"We accommodate for every stupid thing that you wanna do" - how Disco Elysium makes detective games work
"Did I just say in an interview that I’m better than China Mieville?"
Disco Elysium (formerly known as No Truce With The Furies) is shaping up to be ridiculously good. It's an upcoming RPG that slips you into the shoes of a detective in a hardboiled urban fantasy world, where combat happens through dialogue and your internal monologue can be both a hindrance and a help. Your skills have their own personalities and sometimes wrestle control away from you, while you can choose to internalise certain thoughts, thus changing who your character is and what they can do.
It's absolutely fascinating, and I mean it when I say the hour or so I've played also contains the best writing I've ever seen in a video game (several other RPSers are thrilled by it too, as discussed on our recent podcast). To find out more about Disco Elsyium's special sauce, I sat down with design and writing lead Robert Kurvitz at Rezzed to chat about its pen and paper origins, encouraging tenacious behaviour, rewarding players who want to fail and why most other RPGs do quests wrong.
RPS:: Is Disco Elysium something you can be bad at?
Robert Kurvitz: Yeah, Yeah, definitely. It’s a hardcore RPG: You can fail at it. You can be a bad detective who just doesn’t solve the case at all, and everything goes really badly - and you can die. You can also be too scatterbrained, just not a good enough detective generally, to piece together what happens.
RPS: Right, so there might be bits where you just can’t deduce what’s happening?
Kurvitz: Yeah, and you can also build yourself a build that doesn’t work for what you might try to do. You have to be strategic, and you have to think "right, how am I going to go about this? How am I gonna get out of this? How am I going to get these guys to face up to what they did?" Because some people are just gonna stonewall you. And then we have active skill checks, white checks we call them, and when you fail them you can try them again - but to try them again you have to put one point into what you did, and you may not be able to do that because you don’t have that kind of character, or you don’t have enough experience yet, or you’re at max points already. Then you have to find modifiers in the world, and you have to think “what character would influence these guys?”
RPS: So there’ll always be some way of thinking your way out of those situations?
Kurvitz: Yes, if you want to! If you truly set about it. For example, we have an interrogation where there’s this rowdy group of working class men from the docks. Like 12 of them, and they’re owning up to the crime: they’re saying “we did it, and what are you going to do about it? We’re 12 people, are you gonna kill us now?" "Why don’t you fuck off?", is what they’re saying. So, what do you do in that situation? Do you maybe try and get them to give up one member? Or maybe you arrive at the idea that these guys probably have a superior in the harbour or something. It’s hard to get in there - it’s a HUGE task to get into the harbour - but when you do get in there in your own kind of way, you can ask their superior to get his guys to cooperate with the police. So you have to think about how human beings are kind of structured, how their hierarchies work.
RPS: Is that an example of a side quest, or is that the main story? Something that you need to figure out how to deal with?
Kurvitz: Yeah, this is the main story. So I like to think that it’s a pretty true crime take on the cop drama. So the detective work is real, the autopsy scene is quite...precise. I’m quite proud of how clinical it is. We’ve also done quite a lot of research into how police procedure actually works, and it’s hard, it’s not easy work. But we don’t want you to save scum either, so there’s always a way to get another chance at it.
RPS: So, it’s a detective game. It’s about figuring stuff out - well, it’s about a lot of things - but you’re essentially going to be trying to figure out a mystery. How do you find the balance between making it too easy for the player to figure stuff out and finding themselves completely stumped?
Kurvitz: Yeah, it’s not easy. In design, basically, you need to have a lot of different paths, you need to have a good idea of where the player is, and mostly you have to reward a tenacious kind of attitude. So if these guys are stonewalling you, maybe you won’t find a character that can tell you anything about them, but maybe you can find a mental state in your own head and you can use the Thought Cabinet to turn yourself into a communist - and maybe that will give you a dialogue option that will appeal to these working class guys, maybe that will rouse something in them.
You have to pick away at it in hopefully a zen kind of way, we want it to be kind of relaxing.
RPS: It’s interesting you use the word relaxing, because my immediate impression was all to do with struggling against the things within me, that seemed to be trying to wrestle control away from me.
