Sunday, January 10, 2021

Last Days Of Disco

Well, that was an anticlimax. Is what I said last night when I finished Disco Elysium and sat back to watch the credits roll. Seriously, guys? That's it?

According to Steam the whole thing took me thirty-eight hours but you can knock three off for the time I left the game open in the background while I was writing a post about it, so call it thirty-five in total. I hadn't looked to see how long it had taken other people but that's about half what I was expecting.

I had noticed the pacing was off. For the first couple of dozen hours my journal was stuffed with half-completed tasks. I kept adding more. It seemed like I was never going to get on top of my caseload. 

Then, quite suddenly, a whole slew of investigations and side quests sorted themselves out, ticked themselves off and left me with just the bare bones of the main storyline to consider. 

At one point I ran out of things to do altogether. Time moves very slowly if you're not active. I'm not even sure it moves at all. I found myself visiting the bookstore to buy a book just to pass the time. I read it cover to cover half a dozen times just waiting for night to fall.

After that, things began moving again. Fast. Big, set-piece events arrived, one after another. There was a climactic moment where I thought the game had ended with my character's death, but no. On we went, options narrowing, until...

Everything stopped. Murder solved. Loose ends tied. Everyone into the car and back to headquarters, only there wasn't even a car. Just Game Over

Jarring doesn't cover it. Disappointing, frustrating, lazy, half-assed... all of those. It's conceivable the effect was intentional but if so I'd have to question the commercial wisdom of building expectations so high only to let them to collapse at the climax.

It's a difficult thing to discuss, of course, and for two reasons. There's the obvious issue of spoilers. I worked very hard not to learn anything about the game before or while I played it and I don't imagine anyone would thank me for tossing out unsolicited reveals. Even now I'm loathe to go look anything up because I'm acutely aware that another run-through might be very different. 

That's the other issue. In a game that relies so heavily on branching storylines, any detailed discussion even between people who've played it to the end is going to involve a great deal of unshared information. I'm not a great one for replaying narrative-driven games but the first thing I wanted to do when I finished Disco Elysium was start over and try again.


Sticking to spoiler-free generalities, I was expecting something more numinous. Much mention is made thoughout of cosmic themes. There's a fin de siecle feel to the world, an attenuated ennui, stretched to encompass the end not just of the century or even the millennium but of time itself. Even, perhaps, of existence.

Given the relentless emphasis on mysterious, arcane, unseen forces it came as more than a mild let-down to find that in fact all I'd been doing was solving a near-motiveless murder and that all the shadows following me were mundane ghosts from my immediate past. And by ghosts I mean bad relationships and poor life choices.

The capper - and this is a spoiler, albeit one of the most dismal you're likely to see - was the disclosure that, in my much-ballyhooed former, forgotten life I'd been... a high-school gym teacher. It was at this point I realized the writers must be taking the piss.

As I mentioned in my first impressions piece, I'd made a snap decision, almost immediately after at character creation, to play my character as straight-edge as possible. No drink, no drugs, no rock 'n' roll attitude. Just the facts, ma'am. Just doing my job.

I didn't entirely manage to keep that up. I never took a drink, never smoked a cigarette, never ingested a substance other than the basic equivalents of mana and hit point potions. I did flirt briefly with the idea of being a superstar but I gave that up early on.

Whenever there was the chance to "Say Nothing" that's just what I did. If anyone tried to get me take sides I'd tell them I had no opinion or emphasize I was just there to solve the crime.

After a time voices in the game and occasionally the game itself began commenting on how boring I was. There were digs about how I'd always pick the option that didn't really answer the question: Option D - "None of the above".  

There are twenty-five achievements in the game. I got seven of them, including "The World's Most Laughable Centrist", "Goodest of the Good Cops" and "Literally the Sorriest Cop on Earth". I'm not convinced any of those is meant as a compliment.

I did also get "Hyperstellar Law Official" for picking seven "deranged superstar lines" and "Il Coppo del'Arte" for choosing five things an "Art Cop" might say but in both cases I quickly changed direction when I realized I was in danger of becoming interesting. 

What I'm left wondering is how much those conscious, role-playing decisions controlled the eventual direction of the game I played. It seemed to me that the longer I went on, the less original and outrageous the game became. By around two-thirds of the way through it really could have been just about any well-made murder mystery. It would still be a very fine game by any standards but groundbreaking? Definitely not.


And I have to suspect I made that happen. I wanted my character to be boring and I got what I asked for. And along with a boring character I got a boring ending. Unless and until I play through the game again as a reckless, self-aggrandizing speedfreak or a depressive, incompetent lush, just two of the personalities the game seemed keen I should try, I don't suppose I'll know. 

The idea that I might spend another thirty-five hours cannon-balling around Revachol, taking drugs, getting into fights, making lunatic claims and ignoring every kind of precedent and protocol, only to end up finding the result is just the same - a murderer caught, case closed, everyone back to the station - is a risk I'm not sure I'm prepared to take. I could go watch some other peoples' play-throughs on YouTube or read some of the commentary I'm sure must exist. But that would defeat the object, wouldn't it? Assuming the object is to be entertained and enlightened rather than merely informed.

Outside of the metagame I have some smaller problems with the process. The nearer games like this approach some kind of existential meaning, the more glaring become the inconsistencies of the form. In some ways the quarter of Martinaise feels crunchingly real but as hour after hour went by I found it harder and harder to overlook the unnatural state of stasis that prevailed there. 

It's one thing for a shopkeeper or cafe manager always to be at the counter but for a woman to spend five days smoking on an open rooftop, never moving even when it rains or snows? In Revachol no-one feels the cold or the passage of time, even though once in a while they might mention feeling either or both. But they don't act on it. A lorry driver stands in the street, staring at nothing, day after day after day. A woman waits on a boat. A man leans on a pillar. Another balances on a railing. Lucky the minor character who gets to sit down.

There has to be a better way to facilitate player agency while also maintaining a sense of reality. Or there does if you want players to feel they're doing more than playing a game. The problem Disco Elysium has here is that it does some things so very well (when NPCs do interact with their environment - just getting up from a chair or using a keyboard - it may be the best I've ever seen) that the things it does just in exactly the same way all other games do stand out as wrong.

I'm also highly suspicious of some of the self-referential writing and the occasional winking at the fourth wall. I was willing to give all the stuff about role-playing games in a role-playing game a pass when I thought it was going somewhere but in my playthrough it went nowhere at all, which made it feel false. Perhaps in another run that won't be the case but should games be predicated on the expectation they'll be replayed? 

Perhaps they should. Probably they should. In essence it would be a reason to tell stories this way rather than another. There will, inevitably, be a lot of failures that way, though. We're back to the concept of the "good ending" once again, only on methamphetamine. 

I could write a lot about Disco Elysium. If I play it again I'll write more. It's an annoying game in that it demands to be discussed at inordinate length and in extraordinary detail but the options for doing so are necessarily limited. It needs a group of people who've all played it to sit around afterwards and argue it out over drinks until the sun comes up or the bar closes, whichever comes first.

To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a fine game and I unreservedly recommend it. It's also intensely irritating for the reasons I've given and a whole lot more I haven't mentioned. 

I feel quite pleased with myself for playing from start to finish without using walkthroughs of any kind other than a couple of times when I thought the game might have bugged out on me and I had to check if that was true. It wasn't. 


I'm also very pleased with myself for completing the whole thing without dying. Apart from that one moment, when I thought I'd been fatally shot but apparently it was just a flesh wound, I never even felt I was in any real danger. That's what happens if you always pick the most boring option, I guess, but it's worth it to get the"this really happened" sensation a single-threaded run always accords.

Perhaps most satisfying of all was another achievement, "Recruit Junior Detective Kuuno de Ruyter". Only 2.2% of Steam players have unlocked this, which is probably because Cuno is one of the most unlikable characters I have ever encountered, with his potty mouth and his screeching Scouse accent.

He swears, unimaginatively and ceaselessly, usually in your face. He insults you and ridicules you. He whines and complains and generally behaves like a foul-mouthed four year old even though he's supposedly an adolescent. 

There ought to be an achievement just for tolerating him long enough to wring the information you need from his sneering, snarling face. To come to understand his pain and bring him finally to redemption deserves sainthood. Or at least a qualification in social work.

What I disliked most intensely was the writers' seeming disinterest in outcomes. Stories blossom then die. There's no closure. As a player I wanted closure and I felt it was needed, structurally. Too many endings were teased then not supplied. 

If the point is there are no neat endings then don't give such a neat ending to the main story-line. The case may have been closed but all the doors I'd opened along the way were still wide open, banging in the wind.

Unless I left them that way. Maybe I did. 

Oh, well. Too late to close them now. 

Maybe in another life.


  1. Firstly: I fully agree about not wanting to play through it a second time in order to see small changes. I think about doing this a lot for Disco Elysium, but can't imagine ever getting around to doing it: another 30+ hours to see a different ending is not what I consider replayability.

    Secondly: you don't mention two of the main things that happened to me at the end (you are correct, the game rushes to the end all of a sudden in a way even Bioware might have felt unwilling to do). The first of the main things makes the game as otherworldy (in my opinion, at least) as all the skills you could gain imply it could be. The second thing is the elegiac conclusion, the one that gives Disco Elysium its bruised heart - you don't mention it, so I'm assuming you didn't see it.

    It _does_ feel, from your description, that you got the conclusion you played for - and while there's some logic to that, I've always felt about RPG games that when they make me bear the consequences for my decisions *when I don't even realise it's a decision*, then they're not being very fair.

    I really like that Disco Elysium has so many possible endings - but I kind of wish it would have prodded me a little more about the fact that my choices were having consequences and maybe I might want to re-think them. As it happens, I got the full (best) ending, but that's because I was - as I always do - playing with a guide open, so I could make the best choices for the outcome I wanted.

    My own worst experience of this, as it happens, was playing through Life Is Strange, trying to get the romantic outcome - but one wrong choice in the final 'boss' level, and welp, there goes the romantic outcome, and there was no save (as it was the final level) I could go back to that wasn't too far back for me to go back to. I think you've had a similar experience with Disco Elysium.

    1. It's very hard to discuss endings without spoilers. My ending was weird because I did get one major supernatural conclusion, the insect one, but then I chose to keep it entirely to myself so as not to appear unstable in front of the other police officers, which effectively meant it might as well not have happened, I think. I might go back and play from a late save and see how the long discussion with the police plays out if I let them know about my cryptozoological experiences.

      Other than that I can absolutely confirm that there was nothing in the least elegaic about the ending I got. Pretty much the exact opposite, in fact. Every loose end was nailed down with a bald fact and none of the facts invited curiosity of any kind. Apparently I was a dull cop coming off a bad relationship. I didn't handle the break-up well and that was about all there was to say about it.

      I was really hoping for something more cosmic after all the stuff with the Pale and the 2cm hole in the universe and all that. The odd thing is, that's still all happening. It's not like getting the boring ending means it was all some kind of post-drug binge comedown hallucination. It's just that apparently my character doesn't care enough to pursue it any more - he'd rather just go back to work. Which is realistic, if unsatisfying.

      I wonder if they'll do a sequel?


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