Monday, January 4, 2021

Gotta Get My Disco Shoes On

In my reply to a long and thoughtful comment Seanas left on my first impressions post, I observed that one of the things I found most surprising about Disco Elysium in early play was just how much of a "game" it was. In ludic entertainments predicated on narrative and atmosphere, I'm used to the mechanics taking a back seat to almost everything else. There can be a few quirky tricks to pick up at the start but with those down it's full ahead on plot, puzzles and storyline.

But then, Disco Elysium does claim to be an rpg. And not just any rpg. As the publisher's blurb on the Steam store has it, "the most faithful representation of desktop role playing ever attempted in video games". Yes, well, that may be so. I'm only eight hours in and anyway I wouldn't pretend to have played enough crpgs to make a judgment. Nor "desktop" for that matter.

What I have noticed is the way the game employs some very traditional rpg gameplay levers like levels and xp and stats. It feels odd, playing something that in many ways feels like a souped-up version of the Blackwell Chronicles, fed by the same ostensible purpose of solving murders and mysteries, yet at the same time seeing your character progress in much the same way they would in an mmorpg.

Once you have a player character with levels and stats that increase over time, operating in a world where the capabilities of the non-player characters don't change, the possibility of gaming the gameworld immediately presents itself. It's expected. The game itself prompts you to return to certain challenges you may have failed once you've levelled up and spent some skill points.

As Seanas points out, it's even possible to become stuck after failing a check and not be able to proceed until you've leveled up sufficiently to go back and beat it. Just like outlevelling a difficult boss you couldn't beat then coming back to kick his ass.

Since this isn't an mmorpg you have, again as Seanas mentions, you have the option of saving before you try something, then re-loading if you don't get the result you want. It's a common practice with many genres but also something I've stated on numerous occasions I don't like to do. I will do it, naturally, because better that than becoming frustrated and blocked, but saving at any other point than the end of a session significantly diminishes my involvement with a game.

So far, in eight hours of play, I have only had to re-load once and that was when I mis-clicked a conversation option. The way dialog interaction is presented in Disco Elysium leaves the player prone to this kind of error. Sometimes there are what seem like anything up to a dozen lines of text, closely spaced. The options already taken often remain on screen in a dulled shade of the default dialog text color, a reddish-orange which, set against a brownish-black backdrop, is already indistinct.


If you happen to have a tendency, as I do, towards occasional, involuntary muscle spasms, brought about by playing long gaming sessions with your mouse-hand unconsciously tensed, it's all too easy to find you've accidentally made your character say something other than what you intended. I'd guess it happens to me once or twice most sessions.

In this case I twitch-clicked the option that made my character ask the barkeeper for a drink. Since I'm planning on keeping him drink and drug free for the duration of the game, that was kind of a deal-breaker. I tried to get out of the interaction but even going to the Options menu didn't shift the conversation back to the previous stage. In the end I had to reload the last autosave, giving me about fifteen minutes of gameplay to repeat.

Even with that hazard in mind I still haven't begun saving before decision points. I can feel the game constricting around me and I may well become trapped but if it happens I'll have learned something important about the design. Better that than break my own fourth wall.

Another thing I haven't yet done is to read a walkthrough or even check if any exist. It's possible the extreme variability of the narrative structure might make traditional guides non-viable, I suppose, although I doubt it.

Eight hours gameplay without needing an out-of-game hint is unusual. It speaks well of the much-vaunted freedom of action although it also has a lot to do with the sheer volume of text there I've had to read. I'd like to avoid walkthroughs for as long as I can. I'm considerably more sanguine about taking advice from guides than I am about save-scumming but I'd still prefer to keep it to a minimum so I'm happy not to have needed to check Google just yet.

There are other, arguably more organic, means of manipulating the dice. (And Disco Elysium does in fact have dice. Each skill check is a roll of two D6 and it happens on screen. You can literally see what you rolled. I can't remember the last time I played a game where that happened. It's another design choice that emphasizes the undeniable truth: you're playing a game). One of them is the aforementioned use of skill points to tweak stats. The other is gear.


Disco Elysium uses a gear-based progression system. This is something that seemed so out of context it took me a couple of sessions even to notice. Every so often you get the opportunity to acquire clothing and items which your character can equip and those items have stats just like they would in World of Warcraft or EverQuest.