Kurvitz: Mmm, but at the same time, what you weren't doing was having sweat beating down your forehead, fire wasn’t being thrown at you. It’s tough being responsible for things, it’s tough being a detective, but at the same time I’d like to think it’s a pleasant kind of experience, clicking and reading it. We engage you with very dirty tricks all the time to keep you on your toes, but at the same time you do get to go about it at your own leisure. For us to get it as open-worldy as it is was a tremendous pain, and hopefully for the player there’s this kind of freedom, like “I don’t want to see this right now” - I’m not going to look in that mirror, I’m just going to walk away - “I don’t want to see my face, goodbye”. We accommodate for every stupid little thing that you wanna do.
RPS: There’s one early example where I was sort of scared to indulge myself. When you see that cigarette when you step out of your room for the first time,if you don’t immediately walk away from it, you’re trapped. It’s like, that’s it: I’m a smoker now.
RPS: So were you deliberately trying to get people to be wary of their own skills?
Kurvitz: Oh yeah. We wanted to engage the player at any cost, basically. So when there’s some... I don’t want to say there’s a lot of text in the game…
RPS: There IS a lot of text in the game!
Kurvitz: There’s a lot of characters in the game, there are lots of situations you go up to with them, and then they’re not all shooty. They need to have hooks, and we found out while we were doing this that the dialogue tree structure, famously known from Planescape Torment and even Obsidian games and so on, have this wonderful fencing mechanism with the player. You can lie to the player, and you can do weird things with them with the loops in there, and you can challenge them constantly and keep them on their toes. So you can send them down these loops that they can’t get out of, where you don’t have Volition (the skill) to keep your Aggression in check, and you just become an asshole.
RPS: Is it going to be the case that throughout the game that’s a constant struggle, or are you going to be able to subdue parts of yourself?
Kurvitz: Yes, as you level and becoming more proficient at the system, it’s possible to be a really good cop. So the game throws you into this horrible opening moment, you’re completely on your knees as a human being, and then hopefully if you’re tenacious enough it becomes first of all surprising that you’re able to do this, and secondly a triumph that you’re able to do this. And then you can get to know these guys (the skills) and play them against each other. What we wanted to achieve with this was a realistic sensation of what it’s like to be a human being - because you’re not in complete control.
So with Willpower, you give yourself commands, and not only is your body not able to do them but your mind is unable. So say you try to “concentrate on this thing for 40 minutes”, and then you’re just not able to do that. Or say what you want to do is “call her and say that you’re sorry” or something, and your hand just doesn’t raise. So sometimes you’re on the backseat in your own mind, and I think that with pen and paper role playing I’ve really pursued that kind of feeling - to make it hard for players to play their character. I think video games are in this unique position to show how the human psyche works, and that’s what we really want to do.
RPS: So this started as a pen and paper roleplaying system - tell me about how that translated into the actual game? Were there parts of it that you wanted to keep from it and couldn’t, or bits that translated particularly well?
Kurvitz: The main thing for us has always been the world. And then the system has been a way to get into that world. I mean I love the world, I’ve put my entire life into coming up with the names for it and so on, and then pen and paper roleplaying is a very good way to get into worlds. It was designed for nerds to get into Middle Earth!
So the system was always there, and we’ve evolved with it. As we’ve moved further away from it - I think we started with “Bronzepunk” stuff and so on, we’ve been working on it for 12 years - the rules became more abstract and we stopped having, say, “+2 acid resistance” anywhere, because human beings don’t have acid resistance, or cold resistance. And it started accruing stuff like “conceptualization”, and actual skills people use - and that’s the perfect kind of system for a detective. So it was a long 13 year process, but we got to do a lot of pen and paper play testing and I know that people dig it. I know that it’s natural, and that it works.
RPS: At what point did the skills get personalities?
Kurvitz: So at first we had this dialogue card, which just came up and said “you’ve noticed this thing”. Then the second thing that happened was that we had this really cool concept artist who we thought was gonna do logos for the skills, but he bailed on us. So our main art director had to do us portraits, and he does human faces really well. So we thought, why don’t we give the skills portraits like human faces - not like “a gun with a circle around it”, but different facets of yourself. So when you start seeing that, you kind of have to start writing that as a character.
