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RPG Codex Preview: Disco Elysium

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RPG Codex Preview: Disco Elysium

Codex Preview - posted by Infinitron on Thu 28 March 2019, 23:13:50

Tags: Disco Elysium; ZA/UM

[Preview by Tigranes]

In 2016, the Codex was visited by a delegation of strange Estonians. They cold-called our resident newsbot to promise what they called a "story-driven isometric role playing game about being a total failure". Since then, Prime Junta previewed the game in 2017, describing it as a 'work of art in progress'. And now, because ZA/UM still haven't learnt their lesson, I've managed to take another look in person.

Now, this isn't a full blown preview/interview. It just so happened that a filthy Codexer was wandering the even filthier streets of San Francisco, and ZA/UM were showing Disco Elysium at the GDC. The filthy Codexer had neither money nor doritos to procure a GDC pass, and instead cavorted with them in a hipster cafe. What follows are a bunch of personal impressions from a sub-hour hands-on playthrough, and some chatting with the devs.

Where's your RPG badge, boy
What is an RPG, anyway? I don't know, but usually I know it when I see it. There's a familiar pattern that we all recline on: a comfortable blend of looting, pillaging and lying, or the obsessive numerical optimisation of the perfect murderhobo. Disco Elysium, from that perspective, is an odd one. The game constantly feels like both something you've played and loved before, and something you've never played before.

In the first five minutes, I thought I was going to say Disco Elysium feels like an adventure game. There's a point-and-click system in place, and an attention to detail in your environment that's the hallmark of the genre. But then, your physiology starts to talk to you. Electrochemistry wants you to smoke, or at least to think about smoking. How you respond helps shape your character. There are 'thoughts' you can pick up as a result of your decisions, which in turn define future options (more on this later). There's even highly customised, pseudo-turn based combat sequences (more on this later too), though I didn't get far enough to see one myself. It quickly lays on gameplay elements that feel clearly RPG-ish in spirit, but often distinct from the kinds of systems we are used to seeing.

At the same time, this is a game that knows exactly what it is and what it isn't, and it's a game that has gone through a great deal of iteration. There aren't any half-baked systems that are included just because we expect them from RPGs; every piece of the game works together in a natural way, to communicate to the player what kind of world they are in. Within 5 minutes, I understood what I was: a drunk fuck whose life is as fucked up as his room - which would translate into every interaction option, every dialogue line, and even skill names. Within half an hour, I birthed the grand ambition for the playthrough: to be the dirtiest, smelliest, most deplorable Herr Hobocop I could manage.

Choices & Consequences
In an earlier time, when the Codex was the bastion of civilised tastes, C&C was the holy grail of a good RPG. In my mind, C&C will be the difference between whether Disco Elysium ends up an interesting adventure game-RPG hybrid or a truly memorable classic. There's no combat system to provide variety in terms of party-building or tactical encounters, so the extent to which you can shape your character through dialogue, thoughts, interactions, is really the meat of the gameplay. In my sub-hour playthrough, Herr Hobocop struggled to get dressed (and partially failed), got insulted by almost every NPC he met, and nearly mutilated a corpse trying to steal its belongings. The real question, then, is how much those bumbling interactions are going to remain fresh and consequential.

From chatting with the devs, it seems they are fully behind branching paths & real consequences as a design goal at least. They're not particularly worried about making sure every player gets to see all the content, or that every option is similarly rewarding. I'm told that depending on your skills and choices, you might get to, say, a cafe, and see very different interaction possibilities; and if your particular guy can't even start a conversation with the barista, that's just how it goes.

Two design decisions, to me, indicate that their heart is in the right place. First, I'm told that anticipating & designing interesting failure states are a key part of the design. Though some catastrophic failures lead to game over, many others are par for the course, and update the state of the world in interesting ways. Second, choices are (partly) limited and irreversible. Interaction options are classified as white or red. Red options can only be tried once, and you roll with the result; white options can be tried again, but only after levelling up relevant skills, and/or changing something else in the world so that the odds of success have been modified. From my sub-hour hands-on, there's no way to tell how successful they'll actually be at this, but at least they understand the nature of the problem.

And yes, they've heard of Age of Decadence.

A location only discoverable through high Perception skill, or a couple of alternative paths.

The Thought Cabinet
The link between narrative/role-playing choices and tangible, gameplay-impacting consequences has always been difficult for CRPGs; +1 to Charisma after that explosive one-night stand just feels a little bit reductive. In Disco Elysium, the Thought Cabinet is a key mechanism for handling the & part of C&C.

In the current build, I could click into the Cabinet menu and see a long list of dozens of thoughts that could be attained - names composed in typical Disco Elysium style, like the 'Volumetric Shit Compactor' (attainable quite early) and 'The Insulindian Miracle' (appearing later in the game). The idea is that particularly striking ideas you encounter and/or pursue will be collected into the cabinet, where you can choose to 'equip' them. Most directly, they'll function like stylised perks, providing specific bonuses.

But that's not very interesting. What is supposed to happen is that equipped thoughts will also create new interaction possibilities, and even have synergy effects between themselves. And at some point (I don't know the exact trigger mechanisms), equipped thoughts can become burned in as a permanent part of the character. ZA/UM told me they're still working through how many thoughts you can equip, their bonuses, and so on. What they seemed to be aiming for is that where we normally build characters on purely gameplay terms, such as a two-handed fighter with high DEX, the thought cabinet would involve building characters in ways that have both extensive role-playing/story and gameplay implications.

HERR HOBOCOP. The UI looks a bit different from this in the 2019 build.

