Disco Elysium is This Generation's Planescape: Torment

October 1, 2019
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In a list of the top ten greatest RPGs ever made, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who, after playing it, hasn’t included Planescape: Torment somewhere in their selection. For this author, it is the genre’s pinnacle: a stupendous stew of atmosphere, exploration and tremendous, evocative writing which nothing came close to touching.

That is, until now. 

The quality of the writing is immediately apparent.

You see, Estonia and UK-based ZA/UM Studio has been grafting away at a title which could very well turn the entire RPG genre on its head. Disco Elysium is a detective game which casts you as a barely functioning alcoholic pulled onto a case, where your wits are required to battle facets of your own mind as often as the characters you encounter. If that sounds like a tasty crumb to lure you in, a delicious huge cake awaits you from the moment you sit down and start reading the gorgeous reams of dialogue and descriptive text slathered over every element of the game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the most exciting, atmospheric and accessible writing to grace a text-based RPG since Black Isle’s masterpiece and — dare we say it — could possibly be even better. We spoke with some of the talented studio’s team to learn more about the development of this hugely ambitious title. 

From Tabletop to Desktop

The prose in Disco Elysium has a very organic lilt which seems borne of tabletop role-playing games, though it turns out that this is no coincidence. “I’ve been playing pen-and-paper since I was fifteen or sixteen,” says lead designer Robert Kurvitz. “I’m something of an evangelist, and I started pouring into it my ambitions as a novelist. I was playing it with my young artist friends back then and we went really highbrow with it. I think it’s as good as storytelling and culture gets. The problem is you can’t record it. You can’t take it anywhere. I shudder to think of all of the hundreds of really, really good pen-and-paper games which just evaporate, so we decided to build our own world and ended up dedicating a large part of our lives to try and encapsulate this in a video game.”

Kurvitz has a point. For anyone familiar with tabletop role-playing, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Cyberpunk or any one of the countless settings and scenarios available, there’s nothing quite as magical as achieving something seemingly impossible with a character of your own making by simply forming an idea and executing it with a dice roll. Capturing that moment of tension in a video game has still not fully been realised. As the likes of BioWare’s games developed from the homely isometric feel of Baldur’s Gate to the bland Mass Effect: Andromeda, more and more of that tabletop personality dissipated. It was this need to transport organic world-building outside of verbal narration which influenced Kurvitz’s own novel — and this in turn led to the success and significant funding required to create Disco Elysium.

Concept art shows a meticulous level of detail in even the smallest aspects of the game.

However, the game was never intended to grow as quickly as it has done. It has undergone numerous changes — not least the wise decision to change the title from No Truce With The Furies to something more bizarre and memorable — but once the writers started getting their ideas onto paper, things snowballed rapidly. 

“The level of detail or realism that we’re going for tends to, it turns out, sort of explode things.” Kurvitz muses. “We thought [No Truce With The Furies] was going to be a first road test to share what we’ve been building for, well, most of our adult lives. But as we got further into development, the game really started jiving with people. I really feel we have a once-in-a-lifetime story hook, which isn’t easy to come up with for a role-playing game. So yeah, we had to rename it to something more commercial and take a swing at cracking America with it.”

Art Imitating Life

To understand the setting of Disco Elysium, you need to understand the background of its creators. ZA/UM Studio started out as a cultural movement, and a fantastically unsuccessful one by their own admission. “We were mostly left-wing people, not very popular nowadays in Eastern Europe.” recalls Kurvitz. “We got into political scandals. But we managed to compose a group of people who had mad ambitions for culture, for painting, for music, for poetry. That group wouldn’t normally work well in a software company, but we knew immediately that if we wanted to put this together, it couldn’t be cyberpunk or high fantasy or dark fantasy. I was never going to get these people inspired enough to work or give four or five years of their lives away if it didn’t have real human relations, or reflect on the world we’re in. It created a very real need to have a setting or an IP which accommodated that, so that people wouldn’t be embarrassed to say they were working on it.” 

Since the usual fantasy staples were off the table, the setting and story were soon swapped out for something more realistic with underlying geo-political themes. Doing so gave the writers freedom to express themselves without being constrained by typical RPG naming tropes. The game name may make it obvious, but as writer Helen Hindpere elaborates: “Though it takes place in an alternative world, we just really liked using elements from the 70s. For instance, there is no internet yet and the first computers are only just being developed. We really liked the buzz of the 70s, and incorporated many elements of that into the world.” 

The artwork has a industrial Soviet flavour which touches on the team's eastern European heritage.

