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CHOOSE YOUR OWN MISADVENTURE – PART 2

Original article written by Izual and published in Canard PC. Translation by Steph Noviss. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share this article with the world.

“GETTING IT WRONG MAKES THE GAME MORE FUN.”

Robert Kurvitz, lead designer and lead writer for Disco Elysium, fills us in on how to lose at role-playing and what his RPG sets out to achieve.

Canard PC: In an RPG, if a player gets something wrong you can generally expect negative consequences. But how do you punish the player for their mistakes if their character is already a massive loser?

Robert Kurvitz: “You never prevent them from accessing a part of the game. A mistake should affect how you react in future, by responding to what just happened. It should make you feel embarrassed, afraid, regretful. Most of all, it has to be a genuine experience, written in such a way that the player sees the value of it as they build their character and doesn’t just want to restart the game straight after. We’ve worked really hard to make these mistakes some of the game’s best moments in terms of role-play, and I think people feel closer to their character when he gets something wrong than when he gets it right. For example, there’s one scene where you have to interrogate eight armed guys, just you and your partner. They own up to having committed the crime, but they start taunting you. “Get your gun out – you’re finished!” There’s nothing you can do against these eight guys; you’re utterly powerless, but at the same time you’re still a cop (who has to arrest them – Ed.). But if you fail to bring the situation under control too many times, you start doing truly CRAZY things. You pull out your gun, put it under your chin, and threaten to kill yourself! That would be the worst decision ever! Your partner tries to help you and it goes on for ages… Everyone will remember that moment. It’s very powerful for your character to go through that. You discover things about him that you wouldn’t have found out otherwise, and all of this will have consequences later on. Or even straight away, as it’s much harder to be convincing towards these guys now that they see you as that unhinged cop who tried to kill himself. So then you have to do a little minmaxing and redistribute points (in the character profile – Ed.), reconsider your strategy, go and speak to their boss, and think how you could manipulate them. Getting it wrong makes the game more fun.”

“I want people to expect a lot more from video game writing.”

What kind of story are you aiming to tell in Disco Elysium?

“First of all, it’s a very meticulously structured detective story. The cop is a modern-day knight. He’s the main character, and his job is to meddle in other people’s business. Everyone HAS to speak to him; he can open any door. Writers have been using police detectives ever since the French invented them in the 17th century. (To the interviewer, who suddenly becomes a representative for all French people) Thank you, thank you! Best character ever!… So, yeah, I have a lot of respect for crime novels. Everything has to be so carefully thought-out. You need to have insane plot twists, and your internal logic has to be flawless. And so we have huge plot twists and the storyline takes some completely wacky turns, but at the same time there’s also that need for realism and raw brutality. All of this is still no more than a method, a tool.

What this story truly aims to do is to express, at a very primal level, what it is to live inside this lump that sleeps eight hours a day and spends the rest of the time thinking. How this bag of flesh with a squishy head on top somehow manages to muddle through with his money. You’re stuck inside a body, inside a brain, strolling through life yet never knowing how you ended up there and why something called nature, after having created this troubled lump of a human being, is quite happy to just fling him against a wall and leave him for dead. I really wanted to use the RPG as a way to look more deeply into this problem and how ridiculous it is; its comical side but also its tragic side. And then the feeling of utter triumph when you get it right. It’s incredible – highly unlikely, but truly incredible – to get it right as a human being. Not many people manage to get it right; most of us fail. Basically, overall, it’s sort of a complete novel which works by making use of the cool and funny side of crime fiction.”

Have you identified any traps to avoid in video game writing?

“Oh… All of it, I reckon. So far, the entirety of video game writing has been one giant trap. I should clarify right away that, in my opinion, real quality can only happen when you write for video games specifically. Not when you write in the same way as you would for a film. You can produce excellent cinematographic writing in video games, for example The Last of Us among others. These are very well written, but real video game writing has to be interactive, with choices, consequences, and a story that’s a bit like a big Rubik’s Cube which adapts and changes depending on what the player does. There is huge potential in this non-linear approach, but so far all it’s done is fall into traps.

The first is never to let your skills system support your writing. You read the text as if you were reading a novel. In general, skills are useful in combat, but peaceful skills are boring, or else they are there to overcome obstacles passively. And actually it’s this under-used side of the skills system that has the most influence on the game’s writing! So there are obstacles to overcome, like “when you reach 90 you unlock this option”, and there are dice rolls where a failure doesn’t strictly change anything. Even the RPGs with the best writing, such as Planescape: Torment, are constantly battling with the Dungeons & Dragons-style skills system they’re based on. So that’s the first trap, but… Oh my god, there are so many others. So many others.”

