Disco Elysium sets a new standard for role-playing in video games

Disco Elysium is an incredibly deep detective RPG about a hungover cop trying to solve a brutal murder. The game opens with the main character peeling off the floor of a grimy hotel room: the aftermath of drinking and drugging so apocalyptically, his mind has been wiped like a corrupted hard drive. It’s a pretty cliched setup for an RPG, but cropped in a brilliantly clever way. From a role-playing perspective, that means you can take that big, wet, shapeless piece of clay and shape it into just about anything you want. There is no combat in Disco Elysium or any other traditional RPG leveling system. You build your character through the things you say and do, and how you interact with the people around you, not by killing enemies to fill an XP bar.


Thanks to your detective’s devastating hangover and subsequent amnesia, this human catastrophe is a blank slate. Other people can help you remember things about yourself, like your name and where you’re from, but one of the most inspiring things about Disco Elysium is that you can delete that information and become someone else, making it an incredibly powerful role-playing game. Gameplay. The amount of freedom given to you to sculpt your character’s personality is remarkable. It also drastically changes the flow of the game, the outcome of the murder case, what people think of you, and countless other variables that accumulate as you play. The complexity of it all is unreal. You don’t even have to be a good cop: you can be a bad cop if you want.

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I’ve played Disco Elysium twice, and both times the experience was completely different. My first detective was an intensely emotional artistic soul, inspired by dreams and having esoteric conversations with inanimate objects, using abstract intuition to uncover truth. My second detective was sober, very logical and meticulously direct, solving the crime in a much more methodical and scientific way. These are just two of the many detective types Disco Elysium lets you create. He truly is one of the most absurdly malleable characters in video game history, and everyone who plays the game will see a different side to him. It gives you a wonderful sense of ownership and authorship over the character you’re building. It’s a mess, but it’s your mess.

Disco Elysee

Many RPGs allow you to shape your character through their stats, abilities, gear, etc., which affects how they playerbut generally does not have a significant impact on who they are. This is Disco’s greatest strength as an RPG experience: you can really create a person. Whether the detective you sculpt in this ball of clay is a tortured artist, a feminist disco enthusiast or a drug addicted clairvoyant, she will have a distinct personality and the people you meet will react to her in interesting or unexpected ways. That’s another reason why Disco Elysium is such a killer RPG: the world recognizes your decisions and changes based on who you’ve decided to become. It’s a stunning achievement, and single-handedly set the bar ridiculously high for the genre.

It’s not for everyone. It’s slow, dialogue heavy, and almost entirely devoid of action and other traditional game systems. But if you enjoy games that allow you to immerse yourself in a world and to become someone, you have to play it. It’s hugely satisfying to shape your character in a certain way and be rewarded with extra dialogue or discover ways to solve problems you’d otherwise miss. It’s also a great game for people who love detective fiction, letting you mix and match genre tropes to create your own detective Frankenstein – the analytical genius of Sherlock, say, but with the self-destructive streak of Jimmy McNulty of The Wire cast to spice things up. It may defy nearly every genre standard, but Disco Elysium is easily one of the greatest RPGs ever made.

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