Indeed, the initial locations are deliberately mundane: an apartment; a cafe; a rundown city block. But they help ground the game to allow the more innovative mechanics such as skills to establish themselves. Realism also has its conveniences. “One of the things I got really excited about was telephones,” adds Kurvitz. “You need to have telephones in a story, or you get into Game of Thrones problems with people sending ravens for four months and destroying spatial logic.”

Why choose a detective story? Hindpere has the answer. “Solving a mystery is the easiest way to make things interesting for the player,” she notes. “It propels you to ask questions about the world around you, plus it allows us to explore authority. Revachol [the game’s setting] is a very political city, and people don’t really like cops there — so you’re already an antagonistic character.” 

“Solving a mystery is the easiest way to make things interesting for the player,” - Helen Hindpere, writer.

That’s something of an understatement. As the game begins, you wake up on the floor of a filthy apartment in just your underwear, sporting a stonking hangover. The first thing you have to try and do is work out who you are and why you’re there — echoes of Planescape: Torment permeate throughout, but the feelings you have towards your protagonist are starker. He both revolts and delights with his actions and words, whether plucking up the courage to look in the mirror and see the abomination of his sleep-deprived face, or simply combing through the apartment to find his clothes in an attempt to make himself presentable. 

Mad Skills

Your apartment is where you’re introduced to one of the game’s notably different elements: its skills. Where most RPGs focus on variations of recognisable, practical competencies such as strength or intelligence, Disco Elysium digs deeper. Within each of its four core sets of skills (Motorics, Physique, Intellect and Psyche) are six selectable traits, which not only offer up branching dialogue, quests and lore, but literally interact with each other. The skills are talking facets of your mind, with conversation trees of their own. When you’re speaking to a suspect, your skills will often intervene or open up dialogue options for you to pursue a line of questioning, but they may also hinder each other. 

The portrait for the Drama skill feels appropriately OTT.

As an example, Logic is an Intellect skill which determines how “right” you are about something, or at least, how right you believe you are. It is far too easily manipulated by flattery, so if you’ve picked another Intellect skill such as Drama — which can sniff out a lie from a hundred paces — it’s possible that these two skills will start having a full-on argument in your head during an interrogation, particularly if the suspect is silver-tongued. Meanwhile, the Psyche skill of Volition represents your inner good guy, which is almost certainly going to butt heads with the Physique skill of Electrochemistry: your need and capability for taking drugs. A high Electrochemistry skill lets you consume narcotics to overcome difficult checks in your investigation, but will undoubtedly lead you down the road to addiction. Indeed, quests specifically based on your need to get your next hit can only be accessed by having Electrochemistry in your toolset, but doing so will obviously be at the expense of your morality. 

When you start to realise just how much effort has gone into creating each of these twenty-four different skills, not only in how they are directly used but also their interactions with each other and you, and then tally in the individual paths and side quests each skill can take you down, it’s genuinely staggering. Kurvitz would like nothing more than for other game developers to adopt this approach to skills in RPGs. “I really hope people steal this idea from us — to turn skills into people you can talk to,” he says. “It’s a step you need to make this kind of story-based game personal to the player. It gives you a feeling that you are involved in that wall of text, that you gave that skill a voice. The story wouldn’t be possible without them.”

The skill range is so vast and deep that seeing everything the game has to offer is practically impossible.

Putting points into a skill may not, however, give you the outcome you expect. Your skills have egos of their own and want you to listen to them. If you don’t, or worse, if you try to utilise them and fail, they may react hard. For instance, if you have Suggestion from the Psyche set and try to influence someone, but fail and end up losing face, Suggestion may go off the rails and force you to do something you might not want to do. It’s Disco Elysium’s way of simulating thinking, a concept intangible enough in real life, let alone having it represented in a game. Kurvitz continues: “The struggle of composing sentences, hearing background fears, my conceptualisation giving me a bad joke I’m not going to act on, and so on...there’s a kind of anxiety and tension of being alive and thinking.” 

Heavy stuff indeed, which makes it all the more impressive that ZA/UM has progressed this side of storytelling — the internal mechanisms which dictate what we do and say as a character — in a way that has simply not been done before. Many RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age incorporated puzzle elements into their side quests, while more action-oriented games like the Deus Ex series went in heavy on minigames. With Disco Elysium, this isn’t necessary, as Hindpere explains, “One of the biggest puzzles you’ll encounter is yourself, and specifically whether you should trust your skills,” she says. “Quite often your skills will tell you to do something, but it then turns out that doing that thing wasn’t actually such a good idea.”