Skills, Interactions, Combat
These different thoughts and decisions play out through what are, more or less, dialogue scenes. Classic RPG dialogue trees are how your Logic or Drama skills talk to you, how you talk to other people, how you struggle to put your shoes on in the morning, and how you resolve combat. In each of them, you will hurdle challenges by picking options, some of which involve skill checks: a window opens up to show your mathematical chances based on your skills and attributes, and there's a dice roll on top of that to determine the result.

Combat, I'm told (I didn't get far enough to see one), works like a particularly involved version of these interactions. Personally, what I heard reminded me of what you might see in a pen & paper game - the kind where the DM encourages creative uses of your skills, from acrobatically vaulting off railings to Mage Hand-powered shenanigans, rather than yelling Magic Missile every single turn. It sounds like there might not even be a clean separation between combat and dialogue; you're talking to a dude, being the hobocop you are, and suddenly they whip out a gun. A bunch of hand-crafted, customised options will become available - as usual, modified by your skills, thoughts and decisions. Based on what you do, other NPCs will respond, again out of scripted possibilities. My impression was that these rare, handmade combat scenarios will never involve routinised tactics (Haste->Fireball, etc), but play out like a tricky, multi-stage skill check laden bonanza.

Here's one example we've seen in earlier previews.

Skills, then, are always both combat and non-combat, and make their appearance in all sorts of places. I stepped out into the rain and out popped an interaction with the 'Shivers' skill; finagling with somebody's boots required 'Savoir Faire' points. I mentioned the Oblivion school of skill-point distribution, and ZA/UM explained that scarcity-enforced choice is built into the systems. Your attributes are chosen at character creation (see left side of the below image), and more or less set in stone; they also affect the degree to which you can specialise in branches of skills. I did notice that clothes will provide skill bonuses, a design that I've always been wary of. I'm told that, at least, they've put care into how the bonuses make sense on a stylistic/role-playing level: you won't find rugged denim pried off a plumber sporting 'Conceptualization' bonuses.

A lot of this reminded me of Age of Decadence, but also, Torment: Tides of Numenera: recent efforts to innovate on the RPG formula of skill checks and to enrich the dialogue experience, ranging from great success to great failure. I chatted with ZA/UM - less about those particular games, but about how to make sure such skill checks can accommodate the player's imagination, and feel impactful. Their answer was simple: good writing.

The skill images look pretty amazing when seen live - more vibrant and dominating.

Writing, Designing
But what does that even mean, especially for Codexers suffering from traumatic reactions to loredumps and other excesses?

Disco Elysium might end up exemplifying the nuance between narration and loredumps. It features plenty of writing, and plenty of narration at that. You read about your struggle to get your pants on, or how electrochemistry interrupts your thoughts midway to tempt you into smoking. But in the sub-hour I played, there's a definitive lack of loredumping. I'm in some kind of city, somebody mentions the name, but there's no idiot hanging around just to tell me the entire 800 year history of the city and its social and political structure. I'm in a police force, but I'm not being fed their organisational flowchart. ZA/UM tell me that's fundamental to the writing: everything should come through organically.

In fact, that principle seems to exemplify ZA/UM more generally. When I ask them about save-scumming, the answer is that the player should feel like failure states are interesting enough to keep playing, rather than being coerced through hard limits like checkpoints. There's a quiet confidence that the quality of the writing, the story, the aesthetics, the interactions, will help everything come together for the player.

So is the writing, in fact, any good? Hard to say after just a sub-hour, but one thing I can say is that it's one of those games that exude a very distinct personality, and hits you with it in the face from the first moment. Morte in the Mausoleum, the opening of Sanitarium, the intro cinematic of Fallout: these are games that somehow communicate their unique style, and stay true to it all the way through. What struck me with Disco Elysium is a certain dry take. A game like Dragon Age: Origins or The Witcher is often melodramatic, in the sense that even when they are delving into dark and depressing themes, they do so in a 'spectacular' way that becomes edgy when taken too far. Disco Elysium is all about a guy who's a long way from a respectable life, failing at seemingly every basic thing he tries, but what I saw takes a step back to crack a dry, black quip at it all.

Herr Hobocop anticipates tapping into the great network of wise hobos, spread throughout the world like a bad fungal infection.

Some Other Stuff I Saw
  • The game is made up of 3 acts - and almost everything we've seen so far is from the first act. We'll learn more about the second act later, perhaps.
  • The game is made up of around 7 days - of which I played about an hour of the first day. The clock isn't really a time limit; it ticks based on actions not real time, and it seems to be more of a marker for the story rather than ever making you rush.
  • The game in fact used to be far larger; at some point ZA/UM said we're going to pick one subsection of the game and really work on the polish. That is, pretty much, the game we will get.
  • The game looks extremely polished. It looks far better in action than in screenshots; the full-screen sound experience really brings out how striking and vibrant it is. The sound effects are snappy, the UI functions well, and the game runs with no noticeable issues. I did notice the movement is a bit skate-y, with characters having to move to a specific predefined spot to initiate conversation; the devs tell me there's a lot more polish passes to come across the board.
  • I asked ZA/UM: have you seen the new Epic Store / Humble collaboration? Is the game coming to GOG? Can you talk about any of it? The answer: "We hate exclusives."

Personally, as someone who's enjoyed both story and combat-intensive RPGs, I had great hopes for Disco Elysium from the start, and my expectations remain high. I can't say if it will be a new classic, or revolutionise the genre; but at the least, I think we will see a very unique game with tons of personality, one which makes design decisions with the right mix of replayability, C&C, and character-building in mind.

So yes, I look forward to the day when the game is finally out (Release Date: Totally Unknown), the day when Herr Hobocop shall rise again, like so:

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