The yearly Rezzed event run by Eurogamer.net is an absolutely fantastic way for indie developers to display their games and get them noticed. One such title on display this year was Disco Elysium, an amazingly inventive and constantly hilarious open-world RPG where you play as a policeman and seemingly every choice you make can change how the game is played.
I spoke to Robert Kurvitz, lead writer and designer of Disco Elysium, about creating a world with so many choices, the consequences of doing so, and the ability to wear cool hats.
Disco Elysium is an absolutely incredible game, where did you get the idea from initially?
We were at a really dark moment in our lives, there were a lot of people who were, I was personally at a dark moment in my life. So, my executive producer came to me and “hey man, we failed at pretty much everything, let’s also fail at making videogames”. Now I can say it looks like we’ve also failed at failing at making videogames now so, so we really have failed at everything, because it’s looking quite nice already!
The idea, well, we’re really big fans of isometric RPGs and RPGs in general, but at the same time we’ve seen them go by and not really go anywhere. It’s strange how RPGs are such a proud genre of videogames – the idea of what an RPG ‘is’ is always really fought over – and the definition of what an RPG is well… our school of thought really slipped out of our hands. I don’t really understand why a lot of games are called that, so we went to set things right.
It’s a very logical thing to do, and at its essence it’s a very easy pitch. It’s a Detective RPG, and in every RPG you have detective missions. In Bulder’s Gate 2 you have a good one, and in The Witcher series you have several, and every RPG has this one cool detective person, and those have always been my favourite parts of RPGs.
I get to put down my stupid sword for a moment, it happens in a city, I talk to people, there’s a twist, they’ve have to write it – really write it – and I get to combine information which is hard to program in stories. I kind of thought that I wanted a game where you only have that. You have shooting too, you have a bit of combat there, but it’s avoidable, and you can move out of it. So we made this one.
We made a setting that really works, that’s been in work for like 15 years, I’d say it’s probably my life’s work to come up with this urban fantasy setting. So, when we got funding for it, most of it was the art director and I was to be the writer, and we for some reason thought we could do it!
Speaking of the writing, every single decision seems to branch off into something else, into something else, and depending on perception checks you can potentially unlock even more conversation topics and choices – how much of a massive undertaking was this to write?
An incredible one! We use a program which gives us a bit more flexibility and pace than maybe RPG writing was before in terms of visual programming. It’s very easy for a visual-thinking person as me to handle complex, branching, Lovecraftian-looking, monstrous dialogue trees. I still call it “The Mind Shatterer”, it’s just so difficult mentally and so taxing that, would I have any other option in life, I would probably not do it because it’s so hard, but I really don’t feel at this moment in my life that there’s anything else in my life that I would want to do.
There’s so much opportunity here, but it’s incredibly hard. We have an 8 people writing team, people who have written on this game in general, which is pretty much what Mass Effect Andromeda had, and that’s a huge game and they had tens of millions to do it. In comparison, we are very, very… money’s too tight to mention, so we’re really having to outdo ourselves and jump over our saddle here. It’s not easy, but with the central story, we have a really brilliant synopsis to work around.
With all the stats and their consequences, like for example the characters can suffer from psychoses, how difficult is it also not just to write but make sure that when the story is done that it can accommodate so many different styles of play? There are so many things the players could never see, but you still have to write around them…
You just have to – I think a lot of RPGs haven’t done that, because when you start going down a rabbit hole writing-wise and the player does it too, it drags on and it changes everything. A little joke can change everything.
A lot of RPG writing hasn’t gone down this rabbit hole because they’ve felt it’s unachievable, because you have to account for it later, people remember that you said or did certain actions. We kind of just thought “go for it”, let’s go down every rabbit hole there is, let’s let you do every stupid thing that you can, and try to somehow to get it together in the end.
It looks like it’s possible, but we still do have sanity checks – we have a lot of moments that tie the game together, unavoidable main storyline moments, but there are also a lot of side quests, and they can also affect the main case. You can start with one main case that you’re solving, and you can start about five others, and some of them are as big as the main one. They’re more mysterious, and just as much effort in terms of production and uncovering clues, and some of them can maybe start telling you things about the main investigation and start merging.
For example, you can also become a cryptozoologist, like you’re hunting Bigfoot – you’re not going to be actually hunting Bigfoot but a cryptozoological beast – and then what if it’s real? What if it’s somehow connected? You can really be like – you know that meme? You can really be that guy.
How do you make sure the game is so consistently funny?
Self hurt, self sacrifice, self harm! A lot of this humour is going to come back and bite us in the ass. It has a lot of politically risqué humour, it’s not PC…
There’s literally a line that says “I can get down with racism”…
Yeah, you can say that, and then you can actually get down with racism. You can get that thought and you can follow through on it. We’ve had to be respectful in a way towards an idealogy that I personally loathe, but I’m a writer and I can write as anyone, I pride myself on it. We’ve had to respectfully handle it for that person, and it has to end with something, and it has to turn out that the sorry state that this person is in is because of this. The kind of thing that you mention for instance can be pretty bewildering for some.
The player has to actively pursue those choices for them to happen, right?
How we do it is that, for every scene that happens and every path you go down, we leave nothing in store, we write every scene as hard as we can, and as writers we have every kind of weird or stupid thought. Any hard thing or process, we just have to do it.
