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‘Cyberpunk 2077’: Required Reading

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The upcoming release of Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt Red has brought the spotlight back to pop culture’s obsession with the cyberpunk aesthetic. But what is cyberpunk, and where did the movement come from?

For those of you new to cyberpunk as a genre, and those looking to re-adorn your mirrorshades and leather jackets, we’ve assembled a list of cyberpunk classics, covering everything from its origins in 80s ‘zines, to satirical offshoots and Japanese influences, to the changing literary landscape of a post-cyberpunk future.

If you ever needed a breakneck introduction to the world of cyberpunk, this is it. There’s a lot to see, so keep up, chummer.

 

1. ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson

 “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”

Will Gibson’s Neuromancer is heralded as the defining literary work of the cyberpunk genre. Published in 1984, it went on to revolutionize science-fiction writing, and to set the style-guide for cyberpunk writers to come. Its freestyle, bleeding-edge prose dumps us into a world of cyber enhancements and faceless corporations, and burnt-out street dwellers doing what they can do get by, and bring down the powers that be. In Neuromancer the drug-culture, sexual revolution, and technological advancements of the 60s are sped up to high frequency in a dystopia that pulses with change, but the little guy is just as exploitable as ever.

Neuromancer follows the story of Case, a down-and-out hacker on the streets of Japan who makes a deal with a mysterious benefactor after the state fried his central nervous system with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to access the Matrix. Together with Molly, an augmented street samurai, Riviera, a cybered up illusionist, and Armitage, their elusive employer, Case follows the trail of a rogue AI, and catches a glimpse of the corporate world’s struggle for power.

Neuromancer is our first reference point for words and concepts such as ‘cyberspace’ ‘ICE’ and even the ‘Matrix’, this classic is required reading for the cyberpunk genre, and paints a darkened future not so far from the world we know today.

Neuromancer

 

2. ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Phillip K Dick

The book that inspired Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep looks at what it means to be human, and where the reaches of technology could take us if we aren’t careful. Far different from the film’s action-focus, Philip K Dick’s masterwork is far more concerned with Rick Deckard’s internal struggle over metahumanity, the mad hopelessness of middle-class experience, and the importance of rearing an android sheep. Dick is a master of the symbolic, and threads his work with enigmas and quandaries that have forced readers to return to it, again and again, for decades to come.

Set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the story follows Deckard as he hunts down Nexus-6 replicants: a malfunctioning batch of androids whose quest for freedom is threatening to destroy what little life on Earth remains. Tasked with catching the replicants and putting them through the Voigt-Kampff test, the difference between human and android begins to blur, along with the question of their right to survive.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep moves slowly, but runs deep. Its philosophical musings have left audiences captivated, and inspired generations of cyberpunk writers to question the line where blood meets metal.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

 

3. ‘Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology’ by Bruce Sterling

Mirrorshades is a cyberpunk anthology straight out of the 80s. The shiny chrome, pixel-art, and rainbow cover is enough reason alone to buy it, but it also brings together a broad array of sci-fi authors into a collection that serves as the perfect analog for 80s cyberpunk obsessions. Including short stories from William Gibson, Greg Bear, and Pat Cadigan, the anthology features a history of cyberpunk alongside its chaotic origins in rebellious, philosophical, and aesthetic niche fiction.

The result is a mix of stories that vary widely in their themes and seriousness, but give a sincere picture of cyberpunk’s splintered beginnings. The anthology is tied together with a fascinating introduction from Bruce Sterling on the emerging subculture of cyberpunk, and the zine writers who helped define a genre, then decried its absorption into the mainstream.

If cyberpunk sold its soul in the 90s, this anthology is as authentic as it gets for those seeking an honest overview of the cyberpunk movement.

Mirrorshades

 

4. ‘Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology’ by James Kelly and John Kessel

Cyberpunk is dead. Long live cyberpunk. Rewired, the confidently named Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is an unofficial sequel to Mirrorshades. It examines the fall of cyberpunk, its transition into the status-quo, and rebellion as a sell-out aesthetic. It also asks where the genre is today, showcasing short stories from authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Cory Doctorow, as well as experimental pieces from cyberpunk giants Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Pat Cadigan.