So now Drama is this kind of mad thespian, he’s like - (puts on amdram voice) “Why Sire, this is looking pretty bad for you. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to ally!”, and then Rhetoric became a bit of a liberal leftist kind of person, and then Endurance later on becomes a kind of fascist. Endurance is about your gut feeling, and your gut feeling is telling you “immigrants are bad for the economy.” (laughs).
So then we discovered that players have this really cool reaction to it: it felt so natural for them. Then we discovered that we can have one skill say something and another skill appear and say no, it isn’t like that! And then a third guy is like “No no, it isn’t like that at all!”, so we found we could really build up our narrators in that way.
RPS: Have you ever played a small pen and paper RPG called Everyone is John? It’s one where all of the players -
Kurvitz are John?
RPS: Yep! (laughs). So you all play different facets of John who are trying to pull him in different directions, trying to get him to do different things. I think you might like it.
Kurvitz: That sounds very cool. I haven’t gotten to keep up with cool interesting RPGs because I’ve done my own one, but before that I was a kind of RPG philosopher, you know - I really went high brow in it. I always knew I wanted to do an RPG where you can schedule your own quests, where you give yourself quests. I always disliked the idea of quest givers - because that always makes you a backseat dude in the world. So in a game you might be this grand champion, inquisitor or something in charge of a whole army, but there’s always got to be this guy that’s like “go there, do that”, because otherwise it doesn’t work mechanically.
But what the skills here do is let you put points into faculties of yourself - like Electrochemistry, and then that dude gives you a quest to start smoking. Or another dude gives you another quest, and that way you can be your own quest giver - you can start your own side cases, and stuff like that. So that was one of my pet peeves in RPGs that I think we’ve dealt with - you yourself can start side cases into “cyrptozoology” or something and then they spiral out of control, but then you start asking yourself “wow, is that somehow connected to the main case?” So hopefully a lot of playthroughs will lead to really weird theories about what’s going on.
RPS: Have you had players that have tried to be deliberately bad at everything? And how’s that worked out for them?
Kurvitz: Yeah, as a person who sets a lot of traps into this game, we kind of have to make it hard for the players to do basic things like not vomit at seeing a corpse - so that they would get to feel this as being a bad thing, to make them OK with it. Players want to powergame, at first, but I think about 25% of players start chasing this failure high. Like, they really want to fail - and for them we have a Thought Cabinet project -
RPS: A what, sorry?
Kurvitz: Ah, so we have this mechanic called the Thought Cabinet, and what that does is it kind of represents what your character is thinking about in the background. Yeah, and something happens when you get it done. In the build you’ve played it’s very nascent, but I think we’re gonna get it pretty nice.
RPS: Right, so one example in the Rezzed demo is internalising the idea that you’re a superstar.
Kurvitz: Yeah, and you probably didn’t have enough time to see it, but they sometimes have bad twists - they can turn into negative perks, surprisingly. So we have a Thought for those players that try to be bad at stuff - a very bad thing to think about - that makes you automatically fail all intellect and psyche checks. It’s really fun to keep that Thought there, and we’ve noticed that some guys have come to the idea that they’re not going to let that Thought finish. I’m just going to keep it in my head and fail at everything.
So the thought is that “I have a horrible problem with my ex-wife.” I have so much built up rage and hatred and failure that they don’t want to think about it at all, but every time they get into a social circumstance it pops into their head, and they say the insanest, baddest thing that can happen - so there are some really interesting playthroughs there.
But we also want to accomodate for the regular, normal cop. There’s actually a thought you get called “Boring Cop” that you get when you’re a boring cop, a regular law officer kind of guy. So I’ve noticed that about 40% of people play the “straight-up” kind of guy, and then the others kind of mix and match.
RPS: So what have we had, we’ve had 25% of players try to be as bad as they can be -
Kurvitz: Oh yeah, they really try to fuck things up.
RPS: - 40% try their best to be good cops, and then the rest fail some parts but not others?
Kurvitz: Yeah, they let themselves fail. Though sometimes you’re forced to fail because the challenge things comes up, and sometimes it gets really out of control. Like there’s a scene later on where you’re trying to make people take you seriously, and you can try to regain your authority by threatening to kill yourself. Which is a really bad negotiating tactic, but you sort of get caught in this idea So yeah, sometimes you get caught in some of the most extreme mental states that games have tried to include. We do kind of want to help people become that bad cop by challenging them.
