There are a handful of games that change the course of gaming at large. They act like a dam, forcefully redirecting the course of a genre forever. Sometimes that’s through the addition of a simple feature, or a wholesale rethinking of genre conventions. Even on the lighter side, these games result in others following their lead.
One of the most recent examples is FromSoftware’s Dark Souls, which brought forth a more difficult action-RPG, with more intensity and a unique style of storytelling. Soulslikes are now their own offshoots of the action-RPG genre. It’s not alone with its place in history though. Doom popularized the first-person shooter, while other titles shifted that baseline, like Halo: Combat Evolved offering a regenerating shield instead of a more traditional health system, or Gears of War focusing on cover-based shooting. Super Mario 64 established the pillars of 3D platforming and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time highlighted the concept of Z-targeting.
The initial conversation around Disco Elysium seems to share some of the same tenor. When I played it for review, I found what feels like a refreshing expansion of tried-and-true RPG systems. Disco Elysium is a noir RPG, dropping the player into the head of an amnesiac detective in a pseudo sci-fi future. You flesh out who your character is as you flail around to solve the case.
Where Disco Elysium succeeds is in making every choice and dialog option feel meaningful. Certain errant conversational choices reveal themselves again later in the game. A simple decision like not retrieving a tie vastly changes the tone of your playthrough. Even if you have the skills to potentially pull off an action, the dice roll might not go in your favor, or vice versa. Every little bit of Disco Elysium feels important, to a level that most major RPGs can’t fathom.
Disco Elysium walks and talks like the first step in an idea that veteran game designer Warren Spector has been kicking around for many years now: the One City Block RPG. In other words, a game intended to focus on smaller interactions and connections.
“My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly. I’ve been whining about the one block role-playing game since about 1994, and someday I’ll figure it out, or someday someone will be foolish enough to give me the money to do it, and we’ll fail gloriously at doing it,” Spector told the now-defunct MCV back in 2012.
Disco Elysium covers more than a single block, but it feels dense, with every interaction impacting the story in some manner, even if that’s not entirely apparent in a single run. It’s a vast Jenga tower, and every piece is important. That smug, clearly-high child you meet in the early hours may be the lynchpin to the case, or a punk you had to shut up with your fist. You determine the direction you go, and the game is very responsive to even your smallest actions.
It’s this depth that makes Disco Elysium such a revelation, and it’s changing the conversation around another recent RPG: Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds. Like a few other reviewers, I played Disco Elysium and The Outer Worlds back-to-back. The Outer World is a throwback to Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas, which itself was a throwback to the original Fallout. The quests offer a number of choices, but the outcome is fairly localized. Skills allow you to navigate through conversations, but it’s a rigid binary: either you have the skill level to pass a persuasion or intimidation check, or you don’t. If you do, it works every time. The Outer Worlds is an older, standard style of RPG, executed to a high degree.
Both games do what they do very well, but Disco Elysium’s existence makes The Outer Worlds look boring to some. The Outer Worlds is Logan Marshall-Green to Disco Elysium’s Tom Hardy; the latter is doing the same thing as the former, but with such energy you can’t tear your eyes off it. The contrast is heavy on the minds of some players.
“I’m not sure I can play any other singleplayer narrative games for a while after Disco, because it would be unfair to the other games,” said Resetera user Shake Appeal.
“I recognize there are, intentionally, significant tonal differences between Outer Worlds and Disco Elysium, but firing up OW immediately after concluding DE unavoidably put the OW characters’ lack of awareness in stark contrast to the world I had just departed,” said Twitter user Snowdns.
“I started Outer Worlds right after finishing Disco Elysium, and I feel like it’s the same old stuff we’ve seen for the past 20+ years,” added Reddit user Kwsdn29. “Passing a skill check yields a favorable result every time. Go to the quest marker, do the thing, and come back for your good-boy experience points. And at its core, it’s so annoying to constantly have to balance your focus on combat efficiency versus roleplaying stats.”
“Maybe if I’d played it before Disco Elyium, The [Outer] Worlds’s writing wouldn’t have seemed so leaden, witless and generic, but now it is like comparing the sound of a full symphony orchestra to that of a madman shitting into a kazoo,” said another Reddit user.
People are raving about Disco Elysium even when The Outer Worlds isn’t a part of the conversation. It feels like those who have played it are looking at what comes after with a wistful sadness. They want more of what Disco Elysium is putting down. And that’s the kind of longing that can see a specific style of game leading the conversation and the genre.
There are a few issues in Disco Elysium’s path, though. For one, it’s only available on PC, which means there’s a large contingent of players who haven’t been able to play it. Certain other indie titles only became the talk of the town once they left PC behind for consoles: see the renewed discussion and love around Hollow Knight or Divinity: Original Sin 2 once they hit consoles.
Even if Disco Elysium crosses over to consoles, there’s a chance that the developers needs to refine and deliver the same style of hit a second time to get the masses to truly pay attention. FromSoftware laid down most of its Souls formula in Demon’s Souls—actually earlier in King’s Field, if we’re being honest—but Dark Souls was the one to capture hearts and minds. Wolfenstein 3D set the foundation for first-person shooters, but Doom was the explosion in id Software’s new genre. I brought up Halo introducing regenerating health in the FPS genre, but the mechanic applied actually only to shields in the first game; Halo 2 brought health regen to the forefront.
The tone and tenor of the conversation around Disco Elysium feels unique though. That might be hyperbole, but I’ve been seeing the same types of conversations from critics and developers as well. “The Outer Worlds would feel more refreshing in a month where Disco Elysium hadn’t also released,” said PCWorld reviewer Hayden Dingman on Twitter. “But I’m amazed how many people are talking about Outer Worlds this week who say they haven’t touched Disco Elysium. It feels like 2015, desperately trying to get Dragon Age fans to try The Witcher 3.”
“Would I be getting on with The Outer Worlds more if I’d played it first? I think so. It’s Obsidian’s most conservative RPG, but most RPGs look a little bit staid when they’re standing next to ZA/UM’s bizarre experiment. I’ve been spoiled by so many surprises, and now the whiff of convention makes me roll my eyes,” wrote PCGamer’s Fraser Brown in an article yesterday. [Editor’s Note: This article was originally written earlier this week, but we aren’t opposed to adding a another voice with a similar argument.]
The comparison to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of the games of this generation, is a heady one. But the fact that I can’t find myself disagreeing is why I wonder if Disco Elysium might see an entire genre rethinking itself.