There has been less and less tolerance of lore dumps over the last few years. How do you convey the full breadth of your universe to the player without using them?

“There are lore dumps in Disco Elysium. As long as they’re done well, it’s not an issue: they mostly happen with the “encyclopedia” skill, which provides information on the game’s universe. It doesn’t give essential, well-structured facts, though – it gives random information, pretty much however it pleases. But passing on bits and pieces of knowledge like this is one of the best ways of building a world. In real life, nobody has a user manual to explain everything – you hear little snippets all over the place. You don’t know where everything is or how everything works. This is why we shouldn’t be afraid of confusion, because in real life people are very confused when it comes to the ‘lore’ of their own world. They are faced with contradicting news sources, for example. So I like the idea of this “encyclopedia” skill, because if your character hasn’t invested in it enough there are certain things in the Disco Elysium world you won’t even notice. I think it’s good that you need to make an effort to create a character who will actually ask for these little lore dumps.”

What can Disco Elysium bring that’s new to gaming?

“I won’t beat around the bush – I want to completely revolutionise role-playing games. We need to fine-tune our game until we make that revolution possible. To revolutionise the use of stories, choices, and consequences. The use of skills. What “skill” means. I want there to be peaceful skills that actually represent real life, human imagination, sadness, the power of suggestion, dance… you know, that whole range of authentic experiences you get from tabletop RPGs and from reality. I don’t want all those body-counting shoot ’em ups, structures that encourage aggression, all those weird and idiotic things that games generally use.

I want people to expect a lot more from video game writing. I want writing to become so good that we start seeing a brain drain. With ambitious novelists and scriptwriters coming to write for games, and understanding that you can genuinely use a video game to say something that will still be of value in a hundred years. That you can express what you really want to express through our characters, and not just produce what the licence requires. I want there to be fictional universes that talk about our own real life experiences. About the political problems we’re facing, the geopolitical structures around us, the problems of the modern world, etc. Universes which don’t leave us feeling numb, alone, and abandoned after we have finished exploring them. Universes which actually equip us with life tools and provide context for what’s happening to us. Which give us the strength to carry on with our lives, instead of making us feel empty to the point where we say, “Oh my god, I want to go back to the land of the Elves, but I can’t; I’ve already seen it all”.

The best aim behind this revolution in how worlds are built is that of changing how people interpret escapism. I want them to feel good when they return, better equipped, ready to accomplish things, with new tricks to use as they go about their business. Siths and Jedis are really just tired metaphors for talking about politics. They’re dulling our minds; they don’t explain anything.

Voldemort can’t help us understand what Trump is about. It’s senseless; it makes you stupid. Fantasy worlds provide tools with which to face the world, but the wrong tools will render us incapable of doing that. I want us to build worlds which make us capable. Which help us deal with the world better.”

Thanks for joining us for Part 2, hope you enjoyed this Canard PC feature!

 
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CHOOSE YOUR OWN MISADVENTURE – PART 1

Original article written by Izual and published in Canard PC. Translation by Steph Noviss. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share this article with the world.

Back in 2015, strange rumours began wafting from Estonia like whispers in the wind. Whispers of a visionary role-playing game, an artists’ collective turned video game studio, a story featuring a blackout-drunk cop in a universe that’s totally new. With influences from Planescape: Torment and Kentucky Route Zero, the game which was then called No Truce With The Furies promised to change our relationship with narratives, dialogue, and role-playing. But did this game, developed in far-off Tallinn, even exist? Or were the official screenshots no more than a series of tantalising montages? A question mark remained for several years. And then, at the end of April, I boarded a train to meet with its creators and spent many hours playing it. Those whispers in the wind were not exaggerating: if anything, they should have been louder.

I’m a cop. I don’t know much more than that – probably because I woke up with amnesia, lying face down on a hotel room floor, still reeling from an apocalyptic bender the night before. I’m a cop – and I’m sure of that, because the people at the hotel don’t seem best pleased that my investigation is getting nowhere. What investigation? Well, I’m damned if I know, and I’m going to have to ask them, even though I have a feeling it will annoy them. I’m a cop, but I have ambition. A little voice in my head even said I was definitely a superstar, and that makes sense because superstars also pass out in their own vomit when they have too much to drink. So, when another hotel guest asks me my name, I tell them I’m the harbinger of doom. And there you have it – not even ten minutes since I started playing Disco Elysium and already I’ve created a character for myself. I should point out that, in this game, everything can be used as a tool to develop your relationship with the hero and take him in whatever direction you find interesting. You might choose a dialogue option because it makes you laugh, and you’re pretty sure things will then just move on – but the game grabs the opportunity, delves deeper into that superstar backstory, and stashes it away for future use. In my case, it will even ask whether I want to roll the dice to see if I can flash a winning smile.

