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Codex Preview RPG Codex Preview: Disco Elysium

Infinitron

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Tags: Disco Elysium; ZA/UM

We first previewed Disco Elysium back in 2017, when it was still called No Truce With The Furies. A lot has happened since then, but the game remains stubbornly unreleased. When is it coming out? Hopefully the answer to that question will be revealed at one of this year's industry events. In the meantime, we figured it was worth checking up on it again. It just so happens that our man Tigranes was in San Francisco last week during GDC. He wasn't there to attend the conference, but with a few quick DMs to the right people, we were able to arrange a special preview. It begins thus:

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.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Preview: Disco Elysium
 

Mark Richard

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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."

Unfortunately not being exclusive doesn't necessarily mean a Steam or GOG release is on the table. The publisher Humble Bundle recently partnered with Epic to bring Epic exclusives to the Humble Store, so is it a stretch to suggest Humble might reciprocate if they have enough influence over ZA/UM?
 
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And after meeting mysterious people from a remote Baltic country Tigranes have never been the same. The change was subtle, only his relatives noticed his new hissing habit unveiling when he thinks he is alone. They also noticed that there is a lot less insects in their home and that their neighbors pet iguana has been kidnapped and brutally raped by unknown person.
 

Forest Dweller

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16711.jpg


I think I'm going to need more explanation on this.
 

Tigranes

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The latest UI is a lot clearer, actually - that one is I think 2017 or 2018. In the preview I talk about how it seems to work now:

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.
 

Fenix

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Despite many things about the game being said before, this article reads fresh - that's a quality mark, Tigranes!

Thanks for your time and efforts!

PS The skeptics were shamed - it exist! :dance:

PPS I'll state it just in case - I like that article, because from it you can have distinctive experience about Disco Elysium, despite it being strange and none-format game.
 
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Calm

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Jun 12, 2016
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The thought cabinet continues to strike me as such a brilliant idea.

I await this game with interest. :M
 

Kasparov

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^too well shaven for a hobo. at the very best, hobo shaves with a cat we hold to our beards and hope they bite and pluck our hair.
Protip from the OG Hobocop: you don’t need hope. Just stick your thumb up the cat’s butt. Don’t bother looking for the off switch - just let it loose when the trim is to your liking. It’ll run off, but return when it needs it’s kibble.
 

jewboy

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I think I liked the old title better. What was it again? No Truce with the Furries ? That may be the best title for any computer game in the entire history of computer games. Disco Elysium isn't a bad title, but it can't compare to the old one. With a title that good I don't want to ruin everything by actually trying to play it and the concept sounds a bit boring to me actually. Being a detective sounds like fun when you are like 5. Then you grow up and realize killing detectives is a lot more fun: leaving big piles of cop bodies for the buzzards. Also what good is a game where you cannot kill children? If I can't go on a killing rampage with the streets full of dead children and police then I am not having any fun at all. Actually I want to make a game like that. A police and child murder simulator.
 

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