Countless CRPGs throughout gaming history—from 1988’s Pool of Radiance to 2015’s Pillars of Eternity—have purported to recreate the tabletop roleplaying experience. Both developer and fan alike will tell you it’s through their slavish adherence to arcane rulesets, or their weak nods to the oft-hailed crown of ‘choice-and-consequence,’ or even how many +1 broadswords lie scattered across their worlds. And yet not many manage to capture the essence of what it means to collaboratively tell a story with a group of friends—how could they? Video games are lonely experiences; some made less so through the veneer of well-written dialogue or charming character interaction. But mostly you’re a solitary actor poking and prodding at scenery and cast members set down by an unknowable director. You don’t engage with the world; you interface with it. Interrogate it.
Developer ZA/UM uniquely understands that trying to feed rulesets to a computer and hoping that something human comes out on the other side is a pointless endeavour. Their latest title, Disco Elysium – The Final Cut (a more fleshed-out version of 2019’s original), is a game that knows CRPGs are about questions, but is smart enough to identify that what makes tabletop RPGs unique are who those questions are being directed at. The game’s exhaustive list of skills and stats crosstalk and implant ideas the same way players at a table share thoughts and motives: through meaningful conversation. The result is a lean and agile game that truly—and uniquely—deserves to be compared to the tabletop RPGs it so clearly takes inspiration from.
Disco Elysium is set in the fictional city of Revachol, in a dark stretch of urban wasteland all but abandoned by civic overseers due to rampant violence and corruption. The world’s brutal history is rendered in painterly strokes and muted hues, with the post-imperial-post-communist backdrop littered with the bullet holes from decades-old firing squads. While the city’s history is turbulent, it’s far from rested in the present. Its current occupants have transformed it into a powder keg, with a group of striking union workers who hold absolute dominion over the streets pushing back against their corporate overlords.
Thankfully, the world-building isn’t solely kept to exhaustive info dumps; you see it in citizens’ tired faces, in their stories, in their failing shop windows and dilapidated, leaky homes. All of this serves as a backdrop to the main narrative through line. Players assume the role of an amnesiac cop trying to solve a brutal murder, while also coming to terms with their own history of alcoholism and substance abuse. If this sounds bleak, it’s because it is: Disco Elysium is a fraught and harrowing game, loaded with confrontational themes and language. It walks a tightrope between utter pessimism and navel-gazing profundity, but because it so wholly—and earnestly—commits to its edginess, it never falls prey to either.
The only way that you’ll advance your investigation—and indeed, the in-game clock—is by talking with people. As you climb through dialogue trees, your skills—some more conventional, like Logic or Empathy, others more outlandish, like Inland Empire for bizarre dreams and gut feelings—will chime in as an inner monologue, incepting new ideas or realities. But like any good player or MC at a tabletop roleplaying group, your skills ask you questions and incorporate the answers, often challenging your assumptions. Your skills aren’t absolutes either—they’re warped through interpretation and unreliable narration, compromised by your character’s history and prejudices.
Much to the chagrin of Dungeons & Dragons grognards, some of the best moments in Disco Elysium are when you fail a roll miserably. While some skill checks act as hard barriers to progression down dialogue paths, others might change the entire tone of a conversation or a character’s long-term perception of you. And even if you fail one skill, another might swoop in at the last moment and provide a different angle for you to exploit. Botched rolls in Disco Elysium aren’t marks of failure as they so often are in other systems; they’re narrative inflection points.
As you peel back layers of the investigation and your own psyche, you’ll unlock entries in your Thought Cabinet. Researching entries in the Thought Cabinet will usually have a short-term detrimental effect on your skills, but will eventually unlock greater bonuses down the line. Mechanically these are a way to chart your own character’s growth besides the usual RPG faire of dumping stat points into corresponding buckets, but narratively it also provides a way of shaping your character’s beliefs, and the type of cop you identify as.
Tying these all together is the narrator, a new addition to the Final Cut. Voiced by Lenval Brown, the different aspects of your personality are all given a deep and raspy delivery. Brown doesn’t append personalities to the different skills he portrays, which was a smart move given the sheer amount of dialogue he has to chew through. His voice is a fixed point, and he provides a much-needed warmth to the game given its cold and leeching subject matter.
Disco Elysium also bats for political messaging. With the naïve centrism proudly touted by other studios in the industry—that their games are free from the dreaded ‘P-word’—it’s a refreshing thing to see, even if the game’s final stance on the matter borders on nihilistic. In the base game, you could interject in discussions with political opinions, but these largely felt like hot takes on Twitter rather than a meaningful commentary about the state of the world and your place in it. To remedy that, the Final Cut introduces Vision Quests. While these standalone scenes don’t necessarily have much to say, they do help contextualise your character’s story—how a man who’s never built anything stable in his life might grasp for the structure offered by communism, or how a desperate cop trying to make sense of a cruel and illogical world would prescribe to moralist ideals.
It should also be noted that the game lets you flirt with fascism, though it pushes back (both mechanically, and narratively) on the mythologising its adherents tend to vomit up. Mostly it uses it as a lens to look at how ignorant and injured people can endorse heinous and crackpot ideas as a way to escape their painful pasts. The game ultimately—and rightly—displays reactionary politics as self-serving and farcical, but still dangerous.
But where the writing truly shines is with your partner, Detective Kim Kitsuragi. Typical RPGs of a similar narrative scope spread characterisation across multiple party members, with select members standing in as short-hand for broader themes or ideologies. In most cases, these characters feel like underbaked, waxy simulacra of people—archetypes designed to act as soundboards and move the plot forward.
Conversely, Kim is the only party member you have in Disco Elysium, meaning a lot of time and attention was devoted to his development—and it shows. He has his own beliefs and idiosyncrasies (he’ll call you ‘Detective’ when he’s proud of you, and ‘Officer’ when he’s annoyed), and you’ll get to chip away at his hard exterior to find the hesitant goofball underneath. The game also seems cognisant of the quality of its writing on Kim; one of the saddest and most poignant scenes in my first playthrough involved sitting on a swing waiting for the tide to roll out, whistling a sad song to myself—only wishing that Kim were there to hear it too.
Disco Elysium – The Final Cut is something rare. It’s a re-issued version of an already-beloved game, that manages to eclipse the source material through clever and thoughtful additions that maximise one of the game’s most beautiful assets: its prose. But more than that, it’s the only CRPG that can truly claim to emulate the tabletop experience—not through adherence to statistics or rules or character sheets, but through the simple act of asking questions, and thoughtfully incorporating the answers.
Title: Disco Elysium – The Final Cut
Platforms: PC (Steam – reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release date: 30 March 2021