Disco Elysium breaks down the psyche of a detective

I'd be fine playing as either of these guys. Or even Dougie Jones.

While debate over its recent title-change remains heated, the upcoming alternate-earth detective RPG Disco Elysium continues to be a game well worth talking about for far less spurious reasons. For example, the highly creative skill system at the heart of the game.

ZA/UM Studio have already given us a peek at the Intellect skills, defining the mental faculties of your character, from their ability to recall minutia to identifying lies through your own knack for improvised dramatics. Psyche skills are a far more esoteric ball-game, as these stats determine your emotional makeup, and may even keep other stats in check.

Think back to the chronically underrated Alpha Protocol, and how that game effectively had three options for every situation, playing into the three ‘JB’ super-spy archetypes: James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. The collected and occasionally snarky professional, the calculating and pragmatic operator, and the adrenaline-fueled wrecking ball.

Through its complex stat system, Disco Elysium looks to expand on that to encompass so many possible famous detective archetypes, from Vic Mackey to Columbo and off into much weirder territory. The six Psyche skills determine how your character feels about any given situation, and in many cases will determine your available responses.

Disco Elysium

If you want to play a Sherlock Holmes type, you may find yourself prone to flights of escalating egotism. The Volition skill represents the strength of your moral compass and better judgement, allowing you to keep that in check. If nothing else, it saves your partner from having to play Watson in order to calm everyone down after you just grievously insulted half the police force.

Volition also affects your Morale; effectively your mental HP score, which is ‘damaged’ by setbacks. Sherlock springs to mind again for his notorious (and often drug-fueled) sulking whenever he manages to be wrong about something. The fact that the game’s systems allow for a mental and emotional ‘glass cannon’ is fascinating.

Most interesting for me is the Inland Empire statistic, which they explicitly define as the ‘Lynchian’ skill. If the game allows me to create a Dale Cooper-style weirdo sleuth, able to pick out a viable course from bizarre self-made rituals, I’m going to have to go for that on my first playthrough, and nobody can convince me otherwise.

Empathy is another skill that a Sherlock would lack, and Cooper would be practically brimming with – it determines your ability to sense emotional undercurrents and act on them. It also stands a little bit at odds with the Authority stat, something that Judge Dredd would have maxed, where Columbo would be at the lower end of the range, hence his inability to reliably convince people that he’s a detective. It allows your character to be assertive, but failed Authority rolls may lead to insecure, unstable reactions – see the screenshot below (clickable for readability) for example.

authority

On the other end of the scale is Suggestion. Again, a high Cooper/Columbo quotient here, this stat determines your ability to sweet-talk and gently steer people into helping you, often without them realizing they’re being manipulated. Logically, it should pair well with the Drama stat, which determines your skill at bluffing, lying or acting outside of your own skin.

Lastly, they take a look at the Esprit De Corps, which ties in closest with the Police Procedural nature of the game. The higher it is, the more connected your character feels to the police force, represented as audience-level cutaways. Your character may not know your partner is just around the corner in case this bluff fails, but you do.

I must admit that my eyes light up at every possibility of this system, although I am acutely aware that this is going to be a hell of a struggle for Disco Elysium’s writers to do justice. They’ve set themselves a seemingly impossible task here, but I think that they might just be able to pull this one off.

We’ll hopefully be getting a hands-on peek at Disco Elysium at Rezzed next month, although the game itself has no release window at present.

21 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lo says:

    Just moved this from “following” to “wishlist”! :D

  2. woodsey says:

    Alpha Protocol is merely rated, I think.

    The narrative is impressively malleable, certainly, but it’s absolutely miserable to play. Just walking down a corridor in that game could cure a masochist.

    This, on the other hand, looks excellent.

  3. KillahMate says:

    Every damn thing I hear about this game is ridiculously amazing.

  4. Troika says:

    Yes please. The more I learn about the game the more I like it.

  5. Bjoershol says:

    This is my kind of game. Now to forget it exists to make the wait bearable!

  6. kud13 says:

    The world needs more Alpha Protocol. Or games like it.

    Following with great interest.

  7. lglethal says:

    Oh please let me play as a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade Noir detective!!! Heavy drinking, light violence and a penchant for the femme fatale!!!

    Where do i sign up???

  8. April March says:

    “You’re under arrest.”
    “No, I’m not”.
    “Okay, you’re not under arrest.”

    Gotta love a game that lets you be this absolutely inane.

    And yeah, these skills are out of this world.

  9. teije says:

    This looks ridiculously interesting and ambitious. Hoping they pull it off.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      Yeah, my main fear is that everything hinges on the quality of the writing and the number of stat checks and interplay between them. That ball is well and truly in the devs court now.

      As a pen-and-paper style system though, this would be fantastic and I could see this framework handling tabletop play with very little tweaking. It’s pretty inspired, and is a world away from D&D’s stat systems.

