There is some horrible stuff going on around Disco Elysium at the moment: in fact, the legal side of things is getting more complex than the game itself. In which context, it's good to remember that underneath the drama is arguably one of the best PC game of all time. As the creators have discussed before, the game grew out of a fantasy universe created by Robert Kurvitz around two decades ago and, to celebrate the eighth anniversary of pitching the thing, writer Martin Luiga shared the initial pitch that got it off the ground.
The setting "began as a try to make a more Epic version of a bootleg Finnish D&D system while Robert [Kurvitz] was still a teen," writes Luiga, "and at first, it was called 'Evermier'. [...] Most of the engagement was about system-building. The wizard book was supposed to have 350 spells altogether, each with at least half a page story about the spell, in prose." The name change to 'Elysium' happened after it was "suggested to Robert by some fellow on the dragon.ee D&D and LARP forum" though it took a while before Kurvitz came round to it.
Elysium would over time become more about humans than traditional fantasy races, and Luiga says three big PnP campaigns took place in the mid-2000s that laid the groundwork for the game. Luiga's father died in 2006, after which he and others including Kurvitz moved into his dad's house, and here's his description of that time:
"When my dad died, I got an inheritance about 1,000,000 kroons in size, which translates to approximately 65 000 euros, and various critics have said that I did nothing useful with it, with which I would disagree. I would say I invested it in true and lasting luxuries, which are the fruits of human thought."
The next time my bank manager asks what's going on, I'll simply tell them that my account is full of the fruits of human thought. Point being that Luiga was able to support Kurvitz and others through a period and, in late 2008, the ZA/UM organisation was founded. This was also when Kurvitz wrote the first half of 'Sacred and Terrible Air', which would eventually be published in 2013 to mostly indifference. Luiga says this was a blow to Kurvitz but also a spur: in what form could these ideas find an audience?
Luiga's now shared the email pitch that got what would become Disco Elysium off the ground. It also comes with a more recent reminiscence from Kaur Kender, who writes:
"On the 15th of November 2014 I drove to Helen's place in Pelgulinna to pick up Robert. We went for a ride and I told him: let's make a video game in Elysium setting. It was a risky proposal. The novel had been a spectacular failure. We printed 4000 copies and more than 2560 went directly to pulping machine as we didn't have money to storage them in warehouse. The novel sold over the years total a bit over 1000 copies.
"Robert was really struggling with this blinding unsuccess and he asked for a one day to think about my proposal and went to meet Rostov, but on a next day I got this email. We had started making a video game history."
The pitch from Kurvitz, sent on 16 November 2014 at around half past seven in the evening, begins with the working title for the game, which comes directly from one of the old Elysium PnP campaigns: "Torson & McLaine." This is the text.
Robert Kurvitz's email
AD&D meets 70s cop-show, in an original 'fantastic realist' setting, with swords, guns and motor-cars. Realized as an isometric CRPG: a modern advancement on the legendary Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate. Massive, reactive story. Exploring a vast, poverty-stricken ghetto. Deep, strategic combat.
Be a cop (You're a cop, Harry!) Choose what kind of copy you are: good cop, bad cop, lady cop, man cop, a socialist revolutionary disguised as a cop. A criminal mastermind disguised as a cop. You can even be a real lazy cop, who doesn't wanna be a cop.
Solve cases however you see fit. Uncover an over-arching mystery; shoot gang-bangers in the face.
"How many people have you killed, John?"
"Yes, but they were all bad."
Fail at human relationships.
Featuring: serious moral themes; socio-economic depth; the greatest fantasy setting ever conceived. Beautiful, hand-drawn graphics: a never-before-seen art direction. Blood-pumping, toe-curling, skull-crushing combat. Level up your ability to dream. See in the dark.
Torson & MacLaine.
The Role-Playing Game.
Luiga says that, thanks to the PnP Elysium days, Kurvitz had developed "a rather foolproof way of game mastering, which largely consisted of 1) knowing what the story is and 2) knowing the dice, the charsheets and what should or should not be easy to do. I’d say he was very good at this stuff—maybe even too good."
One of the campaigns, called Riget, was about a group of children that went treasure-hunting, but got trapped underground with demons that were also trapped, and needed to use the children as vessels to escape ("rather Lord of the Flies"). This raises an obvious question which Luiga of course does not answer: "Now some of you might want to know whether demons still exist in the Elysium world in some way or form, I’m going to leave it hanging."
It's fascinating to see the earliest stages of what would become such a monumental achievement. Disco Elysium would turn out a masterpiece, achieving great critical and commercial success, and then in the bitterest of ironies become the subject of an ongoing legal war. Whether it even has a future is up in the air but, at least, it happened.