Disco Elysium - A Fascinating Character-Building Exercise

ZA/UM Studio's recently released detective RPG Disco Elysium features a fairly unique role-playing system. In fact the system is so intriguing, that we can now check out a couple of articles dedicated to it. First, we have the Escapist Magazine with a detailed overview of how Disco Elysium handles character-building. An excerpt:

Throughout the game, you’ll be given the option to take actions that require a skill check. Each option indicates the skill at play and the degree of difficulty based on the player’s current attributes, equipped clothing, skill levels, and active consumables. Some checks can be retried, once you level up the corresponding skill, but others are one-time pass/fail scenarios.

Some of the funniest, most memorable moments from my adventure were caused by failed skill checks. In one instance, I tried to use my Authority skill to recommend a woman I was chatting with on a frozen coastline wear a hat to ward away the chill.

When she refused, my character lost his marbles and spent several hilarious paragraphs authoritatively and sarcastically screaming about getting violently intimate with chapeaus.

You’ll want to pay attention to what you say during conversations as well, since different responses can provide additional bonuses or penalties for an associated skill check. You don’t necessarily want to explore every conversational avenue presented. Think before you speak, even if you’re going to say something certifiably insane.

And then, this PC Gamer article compares Disco Elysium's system to that of The Outer Worlds and comes to the conclusion that one is way more interesting than the other. A few sample paragraphs:

The Outer Worlds, for instance, uses a Fallout-style skills and perks system, but stripped of any personality. Progression is slighter than it is in, say, New Vegas, but both are ultimately concerned with making you better at fighting, talking or tinkering, and The Outer Worlds presents this all in a very simple, matter-of-fact manner and none of it really matters anyway. Pump some points into dialogue skills, grab any old perk and then just get on with the much more engaging gallivanting around a solar system. If you're bored with making the same old characters, Obsidian is right there with you.

I don't want building my character to be an afterthought, though, and the issue is less that Obsidian took a utilitarian approach to skills and perks and more that the foundation itself is just a bit tired. Disco Elysium doesn't throw it out entirely—you're still putting points into skills—but how those skills and decisions manifest in the game is novel, unpredictable and quite often fatal.

Even nurturing Disco Elysium's more physical skills can have bizarre results. Shivers, for instance, is a primal instinct that's like a gumshoe's sense of the city they know so well, but supernaturally amplified. It'll tell you about the weather, but also lots of secrets about the city. Each skill is a character with a voice and personality, offering insight and encouragement rather than just passively waiting to be used. They crop up unexpectedly, sometimes offering case-breaking insights, sometimes telling you to become a paranormal investigator.

It's hard to go back from that to "[Persuade] Please let me have more money for the quest I did" straight away. OK, so The Outer Worlds is better written than that, but the function of skill checks in dialogue is largely to get out of fights or get extra cash, and often your choices will have no bearing on conversations at all. Any insight you get will probably be freely offered moments later. Conversations, then, feel like they're on rails, and while you can pretend that your character has a personality and certain traits, it's rare that the game will acknowledge that beyond some throwaway dialogue options. It's like nobody is listening to me—my worst fear, aside from spiders.