Argo Tuulik, lead writer on the game, agrees that the way skills are portrayed tries to closely imitate a person’s constant internal struggle in life. “You might have an irresistible urge to go for a cigarette. This is just a thought inside your head, but it’s not always a good idea — it’s the same for our skills. They may give you bad advice.”  

An interesting side effect of creating something so recognisable about human failings within a game system is that players can instantly connect with it. “We didn’t need to tutorialise any of it,” Kurvitz grins when asked how quickly players picked up using each of the skills in conversation. “People just said ‘Yeah, I have that.’ Most people say that [the representation of skills] is sort of the situation they’re in generally — everyone is in their own head.” 

There are over 80 different items of clothing to wear - all with unique properties or effects.

Another trick ZA/UM uses is giving each of the skills portraits, like human faces which are distorted or altered to represent a particular skill. Talking to something with a mouth and eyes helps solidify the skills even further as unique characters. Each skill has its own personality, building up a picture of your anti-hero as he drags himself from location to location. You can almost smell the stale stench of alcohol on his breath through the monitor while he fumbles to find out where one of his shoes has disappeared to (one of the first quests you’re given). Yet this is a mere hors d’oeuvre, the tiniest slice of repugnance you’ll feel in comparison to the gut-wrenching scene when your detective has to deal with a corpse hanging from a tree. 

“The cadaver was nasty stuff,” Kurvitz laughs. “I researched it and wrote it for about five months, and we thought ‘we’re never going to get this released, ever.’ It takes about thirty minutes if you’re precise with it and I wanted there to be the most gruesomely detailed autopsy scene ever put into a game, where your skills interrupt and tell you things about it.”

On top of this is the “Thought Cabinet”, an inventory for Thoughts — skill modifying statuses which you may stumble upon depending on the choices you make. An example thought is “Hobocop”, where if you let your character’s mental state deteriorate to a point where he can’t remember where he lives, he will go and make a home in a dumpster. It doesn’t end there though: you can actually start taking garbage to the shop in exchange for cash. Like armour in D&D, Thoughts give you bonuses as well as penalties to your skill checks, offering you further specialisms in your role-playing. Here, they aren’t just a stat adjustment, but a completely new facet of gameplay for you to explore, and again, depending on the skills you’ve picked, you may end up being led down a different path than the one you envisaged when you set off.

There are over fifty Thoughts to collect, but you won't be able to get them all in a single game and their purpose won't be clear to begin with. You'll be given the Thought's name and a snippet of information about it, but that's it. Only as in-game time passes will you decipher what each Thought does and the effects that they may have on you. Not all Thoughts are positive. In fact, there's one Thought that will make you fail every skill check you make — temporarily at least — but that in turn may uncover new Thoughts. Some of them open up new pathways in the game, sending you off to talk to other people. Working out what Thoughts mean is a process called "internalization" which may take minutes or even days of in-game time, but the end result is a Thought that you can either store in your Cabinet along with its associated benefits (and penalties) or discard by expending a skill point. As the Thought Cabinet has limited slots, choosing which Thoughts you want to keep or discard is a tricky process. It's yet another intriguing element of your character build.

Painterly Ambitions

When playing the game, one of the most striking elements outside of the writing is the visual design — a hybrid of painted environments, oil-painted character portraits and animations far more detailed than one might expect from an isometric RPG. This comes courtesy of art director Aleksander Rostov, a classically trained oil painter, and a concept artist enigmatically known as Kasparov who has a similar background. The artists take even the most minor aspects of their craft seriously: the character portraits were worked on for over seven months to make it look like they have brushstrokes through them, after the original shadow maps made everything look “too round”. They discounted using 3D CGI immediately when it came to designing the world. “They don’t like the look of it, they don’t like the feel of it, they don’t like the glistening of the skin or the subsurface scattering,” Kurvitz laughs. “The last time they liked it was in the late 90s, in Starcraft. It was their ambition to come up with a new aesthetic. Just like our writers have the ambition to create a new IP in a modernist setting, it’s their ambition to do something that other people want to emulate because they want to see this kind of brushwork aesthetic in the world.”

There are plenty of stats available for you to pore over, should you wish.

ZA/UM is an indie studio — although you wouldn’t have guessed it from the sheer breadth of content poured into the game — so at some point a line had to be drawn under costs. For Disco Elysium, it was voice acting. Similar to Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, while many of the conversations do have an initial voiced segment, the remainder is pure text. Hindpere notes that while hiring voice actors is certainly expensive, there is another reason to focus on text. “Voices really gives you an idea of a person[‘s character], but quite often voice acting and your speed of reading are different. So that’s why we decided to have dialogue voiced at the beginning, so you can then read on at your own tempo.”

