Disco Elysium

Developed by: ZA/UM

Published by: ZA/UM

Available on: PC

The first thing to know when you come across Cuno is that he’s a twelve year-old kid; the second thing is that he’s rolling his eyes out on drugs. So, when you ask why he’s slinging rocks at a bloated corpse swinging from a tree and he gets ornery, give a thought to the buzz he’s nursing. Even if you decide to sock him in the face, keep your cool. He’s good to have on your side, plus, he’s hilarious. If you ask him why he refers to himself in the third person, he’ll roar, “Cuno’s the [expletive] FIRST PERSON.”

Cuno is one of the many curiosities in “Disco Elysium,” a scintillating RPG that I’d recommend to anyone who can click a mouse or has a taste for the surreal. I didn’t expect to find another game this year as conspicuously well written as “Sunless Skies,” or as adept in its use of noir as “Neo Cab,” but here it is. “Disco Elysium” pulls off some surprising moves, like making the story of an amnesiac protagonist interesting by emphasizing his biological makeup. This is an RPG where you play an alcoholic cop whose body talks to you — in fact, you are introduced to him via a conversation with his reptilian brain and limbic system.

From a blackout state the anonymous man’s mind swims gradually back to consciousness. When he awakens, it’s to a trashed hotel room with bottles on the floor and an unflattering necktie spinning from an overhead fan. Grab the tie off the fan and throw it on and it will start speaking to you — like a devil in your ear — goading you to misbehave. Soon after leaving the hotel room, you meet Kim Kitsuragi. Detective Kitsuragi has just arrived to help you investigate the death of a man hanging from a tree near the hotel. For reasons that won’t become clear until many hours later, the body has been allowed to remain where it is for so long that it’s in an advanced state of decomposition when you find it.

As you try to get to the bottom of the circumstances that led to the victim’s untimely demise you’ll come to learn, just as the protagonist does, about the city of Revachol, with its fractious politics and oddball citizens. By mingling with Revachol’s residents and carpetbaggers, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get into colorful conversations about the relative merits — or lack thereof — of capitalism, socialism, or communism. Indeed, there are achievements such as The World’s Most Laughable Centrist and Biggest Builder of Communism, which are respectfully awarded for “defend[ing] the political centre for 7 times” and “emply[ing] critical theory 9 times.” (Naturally, I nabbed the latter; no doubt, Theodor Adorno is twirling in his grave.)

In “Disco Elysium” there are two ways to level up its saggy, disheveled cop. Skill points can be poured into twenty-four different attributes spread over four categories: intellect, physique, psyche, and motorics. For example, throw a few points into “electrochemistry (physique)” and you’ll be able to gain additional bonuses from indulging in vices, whereas if you pipe some into “inland empire,” — a skill associated with the psyche — you’ll increase the quality of your gut feelings. Listening to your gut can often save you from unnecessary harm such as sparing you from triggering traps. Hits can come in many directions. Speculate about your past in a conversation and what you say may have a negative effect.

Another way to alter your stats is to place ideas in your thought cabinet. Items that go into your thought cabinet are things that you need to mull over, for various lengths of time, to arrive at an understanding of certain topics. Thus, at one point I found myself waiting for my guy to finish cogitating on Advanced Race Theory so I could revisit a racist with the craniometrically-suggestive name Measurehead and get him to do something for me. {Hey, I only needed to convince the muscle-bound idiot that I understood him, not subscribe to his theories!) Not every idea placed into the thought cabinet will yield uniformly positive results. Reflecting on your inability to recognize things that should be familiar — known as jamais vu or derealization, the opposite of deja vu — will result in a -1 loss to your Encyclopedia skill because “nothing is familiar.”

Over the length of this very long game you’ll travel back and forth across the streets of Revachol, repeatedly interviewing and following up with people. If you’re not averse to reading loads of text that is often funny and given to riffing on different ideologies, it can be an easy rhythm to get into. Don’t dawdle. Go ahead, run toward the wild side.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

Recent game reviews: