Disco Elysium's developers are in "a bloody battle" for the human mind
Skill check for 'an exclusive'
When visiting ZA/UM's studio, I had to take my boots off. This is because their studio, where they are putting the final touches on open world RPG Disco Elysium, is also a flat in a townhouse in Hove, where several of them live. It has nice wooden floors, unbelievably high ceilings, and a big bay window cradling some workstations. There's also a bookshelf full of many different tabletop RPG rules and expansions, and other tabletop games.
Artist Mikk Metsniit makes black coffee in the kitchen, and Robert Kurvitz, lead designer and writer, proudly shows me all the miniatures for Kingdom Death (pointing out, in particular, the Flower Knight), and a set of display stands for Arkham Horror: The Card Game that they'd ordered specially from Etsy. Kurvitz collects TRPG rule books and other "nerd shit" both as a stress reliever and as research. This checks out, because Disco Elysium has its roots in almost two decades of Kurvitz's nerd shit.
He dropped out of school when he was 15, and spent the next several years of his life doing "world building, and the same thing that's basically coming out now." Disco Elysium is set in the same fictional world as his novel, which is set in the same fictional world as a very long running custom Dungeons & Dragons game. Nerd shit indeed, my friends. The novel is going to be polished and republished in English about six months or so after the game is released on the 15th of October. "I want to plug it. This is called plugging, right? It's called Sacred And Terrible Air," says Kurvitz, laughing.
Kurvitz talks a lot, with great energy, as if trying to keep ahead of his own galloping thoughts, and spikes almost everything with a giggle or a laugh or a joke. Metsniit is, perhaps, more measured, and occasionally rubs his eyes and smiles at whatever Kurvitz is saying. Disco Elysium has been in development for five years, and as well as the current studio in Hove, they also have team members in London, Tallinn, and an external QA team in Romania. The team size has been in flux, with a "mutant" amount of writers because, aside from the core three or four person writing team, the coders and designers have also written. The art team was around five, but is currently three. "Basically everybody at ZA/UM has a whole rack of hats to wear, every day," Metsniit says. Kurvitz says their Chinese community manager is doing incredible sound design.
I've played only a small bit of Disco Elysium, but that was enough for it to get its hooks in. It's an RPG with very little combat about a down-on-his luck cop trying to get his job back while working a case across a single city block. Some more recent devblog posts have gone into detail about all it contains: weather states; times of day; game time that advances by the player reading a line of dialogue; 24 skills, which butt in to your thoughts to have their say on what situation you're in; over a hundred inventory items; about a million words. It's funny and inventive in ways games rarely are.
Disco Elysium also has a Thought Cabinet, an inventory for brainstuff. Kurvitz went through about 12 different versions of how to do it. Maybe thoughts could also be wounds. Maybe the position of thoughts, their relative inventory slots, could affect each other. Maybe the health system could be balanced on the Thought Cabinet. In the final version of Disco Elysium, the Thought Cabinet interacts with many other systems in the game, and it takes a while for you to uncover what a thought actually is by 'internalising' it. An average play through results in 16 fully internalised thoughts.
Kurvitz, who estimates he's responsible for about half of the million words in Disco Elysium, gleefully describes a thought interaction he had while playing:
He was searching an apartment building for someone he'd seen on a balcony, but he couldn't tell from the outside which apartment was theirs. (Eventually he figured out that he had to come back at 11 o'clock the next day, which is totally possible in Disco Elysium, but anyway.) So he's searching this apartment and he's knocking on doors and going into rooms, because he's a cop, he can do that, and in one apartment he finds these monk strap shoes, black monk strap shoes -- his character in this build is a traditionalist with lots of old fashioned understandings of the world -- so anyway, he puts these shoes on, and suddenly he gets a thought, and his Savoir Faire skill tells him, like, man, doesn't it feel nice to wear expensive shit? Don't you deserve nice stuff like this? He's like, yeah, I do deserve that stuff! Then, after he closes that dialogue, the next thing that pops up is another thought, basically trying to turn him into a free market fundamentalist. Like, hey man, you've been hustling pretty hard, 24/7, but you don't have much money. Why is that? Maybe it's because of all those taxes.
