I initially wrote about Mortal Kombat 11 as my biggest disappointment of 2019 and I think that still holds true for the ways it negatively impacted me last year and will continue to do so throughout 2020. But as I've been listening to various gaming podcasts, GotY and otherwise, and their choruses of great praise for Disco Elysium, I keep flashing back to one of the most negative gaming experiences I had this decade. It's the game that narrowly missed being my biggest disappointment of the year, only by virtue of me playing it with very low expectations, and I feel like if I don't get all of my frustration with it out of me I'm going to explode. Spoilers to follow:
Let me get the praise out of the way first. I think the skill system is great, with the constant rolling of hidden checks, even if having to spend a point to forget a thought is bullshit. The world is very well realized and the game is a treat to look at. Disco mostly handles its thematic content well and the incredibly heavy-handed tone works for it. The game is sparsely voiced but the prose flows very well so it rarely becomes a chore to read. Also your partner Kim Kitsuragi is a great character.
But also fuck this game.
For all the rationalization I've heard from people about how the racism and homophobia are earned as part of the game's gritty portrayal of the world, they sure are careful to use fake racist terms for everyone who isn't of East Asian descent. It's a made up world with made up regions and made up slurs. There was even a time I accidentally picked a made up racist slur as a dialogue option and didn't find out it was supposed to be racist until after the fact. In a game that's supposed to be so uncompromisingly real, for all the different skin tones that are represented, it really stuck out as a sore thumb that the only real-world racism that carried over into the game was the racism that I have been personally subjected to. Not a racism that anyone on the writing staff would have experienced, I'm guessing.
People have also heaped on the praise for the breadth of roleplaying options in this game, and Austin Walker has talked about it as being a sort of bridge that hints at the much broader creative space afforded to players of tabletop roleplaying games. While I don't disagree with his assertion that the "role playing" in most video games that label themselves as RPGs is much more like picking one of three canonical characters to play as (nice/mean/centrist), the illusion of expanded freedom in Disco makes it even more immersion breaking when the game blocks your progress unless you take one specific, selfish action without any options for empathy.
When I was working through this game I kept coming to my gaming discord confused because I was running out of things to do. In Disco time only passes when you are performing actions, primarily interacting with objects and going through new dialogue options. You can't just stand around and have time pass, and until 21:00 every game day when your partner goes to bed, you can't force time to pass by lounging around on a bench. On day two I found myself several hours shy of 21:00, having exhausted every dialogue option I was interested in pursuing according to how I was roleplaying my character (be thorough without being overly nosy about seemingly irrelevant information). The only way forward was if I wanted to either A) break immersion by exhausting every dialogue tree possible or B) break immersion by spending my meager money on books that I could read to fast forward time, a roleplaying decision that would make no sense since buying a single book would make my character unable to afford to pay for their motel room for the night.
Eventually I bought a book, which didn't feel great as now I had to beg Kim to pay for my lodging. On day three a new area opened up giving me much more to do, but again on day five, very early in the morning I ran out of things to do. In order to make it to day five in the first place, I had already compromised my roleplaying completely. I had bought everything I could interact with regardless of what it was, and ran around exhausting every possible dialogue tree. I had literally nothing I could do, save one thing.
Disco Elysium is a story about an amnesiac cop, sent to investigate a hanging. The town you're in has no police force of their own, you're an out-of-towner, and local "peacekeeping" is handled by a group of vigilantes from the labor union that runs the area. On day two it's revealed that those same vigilantes are responsible for the hanging, something that they openly admit when confronted with the most meager evidence. They claim they were justified, after all the man who was hanged had sexually assaulted another guest of the motel you're staying in. Not only do they have no fear of punishment, the game makes it abundantly clear that the police in this world have far less legal authority than their real-world counterparts. If you try to request backup from your precinct you are denied, leaving just you and Kim with a single gun between you to try and manage this gang.
When you go to question the woman who was assaulted, she immediately puts on an air of nihilism by way of debauchery. She's here to smoke, drink, shoot up, and fuck herself into oblivion and when pressed, she says that actually she was not assaulted. She had a consensual relationship with the hanged man but had been told by the vigilante gang to lie about it. She tells you to go ahead and tell them that she isn't willing to lie for them.
So me taking stock of the situation, there's a gang of eager murderers who are what equates to the "law" in these parts. They killed a man under the pretense of a sexual assault that never happened. They gave this woman, an outsider who has no ties in this town, an order to lie to cover up their crime. I have no weapon, no support, and no authority. If I rat this woman out, I have no way to ensure her safety. Even if she is being extremely cavalier with her own life, according to the morals of the character I am trying to role play as, there is no way I am willing to put her in that sort of danger. And I make it all the way to the start of day five before I have exhausted literally everything else the game has to offer and have no choice but to rat her out.
It eradicated any sort of investment I had left in my character or the narrative. Everyone told me I was playing a role playing game that finally gave players nuanced options to really craft their persona and fail forwards. It turns out I was just playing yet another video game RPG where I was vaguely guiding the developer's canonical character. No matter how much information you gather or how many clues you uncover, there is no world where the main character of Disco Elysium is willing to exert any effort in order to not directly tell these murderers that this woman is unwilling to cover up their crimes.
Also the main character of Disco Elysium is canonically racist against people of East Asian descent, and that's if I'm trying to give the game a more charitable reading.
There is a moment in the game where the main character can attempt a fairly difficult skill check in order to start dancing. It was a long shot, but I rolled those dice and actually succeeded. Exciting! What follows is a very silly sequence that lets you try to bring the people around you into the dance. Those skill checks were much easier and soon almost the whole room was dancing. Your partner, Kim, remains steadfast at first and resists your attempts to coax him to shake a leg. Eventually the game gives you the opportunity to attempt a skill check to convince him, and I'm thinking fuck yeah, Kim, let's fucking dance! It was evolving into a much needed moment of frivolous joy piercing through the misery of the game's world.
My points in the relative skill were high, statistically my chance to roll a success was something around 70%, but I flubbed it. So what's the punchline to this goofy-ass scene? My character shouts a racist insult at Kim.
This game is being widely praised for its writing, and I think it's fair of me to assume that a game filled with such meticulously crafted dialogue was designed with intentionality. So what is this scene actually trying to say? Are we supposed to read it as telling us that the game isn't about ownership of the character and the best you can do is keep this racist-fuck character's racist tendencies at bay? Or are we actually supposed to have a say in whether or not this character is racist, because then things get a lot more insidious.
Is the player, who has chosen up until this point to not make any racist comments (I loaded a previous save when I accidentally said a fake racist thing), and has actually gone out of their way to denounce racism whenever they encounter it, supposed to see the main character as not a racist? Then what does that mean, that after failing a social skill check this not racist person suddenly decides to shout something incredibly racist at their partner and possibly only friend in the world? Did the main character of Disco Elysium just have a heated gaming moment? "Oh I'm not racist, I just shouted incredibly racist things because things were so intense." You know, the thing that totally normal, not-racist people do.
Kim, of course, immediately storms out of the room, and I immediately Alt+F4ed the game. I went ahead and edited all my skills to be super high so I wouldn't fail any more checks and just brute forced my way through the rest of the game so I could see if they managed to do anything with the story that would justify all the shit I went through trying to play it. Of course they didn't, and now any time I hear people talking about how great Disco is, all I can feel is the burning frustration as I remember my character suddenly shouting out racist insults that I have been subject to for most of my life. Oopsie poopsie.
Fuck this game.