When trying to describe Disco Elysium to friends, I’ve had some trouble. It’s a point and click adventure game, but once you get past that and try to explain what it is in more detail it starts to defy description. You know how sometimes a game comes along with a cool little trick (active reload, say) and all the reviewers say “I look forward to seeing this in every game for the next ten years”? This is the opposite of that: it’s rammed full of fascinating ideas that I just cannot see other developers going for.
There’s a video of one of the writers at GDC talking about how conventional wisdom in narrative design is that you want to reduce “ripples”, choices the player makes that will affect other things so that you’ll have to change them. ZA/UM charged headlong in the other direction; the screenshots from their dialogue mapping software look like the murderboard of a particularly frantic Dolores Dei assassination conspiracist.
The three predefined builds incline you toward certain approaches, preferring either intellectual, emotional or physical skills; I decided for some reason to play a completely balanced build. Watching back, the developers said the archetypes were Sherlock Holmes, Dale Cooper and Vic Mackey. I realised that I wasn’t playing any of those, I was playing Dirk Gently; unintentionally, but by the end I felt thoroughly justified in my attempts to try and solve the world rather than just the case.
Your skills manifest as thoughts which are constantly offering some insight or another—and this is played with in some marvellous ways—and again, takes things in a slightly different direction to anything else I've played recently. In the same way as having zero certain skills can bring penalties (e.g. having Perception at zero means you can't interact with any item in the world), there are also penalties that come with having too much invested in a certain stat. This, combined with the way that the game is designed to allow you to "fail forward", also goes some way to freeing you from the desire to min-max stats—though giving clothing the ability to level up stats does undermine that somewhat.
The game addresses politics in a slightly different way: it has an affection for socialism and a pessimism about the possibility for it that (reading back some of the coverage at the time) I saw criticised but for me feels very understandable, particularly given that the core team of the game are Estonian. It seems passively hostile towards fascism and laissez-faire capitalism, seeming to take their evil for granted, but saves its claws for 'moralism', the game's liberalism, exemplified by a speech at the end of the game where one of the characters vents their absolute fury, undulled by time, at the destruction the Moralintern wrought on the city.
In some ways I'm grateful that I bounced off this game on its initial launch and only wound up finishing it this year. There's a lot in here that I wouldn't have been able to take in or really appreciate on release (particularly the player character's relationship with Dei which, unlike a lot of reviewers I've seen, I think worked, made sense and spoke to me in a way it wouldn't have prior). I also would've been deprived of the full voice acting in the Final Cut edition. Rarely for a game like this, I didn't skip over the dialogue. I wanted to hear it all spoken. Game of the year, not just this year but every year.