Saturday, January 2, 2021

Disco Potential

After mentioning in yesterday's post that I was on the fence about buying Disco Elysium I went and read a few more reviews. Then I looked at some screenshots. Then I bought Neo Cab. It was also on sale but for only about a third of the price. And anyway I'd been thinking about getting Neo Cab ever since I played the demo over a year ago. 

Neo Cab's reviews are every bit as stellar as Disco Elysium's. Both have "Very Positive" ratings on Steam, recent and all-time, but Neo Cab's are from fewer than a thousand people while Disco Elysium's are the aggregate of almost twenty-five thousand responses, because Disco Elysium is a niche phenomenon and Neo Cab's just niche. 

After I'd added Neo Cab to my basket I had another think about Disco Elysium. It seemed profligate to buy two games at once but I did get some unexpected money for Christmas that I hadn't made any plans for so why not? At least with some enforced hometime in my immediate future there was a good chance I'd play both, not just leave them languishing in my suspiciously overstuffed Steam library.

Really? You went there?
Remember when I didn't use Steam at all? Or when I installed it but couldn't see the point of it? Or when I was smug about not even knowing when the sales were on? Yeah, I could link to posts about all of that but I'm not going to. I have tags if anyone wants a laugh at my expense but I don't see why I should make it even easier.

So here I am in 2021, buying stuff in the Steam sale because... well, because it's on sale, I guess. I mean, I could have bought either of these games at any time but I didn't. Am I buying them now because I want to play them more than I did before? 

Nah. Not going to stand that one up, am I? So much for "I buy what I want when I want it and I pay whatever it costs". Guess I'm going to have to fall back on Emerson yet again. God, I'm glad I picked that as my life motto back in college. It's like the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card for personal responsibility.

Plus, I always said I liked a bargain. Who doesn't? And even if video games need to cost more to cover their costs, to me anything that comes in over £20 is ridiculously overpriced. Unless it's the expansion for an mmorpg I play. Or a new mmorpg I want to play. Or Early Access to something that's going to close down in a couple of years.

Emerson!!! Get in here!


I wouldn't get too comfortable there, ma'am.


What I wanted to do before I wrote about either of my new purchases was to play through both of them. That way I could compare and contrast and pretend like I was still in higher education, which was the last time stuff like that mattered. Only the problem is I'm already sitting on several ideas for posts that rely on me getting to the end of things, like the Blackwell Chronicles series and at least three tv shows I'm working my through. And for me sitting on posts is about as uncomfortable as it sounds.

So, first impressions, eh? That's a legitimate thing. Let's have at it. Disco Elysium, you're up. According to Steam you've had one hour and forty-four minutes to impress me. Let's see how you did.

Let's start with the positives:

  • It looks great. I love the art style. It's all pastels. Rainwashed pastels. The color palette is tight, mute. It reeks of sanitoriums, overcooked vegetables and claustrophobia.
  • The UI is intuitive, handy. Jarring in a way that unsettles. Jittery and gauche. Clever trick, making the controls feel awkward without making them awkward to use.

  • Set design is deep without being daunting. Or not too daunting. The way the environment breaks into rooms without necessarily being bound by walls feels organic and natural. Many games don't pull that off so well.
  • Highlighting items that mean something saves a lot of wasted time. The way thoughts and feelings suggest themselves alongside objects seems original. At least I don't recall seeing it done before.
  • The skill system is proper and something I have seen done before. Probably not as well. The names and descriptions are muffled. The concepts struggle to breathe. So much better than having them shout.
  • There's an xp system! Games like this never have one of those! I love getting xp for things my character does. He even levels up! What is this, an rpg? Oh, it is, isn't it? I was thinking it was an adventure game because it feels like one. Or a visual novel. All the reading!

I like her already.

  • The writing's competent, which is lucky, given what I just said. It manages quite a lot of show don't tell for a game that's basically all tell. Several reviews I read mentioned that if you don't like reading text you maybe should buy something else and they were not kidding. 
  • The plot is interesting, involving, intriguing, all the adjectives it needs to be to draw you in. There's plenty of text and subtext. I imagine it gets deep then deeper again. That's how these things go, isn't it? 
  • The characters have personality. Some. Not some of the characters. All the characters. All of them have some personality. Maybe some of them have all of a personality or most of one. Too early to tell but there's promise.

