Defective Detective

On the advice of a friend I bought my first video game in maybe ten years, Disco Elysium.

Highly recommended, especially if you’re thinking of self-isolating. This will comfortably fill a week of your time (with breaks for eating and strolling from room to room).

It’s an RPG that’s also cinematic and literary. It’s the reverse of a shoot-em-up and if you’ve never, ever enjoyed a video game, this one would still be worth trying.

It’s a noir detective story where your cop is a drug-addled alcoholic who wakes up with total amnesia and has to discover who he is, how the world he’s in (an insanely detailed fictional planet) functions, and what the case he’s on is all about, before hopefully solving it. As with the likes of Chinatown, the case escalates as it complicates, until the whole of society, seemingly, is implicated.

It’s very intriguing, beautiful, and frequently hilarious. Some of this is because of the character’s extremely dysfunctional personality: you get to select from multiple-choice dialogue options as you interrogate suspects, and some of them are truly insane, and will lead your character into peculiar situations.

But what was truly remarkable to me was how emotional it was. For instance, one scene involves notifying a woman that her husband is dead. You have to select from available options, which you end up with depending on what kind of a personality you’ve chosen to build (for instance, have you gone on the wagon? or are you high?) and on chance. With delicate music by British Sea Power providing a melancholy bed for the action, I found myself desperately hoping I could pull this off and not traumatise the poor non-player character more than necessary.

And there are transcendental scenes too. Little miracles.

I’d be really interested if some movie lovers out there who haven’t gotten into games in a big way were to try this one out and report back. You can easily get a week of entertainment out of a single playing, and it rewards multiple plays, too: you can choose variants on the character with different levels of empathy, emotion and strength, and these skills will unlock different clues and discoveries in the story. As you play, your character can not only acquire skills and tools (a shopping bag for collecting empties is very handy — collecting the deposit is one of the main ways of earning cash), he develops a political view, which can range from communism, through social democracy, to fascism, or, like me, you can be a muddled combination of the first two (there wasn’t an easy socialist option). And all of this affects your outcome.

Supporting cast: this is usually the weak spot in games for me, and some of the voice acting is sub-movie standard, but you have a partner, Kim, and the guy doing him — dry, sardonic, French — is terrific. No matter how you play the game, so far as I can see (but I haven’t tried fascism and don’t think I CAN), the combo of wild, drunken amnesiac and calm, eyebrow-raised partner is highly cinematic.

On the other hand, while the first-person-shooter type game has a built-in cinematic aspect (and we’ve seen mainly lame attempts by movies to imitate it), Disco Elysium is presented as a high-angle shot which observes the characters from a distance. You can pull in or out a bit to get more of a panorama but you can’t create a closeup of a radically different angle, and sometimes relevant action or scenery is reported from offscreen — enlisting your visual imagination in an unusual way. Any desire for an “impactful” presentation is frustrated — it’s kind of like going to the flat, distant observation of a standard 1931 Warners movie after a lifetime of 3D Marvel costumed punch-ups, the airiness and distance forces a different kind of engagement. It’s effective, though, and might even be borrowed by some smart filmmaker as an unusual one-off approach to the right story.

This all comes about because the creators, an Estonian art collective led by novelist Robert Kurvitz, have really huge ambitions — the game is intended to challenge your thinking and change your manner of existing and interacting with the world.

You can buy it online from the link above and own it instantly.

8 Responses to “Defective Detective”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    B. Kite was a film critic/essayist who wrote a lot about games. He pointed out that games in their sense of time, place, duration are closer to Bela Tarr’s long takes than something like Michael Bay’s fast-cutting (which critics see as more gamelike).

    I found it weird that you can send five hours in a game doing random, trivial, stuff that doesn’t seem to be boring but show that same audience a movie like The Turin Horse and they stay away in droves. That says a lot about entertainment and our sense of time.

    I play videogames on my friend’s systems. I am not a fan of their high hardware demands on my laptop and the heat and space they take up. So I don’t play most of them.

