Over the next few days, we will reveal what we believe are the 10 best games of 2019, organized by release date. Then, on December 17, we will reveal which of the nominees gets to take home the coveted title of GameSpot’s Best Game of 2019. So be sure to come back then for the big announcement, and in the meantime, follow along with all of our other end-of-the-year coverage collected in our Best Games of 2019 hub.
Disco Elysium is unlike anything else we played this year. It takes traditional CRPG mechanics and puts a psychological spin on them, with your skills feeding into how conversations unfold in clever and unexpected ways. To that end, it has some of the best writing we’ve seen in a game to date–at once unavoidably bleak and effortlessly funny, both a brilliant detective game and an incredible work of existential fiction besides.
While the bulk of the game is reading, Disco Elysium’s inventive twist on traditional RPG systems sets it apart from a regular novel. A lot of the text you read consists of the main character’s interior monologue, and the loudest voices are the skills you spec into–things like empathy, logic, and even electrochemistry, the part of him that’s addicted to drugs and alcohol. How you craft your amnesiac, alcoholic cop transforms how conversations play out, what responses are available to you, and the kinds of clues you pick up on in relation to the murder investigation at the core of the story. Logic might tell you that a locked door must have a key somewhere, while electrochemistry might encourage you to do the drugs you confiscated from a kid and empathy will suggest that you look into his clearly troubled home life.
Whether you listen to any of these inner voices is up to you. Sometimes they’re wrong; there are always skill checks being rolled in the background, and if, say, your empathy isn’t high enough for a particular situation, it might suggest something inaccurate or insensitive instead of helpful. While you are afforded some freedom in how you roleplay the detective–including whether he’s a communist or a fascist, for instance–a lot of the time, you are instead deciding whether to act on his impulses or not, and that makes him feel more human.
Because of that, you really do feel like a detective, even if the detective you control is a bit of a disaster. A passing observation early on can lead to an unexpected revelation down the line, leaving you to wonder what you might have missed. The side activity that seems like a distraction may very well lead back to the case, if only because it gives you a fuller picture of the city you’re in and the people who live and die there. Seemingly unrelated events and interactions come together in surprising ways. And crucially, the story isn’t tied up with a neat bow–events and people intersect in believable ways that make Disco Elysium’s world feel lived-in, and while the murder mystery has its satisfying aha moments, it’s also beautifully messy.
The game finds humor in flaws, too. Choose too many non-committal answers and you’ll unlock an achievement mocking you for being a centrist. Fail a critical skill check while trying to crack a joke and everyone will just stare at the detective blankly. He can even die from sitting in an uncomfortable chair for too long (heart attack–the alcoholism has done a number on his body). Often incisive comedy provides much-needed levity in Disco Elysium’s darkness: the immense emotional pain the detective feels but can’t identify, the ills of late capitalism and corruption that rot its world, the frank descriptions of human decay during an autopsy.
It’s a testament to the quality of Disco Elysium’s writing that the sheer volume of it doesn’t get overwhelming. It’s a dense game, both in the number of words and the depth and breadth of the subject matter, but no words are wasted. Not everything has a direct purpose–you might inspect something suspicious-looking at the behest of your drama skill to discover it’s obviously unrelated to the murder case, for example–but every conversation, observation, and interaction provides something for your trouble. It might be a deeper insight into the world, its inhabitants, or yourself, or it might just be a witty joke, but regardless, taking the time to read and explore in Disco Elysium always yields something worthwhile.
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