Disco Elysium - An examination
Identity and personality in RPGs
A lot of game now have skill trees and give attribute points and equipment as a means to develop your character, to make them better. Their appeal is obvious: They are measurable stats to show your progress in a game. It is one thing to get told that you are stronger now, but it is another thing to actually see this progress visualized in the game with real consequences. After all, one of the core aspects of a lot of games is this progression. Overcoming an obstacle previously thought to be unbeatable. But this over-reliance on stats and attributes, oftentimes coupled with new, shiny equipment, comes with a cost. After all, if I'm just hunting for numbers, always trying to get higher and higher numbers to become stronger, the game basically gets reduced to an Excel chart with fancy graphics. Now if you look at the picture above, you see the skills and attributes in the game "Disco Elysium". They are… rather unusual, which this text wants to uses as a basis for a further exploration as to how skills and attributes can be more meaningful in a game than just "numbers going higher". In turn, this will provide an insight into how RPG-mechanics actually can be used to analyze identity and personality in a protagonist.
Skills as representation of personality
In "Disco Elysium", skills aren't just there to provide numbers for skill-checks. Oh, there are plenty of skill-checks in the game, don't get me wrong, but they also provide unique insight into the character. Every skill has a voice and talks to you, they give their opinion to the situation at hand. Now, having a high skill is normally a good thing. So they all have their own personality. Every skill point you allocate now forms the personality of the protagonist. If you put most of your points into physical stats, your character will be useful in a fight and can solve problems with force, while lacking in charisma and intelligence. So far, so normal. But they also form how you experience the world around you and the reactions you have towards it. Having a high pain threshold for example helps you weathering abuse, but can also lead to the character becoming numb to pain to the extreme, i.e. becoming masochistic and searching pain to prove their strength. Pain threshold basically becomes a dominant character trait. This problem does go even deeper though.
A skill that is extremely high does not only force itself upon you, it can also be potentially distracting to the main objective or downright detrimental to the goal you have in mind. A high electrochemistry might help you understand drugs and their effects on people, but also makes you very focused on consuming drugs and other carnal pleasures. So it might suggest to flirt in inappropriate moments or to get drunk and high without rhyme or reason. So there is another layer in it: Just because your skill is good enough should not mean that you actually do what your skills suggests you do. A high empathy gives you insight to the emotional state of another person, but also make you vulnerable to emotional manipulation. Very high logic makes you capable of understanding important connections, but also makes you very sure about your own intellect and unwilling to doubt your reasoning even in the presence of contradicting evidence. There is an even deeper aspect to it, which develops those skills further.
In "Disco Elysium", you play as a man who lost all memories. And as you build up your character, level up and gain skill points, you do not only become better in certain things, you build a new personality for this amnesiac man. As you learn more about the man who drank his own memory away, your choices form the reaction to his own history. Is he full of regret? Uncaring? Maybe he even denounces his past life fully. Every skill has his own opinion on certain matters, and your allocation of skill points will determine what opinions he will form, or, to be precise, will be able to form. As your skills represent parts of your personality, all the skill points you use will fundamentally alter the way you will approach situations and how your protagonist will see the world and his place in it.
Developing a new identity
As mentioned before, your character starts the game without any memories or real sense of identity. He does not know where he is, who he is or how the world operates. As such, you are able, like in a real RPG, to basically play your protagonist just the way you want. But there is one complication: You are, in fact, someone. You have a job to do, people that depend on you and a history. And as such, your antics in searching for your identity are not completely free of judgement. There are logical boundaries to your search for identity. On the other hand, those boundaries and old responsibilities also help you develop your identity in this strange world. A sense of belonging is given and it helps you ease into the world. The player and the protagonist explore this world together, forming their opinion and identity as they play. The game gives a justification for developing a character, as you actually rebuild the identity of the protagonist. This rebuilding is the most important aspect in the game, as even the main quests are tied into this quest for identity. Who are you and how will you act? It does not stop with your skills and choices.