Enough positives. These are first impressions. This is not a full review. Bring on the bad stuff.

Oh, and there's bad stuff, alright. Let's get that out there. If I had to sum up my first impressions of Disco Elysium in a single word that word would be irritating. Or possibly annoying. Maybe infuriating, I don't know.

  • Let's begin at the beginning with character creation. Remember all those proper skills with funky names? Yeah, I bet those are great on a second playthrough or if you maybe, I dunno, came at it like a research project and read them all up online before you got started. You get to pick stats from presets or half-ass your own before you're faced with a slew of mostly-meaningless icons and cryptic one-line mouseovers for skills. One point to spend on one of them to be your key feature for the rest of the game. That's fun.
  • Yeah, you're not selling me.
    Your character? You get to play a filthy schlub who looks like the third-prize winner in a Peter Wyngarde lookalike contest. After a night in the drunk tank. Make that a week. Actually, maybe after you fell in a canal and drowned and bloated up then got raised in a dark ritual and now you get to look like that all the time. 
  • I mean, I get that that's what they were going for. Only I don't like to play characters like that. Ever. Could I get some options? Please?
  • Also some agency. This is my big complaint. Read up about this game and it's all how you can be whatever kind of detective you want to be. It's right there in the promo material: "Unprecedented freedom of choice". Except if you want to not smoke, or drink, or take drugs.
  • In the first few minutes I was faced with supposed choices over whether to do those things and I wanted to say no but the game wouldn't let me. I tried all the available options and whatever I did I ended up with a quest in my book to get some cigarettes and smoke them or to have a drink. Now I imagine I can just not do the quests but if there's a way to delete them I can't find it so I know the game expects me to smoke and drink. I'm sure it has all sorts of smart outcomes from that, some of which may well end up with being a tee-total non-smoker but apparently I can't choose to start out straight-edge, which is what I wanted.
  • Which is fine (he says, passive-agressively) since I'm clearly not playing a character of either my choosing or invention, only if that's so then why sell the game to me as one where I not only have that unprecedented freedom of choice but can also "do almost anything". Do? Sure. Not do? Not so much.
  • Also, the unpredictabilty of outcomes, when the game does let you do what you think you want and it turns out to be something else altogether. I get that it's a feature. Choices don't just have meaningful consequences, they have unexpected ones. When you're offered the option of slipping away from a conversation so as to avoid paying a bill, however, it's a bit more than just "unexpected" to see your character run full speed across the room before turning mid-run to double-flip the bird at the guy he was supposedly sneaking out on and falling backwards into an old woman in a wheelchair.
  • Following that little performance with a freezeframe where your character soliloquizes about how he doesn't know why he did it doesn't make the whole thing feel any less forced. It gave me the feeling someone had heard of Beckett's affection for slapstick and figured "If he can get away with it..."

Do you kiss your probation officer with that mouth, son?


  • Then there's the swearing. I like swearing. I swear. I watch movies where people swear and read books where people swear. Swearing doesn't usually bother me. About an hour into Disco Elysium I damn nearly closed the game down because of one scene that's nothing but relentless, psychotic verbal abuse. I get the idea but the psychological effect is not dissimilar to having an actual person actually verbally abusing you. I'm paying money for this?
  • That scene is partially voice-acted. The whole game is partially voice-acted. In a few months there's going to be a free update in which the entire game will be upgraded to having voice-acting for every line of dialog. Only the voice acting is not really a highlight. It's intentional, I'm sure of that. The voice acting closely replicates the color palette. It's muted and vague and somewhat toneless. I kind of like it but it's not really anything I feel we need more of. Less of, maybe.
  • What about the writing? Up in the positives I called it "competent" and it is. It's very much in that well-trodden niche where you'd find games like Fallen London and Sunless Seas and anything by Failbetter Games. There's a barrel of ennui and a bucketful of emptiness and someone's read Viriconium Nights while drinking absinthe and listening to Tom Waits one too many many times. The thing is, this is a thing I like. I like this kind of thing. And I do like this. Only, I have seen it a few times now. Quite a few times. It has to be better than a competent pastiche to hold my attention any more. May be this is. We'll see if it holds up. 

I feel there's a bird joke here I'm missing.
And that's probably enough for a first impressions piece. I'd guess I'm maybe five per cent into the game at most and it's a game that's famously replayable. What I think of Disco Elysium after fifty hours is not going to be the same as what I think about it after an hour and three-quarters. I'd be willing to bet now that I'll end up coming back and eating at least some of my unfavorable words. 