In the next dialogue interaction he had, with a rich woman on a boat, he had his old, 'traditionalist' options to rail about a woman's place and so on. But he could also now preach the free market gospel. "So I'm like, okay! In my own game, I put on shoes, and just looking at these beautiful expensive shoes turned me, basically, into a libertarian."
"I think all of us, the thing we're most looking forward to is the players finding these kinds of nooks and crannies and interactions, screenshotting them, going to forums and going 'hey look what I just did!' 'Oh my god, how did you do it?'" says Metsniit. "Because there's some hilarious fucking stuff in there, there's some stuff in there I haven't seen in any video game ever."
They're very confident about the quality of their game. Most developers are self-effacing, if charming, when interviewed about their work, serving a big ol' helping of 'they just made something they could be proud of', with a side of 'it'd be great if even one other person liked it'. During our conversation, Disco Elysium is described as "fucking awesome", Metsniit says it's "going to be great" and Kurvitz repeatedly avows that he loves it, he loves it more than anything he's ever done. But, he points out, the caveat is that if he, the lead designer, didn't love it at this point, they'd be pretty deep in the shit. It's a little bit of the brashness and swagger that Disco Elysium has itself, and it's hard to disagree with them, because so far all signs point to it being very good.
The UK audience seem to think so, in particular. "British people fuckin' like our stuff," says Kurvitz, who says they have sort of become half British without knowing how it happened (but partly because they don't speak French, and America is too far away). "British people understand our stuff, British people will buy our stuff, British people will tell us interesting things about our stuff." Disco Elysium's music is by the Brighton band British Sea Power.
There is something that would be inescapably out of place in most British front rooms, though. ZA/UM have a shiny green-gold bust of Lenin in pride of place on the mantle, which I feel compelled to ask about. Kurvitz jokes that it came cheap ("There was a big sale on Lenin statues after the fall of the Soviet Union") but admits they are probably atypical amongst Eastern European intellectuals.
"I guess my favourite thing I like to say about this is that for me it's just a wholesome tradition. It's about loyalty, it's about the country where I was born," he says. "This is how I was raised, this was who I was told to follow, and I would be a naughty revolutionary, kind of an edgy rebel, if I wouldn't have Lenin on my writing desk." This particular Lenin belonged, he tells me, to Juhan Smuul, a famous, Soviet era Estonian author, so he feels it has a historical connection from him, an Estonian author and writer, to another.
Kurvitz does say that there are aspects of Disco Elysium he considers "essentially Soviet", referencing the Soviet science fiction tradition and the Brothers Strugatsky (who adapted their own novel for the film Stalker's screenplay, which, almost 30 years later, inspired a video game). Kurvitz describes Soviet sci fi as realist, strange and slightly beautiful, but with lofty ideals.
"They were people who took responsibility for the heat death of the universe," he explains. "When they were writing books, this needed to contribute to the ultimate fate of the universe. Because they didn't have money obligations, so what are your obligations then? So this kind of serious responsibility for, what the fuck does a piece of entertainment really do to the human mind, and what are the responsibilities therein, that I think is very, very, very prevalent in Disco Elysium."
We discuss the idea that video games are the new battleground for, essentially, the human mind. Nobody, Kurvitz points out, is up in arms over a poem questioning the nature of God any more. Nobody cares too much about what's written in a novel. I think the idea that games are where humanity is won or lost is depressing, given the current landscape of both. "Incredibly depressing! Never underestimate how depressing and bad everything is," Kurvitz replies, laughing once again. "I think that's something that we can all agree on." Metsniit points out that we're still in the early stages, really. "There's been a few steps, but the battlefield as a whole is like super undefined, there's no borders yet."
But that there is potentially so much at stake is also a draw to Kurvitz: to make a game that influences how people think, as Émile Zola's Germinal influenced how people think, to make a game that's someone's favourite in their formative years, as the original Fallout influenced him, to have an influence over culture and the future.
"It's not a pretty battle for such a prize. Human beings haven't come up with a gentlemanly sport of dividing the territory that's called the future," he says. "It's a bloody battle. And I don't have any illusions that I'm going to be the champion of it, but it's irresistible to throw your hat in the ring and try to get something done."
