It's rare for a game to come along and change the discourse around its genre. Disco Elysium has, at least in our office, made certain games from the past year feel lacking in a way they hadn't before Disco launched. While the writing is uneven in tone (on purpose), one thing the game excels at is making sure even the smallest player choice is reflected back in a naturalistic way. Player actions that are largely ignored in other games matter here because of its focus on characterization, something that modern AAA RPGs could use more of. We discuss Disco Elysium's narrative focus, the design arc of Rocksteady's Batman games, and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can read an excerpt and listen to the full episode below.
Patrick: Playing Outer Worlds next to [Disco Elysium] made me think "Ah, Outer Worlds was just a giant hoodwink." That's much more derogatory than I mean to be about that game, but Disco Elysium illuminates [that] there are so many paths the genre could have gone in post Fallout 3 ushering in this genre to the masses. I mean, there was Elder Scrolls, too.
Austin: Fallout 3, Mass Effect.
Patrick: It was a certain style of game and it could have splintered in various ways. That formula is so rigid at this point that people are nostalgic for a formula that it turns out hasn't changed that much. Disco Elysium, while a fundamentally different style of game—there's no combat whatsoever—the writing is so rich and detailed, and I just find that it's something that makes you look at a game like Outer Worlds and go "Okay. That was not nearly enough."
Austin: Or like, part of the thing that you're getting at here, too, is in that style of game, everything feels so isolated and vacuum locked apart from each other in terms of quest lines. So let's say you're playing one of those games and you get a cannibal quest, you find out there is a family who lives on the edge of the frontier and they're really nice but then guess what! They're cannibals. You can name any of these games and you will find that quest.
Patrick: Outer Worlds had one.
Austin: Outer Worlds had one, multiple of the Fallout games have had them, Elder Scrolls games have had them. And so you go do that thing, and let's say you decide "I'm going to sit down and eat this meat. I'm going to eat this meat." In those games that choice ends up feeling vacuum sealed and air locked from the rest of the content, outside of maybe you get a perk that says "you get minus five charisma when you're talking to people because they can sense something's off about you, buddy." But there's no actual feeling that your character has changed or that you've stepped down a path that the world recognizes. Partially because of the inclusion of Lieutenant Kim, who is one of the best party members if not my favorite party number of any RPG–
Patrick: Yes. This game minus him–
Austin: Oh, it's a terrible game it's like–
Patrick: It doesn't work. If you were to imagine playing this game and just took him out, because you could, right? And actually there are mechanics in the game where like, "Yo, you wanna do some dirty ass shit while while Lieutenant Kim, Mr. Moralizer, just judging you saying like, 'What? Don't take those boots off that corpse!'"
Austin: I'm gonna get those boots Kim!
Patrick: So go to bed, Kim! And I'm gonna take those fuckin' boots and wear them! This is actually a great illustration. The heart of this game is investigating a murder in which there is a corpse hung outside of a hotel.
Austin: For way too long.
Patrick: For way too long, because of you! Your shitball of a main character. You can eventually get it down. I don't wanna get too much into this because I don't wanna spoil too much—I don't know how it splinters, how much is this is my version of it, but there's a way to preserve the body.
Austin: Yes, their sure is.
Patrick: There's a way to preserve it. You can choose to do that. Most tool tips and loading screens—not useful. Tool tips in this game? Very useful, but don't feel like it's leaving out critical information it just more like "Hey, here's some cool shit you can do." One of which is—at a certain time you can go to an area, [your partner] will go to sleep, but you can still keep walking around.
And you can get up to do normal quests, you could continue the storyline, or you can do some stuff that Kim wouldn't be cool with. Which for me was, I wanted to collect these cool ass boots because the game goes out of its way to like make it clear, these are some cool ass boots.
Austin: These are like power armor boots basically.
Austin: These are like Space Marine [boots.] They're like the the power armor from from Fallout, you know what I mean?
Patrick: Yeah, and they're very rare. It's not something where it's an aesthetic in the world. You will stick out–
Rob: You would definitely cut them off a dead man's feet if you saw them.
Patrick: Well, I did not cut them off.
Austin: That would probably ruin them!
Patrick: I would say I creatively moved the feet around, took them off. They were full of flesh and other gooey substances, but don't worry, Rob!
Austin: There's a plan.
Patrick: There was a kitchen nearby where they cook food, and I just boiled those boots into the hot water and cleaned out those boots!
Austin: Probably cleaner than anything else in that in that kitchen, to be honest.
Patrick: Hundred percent, hundred percent. They're making a lot of alcohol back in there.
Austin: They really are!
Patrick: And this is the reason I'm telling this specific story is because it's the attention to detail. There's a certain thing that we expect games to acknowledge, because it's usually gonna be the thing that's like in bold. You made a choice, game will reflect this choice, like the the Telltale "will remember this." Cool, that'll come up again. And this game, over and over, pays attention to details that the game on some level doesn't need to acknowledge, but the fact that it acknowledges this over and over is one of like the defining characteristics of its narrative detail.
You can get those boots and they could just be in your inventory, because in Disco Elysium the way the stats system works is that you can assign perks to your character sheet, but then let's say you really want to boost up a check that you don't have stats for. Well, you can put on different equipment to kind of temporarily boost yourself, or smoke, or drink, or do drugs. You can manipulate the system in different ways to accommodate what you want to do.
I put on the boots, absentmindedly, just like "oh, okay, I'll just put those on," and then slept, woke up the next morning, and the first thing that happens is you go downstairs, you meet Kim, and you click on him, and he doesn't say anything to you. The first dialogue prompt is just something like "look at these sick ass boots." And he just like rolls his eyes at you. And it's just like [he's thinking], "this is the dumb fuck that I am stuck with."
It's just the fact that the game took the time to recognize me going out of my way to do an exceptionally small, completely inconsequential, no relevance to the plot in like an "A plot" sense. But it's so relevant to the actual A plot, which is really just the journey of this character and the choices you make with them.
It illustrates the level of detail that this game is is is running on, and this happens over and over. You will always be surprised that the game is paying attention and acknowledging tiny little details that are much more meaningful than than you might originally think.
This excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.
Discussed: Disco Elysium 3:14, Destiny 2 29:13, Control 32:24, Batman: Arkham Asylum 42:46, Witcher 1:05:36, Super Mario Maker 2 1:08:57, Final Fantasy XIV 1:13:34, CATS 1:34:19
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