One example is a line that you didn’t get in your playthrough, but when you talk to the women outside of your hotel room, if you fail the stat check to flirt with her, you would have been caught in a moment where there’s only one thing you can say, and it would have been “I want to have f*** with you”. She says “that’s literally not how language works”, but for a writer to come out and say this sentence, it’s embarrassing. I have to say that in my head, and say “I came up with this, my brain gave birth to this line, Robert Kurvitz, why?”
That’s a cool moment, but then there are really dark moments later on, you can do stuff that some of our editors are advising us against, but I think I’m still going to leave in. I think the trick is that we don’t want to leave a good impression of ourselves as writers, we want to entertain and engage the person and accommodate the player and reader at any cost. Make it fun, make it so that they tell the story, they pick these options, they solve these cases. It’s not about ourselves as writers; it’s about having a really free game where you can do anything in any order and go around. I don’t care if – I’ve been hounded for political belief before, so I don’t have a problem with that, I’m just not going to go online!
Ultimately, I guess controversy isn’t – it’s not a case of it selling, but when people understand the context around those decisions it’s not as controversial as people think it is.
We’ve already gotten accusations of rampant racism, for example, which is very strange, because I don’t think there is a lot of that in the build. I think it’s actually being able to say things like the word “black” in the context the build has it, it’s apparently a huge thing for videogames, where you’re usually dealing with racism in terms of elves and dwarves and gnomes, and all kinds of fantastical people.
There’s a level of realism to the dialogue that probably makes it more unpalatable for people to experience when playing.
It’s the setting too, it has to be that because – it’s not our world, but – it’s a modern world. It has very similar problems to our world, but perhaps they’re greater or more extreme. It’s something we have to kind of do. I hope a lot of people aren’t going to be upset by it. We never force you to do it.
It’s always your choice, you chose to go down that rabbit hole, you started saying weird things to this person, but you can go down it pretty hard. You’re playing a cop, so you’re in a position of power, you can do really weird bad things, but you don’t have to.
I hope we can signal it before this happens, like if you don’t want to talk to a charater to Cuno, because the first thing he says is a homophobic slur, you can just say goodbye and go away.
Plus, there’s an option to chastise him.
Yeah, we’ve even written it into our Thought Cabinet mechanic that, if you become a centrist or a liberal kind of character, or what the alt-right would call a “virtue signaller”, it becomes a thought in your head that becomes “The Kindom of Conscious”. It can turn you into a really high-horse guy, and if you finish the thought, it’ll give you a bonus, but it will make sure that as a knight of this kingdom, that you have to go and tell Cuno that, disregarding his working-class background, he can’t use language like that. Then you can go to Cuno and have a long talk about it.
We’ve kind of made it a mechanical thing, so that if you have a grievance with the game, you can air them into the game itself. Or, you can go online and call us whatever you want. Just don’t blame me, blame Cuno!
The game’s about to go into closed beta, how important is it to get that feedback at this stage?
Yeah, it’s going to go into closed beta for streamers and then media and so forth. What we want mostly, is that we want some play-testing. This game could be so much fun if it gets us some people playing it, but we also need feedback on how it is to stream. It’s a big thing, entertaining people streaming, but Disco Elysium is a great game for streaming, because there’s so much work we’ve done.
For example, if you like to make stupid voices, then there’s a little VO at the beginning of dialogue, but is isn’t fair to do all the work for you. Hopefully, this is going to be a great game to entertain other people with, who wouldn’t maybe play Disco Elysium who then get into it.
Plus, the fact that there are so many choices and it’s so open means that people can have a different completely experience from what they’ve seen from streamers.
The different streamers will do different things, yeah!
Dani Woodford, Community Manager: It’s also that with a lot of games, if you watch it on stream you’re like “oh I don’t need to play it now”, with this it’s more like you can see it, realise there’s a lot of replayability, and you haven’t really spoiled it for yourself by watching a bit of the stream.
Robert Kurvitz: Also we’re going to have funny hats! They’re not in the build right now, but they’re going to be a lot of hats. It’ll change as we move from early alpha, but there’s going to be a hell of a lot stupid hats to hear! I love dressing up my little guy with clothes, it’s like especially for boys who are mostly RPG players, I guess it’s some kind of freeing experience that they can finally dress up a doll with cool swords, so you can make yourself a stupid disco kind of hat guy.
It’s so fun, I’ve done it myself, like it’s strangely fun to dress a police officer with really strange hats. I hope that’ll also be a really big draw for the streamers: the ability to wear hats.
For anyone who wants to do this sort of game and thinks that the scope is too big, and that it can’t be done, it seems you’ve disproven that, so what advice would you give them?
We haven’t disproven it yet! There’s a lot of QA and playtesting to do, and we need to edit it and stitch this Frankenstein together, and to get under control all the permutations and things that can happen and make it good, to make every scene good, it’s a hell of a lot of work to go still, but given that we may be able to do it…
My first suggestion would be “don’t”. Don’t do it. Just do something normal with your life. Go work first, go to a studio that’s already there, that’s already nice and produced. Don’t make your own studio. None of the 25 of us working on the game have ever made a videogame before. We just got a producer 4 months ago who’s made one – a really good one – who is going to help us do it.
My second suggestion would be that if you absolutely, totally feel like you’re going to be a bum, that you’re not going to pay your rent and you’re going to lose your apartment and you have to do something, and then your friends happen to want to make a videogame – as it was in my case – if it feels like an existential must and you will die if you don’t make it… then definitely do it, because it’s very much possible, I think. You have to be really… it has to be scary how much you want to do it, because it’s very hard.