Three years after the release of Disco Elysium, and “Disco-like” isn’t officially its own subgenre, but the comparisons to other games keep piling up. ZA/UMs sad RPG murder mystery—that’s actually about much more than that—shaped our expectations for how deep videogame writing and player choice can go, and now there’s a slew of games that want to try it too.
Disco Elysium is a game about writing in a way that few RPGs try to be. The conversations you have with the people of Revachol are the primary ways you interact with and learn about the game. You accrue skill points that change how you approach the central plot and what sort of side activities you get up to. All of Disco Elysium’s systems want you to engage with its world and think critically about the people in it.
The same goes for Norco, Citizen Sleeper (opens in new tab), and Pentiment (opens in new tab)—three games that came out this year that indirectly echo Disco Elysium’s narrative ethos. They each care a lot about how you navigate dialogue choices and slip the consequences into the story as it progresses. And next year, there are several more games on their way that hope to mirror ZA/UM’s RPG much more closely—down to having conversations take place on the right side of the screen (opens in new tab).
The sequel to Disco Elysium 2 isn’t one of those games. At this point, the fate of Disco Elysium 2 feels impossible. Corporate malfeasance (opens in new tab), ironically enough, has torn apart its artist collective-turned-game-developer, ZA/UM. Three of its main developers—writer Helen Hindpere, artist Aleksander Rostov, and lead designer and writer Robert Kurvitz—are no longer with the company. And while it had job listings for an environment artist and lead environment artist in July (opens in new tab), the game’s editor (who left the studio sometime sometime during its development) said a sequel is unlikely.
If a sequel, or some other kind of follow-up, to 2019’s groundbreaking RPG (and PC Gamer’s top 100 king (opens in new tab)) were to come out, it would probably look considerably different than the game its biggest fans had in mind. Kurvitz’ prose alone defined the game’s dialogue-driven fever dream where the lead cop’s thoughts are your loud-mouthed party members. A Disco Elysium game without a poetic aside from Shivers as it describes a city worn and perforated by a failed revolution wouldn’t be a Disco Elysium game at all, would it?
Disco Elysium 2 might not ever materialize. But despite the uncertain fate of ZA/UM and its next project, 2022 has been filled with plenty of other games that follow in its path—and 2023 promises even more.
Alexis Ong interviewed Norco developer (opens in new tab) Yuts a few days before its March release, and they both agreed that the adventure game is all “bummer vibes.” Norco and Disco Elysium take place in communities where something was lost and everyone is too tired, beaten down or strung out to find it again. In Norco, the real life part of Louisiana the game borrows its name from, a growing oil empire continues to strangle the life out of the people who remain. Disco Elysium’s Revachol is dying too, under the grip of the capitalist Coalition after it slaughtered the city’s hope of a better future.
Kay, Norco’s protagonist, doesn’t have the authority of Disco Elysium’s lead cop Harrier “Harry” Du Bois, but she does go around town on a detective mission. Kay isn’t shaped by putting points in skills like Harry, but you still get to make several decisions throughout the story that influence its direction. And both games help you internalize their characters’ perspective by having a map of thoughts to fill out—in Norco, it’s the mind map system, and in Disco Elysium, it’s the thought cabinet. There are personal conflicts to solve in both characters’ histories, but the focus of their narratives quickly zooms out far enough to illustrate the overwhelming structural decay surrounding them.
Disco Elysium and Norco are politically-driven games that go deep on branching conversations with a big cast of characters. Like Kentucky Route Zero before them, the rich worldbuilding and dialogue are the entire point. In her review of Norco (opens in new tab), Ong praised its ability to empathize with characters of various social identities, writing, “It forces us to re-examine our relationship with videogames as a medium for escapist pleasure.” Both games hone in on such specific real world parallels that it’s impossible to miss how they echo the realities of the people that made them.
Even though development started on Norco in 2015, it’s clear that its design walks the same path as Disco Elysium. Norco was accompanied by both Citizen Sleeper and Pentiment this year—games that take a similar approach to storytelling and wrap it around mechanics that abide by the “fail forward” tabletop RPG ethos. A bad roll on a task in Citizen Sleeper can still unearth more about its cyberpunk world, and although you will definitely fail skill checks in Pentiment, the way characters react can help you solve its central murder mystery. Like Disco Elysium, these games give you the opportunity to fill in the margins of a bigger story.
On the horizon
There are several games that seem to want a slice of the narrative pie next year. Developer Drop Bear Bytes describes Broken Roads (opens in new tab) as a “narrative-driven RPG” set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. The game looks incredibly similar to Disco Elysium with its isometric perspective and muted color palette. Characters and quests are influenced by a ‘Moral Compass’ morality system, and you get to gather up five party members to help you out in turn-based combat. Broken Roads is set for a 2023 release date.
Esoteric Ebb (opens in new tab) could be out next year—though its Steam page only says “coming soon”—and it goes so far as to call itself a “Disco-like CRPG.” Developer Christoffer Bodegård cites Planescape Torment and Baldur’s Gate in the game’s description, too. It’s set in a fantastical city where a tea shop’s been blown up before a historic election; . you play as a cleric who can engage in skill-check-based conversations as well as magic-based combat during the course of an investigation. A version of Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet is here too: the ‘questing tree’ shows you dialogue and leads to chase as you work to uncover what caused the explosion.
Sovereign Syndicate (opens in new tab) doesn’t call itself a Disco-like CRPG, but it sure looks like one. It’s set in Victorian steampunk London, but everything else heavily resembles Disco Elysium. It has a ‘tarot card chance’ system that determines how other characters react to you and what actions you can take. As you learn more about the world, you gain skills that you can deploy to unlock unique dialogue and skill checks. The isometric game promises a lot of branching choices and already has a demo available on Steam.
A few levels removed from ultra-specific Disco Elysium inspirations is She Dreams Elsewhere (opens in new tab). The surreal adventure RPG, which started development before Disco Elysium came out, blends Undertale retro aesthetics with neon-inked art. It has a turn-based combat system and a ‘connection’ system to let you pick your favorite characters and follow their stories. As Thalia, your goal is to figure out how to escape the dream and reckon with anxiety and other mental health issues that manifest in its world. She Dreams Elsewhere feels like Disco Elysium if it cranked the weird up to 11 and let you bathe in it. It’s listed as coming soon on the Steam page, but the developer said on Twitter (opens in new tab) that it’ll have updates about the project next year.
Three years after its release, Disco Elysium seems to have established a framework for many upcoming games to work off of. Each of them center their mechanics around dialogue and text-based storytelling, but give you a larger set of tools for influencing those things, be it through alternative skill systems or combat. The joy of skill checks and dice rolls are when things go surprisingly right or wrong in a way that jolts you onto a new path. In the moment, it’s like you broke a rule, but then the story keeps going and eventually you have a history of unexpected outcomes that distinguish your story from others.
The heart of Disco Elysium still beats. You can hear it in all the games that, either intentionally or not, feel deeply inspired by it. It’s possible none of these games will have as much of an impact as it did, but it’s still exciting to see all the new directions their developers are heading in. We may not get a Disco Elysium 2 any time soon, but a slew of games taking up Disco’s fearless creativity and verbosity is perhaps a more fitting follow-up than a sequel ever could be.