 “Cyberpunk is dead. The revolution has been co-opted by half-assed heroes, overclocked CGI, and tricked-out sunglasses. Once radical, cyberpunk is nothing more than a brand.”

Rewired asks us: what happened to the punks after they grew up? Where did the revolution lead us? What’s happening beyond the streets? These post-cyberpunk stories exhibit how writers may have ditched the chrome shades, but continues to interrogate the friction between society and its technology. The entire anthology is underpinned by extracts from letters between Bruce Sterling and John Kessel as they unpick what the cyberpunk movement was about, and question the future of science fiction. It makes for a truly fascinating academic reflection on the cyberpunk genre, alongside a mix of new fiction that thrums with new ideas and building anxieties. If nothing else, Rewired gives a nod to the authors you might be reading tomorrow.

Rewired: Post-Cyberpunk Anthology

 

5. ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson

“Exploring linguistics, religion, computer science, politics, philosophy, cryptography and the future of pizza delivery, Snow Crash is a riveting, breakneck adventure into the fast-approaching future.”

Neal Stephenson crashed the cyberpunk scene in 1992 with his merciless genre satire: Snow Crash. It’s a joyously unapologetic rip-ride through a cyberpunk future, but its smart-mouth commentary fronts for a truly thoughtful experimentation with sci-fi tropes. Stephenson hops from one idea to the next with spit-ball prose that riddles the pages like bullets, and you’re invited along for the ride.

Our hero, Hiro Protagonist, works as a pizza delivery guy, but in the Metaverse he’s a master swordfighter and computer hacker. When a new cyberdrug, Snow Crash, hits the streets, it begins to infect virtual reality and bleed into the real world itself – and only one man has the power to stop it. Snow Crash refuses to slow down, it’s cyberpunk that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and in doing so deconstructs the zany madness of our everyday life.

Snow Crash

 

6. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ by Shirow Masamune

Ghost in the Shell is one of the most famous manga series of all time, adapted into anime and live-action movies, Major’s naked body, riddled with wires and electric circuits, is iconic to the cyberpunk genre.

In Ghost in the Shell’s post-cyberpunk setting technology has progressed to the point where the brain itself can be cyber-enhanced to connect with networks around the world. Major is a serving member of Public Security Section 9, and a fully prosthetic cyborg following the destruction of her body as a child. Her team are responsible for hunting down ghost hackers: cybercriminals who hack and take control of cyborg’s minds and bodies, turning them into cyberenhanced puppets. Major’s journey takes her to the underbelly of Niihama, a city of soaring skyscrapers and hidden depths, but on the way there she begins to question where her humanity lies. Is there a ghost in the machine, or is it just an empty shell?

Masamune’s work has an over-emphasis on cryptic philosophical exchanges, a common feature across many Japanese manga that occasionally leaves western audiences confused. But for those willing to read closely Ghost in the Shell offers real depth and complexity, a myriad of unreliable narrators, and competing worldviews. The manga is cyberpunk to the core, occasionally taking style over substance with its ultra-violent and sexualized aesthetic, but in amongst its action sequences are philosophical quandaries worth exploring.

Ghost in the Shell

 

7. ‘AKIRA’ by Katsuhiro Otomo

AKIRA is a critically acclaimed manga and anime series, imagining an urban future where Japan has been torn apart by war and government corruption. Otomo’s masterwork was one of the first complete manga series to be published in English, and its handling of complex subject matter and detailed art style revolutionized manga at the time, let alone the cyberpunk genre.

We follow characters from all walks of life, from gang members, to military leaders, to psychic ‘Espers’, as they try to stop the awakening of Akira: a being with telekinetic powers that could raise Neo-Tokyo to the ground. Through Akira and Tetsuo, a child torn apart by his own psychic powers, the manga explores not only the fear of atomic warfare that sprang from the post-war experience but also the risks of isolation and alienation in an urbanized world overflowing with lost souls.

AKIRA is inseparable from the history and cultural anxieties of Japan, but its fears speak universally, and its warnings stand clear for us all to take note.