  2. The question is open: if you somehow got average gamers to watch Bela Tarr, would they get anything out of it? They might. There’s a kind of cultural Overton window that prevents most people watching long b&w Hungarian art films: it’s simply classed in the set of things they don’t do. Find a way to change that and miracles might happen.

    Most movies’ attempts to simulate the vidgame aesthetic ignore the crucial difference between interactive and observational, and end up producing frustrating experiences akin to helplessly watching a friend play a game. I started watching The Villainess, a slick South Korean action film, and bailed on it because of this lack of involvement.

    But there could be an approach more like Tarr’s which is contemplative and exploits a tension between engagement and distance…

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    In a way videogames conform far more to Bazin’s aesthetic of the long take being closer to recreating reality than cinema does. Cinema is still essentially montage. Even Bela Tarr’s films, as he himself admits, are highly illusionist. Even the single-take movies like Russian Ark create a montage based entirely on the frame and blocking. The film-maker wants this pan to flow in this direction, the director wants the viewer to move from a set of rooms in a certain order. You as viewer cannot control, dictate, and change that. So that’s montage. And montage, as Uncle Sergei will tell us, is about making people think…and games where you purely move about in space in free duration (cinema is a time medium whereas games are generally a space medium) don’t invite you to think.

    Whereas in a game the player controls the camera and the frame, so they basically can move about and around and in some cases go off the edge of the frame and confront the limits of the software render, where the details become pixels and fuzzy and so on. There are these Assassin’s Creed games which create touristy 3D maps of ancient cities, and I remember when the movie came out, wondering what was the point since the appeal of those games was that you had the illusion of visiting these past cities whereas in a movie that becomes you watching another period movie, and in a game you could do that from any angle. Like one of these games recreated Notre Dame 1:1 on 3D (when the fire happened there, the company donated their render to the restorers as a reference similar to Visconti’s Senso being used to restore La Fenice) where you could move across the cathedral inside and outside any angle. But in a movie that becomes you watching the cathedral from the best angle, and sometimes a set of the Notre Dame.

    I remember this one game I played called PORTAL, which I felt was something that was unique to games and games alone. It was a game where you could create portals around rooms to basically convert normal 3-dimensional space into M. C. Escher like points. The game didn’t have those “cutscenes” so it’s even more a long-take than a regular game is.

  4. Portal is great (also available on Steam) and has so much fun adapting normal physics to its fantasy realm (you can drop off a ledge and fall through a portal in the floor which opens in a wall somewhere else and your momentum carries you across a chasm, horizontally). And there’s a great voice performance and a dark sense of humour.

    VR could theoretically merge game and movie narrative. You could have a narrative where your actions are predetermined by plot but you get to look around… but I’m sure the potential is much, much greater than that.

  5. rockysmalls Says:

    wait a minute David.. isn’t this the plot from one of the very first computer text rpgs: Amnesia , written by your friend and mine Thomas m. Disch!

  6. I didn’t know that. It may be the premise, but I expect the development is different. The creators of Disco Elysium are new to computer games but they’re big rpg fans, so I expect they knew of their predecessor. The trope works well because the player begins their first game completely ignorant of the story world, just like the character, and has to learn everything fresh.

  7. Tobias Sturt Says:

    David’s comment about VR puts me in mind of some chums who have been working on interactive detective stories in VR – the big challenge being editing: conventional montage simply doesn’t work, it’s too jarring when it’s happening to you in first person – but you can’t use ‘space’ because moving around is hard (people wearing goggles walk into walls and stumble over furniture (I *was* that soldier)), so those two basic conventions for constructing narrative are out – its a fascinating challenge

  8. Disco Elysium has a slight issue with the fact that it’s continuous shots so you walk (or more likely run) everywhere, but they want you to experience the world so it’s all cool. They even encourage you to take it slow, reminding you that you’re in a church or even, as an extreme measure, shooting you in the foot.

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