Laying in bed at night, do you ever remember that one time you said something that you regret? Do you ever remember something that annoyed you while taking a shower, or even just making dinner? Maybe you’re trapped in a group conversation with nothing to add, so your thoughts drift elsewhere? We all have experienced these moments when they come back to haunt us, like the time we said something awkward, or when something more tragic is impossible to strike from our minds. Now, have you ever played a game that knows exactly what that constant mind-nagging feels like?
Disco Elysium does. It’s a detective RPG that doesn’t just explore the familiar theme of what it means to be a human—it stunningly mechanizes it while somehow not feeling all that mechanical. It works like our brains work; its internal systems just feel like common sense. It knows what it’s like when it’s hard to let go of the past, even when you don’t remember the particulars. It understands how trauma affects you to your core, and no matter what you do, it’s just there, festering. You could have a random thought, like the time you thought a book wasn’t good, and before you know it, it morphs into something bigger than you originally imagined. An idea. Then, you’re a critic—or as Disco Elysium would tell you, an Art Cop.
These are the systems that lie within Disco Elysium, the ZA/UM developed Infinity Engine-like RPG. It casts you as a detective fresh off a bender with no recollection of the case he’s tasked with solving, or even his own life. Slowly through Disco Elysium’s grounded tale, you recollect your life; and thanks to your temporary partner, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, stay on track with solving the mystery at the game’s center: who killed the man who has been hanging from a tree behind a local hostel for a week? Also joining you on the journey are your thoughts, quite literally.
Your skills, from Empathy to Esprit De Corps (the capacity to “understand cop culture”), speak to you constantly across the game. They are your de facto party members in a game with zero traditional combat. They butt into your conversations with “passive checks,” always unlocking and informing the dialogue you can choose, without you ever seeing some other binary option. Your high Encyclopedia skill, for instance, makes you more curious about the world itself, so maybe you’ll ask more questions. Electrochemistry tries to gaslight you into taking drugs. Even your clothes talk to you and have minds of their own. And if you put points into some skills rather than others, it’s not like those thoughts ever go away. They’re always there, pointing things out. Eventually, their voices just get quieter if you ignore them enough. But you can never truly forget something. Just like in real life.
Everything funnels into Disco Elysium’s “Thought Cabinet,” a system where you can use a skill point to “internalize” a thought you have. Once, Disco Elysium secretly kept track of how many times I made self-deprecating jokes—a natural trait to me, personally. So I achieved a thought: “Rigorous Self-Critique.” The ideas that appear for you to put into your Thought Cabinet never feel random; they’re orchestrated according to how you play, and they each have stat perks and negatives. All of this feeds into what Disco Elysium is all about: it’s a game about being human, and all the baggage that entails.
Unlike most RPGs, Disco Elysium does not deal in quest givers. Every character has their own arc, and whether you get to hear and see it depends on what type of character you’re shaping. They all serve some weighted importance to the district of Martinaise, if you’re able to get through to them. Some may reveal more about the world; others may open up a break in the case. Some may share food, others may offer bribes that you can take or refuse. But everyone, it feels, has a purpose. I didn’t need to spend hours learning about bugs of folklore from a cryptozoologist’s wife, but it enriched a moment much later on.
Its developers know what it’s like to watch a society go through the hardest of times—members of the studio lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union in their home country of Estonia in the late 80s, before the country established its independence in 1991 and banned the Communist Party altogether. Disco Elysium’s Revachol, and specifically the working class neighborhood of Martinaise where the game takes place, is steeped in it.
In the world of Disco Elysium, communists and anarchists once banded together to overthrow the state, only to be struck down shortly after their victory by another violent fascist counter-revolution. They weren’t voted out; they were erased from existence altogether. In the world’s present, the ghosts of Martinaise’s past are everywhere you look. A statue of a former controversial ruler partially torn down during the revolution; a mural smattered with bullet holes where communists were lined up and gunned down. And now Moralintern, the leading body of a Free Market Capitalist government rules, and it’s not going anywhere. The district of Martinaise has basically been left to rot. It’s a district that the police don’t even patrol. The local unionized workers at the docks have to take on being the area’s self-policed force, because who else will? It’s a neighborhood that looks out for its own only, and side-eyes any outsiders like you and your partner.
The people that live there, they’re just trying to get by. After all, how does one reconcile living on when good ideas like equality fail violently? How does a society pick up the pieces when the good guys fail?
And that’s just the backdrop of the world of Disco Elysium; that’s not even touching the science fiction that seeps through its cracks. It’s what makes the RPG feel so groundbreaking in video games. Its political landscape and how that extends to its messages flows through its every being—from the characters you meet to the complex systems that make up the game itself.
It’s unique in that it’s not the type of RPG where you build up a character for your own role-playing funsies; instead, it’s a game where you only control how a man reckons with the world around him and his own colossal fuck ups. When we meet him, he’s already given up. You can’t steer the murder mystery toward a different conclusion, but how you ultimately get there and the lens you see it through can be wildly different. You can befriend the hostile kid who’s throwing rocks at the corpse hanging behind the tree of the local hostel, or you can try to swing a punch at him just to prove, I dunno, something.
Disco Elysium shows us the humanity of everyone, and not in the usual “feel sympathy for this person even though they’re bad” way. There is no redemption arc for a racist like in, say, some recent movies nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. You can have an honest conversation with the labor union leader, even though like most of the 1% in this world, he obviously only has his own best interests at heart, and not the union itself. Instead, it asks us to see where they’re coming from, and it never lets anyone off the hook. It never lets you off the hook either, if you decide to cave to these tendencies, thanks to the constant presence of the moral compass and True Hero, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, who is unafraid to speak his mind.
Perhaps the most astounding thing is that for all of Disco Elysium’s incredible narrative and mechanical scope, it’s confined to just a few city blocks. We learn all about Revachol, but we only exist in a small part of it and the world at large. We’re only investigating one single murder—a mystery that ends up entangling the dense history of its community and the struggles it faces on an everyday basis in a messy, awe-inspiring way. For how fascinating this corner of the world is, the only story that really matters is our own, and finding our purpose in it. If we even have one.
It’s all of this, and honestly much much more, that makes Disco Elysium the best game of 2019. As an RPG, it’s been compared favorably to Planescape: Torment, a game that landed at number two on our Top 25 RPGs of all-time list. It’s an audacious little game; small in scale, large in scope. It’s both hilarious and saddening in equal measure. Its biggest crime is that it’s a bit too cynical sometimes. But maybe it has to be.
Disco Elysium is the type of RPG I’ve always dreamed of—funny, smart, painfully real. Games often tell us things like “capitalism is bad” (duh), but do little to express why. Many RPGs promise us “choice,” but so few feel organic in how we make decisions. Disco Elysium is an anomaly: fiercely and proudly political; a much-needed skeptic of all things, even the good things. It molds with you, making your path feel truly like yours alone through the world’s worst hangover.
It’s unafraid to reckon with both the ugly and beautiful side of living, and the class and political themes it embraces resonate on an international scale. Coupled with its richly historied world, stellar cast of flawed human beings, innovative systems, and a central murder mystery that’s tangled up in, well, everything, it’s not a game you’ll soon forget. Once you’re finished with it, you won’t stop thinking about it. I sure haven’t.
With how it successfully embeds human nature into every facet of its being—from burnout to grief to humorous snark—Disco Elysium just might be one of the finest RPGs ever made. And it is certainly, without question, the best game of 2019.