RPS: I saw your dev blog describe the “Shiver” skill as the only skill with a supernatural element to it. Are there other supernatural goings on, in the world of Disco Elysium?
Robert: Oh yeah. So the world of Disco Elysium… I think one of the reasons a detective RPG hasn’t been tried yet is because no-one wants to go to fucking noir 1930’s LA. It’s such a dreary place, and such a dreary place for the people who were there. Like the real-worldness of it has been off putting, so it’s kind of important to make you understand that this is a cool escapist other-world that’s terrifyingly different. When the concept of Pale starts coming up it turns really, really other worldly.
RPS: The concept of what, sorry?
Kurvitz: Pale, like the colour. There’s a territory in the world called 'Pale', and it’s a really terrifying concept. It’s kind of shaped the geopolitical, and even psychological existence of these people a lot. So there are things drastically different from our own world, which you’re going to start discovering later on in the game. We didn’t want to make that classical RPG mistake of putting a lot of world-building first. We want the personal stuff first, and then we want you to slowly realise that this isn’t your world. We actually get the character themselves starting to ask “Hey, what world is this? Where am I?”
RPS: Ah, that’s interesting because where I was going with this was to ask...How do you be a detective in a world that defies logic?
Kurvitz: You put a lot of points in the Encyclopedia skill, and hope it gives you something you can work with that isn’t Wikipedia tit-bits.
RPS: (laughs) Good answer.
Kurvitz: Yeah so, the Encyclopedia skill can sometimes give you completely useless stuff. Like you ask someone what something is, and they say “It’s a contact microphone”. Then Encyclopedia appears and says “There’s a boxer called Contact Mike”, so you start talking about Contact Mike, and it’s completely useless - though sometimes there’s stuff that can blow the case wide open.
RPS: Right, but you don’t know until you start pursuing that inane thought?
Kurvitz: Right, not all ideas are useful. In RPGs, when you have a good skill, it always gives you the right thing, like it’s an insta-win. In ours, you may not want even want to pick that option. It might completely fuck things up if you say that.
But to go back to the original question, how we do “paranatural” things like we used to call them? We try to keep it in that sort of X-filesy territory. Where things are possible in this world, they’re not ghosts - they’re radio phenomena, like you’re hearing the voices of people that have been long deceased in a long-distance phone call...and because of Pale, you can hear yourself from when you were talking yesterday. So there are these horrorish elements that come along, but they're always of the mystery kind rather than the fantasy kind.
RPS: That’s interesting...have you read the City and the City? Was that an inspiration?
Kurvitz: I have, I get that... It’s not an inspiration, no. Well, I’m a shockingly left-wing person, and so is China Mieville, so we have that in common, and we have a similar take on science fiction, too. But I started developing this world and these concepts when I was 15, and I published a novel set in it in 2013. Yeah, China Mieville got there with some slipstream ideas first, but I had no idea he existed!
I’ve read his stuff now, and when I read his stuff I think… This is a really bad career move right now, I understand I’m taking to a journalist, but I think… “Yeah, I’m way better than this”.
Kurvitz: (laughs) Yeah, I like his ideas with slipstream, though I don’t like the name “slipstream”. I like his approach to genre stuff, and there are a lot of similarities here. But ours is a complete otherworld, it’s hermetically sealed off, it’s like Lord of the Rings. We’re deep, deep geeks, this isn’t meant for people to go over and go “hnnnngr, what very interesting genre bending”. This is just D&D nerds who wanted to have a telephone in the game.
At the same time, personally I come from soviet science fiction authors, the Strugatsky brothers kind of stuff, who also do a lot of reality bending. I am aware of China Mieville though, yeah.
Jesus fuck, did I just say in an interview that I’m better than China Mieville? Oh fuck it, let’s go with it, whatever.
RPS: (laughs) It’s happened now! Last question: from the very start of the Rezzed demo there’s this overwhelming sense of existential despair. Do things get any cheerier?
