What the Hell Makes Disco Elysium so Captivating?

Disco Elysium is such a special game, it’s one of those ones I’d consider a masterpiece and my go to example when people talk about games as art. But what is it that makes it so special? First it gets its hooks into you a ridiculous scenario, good writing and a thrilling murder mystery but there’s so much more to it than that. So I’m going to examine what it is that makes Disco Elysium so impactful.

Let’s start at the start. The opening scene is funny as hell. You wake up after going on a legendary bender with no memory of what happened. Your clothes are every, hotel room trashed and you can’t get rid of the desperate expression on your face no matter how hard you try.

From the first scene, we can see one of Disco Elysium’s biggest strengths. It uses the gameplay to enhance story telling. “The Expression” as the game calls it is not only a funny joke, but also a gameplay challenge. You can get rid of it but only through passing skill checks. Moreover, ridding yourself of The Expression gives you a bonus to at least one skill check in the game.

If you find yourself making this face often, you may need help.

Another example of the gameplay enhancing the story telling is in the multiple game overs you can achieve. You have stats for Health and Morale but there is no combat so you only lose points in them by screwing up. You can die in the first room if you fail trying to get your tie off the ceiling fan. Not only is that hilarious, it also reinforces the pitifully weak state Harry is in after his big night out. The same can be said of the Morale failures. I once failed trying to open a lock with a prybar and it was so demoralising Harry quit his job on the spot and went to live under a bridge.

Even the equippable items affect your stats and therefore how the story plays out. You might think it’s cool convincing a gangbanger to give you his jacket that says PissF*****t on the back, but it takes 1 point away from your Authority skill. People will be less likely to respect your authority because you’re brazenly acting like a PissF*****t.

So few games manage to do what Disco Elysium does in this way. Each choice you make has consequences for you as the player, Harry as the main character and for the characters around him. In that way everything you do actually feels significant, unlike some RPGs where maybe you’d fight a slightly different boss or change the colour of the ending screen.

Some might not call finding a cool pair of shades a significant choice in a game. They’re wrong.

But there’s so much more Disco Elysium does than just be a funny RPG with meaningful stats. One thing it nails more than most other games I’ve played is the feeling of tragedy.

Almost every character has some element of tragedy in their life. Partially because RĂ©vachol isn’t always a great place to be but also because that’s just how it is for most people. Nobody gets to go through life without having to go through some hard times and that’s reflected perfectly in Disco Elysium.

Apart from the amazing writing in the game, what makes the sadness so relatable is that it’s grounded in reality. You may find most games, books and movies will use tragedy for their big set pieces like a main character dies at some point or the hero is getting revenge for the murder of their beloved. And that’s fine, but they usually get resolved or downplayed by going on a big adventure.

In Disco Elysium, the tragic parts of people’s lives are much more relateable and long enduring. There’s the young Cuno being abused and abandoned by his parents or the old war vets who spent their lives fighting and now have nothing else to live for but they’re all still trying to live their lives. There are no world ending stakes for them, they’re just coping with the hand they’ve been dealt. Their struggles are relatable and so it’s easy to empathise with them. The best example of course is the Superstar Cop himself though.

This poor girl has no idea what’s happening in Harry’s life. Probably for the best.

At the start of the game it’s funny that Harry trashed his room and threw his shoe out the window. On refection, it’s sad that it was obviously the result of an unhinged substance abuse problem caused by a terrible suffering in his life. Later on, you might find it funny when you get the option to punch a smarmy kid in the face, but immediately your partner chides you for it and you realise these are not the actions of a comedy hero, nor even a sane man.

The pride you feel in passing the skill check mirrors Harry’s pride in accomplishing something, and you realise these are not the actions of someone with their shit together. Nobody would do this, who isn’t a fucked up individual. Disco Elysium never misses a chance to remind you that Harry is a sad, broken man deep down and kinda makes you feel bad for laughing along with him sometimes.

But that’s all part of its genius. Because even though Harry is this exaggerated caricature of a man, he is still relatable. Harry lost the love of his life and is life is spiralling out of control. For those of us with long term partners, it’s not hard to imagine the same happening to us.

Then there’s his substance abuse. It’s actually tied to one of the in-game skills, “Electro Chemistry”. It’s a part of Harry’s mind that makes him want to smoke the cigarette stubs he finds on the ground, drink whatever alcohol he can find and snort whatever will fit up his nose just to feel good again.

That alone is relatable to a lot of people. When Harry takes his first sip of alcohol there’s a passage of internal dialogue about how nice and warm it feels, and how it make you feel like a real cop again. As someone who has used alcohol to cope with anxiety and stress, this line hit home. As funny as it is to watch a grown man toss away his clothes in a drunken stupor and lose his gun and his badge, I know how it feels to do stupid shit as a result of trying to block out the suffering of insurmountable anxiety too, though not on that level.

But Harry’s so relatable even when he’s being dumb. Almost every time you get a dialogue choice there’s an option to say something insanely childish or ridiculous. And though we may laugh at is as if to say “wow, I’d never do something that stupid” I feel like we’ve all been there. Those times when we do want to say they really unbelievably stupid shit. Those times when the thought enters our minds and we stop ourselves because we need to be real people in the real world. One of many example in the game is:

“Savior Faire – This is a cool moment. It needs a cool thing to be said.

1.- (Say the cool thing.) “Let’s rock with our cock.”

And though none of us would ever say that out loud in a serious situation, it is my firm belief that most of us have thoughts like that. “Just say the funny thing. Be the badass rockstar nobody believes you are.” Disco Elysium lets you live out that fantasy. Even if it’s just for a moment before the other characters give you the sideye and subtly remind you that you’re supposed to be a mature adult.

Damn Harry, you’re so relatable.

The fact that Disco Elysium lets you make those choices means there’s so much possibility for role-playing too. Even if it makes no sense you can make the terrible choices.

You can be a Hobocop who sleeps in dumpsters, you can be a straight cop trying to get his life back together. You can ingest every chemical you can find. Even when the skills and stats are actively harmful, you can increase them for your role playing benefit. Electro Chemistry is Harry’s love/resistance to drugs, and raising it has no benefits in terms of playing better. It only makes Harry more dependant on drugs/makes him enjoy drugs more, but it’s important for his character if that’s the kind of Harry you want to play.

Disco Elysium is not afraid to let you fuck it all up. As evidenced by the red skill checks. White skill checks can be retried once you’ve levelled up but red skill checks are a one-and-done deal. You either do it now, or you fail and live with the consequences. This is so important for making Harry and the rest of the cast believable because you can’t just forget your failures, they can make a lasting impression on you and the people around you.

So, in summary Disco Elysium is an extremely well written story with equal amounts of comedy and relatable personal tragedy. It has the power to make its players experience a full range of emotions while also letting them live out their most juvenile fantasies that live on into adulthood or just simply enjoying a beautifully told story of a man trying to get his life back together. Disco Elysium captures what it is to be an adult in the real world while providing a catharsis that reality often doesn’t.

If you played and loved Disco Elysium I’d love to hear about your experiences too. Which parts really stuck with you? What kind of guy was Harry when you played?

Please Post Your Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Verified by MonsterInsights