Okay, not exactly like that. Most of the ones I've seen have just one or two stats. They modify specific skills by a point or two, enough to be significant in the context of the game. They can also modify stats both ways, up and down but, unlike in most rpgs, in Disco Elysium there could be good reasons why you'd want to lower a stat instead of raising it. You can become too skilled for your own good, leading to obsessive behavior and social disadvantage. Or so I read in the tool tips. None of my skills are in any danger of back-firing just yet.

It took a while for it occur to me but the penny finally dropped as I was checking the list of skill checks I'd failed and which the game was prompting me to retry. Just as in EverQuest twenty years ago you might have taken your fire-resist gear out of the bank for a Naggy raid or swapped your sword for a charisma-boosting Stein of Moggok before trading with an impressionable NPC shopkeeper, so in Disco Elysium you might want to slip on your green snakeskin shoes for the boost they give to your Composure skill.

It's an extraordinarily artificial, gamelike concept to find embedded in an existential meditation like Disco Elysium but someone has made an heroic attempt to maintain at least some kind of tenuous link between the object and its supposed psychological or physical effects. Each item comes with a short description that's more than basic flavor text.

In the third decade of the twenty-first century we're long past the simple days of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when the framework for what would become "roleplaying games" was being cobbled roughly together by intense young men in unfashionable clothing. (I'm guessing it was mostly men but I think I'm pretty safe on their fashion sense, either way).

Those were the days when what we've come to know as "stats" were genuine outcroppings of material properties (adamantium or mithril being understandably better-suited to provide protection from assault than cloth or linen) or sympathetic magic (the skin of an ogre or a giant, fashioned into gloves or a belt, affording the wearer the proportionate strength of the original owner, for example). 

Many rpgs, mmo or otherwise, still pay lip-service to these connections when it suits but a glance at the menu of statistics attached to almost any piece of armor in most of the games we play suggests the primary source for all of them is a spreadsheet. No-one pretends there's even a magical handwaving explanation for how your fancy hat improves your chance of landing a critical hit with a greatsword that looks like an ironing-board, let alone how your ornate leg-armor adds to your intelligence.

In Disco Elysium someone has done their damnedest to force these statistics into some kind of meaningful harness. Take those shoes I mentioned: wearing them adds to your Composure but detracts from your Savoir Faire and the game tells you just why that is. 

The "awesome watchtower heels" are what makes you more composed, something that actually makes sense when you read the in-game description of the Composure skill. It specifically states "You'll rock that disco outfit a lot more if you don't slouch". Crazy, perhaps, but undeniably consistent. Conversely, the skill description for Savoir Faire emphasizes athleticism and acrobatics. It seems entirely resonable that you'd be less light on your feet in a pair of winklepickers that pinch. 

It's a brave attempt at rationalizing the irrational but, because this is very much a game, the result is inevitable. You roam the city with your entire wardrobe stuffed into an invisible suitcase (as usual, no attempt has been made to explain how you carry all this stuff), blithely casting off your white satin shirt in the middle of the street (in a snowstorm, likely as not) to change into a stained muscle-vest because, apparently, wearing a dress shirt helps you Conceptualize postmodernist architecture, while wearing a tank top helps you punch people in the face.

The bizarre thing is you can see how that makes some kind of twisted sense. These items and their
statistically linked concepts have metaphorical connections that aren't hard to parse. The problem comes in the functionality. I strongly suspect that any imagined benefit to Savoir Faire that might be gained by removing a tight-fitting pair of shoes would pretty quickly dissipate when you found yourself standing in your socks in an ice-puddle.

All of which returns me to my original contention: that Disco Elysium is a very gamey game. The question is, does that add to its allure or tarnish it? And I'm not sure, not yet. I'm still struggling to wrap my perceptions around the concepts. It's taken me a surprisingly long time to realize what and where the controls are. Now I'm concentrating on figuring out how they work. Normally this is the sort of thing you'd get past in the tutorial but I'm hip-deep in plot. I wasn't expecting to have to work the the controls so dilligently just to solve the puzzles and enjoy the patter.

If nothing else, it's certainly made me think afresh about how rpgs work. There was a time when I did a lot of that but constant exposure has eroded my curiosity. I can at least thank Disco Elysium for that. Whether my awakened awareness is going to enhance or abrade my enjoyment of less ambitious entries in the canon remains to be seen.

One thing's for sure. I'll be giving the next person who complains about dodgy itemization in mmorpgs short shrift. Try balancing two dozen stats and coming up with a unique explanation for how they work, on every single item. Then again, according to the Steam store description there are only ninety-four equippable items in the entire game...

I'll get my coat. (It's a Disco Ass Blazer. +1 Esprit de Corps: halogen watermarks). Smooth!

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