There are few tropes that are as well-worn as the alcoholic detective. Even uncontacted tribesmen in the Amazon basin could probably get the gist of “he’s a loose cannon…but he gets results.” Huge swathes of our televisual landscape and innumerable forests worth of pulp literature are dedicated to badge carrying basket cases who only crawl out of the bottle in order to slap the cuffs on the cold-eyed murderer du jour. Disco Elysium vaults over the hoariness of the trope by turning it up so high that it shatters into a million pieces.
As you start the game, the alcoholic, drug addled detective that you control has gone on a bender of such apocalyptic proportions that his brain has simply fritzed out, perhaps for good. Coming to in a demolished hotel room at the tail end of a nightmarish binge, you realise that not only can you not remember what happened the night before; you can’t remember anything at all. Your entire life outside this unthinkably horrific hangover is nothing but shadows, even elemental concepts like money are lost to you. This would be bad enough at the best of times, but unfortunately, you’ve chosen to undergo ego death whilst you’re on an active murder investigation. With nothing better to do and a newly assigned partner who knows even less about you than you do, you throw yourself into unravelling the mysteries of the once familiar world, figuring out your own name and maybe solve the case.
Videogames have for the most part given police officers (alcoholic or otherwise) a wide berth. Whilst there have been some brave attempts at detective simulators like L.A. Noire, for the most part the whole ‘shoot last, ask questions always’ nature of the genre tends to make developers nervous. If you aren’t mowing down the population of a pre-industrial town every ten minutes, is it even a game? Going by this metric, Disco Elysium isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire; there’s no combat per se and with a top-down, point and click approach to gameplay, it isn’t exactly white-knuckle entertainment. What the game does have is words: over a million words worth of some of the best writing ever seen in a videogame. Both hilariously funny and deeply lyrical, your search for the truth sees you grapple with fiercely intelligent questions on the role of the police, ideologies and the market.
As a side-effect of turning your mind into mush, different aspects of your brain are continually literally talking to you, each represented with a series of Francis Bacon-esque portraits. Depending on which of the aspects of your brain that you level up determines how much that part of you makes its presence felt. So, for example, if you don’t level up Electrochemistry (your drug hungry pleasure receptors) you might not recognise that a suspect is a drug addict, but put too many points in and your brain will be screaming at you to abandon the case in favour of tracking down a cheap bottle of red. There are 24 of these skills each with their own often hilarious personas with the dialogue and narrative differences between a physically orientated detective and emotional or logically orientated one are practically night and day.
Of course, all of this would be for nothing if not cushioned with a fascinating world to interact with. Disco Elysium takes place in the fictional city of Revachol, a once great power that saw a brief communist revolution snuffed out with extreme prejudice by a global alliance of capitalist nations. Decades later and the city is still a bombed-out ruin, an internationally run provisional state, with the disenfranchised people struggling to make something of their lives amidst the ruins of ideology. Disco Elysium’s world building is in staggering in depth but considering that it comes out only if you swerve off your standard interview questions to bombard your poor suspect with questions about socio-economic history you can indulge in it as much or as little as you wish. Whilst many games bend over backwards to try and claim that they aren’t ‘political’, Disco Elysium wears its politics defiantly on it’s sleave. You can become a communist, fascist, free-market libertarian or centrist with thorough (and hilarious) deconstructions of each political viewpoint. From attempting to reform a communist cell to teaching a drugged out raver to chant “incremental change!” in celebration of the EU-esque Moralintern, this is a world where every act is political, yet all politics have failed.
Disco Elysium was initially released in 2019, but newly released Final Cut radically changes the experience of the game. Whereas previously each character’s opening lines of dialogue were voiced with the rest having to be read, the Final Cut boosts it up to fully voicing the dozens of speed freaks, revolutionaries and maniacs who make up the once noble city. Actor Lenval Brown takes on the herculean task of reading the narration and it’s him you’ll be spending most of the 30+ hour play time with. Luckily, he has a voice like being drowned in chocolate in whiskey and those hours will if anything shoots past far too quickly.
Disco Elysium is not revolutionary in it’s gameplay, the graphics are painterly and evocative but it’s the opposite of next generation photorealism. This isn’t the kind of game that sparks of a legion of imitators, it is however, utterly and joyfully unique. There has never been a game that offers this kind of cracked, comic and yet shatteringly emotional experience in all the zeros and ones that make up the last three decades of gaming. To say it’s not for every one is an understatement but anyone who can tune into it’s unique frequency will find Disco Elysium to be a once in a generation achievement. Case Closed.
Disco Elysium is available on Steam and PlayStation 4 and 5 (Nintendo Switch and Xbox releases upcoming)