Welcome to the sixth post in a regular series where we invite members of our team to talk about One Cool Thing (not necessarily from games) and if/how it influences/reflects on their work. While we're not able to talk about the exciting things we're working on right now, we hope this will be a nice little series of introductions to the interests & practices of our excellent new team.
Here we have an entry from one of our new programming team: Roxanne van Dam. You can also check out Harry Josephine Giles on Brave Sparrow, Sharna Jackson on Joana Choumali, Angus Dick on Fantastic Planet, Ben Wilson on Leaderboards, and Char Putney on Randomness.
All images in this post are press images shared by Studio ZA/UM.
One Cool Thing: Doing the Disco
Since I started working at Die Gute Fabrik at the beginning of this year, I’ve been trying out more story-driven games. I wanted to get more familiar with these kinds of games as a programmer working at a story-driven studio.
The latest game I’ve been playing is Disco Elysium. The game recently released "The Final Cut" version, which I thought was a great reason to try it out. (I’m loving all the amazing voice acting!)
One cool thing I’ve noticed while playing Disco Elysium is the moment where it feels like the choices you’ve made earlier in the game get thrown back to you at a later point. It happens quite often in Disco Elysium and I love how it feels like the game is noticing all your choices, even the very small ones, which you don’t expect would have an impact.
Two friends of mine, Marlène and Jordy, even gave this phenomenon a name: “Doing the Disco” which, as you might have guessed, is named after Disco Elysium. When playing Disco Elysium it feels to us like everything you do in the game can be commented on by NPCs. When even 'throwaway' decisions are noted, it feels like the game really pays attention to what the player does. In fact sometimes it's more effective when it's the small things which are remembered: at the beginning of the game, you can decide to pick up only one shoe: at the end of the day, your partner asks: “how have you managed to run around all day wearing only one shoe?"
Another example is that Disco Elysium also comments on the way you move in the game. If you’ve played any 'point and click' game, you might have noticed that double clicking makes the character run to the location you clicked instead of walking. Being as impatient as I am, I’m always running from point to point. Then, at the end of the day, your partner asks “what’s with all the running?”. I was really surprised when I read these dialogue options during my playthrough. These things make your relationships and actions in the game feel both more consequential, and more human.
I think it’s really cool when a game is - as me and my friends say - “Doing the Disco”. In making small things consequential, it makes you feel like your agency is always active. And in a detective game - making you feel that all the details are important is very effective. As a programmer, this speaks to me because it implies there’s a larger system underneath that’s paying attention and selecting these dialogue options.
I would love to think more about this in games systems I work on, as I think this creates richer, more cohesive game-story experiences. In most games, you see gameplay and narrative do separate things. For example, Hades: another recent game with a great story but that’s not “Doing the Disco”. In Hades, there is a clear separation between the gameplay part (top down hack-and-slashing) and the story part (visual novel style conversations). The conversations rarely comment on what you did in the gameplay part, an NPC does comment on the way you last died, but for me it doesn’t feel very surprising as that conversation happens immediately after you died and not at some later point in the game. On the other hand, when looking at Disco Elysium, it feels like the gameplay meaningfully “modifies” the narrative in a way which is not built on a visible formula. The underlying systems may be quite simple, but in making surprising things 'call back' in a humane rather than an obvious format way - it makes you feel like everything has a potential consequence.
In writing this blog post, it's been great to talk with my game developer friends about this topic, and to think through how the games we're working on can also “Do the Disco” - how we can use small moments to surprise the player about their agency in the story. I think this is awesome as I’d love to see this in more games. Maybe by writing this post, I’ll make more people aware of how cool “Doing the Disco” is and maybe (if you’re a game developer) you’ll start thinking about it too...
Thanks for reading!