Given the volume of text, it’s probably for the best. At one point you can have a conversation with an NPC about cannons. You, like the protagonist, may know nothing about cannons, but that doesn’t stop you being able to egg on the NPC to go into more and more ludicrous detail about artillery. And the best thing about this? It’s genuinely interesting. It may have nothing to do with the story, but the confluence of setting, character and personality all work to make the lengthy dialogue session both believable and hilarious. And you’ll end up learning a lot about a subject that you might not have even considered before.

How did that sequence even end up in the game? Hindpere laughs when we ask her. “So many things have started out as jokes, and we’ve thought ‘We can’t put that in, this is a serious game!’. But then we think about it a bit and realise that we can. For instance, you can sing karaoke in the game which is something that started out as a fantasy throwaway idea. The cannon chat is another example. One of the team is really into cannons, so we added it — and it survived the edit because one of the programmers said that they really enjoyed reading that part, so we left it. We write what we want to read. It’s our game.”

Some Kind Of Superstar from the Thought Cabinet. What does it do? We’ll find out soon...

While not a traditional party-based RPG, you aren’t alone in your mission (should you work out what that mission is). You have a non-controllable partner, Lieutenant Kim, a by-the-book cop who also acts as an expository outlet for your situation and the world around you. While Disco Elysium wouldn’t work with multiple characters to manage, you won’t lose out on the party dynamic which makes so many RPGs wonderfully complex creatures. Here, it’s your skills which effectively act as your companions. Where BioWare asked you whether you wanted to follow Jaheira’s requests in Baldur’s Gate, in Disco Elysium you need to choose which parts of your own mental make-up you’re going to go along with. 

Ultimately, you have to decide whether to listen to your thoughts or disregard them — and the repercussions of doing either may land you in hot water. While there are battles, they aren’t the typically clunky scenarios which felt so out of place in Planescape: Torment. “We like to think of it as dialogue-based combat,” Hindpere says. “Combat definitely happens, but you can’t just go and shoot someone in the face. Placing combat in dialogue gives it a psychological depth, making you really think ‘OK, what am I going to do next?’. And again, it’s skill-based — skills really matter in combat.”

A Political Animal

The way the game tries to wrest agency from the player is a refreshing take on the usual fantasy genre trope of a fated hero coming to power. Does Kurvitz think that the studio’s Estonian roots had a part to play in making the protagonist someone who isn’t fully in control? “For me, definitely,” he nods. “The global culture is an empire culture. This is a culture made by winners on boats who sailed to new worlds and then committed genocide. I come from a lineage of serfs — which is a nicer word for slaves — who were freed ten years before the American slaves. My experience of western capitalism comes after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was a really, really bad time for people in eastern Europe in the 90s, whichever way you slice it. So, I never felt like a piece that fit into the western scene, I felt like I was more of a Soviet person for some reason. So naturally, I wasn’t going to make a game where I stepped into ceramic armour with a FAL automatic rifle and win. I was going to make one where you’re heartbroken and fighting against yourself and the world.” This is a feeling which resonates with everyone in the studio, and Tuulik agrees. “The story of the underdog has always been more interesting than the ‘Chosen One’.” 

Becoming a hobo, while an optional diversion, will still have an impact on your game.

Politics in games are often divisive. If there’s a whiff of any kind of political messaging in a story, you are guaranteed to incense some players — even those who haven’t played the game. Steam is littered with review-bombed games where the focus of the objection isn’t on the gameplay, but that the developer dared to address political themes. The first episode of Life Is Strange 2 invoked the ire of some players for daring to comment on the rise of right-wing politics. We thought while the messaging was a little clumsy, it didn’t detract from a brilliant game; we certainly weren’t disappointed that it was included. Disco Elysium looks set to push this further and provide social and political commentary on numerous world issues through the lens of its downtrodden detective. 

"The story of the underdog has always been more interesting than the ‘Chosen One’" - Argo Tuulik, lead writer.

“I can’t write without writing political jokes,” Kurvitz comments. “Politics is so alive with tension and language. As a writer, I’m drawn to interesting worlds and people interacting with each other, and there was no other way than to make it political. The game is set in a modern world. If you have telephones in the world, someone has manufactured them, someone has the patent, someone put it together, someone has to pay for it, someone isn’t going to get a telephone for forty years, and so on. A world without politics is a hollow world. But my suggestion to video game developers would be to not do it. You get into shit with politics; there’s almost no upside. I would have liked not to talk about these things head-on because they take so much playtesting and writing not to fuck it up. If you go into it and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not going to come out well.” 