      • biggergun says:

        It was a pen and papers system initially (I think they mentioned it in one of the dev diaries maybe?)

        • Alder says:

          Devs talks a lot about their RPG system here link to zaumstudio.com

          But no mentions about original pen and paper system. If there is one, I want to play it!

          UPD. Oh, I found dev talking about original p&p system:
          “A curious little tidbit: at one point in history, before settling on calling our system Metric, the pen-and-paper version of it was called “Come be a person!”

          But no signs it was published.

  10. Crusoe says:

    Um. Did I just read about my dream game?

    I might have done.

    This just went from ‘unknown’ to ‘extremely hopeful’ in my book.

    I hope they get this right.

  11. biggergun says:

    Finally someone doing something new with narrative gameplay. If this fails, I’m officially done with RPGs.

  12. Josh W says:

    This is so up my alley it’s unbelievable. The structural potential here is huge, connecting multiple possible genres of mystery game at the same time by tying different mechanics to each skill.

    I suspect it will probably be very unbalanced (in the sense of certain combinations being more effective), but if they can make it playable and interesting from a wide variety of different routes, having there be one supercop variant is no problem to me at all.

    In fact, I love the idea of making strange and extreme characters and having to work round their weaknesses.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      Yeah, every detective worth half a damn has weaknesses.

      Aside from Dale Cooper, unless you can count ‘Being Too Nice’ as a character flaw.

      But yeah, a lot of the joy of a good mystery is when the characters get things wrong, or miss things, or just do stupid stuff that fits in with their personal box of quirks.

      I want more RPGs where screwing something up creates new possibilities instead of just encouraging you to save-scum.

      • Alder says:

        I keep imagining a game where you playing to lose. Not to save the world, but to fail it with your stupid and selfish actions, and die miserably in the end.

        • Captain Narol says:

          You can do this in Crusader Kings II !

          And then use next generation to try to fix things up or make it even worse !

      • Josh W says:

        Yeah, it’s an opposite to boosting puzzle-style difficulty, which I also like, but adding in expressive possibilities through systems is one of my favourite ways for people to build games; everything feels different when using a different character, but it doesn’t just crash to a halt.

        • Dominic Tarason says:

          One series I would recommend people check out are the Way of the Samurai games, especially the first. The later games are still decent, but the first is drum-tight design.

          A full playthrough is only a couple hours long. The story plays out over a couple days. There are an ABSURD number of branching and reactive points. One of my favourite routes is screwing up so completely at the start that a gang of punks just tie you up and leave you on a railway track.

          You get rescued by some passing samurai, then go to meet their leader and start a whole new plot branch… or you can try and reject their aid, but then you’ll get run over. Not every bad decision has a way back, but a lot do.

          You also have the option of not saying anything. Always. You can complete the game without speaking a word, and communicating displeasure by reaching for your sword.

    • Josh W says:

      You know what, I just looked back on their blog, and here’s them saying the exact same thing, I don’t quite agree with the idea “not all builds will be viable”; in an ideal world, going through finding really stupid builds and finding ways to make them interesting when they would otherwise be completely stuck would be a great way to expand the game.

      And detailed aside incoming could be done potentially by doing network analysis; given the nodes by “pass/fail” moments in the game, and the links by the dependencies of them on each other, is it at least theoretically possible to path from the end back the beginning even if you cannot pass these skill checks? If not, then you could work out the accessible trees on both sides, (end and beginning) and put in links to make sure that there is at least one path that joins them, even if it’s infeasible for other game engine reasons that a more complex analysis would reveal. Possibly better to put a link or two in there just in case.

      Practically speaking, they’d need to run this 19 times to (I think) cover each stat combination, then times that by the vast number of skill combinations possible. Which with 24 skills means probably in the region of 2,000 different builds, if you restrict your search to ones intentionally lacking particular skills, (and never putting points in them) and then hopefully after the computer has done it’s work searching, only very few of them ping up as being impossible. If only say 5% say, then you’ve still got 100 different particularly awkward detective types, who although they aren’t good at those things the game requires, could be very good at something else, and you could then try to find things they have in common, whether there are ways to bridge those gaps using the skills that are less useful in unlikely combinations.

      I suppose technically you don’t even have to make all these builds able to complete the game, if you can at least give them easter eggs that make distinct things happen. But viability can be a seed for adding extra weird things to the game.

      And back to the main point – but I very much like the idea of focusing on making stats and choices feel like they did something, that they contributed something distinct, even if, possible especially if, they aren’t contributing to the critical path.

      Also, I’ve finally remembered what the skill art style reminds me of; Dave Mckean. I can really imagine them playing D&D while reading Sandman thinking about this kind of stuff, but also, a lot of them are extremely good expressionistic depiction of the ideas behind the stats.