Akira

 

8. ‘The Windup Girl’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

Breaking out of the 80s classics, if you want to see where post-cyberpunk sci-fi has come to today you could do no better than to check out Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi takes ‘cyber’ anxieties and replaces them with those of biology. Examining the waiting catastrophes of pollution, crop-devastation, and biological warfare. And his ideas also reach beyond the worldview of the ‘punk’, stretching beyond the chrome horizons and glamorous technology of Japan and America to find ourselves on the dusty sun-sweltering streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Bacigalupi descends into the culture of the Thai, Malaysians, Chinese, and farang businessmen who are forced to rub shoulders in a world that is overcrowded and underfed.

Bacigalupi’s setting is rich with wonder, the streets brim with the scent of flowers and the burning incense of street shrines, orange-robed monks bless algae factories in the hopes of hastening electricity production, calorie men prey along the market stalls, and merchants whisper of a new outbreak of cibiscosis. In the chaos of it all, Emiko, one of the New People designed by the Japanese as a model slave, finds herself adrift in a world her body was not built to endure. The forces at work in Bangkok are set to come to a head, and Emiko risks being caught up in the center of it all.

The Windup Girl won the 2010 Hugo Award and is a perfect read for those who might be tired of cyberpunk’s frenzied concepts and stylised aesthetic, but who still feel fascinated by explorations into the transhuman, and the future that awaits our isolation and corporate greed.

The Windup Girl

 

9. ‘Shadowrun’ by Catalyst Game Labs

A spiritual successor to Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun is one of the best cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying games still being updated today. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a ‘book’, the Shadowrun 5th Edition Core Rulebook is a kitten-squishing 476 pages long, filled with flash fiction, gorgeous art, and lengthy item tables for you to spend your credsticks on. If you’ve had your fill of cyberpunk media, Shadowrun is a master encyclopedia of all the information and tools you could possibly need to start crafting your own stories.

As a roleplaying game, Shadowrun lets you play as a team of shadowrunners: professional guns for hire, assassins, infiltrators, and procurers of information. Players choose from a pool of different roles: Deckers, Street Samurai, Spellcasters, Technomancers, Riggers, and Faces. The game takes place in 2070, though the setting is your decision: from the Imperial State of Japan, to the Kingdom of Hawai’i. But you’re not just limited to the geographical limitations of meatspace, the Matrix network has grown vast, conquered by megacorporations yet still prey to the whims of talented deckers.

Magic, too, has bled into the world since the Awakening, revealing spirits, blood magic, and powerful spells of persuasion to those with the gift of sight. Others were changed by magics arrival in the sixth world, and across the world humans were goblinized into Orks, Trolls, Elves, and Dwarves, each heaving with their own supplies of guns, drugs, and cyber enhancements. Shadowrun is full of ideas to play with, and though its item lists and combat systems can be hell to deal with, its vivid worldbuilding and core system have inspired thousands of players to dig deep into cyberpunk and see where their own stories can take them.

Shadowrun 5th Edition

 

10. ‘Cyberpunk 2020’ by Mike Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games

Last, but not least, the original cyberpunk roleplaying game: Cyberpunk 2020, is cited as Cyberpunk 2077’s main inspiration. Mike Pondsmith, the tabletop game’s lead designer has been confirmed as an advisor on the CD Projekt Red team, so we can be sure that there will be a lot of crossover with this gorgeous 1980s title and the coming Cyberpunk 2077 first-person role-playing game. Cyberpunk 2020 centers around Night City, a west coast city thrown into dystopic chaos and ruled by megacorporations:

“The Corporations control the world from their skyscraper fortresses, enforcing their rule with armies of cyborg assassins. On the Street, Boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. The rest of the world is a perpetual party, as fashion-model beautiful techies rub biosculpt jobs with battle armored roadwarriors in the hottest clubs, sleaziest bars and meanest streets this side of the Postholocaust. The Future never looked so bad.”

Cyberpunk 2020 has a much broader range of player roles compared to Shadowrun, branching into social and class descriptors, ranging from Netrunners and Solos (hackers and hired guns), to Corporate businessmen, Rockerboy rebels, Fixers, Cops, and even Media sleuths out to bring down The Man.