Kurvitz: You can succeed despite this. It becomes very much harder for this person. Like, there are scenes near the end that I’m now editing and working on that have been the most painful and shitty things for me to ever write, and I’ve written dark things - REALLY dark things - in my life. I’ve written really dark things about sexuality, I think I’ve challenged myself a lot, and in this game I think I’ve written the least enjoyable things for me in general.
Not that they’re so edgy and dark, but they’re just so sad…
Kurvitz: Not even bleak, but heartbreakingly bleak. Like… by the time you’re a middle aged man in this world, in a similar world to ours, a lot of people have really been dragged through the mud. And cops, who I have a massive amount of empathy for, have the third highest suicide rates - in Eastern Europe at least - of any profession. It’s really tough stuff, and I wanted to do it justice.
But you can succeed despite all of this, and then I’m hoping there’ll be an extra kind of triumph. So if you do everything right, if you don’t give up and you solve the case right, you may go to a place near the end of the game, and come to a very logical idea that you just didn’t come to before. And then you can not only solve the case, but you can solve the case with flying colours. Like it can be this genius bit of detective work, where you combine two cases and are like “God, I don’t believe what I just did.” There’s a really cool twist that I really like, which tells you something really pretty about the world, too. So, there’s this really gritty kind of melancholy, but at the same time I hope this mysterious, dark world reveals an element to it that is so much better than our world is.
It’s generally a very dark other world, but if you do things right you can come to a kind of “wow, I didn’t expect this” moment. It also makes you look really cool in the eyes of your peers. Like when a cop comes back to the station, and the guys are like “You did it!” They’re fucking clapping you, and no one thought this sad loser was gonna do anything.
So it’s hopefully going to be possible to achieve good things by working - it may not be easy, and there’s no kind of ultimate sweet ending. It depends on the way you play it, but you can really make this person very... insane.
RPS: Are you always going to be some level of broken?
Kurvitz: Yes, yes. But you can be the level of broken where you’ve broken through to the other side, where you’re actually a really good police officer. There’s some Thought Cabinet stuff… it’s especially nice then because when the mystery starts cracking, everything comes together at once. It’s possible to win the game, but there’s a lot of different endings - it’s possible to really darkly fail, and just become a drunk in a seaside shack who’s not really a cop anymore.
RPS: Right, the real last question: why is the game no longer called No Truce With The Furies?
Kurvitz: And instead, it’s called Disco Elysium. Because we’ve been building this world for 16 years maybe now. Before we got funded, there were 13/14 years of pure world building: names of mountain ranges, believable names of political parties and geopolitical entities and so on. A massive piece of work. So when I was 14 I dropped out of school and to this day I have 9 grades of education - I’ve done nothing but hardcore RPG stuff. So I really love the name, when I came up with it, and I’ve never stopped loving it, because it’s such a beautiful name for a realistic world. When you start playing it, there’s this character you can talk to who’ll tell you that it has an in-world meaning, and that it’s a term of endearment for the world.
Our world doesn’t have a term of endearment, right, because we generally think it’s a shithole. It’s a strange thing that none of the billions of habitats of planet Earth have come up with a term of endearment for the world itself. It’s known as “world”, “Earth”... there’s nothing there. It’s like you have a girlfriend called Katie and you start calling her Kat or something, there’s none of this. This to me makes me feel like it probably isn’t a world deserving of a nickname.
So in our game, the world is beautiful and extreme and terrifying enough for it to have a nickname, a way for them to express a love for this reality that they’re in, which is quite beautiful at times, too. They call it 'Elysium', and it’s a kind of amor fati world-spirit expression for these people, and your character can find that out by asking people.
So from that moment on I’ve felt I’ve owned this name. Of course since it’s taken 14 years for us to do it, some kind of cynical assholes have ran it to the ground already, but this is ground I won’t concede. This is a name I will fight for, and I wanted it in the fucking title. We couldn’t just call it 'Elysium' because Neill Blomkamp fucked up already, so we called it Disco Elysium because the dude has disco clothes on in it. But it is an introduction of our setting, which is Elysium, and we’re not backing off from it - we wanted to claim it for ourselves. It was a territorial power move on our parts, to get the title in there.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Disco Elysium doesn't have a fixed release date yet, but the devs are hoping it will arrive at some point this year. You can wishlist it on Steam if interested.