Mark Y.
Mark Y.
 
 
Writer / Designer on Primordia
Writer on Torment: Tides of Numenera | Kohan II: Kings of War | Etc.

Twitter: @WWSGames | Facebook: Wormwood Studios
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Last Online 8 hrs, 45 mins ago
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17.4 Hours played
Beauty is Pain
In a throwaway poem, the fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay wonders why it is that airports are so grim and soul-crushing; we have the resources, he notes, to make them beautiful and humane. There are, of course, all sorts of systemic and sound reasons for airports being as they are. The same is true of RPGs. For years I dreamed of quitting air travel, but it has proven impossible. Giving up on RPGs turned out to be easier. The endless grind of dumpster-diving for loot, ping-ponging between NPCs on "quests," prebuffing as a lead-in to challenge-free grinding fights, min-maxing stats to achieve modest incremental changes that yielded merely more points to min-max, dialogue trees that were like administrative checklists (one dare not miss a step, but one hardly looks forward to any of them) ... all of this conspired to make me throw in the towel.

As I've previously written[www.gamasutra.com], The Age of Decadence managed to draw me in despite my reluctance to play more in this genre. And I had the great good fortune to work on Torment: Tides of Numenera (in a small capacity), and thus pay homage to one of the games that has defined my own hobby as a writer, Planescape: Torment. But despite these forays, or perhaps because of them, I have not brought myself to play any of the other significant RPG titles of the past decade.

Nevertheless, Disco Eysium (nee No Truce With the Furies) was sufficiently intriguing that I couldn't not play. I'm very glad to have overcome my prejudice. DE answers Kay's question with, "Yes, why not?" And it demonstrates that, with the gusto of delirious and slightly addled humanists, there is no reason why we can't have an RPG that is achingly beautiful rather than crushingly dull.

DE is a game about scars. For most of my life, I believed that scars were a vestige of wound that had healed. But it turns out that scars are patches on wounds that never heal. A scar, like any other part of your living body, must be constantly remade. If you deprive your body of vitamin C (i.e., suffer from scurvy), the collagen that holds scars shut becomes unstable and the old wounds will open back up. That is true even unto our bones; it turns out that there, too, failing collagen can cause old breaks to split apart again. Once we're broken, we never really come back together again.

DE is about a broken man exploring a broken city that plays host to a broken society. Those breaks are mostly scarred over but -- like a scorbutic -- the man, the city, and the society have been starved of something essential to regeneration. The game starts with the parallel bursting of a scar in the man and the society, and you are invited, in a very open way, to decide how you are going to address both the widening wounds and the underlying spiritual malnourishment. If there is a way in which DE is most like PS:T, it is that both of them are about decoding a story of scarrified and tattooed flesh to understand the past and plot a way toward the future.

But DE and PS:T are not really similar games. Both are beautiful (visually and verbally) games in unique settings populated with interesting characters who speak a lot of words. But PS:T is still a fairly traditional RPG (you level up, fight enemies, memorize spells, overcome bosses, etc.), whereas DE is not.

DE's heart is its innovative "internal dialogue" system in which your skills talk to you (and you talk back to them). PS:T really has nothing like this. Where PS:T relies upon a roster of companions who serve as distorted mirrors of the protagonist's virtues and flaws, such that talking to them is in a sense talking to yourself (or, at least, talking through your issues), DE simply lets you talk to yourself outright. It's novel, it's fun, and it's funny. (PS:T had a funny character; DE is a funny game, though the humor is extremely dark.)

This internal dialogue system makes the character creation and development process much more engaging. In most RPGs, your stats and skills come into play fairly sparingly (from a narrative standpoint). In DE, your stats shape every dialogue because even when you aren't employing the Rhetoric skill, say, to persuade someone, the Rhetoric skill is opining on the situation and shaping the player's (and the character's) understanding of what is happening.

Really, I could go on for a long time about these mechanical innovations, but it's enough to say that you should play it for yourself to see a fresh and engaging approach to the genre.

I'll end somewhat where I started. At the end of your first day in DE, your partner remarks on the strange "shuffle" that detectives from your precinct seem to have, searching every container, and how exhausting it is to run back and forth all the time. And as for dumpster-diving, you literally open a dumpster and sift through its contents, and earn money by collecting and selling empty bottles. This goes beyond lampshading (and slyly winking at) the genre's flaw while still employing a tedious gameplay mechanic for want of creativity. By turning the trash-collection into an explicit part of the narrative, it becomes not a point of "ludonarrative dissonance" (when did Aragorn stop to gather crud to offload at the local Gondorian merchant?) but a point of ludonarrative consonance. DE's nameless, amnesiac protagonist (okay, another point of similarity with PS:T) has been reduced to such a shambles that he is literally recycling trash for pennies in hopes of paying for another night at the seedy local hostel. The dehumanization of the that aspect of the gameplay speaks as eloquently as does the game's writing.

This is a must-play. It has left wounds, not the least to the ego of a proud writer who worked on not one but two games inspired by PS:T (my own Primordia and TTON), and has now seen what a worthy successor actually looks like.
Mark Y. Jan 19 @ 6:49pm 
Ha! I love Morte. :) Crispin is certainly inspired by him (and various other floating sidekicks...)!
BNU-3432 Jan 19 @ 6:37pm 
Note: I've started playing Planetscape: Torment. Morte is like a most inferior Crispin. Rumor has it that 99% of people who died of a morphine overdose in a past life fail to regret it in this one.
Mark Y. Jan 12 @ 8:25am 
Not at all! I thought it was a great review!
Stabilo ᐰ Jan 11 @ 11:04pm 
I hope my review didnt sound nitpicky, it wont discourage those who like this type of game. I certainly wasnt. Thanks again for an awesome game and good luck. Primordia is definitely going on the same shelf as full throttle.
Mark Y. Jan 9 @ 12:32pm 
Thanks!
MysticL メCraseryメ Jan 9 @ 11:45am 
Awesome writer.