If you want to start Cyberpunk 2077 early, this is the next best thing. Just grab your dice, a group of friends, and make sure you aren’t scammed a couple hundred bucks for your copy. We could be waiting a year or two for Cyberpunk 2077’s release, so grab your cyberdeck, jack in, and we’ll see you on the flipside after our crash course in the works that defined the cyberpunk genre.

Cyberpunk 2020

 

Did we miss a critical title? Do you have a favorite piece of cyberpunk media to recommend? Cyberpunk has a habit of transcending mediums: from books, to film, to video games, so let us know in the comments below what works you think readers should be checking out next.

 

 

Helen Jones is a Ravenclaw graduate who likes to apparate between her homes in England and Denmark. She spends her time reading fantasy novels, climbing mountains, and loves to play story-focused and experimental indie games like The Stanley Parable or Night in the Woods. She also covers tabletop and board games over at Zatu Games, and you can follow her twitter @BarnacleDrive for updates, blogs, and pictures of mushrooms.

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Games

Junked: Coming Back to Life in ‘Detroit: Become Human’

Quantic Dream’s games have always leaned into horror, even if the chief genre might not be. Detroit: Become Human is no exception.

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Detroit Become Human

Quantic Dream‘s games have always leaned into horror, even if the chief genre might be something else entirely. Detroit: Become Human is no exception, with much of the game revolving around our android protagonists finding themselves in one horrendous situation after another. The most terrifying of all, though, is Markus’ trip to a junkyard afterlife.

After being shot in the head during an altercation, Markus looks to be dead. Since player characters could indeed die in previous Quantic Dream games, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to have been killed off either. What awaits Markus on the other side of consciousness, however, is one of the most horrific struggles for survival ever waged.

As Markus awakens in a junkyard for discarded androids, he finds himself immobilized and terrified. Played by Jesse Williams (the sort of chiseled hollywood hunk that only seems to exist on network TV), Markus’ destroyed facade is all the more horrendous for the juxtaposition to his previous appearance.

Detroit Become Human

As the player embodies Markus, they are thrust into a nightmare realm of discarded android dreams. Like a metallic graveyard, filled with the shambling dead, the junkyard is a place so nightmarish it nearly defies explanation. Add to this the stress of Markus’ shattered form, and you begin to get a knack for just how unsettling this chapter of Detroit: Become Human truly is.

While not everyone is a fan of Quantic Dream’s trademark QTE-filled gameplay, it is used to maximum effect here, as the player is truly transposed into Markus’ desperate situation by the control scheme. You begin by alternating L1 and R1 to slowly drag Markus’ shattered body across the tumultuous landscape. The long presses and holds of each button help to relay the pain and effort of Markus’ struggle for survival.

It only gets more horrific from there, as Markus must tear off body parts from other fallen androids in order to rebuild himself. The legs must come first, as mobility is key in a place like this, but with the added moral complications of the other androids begging you not to harvest them for parts, the struggle takes on a nasty new dimension.

Detroit Become Human

A particularly stirring, and disturbing, moment sees Markus moving between two closely stacked piles of android remains. Like sidling between two close-together buildings, Markus shuffles his way through, sidelong, as dozens of hands reach out for his help, and the cries of the dying paralyze his senses.

As mentioned above, the control scheme really embodies the horror of what you’re being forced to do in order to survive here. Whether tilting the analog stick to pop out an eye or tapping the X button consecutively to wrench a limb free, the act of becoming a self-made Frankenstein’s monster is not a pleasant process to endure.

The rain-drenched landscape and lonely darkness of the junkyard only add to the chilling horror of this world. Science fiction is often at its best when it shows us a pristine utopia, before turning it over to show us the horrific consequences that come as a result. Here Detroit: Become Human soars, showing us a world where machines can save us from destroying our bodies with manual labor and android doctors never make a mistake.

It’s a world where androids do the dirty work of the US military and undertake the home care of the elderly, freeing us from the sights we’d rather not see. The trade-off, though, is grisly, and the discarded robot graveyard is just one of the first inklings of how ugly this future can be when one looks too closely.

The quasi-messianic character of Markus is only one facet of this troubled world, and while some of Detroit: Become Human may lack in subtlety, it manages to create an effective, evocative look at what could be our own future one day. This sequence is just one striking example.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club have also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for a built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produce hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode like I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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