Go hard or go home, as they say, which is particularly true for ZA/UM. Disco Elysium is the first game that most of ZA/UM's core team, including Kurvitz and Metsniit, have ever made. If I decided to make my first ever game, I would probably half-heartedly poke around on Twine for a few months. I would definitely not come out, five years later, with an RPG with a million words and about 100 hours in it. Kurvitz's advice is "don't do it."
When they first started work on Disco Elysium they were living in a squat (Kurvitz clarifies that it was in fact more embarrassing, and they were paying rent to the squatters). Kurvitz says he "couldn't program for shit" and now describes game production as "nerve wrecking" and "hellish", expressing amazement at the documentaries on dev work where "they only, like, rotate a wire frame on screen for a second and someone says 'ah, look at this beautiful wireframe!'"
Metsniit got involved after a call from Aleksander Rostov, the art director at ZA/UM. "Robert and Rostov are like a two-headed ogre situation, basically," he explains. "I abandoned my life and hopped on board. It's been a wild ride."
But nearly over now, no?
"No, it's not going to be over!"
"There's no such thing as launch," Kurvitz says. "Something that I can impress on video game journalists and fans and everyone is that, for a video game company, there is no launch." Of course, there is the launch where the game comes out, which is incredibly stressful, but there's also every time you put out a trailer, every time you send a preview build out to journalists, sending out review builds, the simplified Chinese launch… all launches.
Even once all those are done, the journey doesn't necessarily end for Disco Elysium. Kurvitz had earlier joked a couple of times about saying things that PRs can't object to, and decided to make up for anything else he might have put on the record with what he called "the magic words":
"'People… Hold on to your save games!'"
"That's good, that's good!" says Metsniit. "The save game bomb!"
Disco Elysium will have a sequel. Well, hopefully. They are quick to reassure me that, even if there is never a sequel of any kind, never a whiff of an expansion, Disco Elysium is very self-contained. But neither did they want to paint themselves into a corner. Disco Elysium is "about reapplying for your job as a human being and as a cop", and the reward, if you succeed (which you might not) is that you… get to keep being those things. The ending, which people outside the studio haven't seen yet, sets up a new area and the possibility for "a very large game," says Kurvitz. "Even much larger than Disco Elysium, which is already quite large."
An end goal of theirs is for the sequel to have a second main protagonist. Rather than Disco Elysium's middle aged male cop, players could choose to be a pregnant woman, about five months along, which Kurvitz says would be an "incredible writing challenge" within Disco Elysium's very weird, very internalised system of skills and thoughts. "It would be unbelievable to use our skill system to speak about the bodily sensations of having another organism inside of you, while you're in the setting and talking to another person." I call that quite a spicy meatball.
He says that "since we don't want to go for commercial suicide there would have to be the male character too," and right now they don't know if they'd be able to include the female character as part of the full game. Kurvitz says that most games that offer a choice between male and female protagonists aren't really doing so, and that it's financially impossible to write a good male and female perspective with the production timelines involved. "They're none of them, they're soldiers, then, or saviours or something. They don't have male or female characters in that way." Disco Elysium's protagonist is a man, "with all the baggage that entails", and so they don't want to just change the character portrait and call it a job well done. That being the case, they're erring on the side of this female protagonist being an expansion.
"We don't want to be superficial about it, it's not just about the portrait image," explains Metsniit. "It's a whole universe of what the character would be like, differently. We're not going to do it unless it's perfect."
But that's putting the cart before the horse, where the cart is a potential protagonist choice in a sequel, and the horse is releasing your first game.
"When you make an RPG of this size and you release it, don't think for a moment that you can go on holiday now," Kurvitz says, explaining that even aside from any proposed sequel, they're probably going to have a year of post-release work on the first game. They want to bring it to consoles, they want to do localisations, they have ideas for other games they want to do. But there will be a mandatory break, for everyone, that they'll fit in there somewhere, where, as Metsniit puts it, "everybody kind of gets lost for a month."
"But that's only to continue working more!" Kurvitz adds. "But it's as it is. You're born into the world, you're born and you have the materials that you have at your hand, and this is what you've got to work with! You gotta do what God almighty put you on this earth to do! It's a small price to pay, a single human life, a little heart attack to make the greatest CRPG the world has ever seen! We are Eastern Europeans. We need to make best computer RPG made!"
Yes, well. People, hold on to your save games.