Superstar in a funk. Obviously, this attempt will fail miserably. You see, the hero in Disco Elysium isn’t just a cop: he’s also a massive loser. The vomit on the hotel room floor is merely the first in a long series of grim revelations, from his ungainly physique and completely irresponsible behaviour to his truly awful taste in clothes. Not quite the energetic young adventurer you’d normally be playing in an RPG, but it’s no big deal. On the contrary, it’s actually better: this guy’s eccentricities force the player into a whole load of insane, unconventional situations. After a colourful conversation as I call the police station to report my lost badge, or perhaps it’s after I try to arrest the hotel manager to get out of paying for my room (a particularly unsettling scene), I realise the game has me hooked, convinced that this loser detective’s misadventures are worth more than a thousand medieval quests to save a village from bandits. Not just because these scenarios are so original, but also because every piece of dialogue in Disco Elysium is an absolute delight to read. With countless jokes that could elicit a hearty laugh even from my colleague Kahn Lusth on MOT day, situations you can push further and further into the ridiculous, and entertaining, multi-layered characters, these are conversations you will want to linger over for a long time rather than skimming through them.

ZA/UM is where the heart is. Very little information has filtered through about ZA/UM Studio since Disco Elysium was announced. I therefore took advantage of my meeting with a few of its team to reassure myself that they weren’t all just actors roped in by some wealthy corporation to set up a giant hoax, because, well, you do hear about that sort of thing on the internet… But no: Disco Elysium is definitely being developed by an Estonian artists’ collective who fantasised about starting a cultural movement back in the late 2000s. Doubtful as to whether it would take off in Estonia (a country with a small population of around a million and also a very conservative environment, where they felt very little sense of belonging), this group of poets, writers, sculptors and painters decided to turn their attention to English-speaking culture in 2014. Wanting to adapt the pen-and-paper role-playing game they had spent a decade working on into a video game, the collective recruited programmers and transformed themselves into a proper studio, complete with business hours, team meetings and a UK office. The transition was far from painless, but the developers’ soul remains intact: staff in the Brighton office are lucky enough to have a gold bust of Lenin casting a watchful eye over them as they work.

 

This loser detective’s misadventures are worth more than a thousand medieval quests to save a village from bandits.

The name of the prose. Quality like this didn’t happen all by itself. In the UK office of ZA/UM (pronounced “Zowm”), near Brighton beach, I had a long chat with Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium’s lead designer and lead writer – an Estonian native who has what he himself describes as an unreasonable degree of perfectionism. Even the place names in the game took a ridiculous amount of work: as Kurvitz explains, “Paris, Berlin, London… All these names have evolved over thousands of years. We as humans have adapted and refined them to a point that goes beyond comprehension. This is why our place names have to be excellent too, otherwise I wouldn’t find them credible myself.” I didn’t dare point out the existence of places like Cockermouth and Lickfold, proof that human beings don’t always think things through – I was already sold on the Disco Elysium universe. Admittedly, the game could hardly have left me cold and indifferent, with its isometric viewpoint in 3D and stunning graphics reminiscent of an oil painting complete with brushstrokes showing through. But best of all is the fact that the game’s contemporary society, unpredictable climate and industrial-meets-rustic backdrops make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a sleepy coastal resort somewhere by the Baltic Sea. The vast city of Revachol is not, however, any place on Earth – you can tell by the deliciously retro technology, the strong French influences (the game starts in a harbour area called Martinaise) and a history that is just familiar enough to spark curiosity. “I wanted to create a world for people who have more or less run out of interesting history articles to read on Wikipedia,” says Kurvitz.

Text appeal. Fittingly, the multi-layered, intriguing history of this universe is not explained to the player through the usual lore dumps1, but instead comes through in snatches and fragments, which is infinitely preferable. Those particularly hungry for information could always spend a few points on the “encyclopedia” skill, which will interrupt the dialogue to bring you an impassioned history lesson – but there are so many other enticing skills available that you’ll find yourself faced with a real dilemma. Where other RPGs would normally use just three or four skills (at most) to influence dialogue, here you have a whopping twenty-four. And all of them are useful, desirable, and smart – so much so that I sat looking at the character customisation screen for a good few minutes, unable to choose between a sixth sense, an ability to lie, or hand/eye coordination: a fiendishly difficult decision.

