Role-playing games offer a very tempting promise: the ability to enter a new world and change it forever through my decisions. The Outer Worlds begin with my character rising from cryostasis to a megacapitalistic hell landscape, but at the end of the game I can tear down the companies if I want to.
Disco Elysium is another RPG based on choice and full of stories and decisions. Some of these options are small: Am I licking the evidence? Do I lick it a little? Or do I lick it a lot? Other choices help define my relationship with my partner, Kim Kitsuragi, my past, my beliefs, and my understanding of the game’s conclusions.
However, there are many things that I have no control over. The world will never turn around because of my choices. So much change that I make in this world is internal, and this one design decision is a valuable lesson on how to make decisions.
Because selection in games is still a largely unsolved problem and to describe why it can be helpful to go back to a classic.
Image: ZA / UM over polygon
Look back at Shepard
In the first mass effect, Shepard can talk extensively with crew member Ashley about religion. Shepard can even claim that during these conversations they are Christians, or maybe only vaguely religious. Then, at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, Shepard dies. They get better thanks to the shameful Lazarus project, but still died. In no context do they express their faith again; it doesn’t matter compared to the huge AI threats that devour the galaxy.
The Mass Effect trilogy is a series of games about decisions, but these decisions were rarely internal. I decided whether civilizations lived or died, but Shepard was essentially the same person at the end of each game. The world has changed, but not. You never had to.
And the decisions I made that should be important, the things that felt difficult, have rarely done much to change the status quo. I let the council die at the end of Mass Effect – but a very similar looking group of councilors reappeared. At the end of Mass Effect 2, I decided to let Cerberus use the Collector Base. That added a few lines of dialog, but little else. Even if the universe changes, it is difficult to know from one perspective. Everything goes pretty much the same way.
This doesn’t mean that the Mass Effect trilogy is bad games – they’re ambitious, with tons of fantastic, shocking, and sometimes emotional moments. But the big pillar of “player choice” felt like an illusion, culminating in the infamous Shepard series finale, in which three color choices were made. Video game developers are still struggling with player choice rather than presenting their power as a series of coded decisions that are mostly aesthetic: “Do you want to be good or bad?”
Shepard is one of the best characters, but it’s a case study of how difficult it is to make a decision in a game.
So let’s talk about Disco Elysium and how the developers got around this problem.
BioWare / Electronic Arts
A terrible cop
In contrast, Disco Elysium does not put players in the role of a space wizard for secret agents. Instead, the protagonist is extremely fallible. I just woke up from a three day bender, I have to concentrate on getting dressed, and I can’t remember a lot of my life. Or the world. Or something really. This is how the game starts. I would be lucky to get a bagel in the morning under these conditions, let alone decide whether to blow up or spare an entire planet.
The story of Elysium is much more humble, with lower stakes than a giant pre-apocalyptic space opera. I am dealing with a corpse and a strange city in an urban fantasy environment. The Disco Elysium mechanics are all about choice.
Of course there are status checks – strength or intelligence determine whether I can hit a child or solve a puzzle. But then there are ideas. Am I a feminist? A communist? A rock star looking for a stage or a hobo who is happiest in a box? The only way I can think about becoming these things is to act in such a way that the concept for the character appears.
This results in a richer selection because I’m not changing the person who heads the government or who has access to a super weapon. The game follows what I do, and if I treat the workers well or experience their plight, it might suggest that they might be worth it if they confiscate the means of production. This does not mean that I can help them with it, but I have come to the conclusion that communism is not the worst idea based on my own actions and experiences.
Picture: ZA / UM
We can also compare Disco Elysium with many Telltale games. Have you ever played a Telltale game, making every choice to see how much your choice changes history? This is a great way to destroy the illusion that the game is just starting. You always return to the same touchstones. The more times you repeat the same process, the easier it is to see how the sausage is made.
Disco Elysium always follows the same path, but much of the change takes place in my detective’s head. What do I think about other characters? How do I feel about my new circumstances? Do I trust my partner to take a risky shot? Do I have compassion for the terrible child who throws stones at a body, or do I swing after him?
All of these decisions change my protagonist, especially because so much of the dialogue is internal. Fear, alarm, philosophy and different approaches to problems argue in my protagonist’s skull and cause a loud mess that feels real.
Disco Elysium isn’t really about the body, not really. It’s about my protagonist and his development, and I don’t have a chance to change the world. I also have no way of not changing, and these changes are important. They give me new options or take away options that I may have got used to. I can see the same world very differently depending on what I do and how my character starts to think about what he testifies.
It turns out that internal changes are not easy to find meaningful representation in a game, but in contrast to the massive shifts that should occur in Mass Effect, at least they seem to be possible.