But first impressions count... I was going to say double but a lot more than that.

When I played the demo of Neo Cab, which is just the opening of the game, so effectively the same first impression you'd get if you bought the whole thing, I mentally tagged it as something I'd like to finish one day. A year and a quarter later I did buy it, albeit at forty per cent off. 

If I'd played the first couple of hours of Disco Elysium as a demo I'm not at all sure I'd have wanted more. I don't like the characters or the setting much. Nothing about it feels unusual, let alone original. It seems extremely well-done for what it is but what it is is something I'm beginning to get a little tired of. 

I've been reading and watching stories set in cities at the end of the world or time since I was a teenager. And as for neo-noir, I'm not sure how many more downtrodden, drugged-up, drunken cops trudging through garbage-strewn, rain-soaked streets in torn trenchcoats I can take. Okay, it's a sports jacket this time but the point holds.

I'm bound to keep playing, nonetheless, and not just because I've paid twenty quid for it, either. It's the name, isn't it? I mean, "Disco Elysium"? 

I can spin a million post titles out of that!


  1. Oh, Disco Elysium! One of my favourite games of 2020! (That I played in 2020, anyway).

    * It's completely possible to play the game without smoking, drinking or doing drugs (apart from the opening scene): I know, I have the achievement :).

    * The endings and outcomes change depending on how you play the game, in meaningful ways. This is a good thing, for me.

    * It's politically aware (literate, even), and only pretends to cynical and dissolute (although you can play it that way, if you choose).

    * The skill system is fantastic and deep - but as you say, it is unforgiving and doesn't allow resets. Learn to save-scum, is my advice: I got stuck early on for several (in-game) days because I failed a check and couldn't retry it until I'd levelled up. By which point I'd learned to save-scum and never failed a meaningful check again :).

    * The only thing worse than the unforgiving skill system is the movement: constant click-to-move, and unlike, say Pillars of Eternity, you cannot set a waypoint at the other side of the map, you have to keep clicking inside the playfield.

    * It's lore (and world) is deep and articulate - and unlike Failbetter games, where the world is played too often for laughs or arch effect, there is a wounded heart at the centre of Disco Elysium that it slowly reveals to you.

    * The wounded heart, and the dissolute main character, are echoes of each other. There aren't many games that show you the heroism of just keeping on going. Disco Elysium very much *does not* encourage you to play the hero, but my god, does it reward you should you manage to do so.

    1. I put in another two or three hours last night and I could write a whole new post about that. Also one replying to your comment point by point. If there's one thing I can say for Disco Elysium it's that it generates commentary.

      Keeping it brief, my take thus far is that Disco Elysium's greatest strengths are the mechanics and the gameplay, which is something I certainly didn't expect from anything I'd read about it. It's a compelling *game* that's involving and absorbing to *play*. Considering the huge emphasis every reviewer puts on the writing, the characters and the narrative, that came as a big surprise.

      I am definitely not sold on the writng yet. I find quite a lot of it annoying and the politics, of which there are an awful lot, trite and boring. At times it feels like being cornered in a bar by a second-year pol-sci undergraduate three drinks in and at other times it feels like reading a particularly uninspiring textbook.

      The humor is an interesting point. Failbetter Games do arch quite well, although I feel their writers often prefer parody to originality, but what I've seen of DI so far kind of lurches around from serious to surreal without much in the way of a supporting structure. One of the most annoying aspects are the "crazy" options in the conversations, few of which seem like anything anyone, even someone with the kind of pre-existing mental health and substance abuse issues the main character has, would come up with. The way the game then repeatedly remionds you that it's okay to take the crazy options and not to be shy of them I find patronizing in the extreme.

      Same thing with the drinking and smoking. I haven't done either yet buit the game has reminded me repeatedly that I need to. I'm now getting straight-up out-of-character tips on how drugs and drink work to boost stats, just in case I didn't get that before. It's possible to decline, yes, but the developers make it crystal clear they don't want you to abstain.

      Anyway, I said I wasn't going to write another whole post in the comments so I'll leave it at that. The key thing is, I'm hooked. I find myself thinking about the game a lot when I'm not playing it and I want to go on playing it more than I want to play any other game right now, so I guess that's the best review I could give it.


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