A big part of the developing identity is how you choose to react towards the world around you. How does a 40-something amnesiac drunken wreck of a man experience the world? Your choices will form your character and get a reaction out of the people around you. You can react fatalistic to the problems you face, or be someone who constantly apologizes for his screw-ups. They are different reactions towards the realization that there were good reasons for you being this drunken mess in the first place. Another interesting aspect of identity is your general reaction to the world around you. Basically, your political inclinations towards certain facets of the society you get to know anew. You can express a desire for the old times, with a king and heavy fascistic tendencies, or instead try to accept the status quo or even think about the revolution. Everyone of those alignments is intertwined with certain skills. For instance, "Rhetoric" is the skill moving you towards communistic ideals. As you follow their suggestions, your personality gets shaped more and more in this political way you chose. Every facet of dialogue, actions and skills focus on one thing: Develop a new personality while dealing with the fallout of your previous antics that led you to your amnesia.
Now, this identity has one big problem. It gets developed inside a person that already had plenty of personality beforehand. Your view of the world gets warped by your loss of memory and strange behavior. So your personality is more or less a caricature of a "well-adjusted" personality. So, if you are artistic, your reaction to not remembering your name is not just making one up or acknowledging your memory loss, but to announce that you are between names and that the right time to present it will arrive someday. The desire to have an identity, a sense of belonging leads to the protagonist becoming obsessed with certain facets of their personality. This extends to the political sphere. You do not only have communistic tendencies, but instead you want to be the leader of the world revolution. It is fascinating to see this broken man build up a new personality, a new identity by following the most overt and extreme ideals. In a sense, the player builds his new identity using incomplete and very makeshift ideas about the world he is living in. Everything about him is extreme because he is unburdened by the restrain and nuance learned through interacting with society. He acts like a typical player would, intentionally going to the extreme just to fit in and prove himself, getting the "best" stats. A min-maxed personality, so to speak.
"Disco Elysium" as Exploration of the RPG
This game does something interesting: It makes the actual mechanics of a typical RPG its main focus. It explores what it means to be able to learn new skills in a matter of days. It shows what kind of person would have a malleable personality to fit a choice heavy RPG. Your protagonist is capable to develop his identity because he literally drugged away his old life beforehand. By doing this, it shows the inherent problem in this new personality. It gets created in a span of a few days and is volatile, influenced by a few key decisions. In the end stands, at least most of the time, a character defined by contradictions and extremes. Because, after all this development, he is still already an established part of this society and no matter how much he fights against this, he can not just forget and escape his past. This ideal, that is oftentimes taken for granted in RPGs, gets deconstructed to hell in "Disco Elysium". But this deconstruction does not end with the absolute messed up identity of the protagonist.
You have a person with you that helps you on your quest. This person will learn about the peculiar circumstances your protagonist finds himself in. And they will react to your strange antics, always trying to keep you focused. By working with people the game also reconstructs his own questions. Yes, your character is royally messed up, but can still do good, if he chooses to do so. He can solve the main quest with flying colors and actually help people in need. By forgetting his past, he may be able to finally confront and overcome it (or at least begin with this process). A clean slate is exactly what he needed. The game does not shy away from the fact that this convenient blank slate is really painful and uncomfortable for all involved, not least his friends. But it also shows that you can always try to become better. It is painful, full of contradictions and problems, but the identity the player can create for the protagonist can actually start to build up his life again. If played correctly. He can also utterly fail, losing himself even more in his extremes and have an even more awful life as before, falling deeper into drugs and depression.
This is the beauty of "Disco Elysium". It actually provides an insight into RPG mechanics by making them meaningful in themselves. It is really a study of those mechanics and the way they form identity. It beautifully mixes a character study with a deconstruction of the RPG itself. By actually treating every RPG mechanic as meaningful in the world itself, it gives this world a choice to react to those mechanics as well. There are even some comments towards the odd clothing style your character has as a consequence of choosing it based on stat boosts. It asks the question: How do you give a fully grown person a new identity in a RPG?
I hope this text gave a bit of insight as to how interesting "Disco Elysium" is as a game. I tried not to spoiler anything, as one should experience as much as possible for them self. If you are interested, right now is a great time to get into the game, as they will release an extended version of the game with full voice acting on PC and consoles by the 30th of March 2021. It will have more quests and other things. I can't wait to play another round. This time I'll try to play him as boring as possible.
About the author
A german literature student just trying to write some interesting short stories.
Blog (german) + English writing portfolio: https://anydelblogs.wordpress.com/