Play an alcoholic rockstar cop or a moralist sorry cop or a socialist hobo cop in Disco Elysium, a novelistic adventure game that reinvents storytelling in gaming. Imagine Divinity: Original Sin on a shroom trip and you’ll have the scent of it. Elysium is elusive and seductive, disgusting and plodding, ugly and beautiful. It is all of us, a social commentary that accounts for the implausible, a miracle of narrative fiction, better than most (if not all) modern lit. Its pretention is only matched by its obsession with guttural urges and sweet fleeting feelings. It is the darkness and sadness of humanity, an episode of Black Mirror without ending, a suggestion of what’s to come and what came before.
A standard cop game might see shoot-outs a plenty. Not so with Disco Elysium. Wander from misbegotten scene to another like Guybrush Threepwood and have seemingly aimless conversations. Pick from a long string of options that either make your character seem quirky or jaw-droppingly insane. Trigger warnings fail to make an appearance, but delicate sensibilities need not apply, until the warmth swells in your heart and you see the beauty in the madness.
Like a D&D game, Disco Elysium offers you checks and dice rolls. You level up weird qualities with unclear advantages. You can also dwell on thoughts to unlock new abilities (or screw yourself up emotionally). You’re supposed to be solving a mystery but your body is a sack of crap and your head is swimming with substances. Good thing you’ve got Kim by your side to keep you straight. That is, if he, or anyone in this punctured city can be trusted.
Who’s to say you’ll have the same experience I did when playing this game? All roads lead to Revechol but it’s the journey you take to reach your destination that really sets the vibe. Will you recover your badge and gun? Will you help cryptid hunters find the truth? Will you allow local tweakers to run a drug den in a church? These are all optional, but the consequences make them feel like they matter. Finally a story game that accomplishes its own ambitions. No more “Harry will remember that” from those Telltale Games. Real stakes, heart, not just cartoon platitudes about darkness and light.
Your mind speaks to you in Disco Elysium. But you can shut it off if you like. Be an analytical cop running visual calculus. Be a sexist cop with a feminist streak. Be a capitalo-fascist union scab. Revel in your own misery and misdeeds, your inability to change the past. But if Disco Elysium’s message is about the weight of consequence, the inescapability of past, present and future, it also provides a sly smile. Who says disco’s really dead? The spirit’s still alive, baby.