A festival of warped thinking, joking and role-playing which always goes one step beyond what you expected.

The human condition. What I found craziest is that these skills do more than just unlock frivolous dialogue options. Although they are sometimes used for dice rolls (“composure”, for example, will help stop you from passing out like a sack of potatoes when you have to remove a hanged cadaver while your partner looks on in dismay), their usefulness lies mostly in their ability to butt in on your conversations, as though they were characters in their own right. “It’s as if there were 24 people having a big party inside the hero’s body,” says Kurvitz. “By distributing points, you can vote to decide which ones get the most power.” What power? The power to give our hero questionable advice while he’s mid-conversation, the power to roast him, or the power to try and lead him in another direction. “Endurance” is one skill that voices itself particularly crudely, from the depths of the hero’s gut: it gave me grief for a good five minutes, trying to turn me into some kind of macho halfwit obsessed with the idea of sending women back into the kitchen.

Off the beaten pacifism. Yes, it went on for a good five minutes – a dialogue in Disco Elysium can easily take a quarter of an hour. This would seem an eternity in any other RPG but in this game it flies by, precisely because these conversations are never just straightforward question-and-answer exchanges. What with the different skills chatting away, the slippery customers you have to interrogate, the hero making pathetic attempts to outdo everyone else the whole time, and the game’s unique responsiveness, every discussion feels more like a festival of warped thinking, joking and role-playing which always goes one step beyond the detective game you were expecting. And I’ve not yet mentioned the “Thought Cabinet” – this is a screen that lets you tap into the hero’s recurring thoughts (such as becoming a superstar), which can change over time to generate powerful bonuses. Before visiting the studio, I was of course concerned about the lack of traditional combat sequences. For the last ten years, dialogue in RPGs has existed merely as a filler or to serve a specific purpose (take up a mission, find information about the mission, conclude the mission), so I would have been within my rights to panic at the idea of a game where dialogue is everything.

Comes the resurrection. However, Disco Elysium not only has some combat sequences (with a highly promising sort of turn-based system that progresses through dialogue, which means it can, and I quote, “describe precisely how much it hurts to take a bullet to the pelvis”), but the in-game text is more than enough to bring a sense of rhythm, freshness, powerful emotion, and originality to the adventure. The urge to whip out a gun and zap all the bad guys becomes immediately less pressing when every conversation turns out to be a fast-paced confrontation of rhetoric, a wrestle with a hideous tie, or a battle of wills with a merciless twelve-year-old (who stands a pretty good chance against our hero). It may not seem like a big deal, but when you combine it with a highly original universe and impeccable writing, this polyphonic, dynamic system of dialogue will most likely produce a game light years ahead of the RPGs we know. And if Disco Elysium does well after its release at the end of the year, it’s going to be mighty hard for studios to carry on releasing old-style RPGs as if nothing had happened. What is clear is that there’s a real storm brewing in that whispering wind from Estonia.

See you next week for PART 2 – the interview with Robert Kurvitz!

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Follow Friday Recap Part 1

For the past few months, we’ve been celebrating our team at ZA/UM by showcasing them and their work on our Twitter and Facebook for a #FF series. Social media is ephemeral though, so we’ve decided to feature them in a more permanent way over here on our blog. We have a truly amazing team of people lending their skills to make Disco Elysium its best, and so please be sure to support their work outside the game as well.

Markus Härma, our Junior Artist, joined ZA/UM after taking a course on 2D Graphics from another member of the team. His focus has shifted to 3D but it’s his goal to combine both in something 360 to use in VR. Don’t you want to explore these scenes? https://www.artstation.com/markush

Kaspar Tamsalu has done a lot of level design as well as inventory icons. Outside ZA/UM, he started a record company with friends, creating illustrations for the events and albums. He’s also head of the Painting Department at Pallas University! https://www.instagram.com/ktamsalu/

Our animation programmer, Stein Andrian, works for us implementing characters and setting up “cut scenes.” He’s also working on his thesis Sofus Research, an action RPG where you save a small civilization living in a giant tree from a threatening evil. http://savagetotem.com/

When our US Producer EMiSpicer isn’t writing blogs or organizing spreadsheets, she’s freelancing as a photographer! She’s spent 8+ years traveling around the world taking photos at games events, shows, and more. Check out her work on Instagram! http://instagram.com/uglymachine