Three years after the release of Disco Elysium, and “Disco-like” isn’t officially its own subgenre, but the comparisons to other games keep piling up. The sad murder mystery of ZA/UM’s RPG, which is actually much more than that, shaped our expectations for just how deep video game writing and player choice can go, and now there’s a whole host of games that also want to try it.
Disco Elysium is a game about writing in a way few RPGs try to be. The conversations you have with the people of Revachol are the main ways you interact and learn about the game. You accumulate skill points that change the way you approach the central plot and the type of side activities you do. All Disco Elysium systems want you to be involved in their world and think critically about the people who inhabit it.
Same goes for Norco, Citizen Sleeper (opens in a new tab)and penance (opens in a new tab)—three games that came out this year that indirectly echo the narrative spirit of Disco Elysium. Each of them cares a lot about how he navigates the dialogue options and slides the consequences into the story as he progresses. And next year, there are several more games on the way that hope to mirror the ZA/UM RPG much more closely, until we have talks in the right side of the screen (opens in a new tab).
The sequel to Disco Elysium 2 is not one of those games. At this point, the fate of Disco Elysium 2 seems impossible. corporate embezzlement (opens in a new tab)Ironically, he has torn apart his artist-turned-gamedeveloper collective, ZA/UM. Three of its main developers, writer Helen Hindpere, artist Aleksander Rostov, and lead designer and writer Robert Kurvitz, are no longer with the company. And even though I had job listings for an environmental artist and a lead environmental artist in July (opens in a new tab)the game’s publisher (who left the studio at some point during its development) said a sequel is unlikely.
Whether a sequel, or some other kind of follow-up, to 2019’s groundbreaking RPG (and the king of PC Gamer’s Top 100 (opens in a new tab)) were to come out, it would likely look considerably different than the game its biggest fans had in mind. Kurvitz’s prose alone defined the game’s dialogue-driven fever dream, where the main cop’s thoughts are your loud-talking party members. A Disco Elysium game without a poetic aside from Shivers, as it describes a city worn down and pierced by a failed revolution, wouldn’t be a Disco Elysium game at all, would it?
Disco Elysium 2 may never come to fruition. But despite the uncertain fate of ZA/UM and its next project, 2022 has been packed with plenty of other games coming their way, and 2023 promises even more.
Alexis Ong interviewed the Norco developer (opens in a new tab) Yuts a few days before its March release, with both agreeing that the adventure game has “bummer vibes.” Norco and Disco Elysium take place in communities where something has been lost and everyone is too tired, beat up, or high up to find it again. In Norco, the real-life part of Louisiana from which the game borrows its name, a growing oil empire continues to strangle the lives of the people that remain. Revachol of Disco Elysium is also dying, under the control of the Capitalist Coalition after it slaughtered the city’s hope for a better future.
Kay, the protagonist of Norco, doesn’t have the authority of Disco Elysium’s top cop, Harrier “Harry” Du Bois, but she’s roaming the city on a detective mission. Kay isn’t built by putting points into skills like Harry, but she still can make various decisions throughout the story that influence her direction. And both games help you internalize the character’s perspective of her by having a thought map to complete: in Norco, it’s the mind map system and in Disco Elysium, it’s the thought cabinet. There are personal conflicts to resolve in both characters’ stories, but the focus of their narratives quickly drifts far enough to illustrate the overwhelming structural breakdown that surrounds them.
Disco Elysium and Norco are politically driven games that delve into branching conversations with a large cast of characters. Like Kentucky Route Zero before them, rich world building and dialogue are the main focus. In his review of Norco (opens in a new tab), Ong praised its ability to empathize with characters of various social identities, writing, “It forces us to re-examine our relationship with video games as a means for escapist pleasure.” Both games focus on such specific real-world parallels that it’s impossible to miss how they echo the realities of the people who created them.
Although Norco’s development began in 2015, it’s clear that its design is following the same path as Disco Elysium. Norco was joined by Citizen Sleeper and Pentiment this year, games that take a similar approach to storytelling and wrap it up in mechanics that live up to the “failed” tabletop RPG ethos. A bad roll on a task in Citizen Sleeper can still reveal more about its cyberpunk world, and while you’ll definitely fail the skill checks in Pentiment, the way the characters react can help you solve the central murder mystery. Like Disco Elysium, these games give you the chance to fill in the margins of a larger story.
on the horizon
There are several games that seem to want a slice of the narrative pie next year. Developer Drop Bear Bytes describes Broken Roads (opens in a new tab) as a “narrative role-playing game” set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. The game looks incredibly similar to Disco Elysium with its isometric perspective and muted color palette. Characters and missions are influenced by a ‘Moral Compass’ morality system, and you can gather up to five party members to help you in turn-based combat. Broken Roads is slated for a 2023 release date.
esoteric reflux (opens in a new tab) it could be out as early as next year, though its Steam page only says “coming soon”, and it goes so far as to call itself a “disc-like CRPG”. Developer Christoffer Bodegård also cites Planescape Torment and Baldur’s Gate in the game’s description. It is set in a fantastic city where a tea shop has been blown up before a historic election; . You play as a cleric who can engage in skill check-based conversations as well as magic-based combat during the course of an investigation. There’s a take on Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet here, too: the ‘search tree’ shows you the dialogue and leads you on the chase as you work to find out what caused the explosion.
sovereign syndicate (opens in a new tab) It doesn’t call itself a Disco CRPG, but it sure looks like one. It’s set in Victorian Steampunk London, but everything else feels a lot like Disco Elysium. It has a ‘tarot card probability’ system that determines how other characters react to you and what actions you can take. As you learn more about the world, you gain skills that you can implement to unlock unique dialogue and skill checks. The isometric game promises plenty of branching options and already has a demo available on Steam.
A few levels removed from Disco Elysium’s ultra-specific inspirations is She Dreams Elsewhere. (opens in a new tab). The surreal adventure RPG, which began development before Disco Elysium came out, combines the retro aesthetic of Undertale with neon-ink art. It has a turn-based combat system and a ‘connection’ system that allows you to choose your favorite characters and follow their stories. As Thalia, your goal is to figure out how to escape the dream and deal with the anxiety and other mental health issues that manifest in her world. She Dreams Elsewhere feels like Disco Elysium if she increases the rare to 11 and allows you to bathe in it. It’s listed as coming soon on the Steam page, but the developer said in Twitter (opens in a new tab) who will have updates on the project next year.
Three years after its release, Disco Elysium seems to have set a framework for many upcoming games to work. Each of them centers their mechanics around dialogue and text-based storytelling, but gives you a broader set of tools to influence those things, whether through alternate ability systems or combat. The joy of skill checks and dice rolls is when things go surprisingly right or wrong in a way that pushes you on a new path. In the moment, it’s like breaking a rule, but then the story continues and you finally have a history of unexpected results that set your story apart from the rest.
The heart of Disco Elysium still beats. You can hear it in every game that, intentionally or not, is deeply inspired by it. None of these games may have as much of an impact as they did, but it’s still exciting to see all the new directions their developers are taking. We may not be getting a Disco Elysium 2 anytime soon, but a host of games picking up on Disco’s fearless creativity and verbosity is perhaps a more fitting follow-up to what a sequel could be.