The denizens of Revachol are a unique bunch; some creepy, some hilarious.

The game also refuses to pull punches in the lengths to which players can roleplay. You can make your detective become a racist, a lecher, or side with a homophobic NPC, and then you can follow through with those choices in the game. Yet the reason some players are likely to feel uncomfortable is because of the realism in the writing rather than the overarching themes. Characters in other games over the years have been allowed to portray racist values or actions but the difference is that the races are, for example, elves, or dwarves, or the Geth. Something a little closer to home is likely to have a far deeper impact on players, but Kurvitz assures us that making repugnant choices will have consequences for the character as well. Each decision needs to be actively pursued by the player; nothing is thrust upon them. If you want to ignore rather than engage with unpalatable NPCs, you absolutely can do. Kurvitz is keen to point out that writing for a racist character doesn’t make either the writers or the player racist — the game is simply providing the freedom to follow their character down a rabbit hole and suffer the consequences. In a perverse way, the game may actually be providing a sandbox for handling uncomfortable situations and in doing so educating players on what is and isn’t acceptable in today’s society. Not everyone is going to like it, but as Kurvitz says, unless they are determined to shape their protagonist in that manner they aren’t even going to see the content they deem “too risqué” for their tastes.

The Future Is Written

With over sixty hours on a normal playthrough and over ninety if you're thorough, Kurvitz claims that Disco Elysium is five times denser than any RPG he's played before. There are around a hundred quests, seventy characters, a hundred inventory items and a million words of text. But it's the writing that will be critical to the success of the game, and not just from a political or social standpoint. Because there are dozens of different permutations of skills, choices and events that can impact each conversation, it’s vital that players feel that their detective build is true to the way they want to roleplay. You can be a hyper-rational procedural cop — think Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, albeit all washed up — or a hard-bitten, violent detective, or anything in between. You can make decisions about that character’s future based on what you believe led him to the point you first meet him — for instance, you may realise you are an alcoholic and decide you’re going to reform, and therefore give up smoking, drinking and anything else deliberately harmful to your health.

To approach this challenge, ZA/UM employs eight writers and, according to Kurvitz, each of them has a catalogue of imaginary players in their head who are playing through the game. Each of those people has something they hate, or love, or are confused about. Most of them are stressed out about different things; almost all of them are awful people. When it comes to writing dialogue or response choices or descriptive text, the writers consider how each of these hypothetical players would react to specific situations. Would they do this? Would they want to say that? Would they feel frustrated if the reply they were looking for — or the decision they felt their protagonist should make — wasn’t available? This is where the majority of the writing team’s focus lies: trying to preempt potential conflicts, getting under the skin of players, and accounting for bizarre flights of fancy. 

How you treat the people you meet will shape the way your case ends.

Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that Disco Elysium aims to be one of the most narratively ambitious games ever created. The team employs other tricks within the game too, constantly consulting with the player on seemingly innocuous tasks or getting their opinion on things, but then secretly using their input to reward them with callbacks and little jokes later on down the line specific to those choices. But with such huge swathes of text being created by a team whose first language isn’t English, wasn’t this a monumental task to not only translate but ensure the essence of the writing was pertinent to a completely different culture? Tuulik doesn’t think so. “It was actually easier than I expected. Growing up in Estonia we were influenced by western media and so it felt more familiar to me, at least, although we do have native speaking editors.” 

For Kurvitz, Disco Elysium is the culmination of the hopes, fears, upbringing and hobbies of him and his team, brought to life in an interactive world. It is clear that he wants the game to be more than just another RPG, but actually reflect on real-world concerns, all stemming from the fiction novel he wrote (which has yet to be translated into English). “It was a road test for the game world, which turned out to be my life’s work in a way. I asked questions as we built it. Can you say something about childhood in it? Can you say something about Communism in it? Or about the twenty-first century? Can you talk about things head on in the same way, but in a fantasy or science fiction language?” 

What kind of cop will you be?

The team is earnest but self-deprecating, brimming with the kind of deadpan humour fostered by enduring a tough early life. Kurvitz is no different and his passion for the game and — most importantly — the writing contained within, shines through. But does he have any plans to go back to novel writing after Disco Elysium is released?

He smiles. “Books are not a good hustle, believe me. I think the tide of history is on the side of games.”

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Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.