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Defective Detective

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC with tags , , on March 28, 2020 by dcairns

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.