the world or being the hero but that makes me feel more important not less.
Set in Revachol, a city in ruins over forty years after the collapse of its Communist government, you play as a detective from the 41st Precinct. Waking up in his destroyed hostel room after a bender of apocalyptic proportions he finds himself struck down with amnesia and it’s up to you to guide this bloated, alcoholic, speed-freak joke of a policeman through the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken port district of Martinaise. Alongside your new partner, Lieutenant Kim Katsurugi from the 57th Precinct, you must investigate the case of a hanged man behind your hostel before it tears a district divided between a corrupt union and criminal gangs apart.
More so than politics or ideology Disco Elysium is about failing upwards. To say the game lets you drill through bedrock when you’ve already hit rock bottom is an understatement. I spent the first day of the game running around bitterly cold Martinaise without shoes, only realising when Kim pointed it out that night. And yet where the decisions you make in Disco Elysium would count as a complete fail in other RPGs like Skyrim or even the much freer Divinity: Original Sin series Disco Elysium lets you away with it a lot.
Constantly failing skill checks governed by invisible dice rolls is a part of the game. The game lets you retry a lot of them but even when the game definitively closes a door to you it opens a window somewhere else. Failing to beat a seven foot tall guard in hand-to-hand combat lead to my being forced to look into the race science the guard was such a fan of. Of course having put all my skill points mostly into my reflexes and emotional intelligence with a little left over to boost my physicality I was left with a detective who was too stupid to know what race science was. My detective didn’t even know what a car was when he woke up. I had to get a woman on a yacht to give me a history lesson on Revachol before, during and after the revolution. Dumb as rocks doesn’t even begin to cover it.
But just because my detective is thick as pig shit doesn’t mean he can’t learn. He may have lost all his memories thanks to whiskey and benzos but he’s still capable of educating himself and internalising that education. Sure, he’s constantly fucking up but he’s learning as well. For instance my detective is currently on the road to believing that Communism is the only way forward for Revachol while at the same time thinking that he’s a rock star born to perform at the local hostel’s karaoke bar. All of this is thanks to the voice’s both in and outside of his head.
Every skill in Disco Elysium is represented by a voice inside your head making every interaction, investigation and dialogue tree a cacophony of different opinions. Authority often demands you flash your badge and strong arm everyone in the name of the Law. Esprit de Corps strengthens the bond between you and your fellow cops especially Kim. Every skill has its advantages and disadvantages. If Pain Threshold is too low you can barely take a punch, too high and you’ll deliberately seek out pain. Just as much of an influence are the people you’ll talk to and, this being an RPG, you’ll talk to a lot of them.
After forty years of turmoil the city of Revachol and especially the Martinaise district is home to a variety of extremist factions. The wealthy are blind to the suffering of the poor. Union members and company enforcers are at each other’s throats. Poverty, rising crime and corruption has bred xenophobic attitudes towards the children of immigrants like Kim. Talking to the people that hold these views and either agreeing or disagreeing with them influences your detective’s views and thought processes. Through these you can opt in to different modes of thinking. Should you be a Communist, a despicable Fascist or a somehow even more despicable Centrist? These thought processes open up new avenues as well as old. It’s really up to you if your detective picks himself up by his bootstraps and solves the case or spends the rest of his miserable life flinging shit at people from under a bridge.
In almost every RPG you are the hero. Sometimes you can choose to be the villain but even then you still have to save the world from a despot so you can be the new despot. Disco Elysium never makes you save the world, after all you’re only one drunken mess of a man, but it’s options are somehow bigger than that. It’s a game whose impact and strength comes from the impression you leave on the game’s characters.
In my Disco Elysium I am a brazenly stupid oaf with the curiosity of a child. I am a man operating at the beck and call of addiction. I am hated by union men and anarchists. I am trusted by Kim and almost no one else. I am a man without shoes. Most importantly I am not a hero. All of Revachol’s heroes are dead. The city needs a hero but it’s not me or any of the people I’ve met. But that’s OK, I don’t want to be a hero. I want to solve a murder and I want Kim to respect me. Disco Elysium says that’s OK. What other video game does?