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Your skills talk to you in Disco Elysium, an inventive RPG that keeps impressing

At first there's nothing save for an inky black void and a stupefied inner monologue. But then a second voice chimes in, bidding me to just go with the flow. That’s my personified lizard brain speaking. 

An argument breaks out between me, my lizard brain, and now my limbic system, too. Every part of me is straining towards something different. All I want to do is wrench myself free of this drunken haze and wake up to the ungodly hangover I probably earned. 

Rhetorically triangle-choking my lizard brain and limbic system into submission through a series of dialogue-tree-based skill checks is how my journey into Disco Elysium begins, and it's the perfect tone setter. Disco Elysium is a hardboiled detective mystery RPG set in a neo-noir urban fantasy setting, and unpacking my own baggage appears to be just as important as solving the mysteries around me. As I interrogate suspects, I'm also arguing with disparate parts of my own psyche.

Characters, including the many voices of the antagonist’s own personality traits and skills, are often dry and caustic. Even the mundane is tinged with absurdist nightmare logic. Everything is strikingly rendered to look like a dingy watercolor painting.

My character unfolds himself from a crumpled heap on the floor unable to recall who he is, or even what century it is. There's a hole in the window overlooking the balcony. He notes that it's too big for a bullet and too small for a piece of furniture. Also, one of my shoes is missing. Naturally, I deduce that I, in the throes of last night’s bender, put one of my shoes through the glass. Some of the warring factions in my brain seem pleased with the detective work.

With one green shoe and a wrinkled suit, I stumble out of my apartment. There's a young woman nearby. I walk up to her hoping to learn more about my predicament, but my interpersonal skills are lacking. I can't extract any fungible information from our conversation except for the fact that I’m a cop… I think. Nearby is a door leading out to the balcony. Sure enough, I find a green shoe on the balcony amid puddles of glass. 

My protagonist is able to read a crime scene like a book, but people seem to be written in a foreign language to him. This is the consequence of choosing logician as my starting class. There were three to choose from, and an option to construct a personalized class from an assembly of skill trees.

Words with friends

Disco Elysium’s skills—categorized under motorics, physique, psyche, and intellect—are where things become very tantalizing. Skills are like specters in your brain representing different parts of your personality. They interject with insights and desires, and sometimes actively talk to you while trying to convince you of their merits.

Electrochemistry, from the physique tree, likes to goad you into doing things like lapping up pools of spilled booze on the floor.

Electrochemistry, from the physique tree, likes to goad you into doing things like lapping up pools of spilled booze on the floor. I only touched my tongue to the stagnant puddle of liquor, by the way. I’m not a monster. When I made that choice, my character said that he likes to delay gratification. Electrochemistry also carries a lot of special chemical knowledge and lurid tidbits that prove valuable in this world of vices. Investing in it also lets you get more of a bang out of stat-altering drugs.

In solving my broken window dilemma earlier I used skills like logic, conceptualization, and visual calculus. My conversation with the woman outside of the apartment called upon skill checks for empathy and a variety of interpersonal and persuasion based abilities that I struggled to pass. 

How you build your character will affect your interactions and how you go about performing investigations. The woman outside of my apartment clammed up and was a dead end of a lead for me. For others, she might divulge more if the charm is laid on thicker.

As I work my way around the apartment complex I come across another officer. Apparently, I've been derelict in my duties and left a body uninvestigated. It hanged from a tree up until that point.

As if the Lynchian vibe of the game needed to be further enunciated, one of the skill checks I'm given the option to use relies on the Inland Empire skill, which is part of my psyche. Inland Empire, I am told by the developers, is like the intensity of your character’s soul. It seems to come packaged with some very abstract worldviews, too. Sometimes skills are ethereal like that. What they do and what they represent about your character can seem slippery, but that quality also makes them and the world of Disco Elysium all the more compelling.

In using the Inland Empire skill to steer our conversation, I attempted to impress upon the officer that I was an amnesiac alcoholic and that I might be capable of anything, and that maybe I killed the man in the tree. A failed check led to the officer essentially hand-waving away my existential concerns.

Power issues around the booth cut my demo short, but I saw what I needed to see. Disco Elysium is dirty and biting while being painterly and flowery. There is stillness in the atmosphere, with tension and suspense lingering on the periphery. It is an RPG about navigating an urban world and your own thought processes. It is strange and disorienting, but also unique, well-written, and evocative. Even just this bite-sized sample was exciting. 

Disco Elysium doesn't have a release date yet, but you can find updates on the official website, and on its Steam page. Also check out Sam and Tom's thoughts on the demo from earlier this year.