Now that we have a flashy screenshot to illustrate it, let’s talk about combat in Disco Elysium.
1. There are only a handful of instances of it. These are half-scripted, pseudo turn-based, set piece combat encounters. They are not cheap to animate and program. They come along as the pace and style of your investigation dictates. When you get cocky. When you push a violent angle. When you don’t move fast enough. When you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is the narrative logic of a cop thriller, or a hardboiled novel, not a war game.
But they will come along (although only one of the encounters is entirely unavoidable).
2. There are tactical choices to be made. Let’s take the screenshot as an example. The entire scene is one nerve-racking tumble of choices. These bad dudes are trying to get to what’s behind you. (Spoiler territory – not shown in the screenshot). Do you try to talk them down, try a peaceful angle? Or shoot first? As you deplete topics, the conversation will return you to this hub. Taking the shot may have gotten easier if you lulled them into a sense of security – or harder if you’ve been tricked. Your skills will advise you, guide you. But are they right? Maybe they’re just scared?
And that’s only the foreplay. When you do decide to shoot, you do so by clicking on that Hand/Eye Coordination red check. (If it’s your attack of choice of course – what’s available depends on your weapons: more on that later).
What follows is what we writers call a whirl. Think of it as a pseudo-turn. First you either hit or miss with that Villiers 9mm. The resulting havoc will play out in cool and insanely budget-consuming animations. The opposing force will then try to retaliate. At that point the screen will freeze into a time-stop. During this time-stop you take in your immediate surroundings and consult your skills. This is the titular whirl, since you’re constantly directed back to a hub of choices. You may gain tactical information from your surroundings. See what your partner is doing. All the while you’re confronted with a Reaction Speed red check to dodge the incoming enemy fire. That active check becomes harder or easier depending on your skills guidance via passive checks: Visual Calculus has drawn your attention to the angle of attack, Half Light has gotten scared and wants you to run!
Once you click on that red check, you either get shot or dodge the bullet, and enter another whirl.
Using these whirls we can (painstakingly) build any custom combat encounter, and give it the detail and skill-focused storytelling we’re going for.
3. As demonstrated, there are dice rolls, with percentages. A ton of them. We use active dice rolls of the red check variant, where both the negative and positive outcomes are played out. The stars of the show here are: Hand / Eye Coordination, Physical Instrument, and Reaction Speed, but others feature too. And as always, you can buff these rolls with the Electrochemistry system, by carrying a bottle and a ciggie into combat, bad cop style.
4. Your items decide what you can do. No gun – no shooty, etc. They also provide old fashioned bonuses and penalties to the active checks you’re rolling. Wearing a heavy armour makes dodging that shot harder. Having a better gun makes hitting that shot easier. A sports visor keeps the sun from your eye and makes you more likely to get that Visual Calculus tip during the second whirl.
And not only that – thoughts in your thought cabinet may also contribute. These mercenaries are wearing a strange new type of ceramic armour. Research it – for weaknesses! – and that Hand/Eye Coordination gets one of those massive bonuses game devs like to talk about.
5. It’s not all number crunching, it’s also about style. You’re going to want to have a high Pain Threshold character for a combat encounter, just to get painfully immersive information about your body breaking down, in exquisite, spleen rupturing detail. It’s like Nabokov said: dying is fun. (Only it’s really not). Or max out on Shivers and see what this muzzle flash looks like from the perspective of the wind; hear it echo down the street. And you can still use Rhetoric, Drama, Authority etc too — you don’t have to stop talking the opponents down, or taunting them, or relaying information to your squadmate, because the “battle grid” came out. Dialogue options can be part of the whirls.
Okay, so to recap: each whirl begins with all actors moving in a totally unique way, animated by Eduardo Rubio, our animation lead — one hell of an animator, that guy. We use time-stops at the end of each whirl. Then there are options to consult your senses, where skills jive in. And each whirl is exited by rolling another red check that begins another animation, etc. Until the situation is resolved, or you’re dead.
6. If someone gets killed during all this – someone important to you or the case – they stay dead. There is no disconnection between story and combat in Disco Elysium. The results of each decision you make – or fail to make, because you were trying to be diplomatic – is played out. People die, people have their bodies broken. They remember that you tried to punch them and fell over, because you were drunk. This stuff stays with you. You sustain a wound and people say: hey, you don’t look so good officer, stop bleeding in my fishing village.
If this sounds like a lot to produce, then that’s because it is. Do not expect an encounter to await behind every corner. But I thoroughly believe this approach is, if not the future of RPGs, then an early warning of that future. Consider the possibilities: fisticuffs in a burning building, a direct artillery hit on your Station, an exchange of fire during a car crash. These are all action scenes we’ve told in the pen and paper version of the Elysium role playing system. It’s our brand of pen and paper action scene – and this set piece centred combat system is our way of getting it to you, in a video game.
The beauty of the system is — we can just as well put you in a squad based combat situation, as we can have you jumping over a chasm to get into the harbour. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution for action scenes, comprising both combat, and acrobatics / environment interactions. Both use whirls and time-stops.
It is powered by Metric, our downright vitruvian character customization that represents the human mind and body in a realistic manner, and was made possible with some pretty complicated animation programming.
Next time we’ll talk about those Motoric skills that are crucial to surviving a situation like this: