I’ve written an awful lot about Disco Elysium. I probably will keep writing about it. It was a sleeper hit of 2019, a divisive RPG that forged its own space in the subculture of video games by being weird, off-putting. Most people probably did not enjoy Disco Elysium - the writing is obtuse, the gameplay is strange, the setting is vivid, hard to follow. And yet it was my favourite game of the year. The game’s web of stat rolls and checks during conversations bloom into truly organic moments of storytelling, so far unmatched.
Until now. Sort of.
Graphic designer and polyglot Colin Brannan seems to share my passion for the game, but has taken the road less travelled in his enjoyment: Brannan has remade Disco Elysium. Sort of.
Brannan used GB Studio, a free visual game builder, to de-make Disco Elysium for the Gameboy. Brannan’s game is a 2D re-working of Disco that takes the ideas and tropes of the original and performs the art of reduction: how to fit such a complicated, dynamic RPG into the 1:1 confines of this old console.
The result is a game that feels like Disco Elysium more so than plays like it. It opens with the same introspective exploration of consciousness.
The lead detective has the same horrid introspection, the same voices in his head. He’s the same trainwreck of a human being.
Perhaps most curious is how Brannan has transferred the dice rolls from Disco into his game. In the original, your character is a complex working of stats - the game is constantly rolling dice in the background, and alerts you on screen when you succeed or fail. These outcomes determine whether that stat talks to you and provides more information or insight.
Brannan’s game takes this idea and turns it into a roller that reminds me a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons meets the slot machine in Pokemon Red.
Brannan’s game is weird. So was the original. I kind of love it, but the more I played, the more I wondered what possessed someone to… do this.
Why take an esoteric RPG that makes most people flinch instead of play, and why make it even less accessible?
I reached out to Brannan via twitter to find out.
ZeroIndent: Disco is already a fairy niche project: a deeply internal, esoteric RPG for a very narrow group of people (myself included) who care very deeply about the way actions have outcomes in story. What drew you to Disco Elysium in the first place?
Brannan: It’s tough to recall, but I think the first thing was people sharing screencaps of the dialogue and art style. They were unlike anything I had played before. Ironically I had to butcher both those things to adapt the game. It was also hearing people compare the game to tabletop experiences, and how even when your character failed, interesting things would happen.
ZeroIndent: From that, what then inspired you to begin the de-make? Was it inspired by the source material or had you wanted to do a de-make/GameBoy game and this project captured your attention?
Brannan: A bit of both. I’d discovered GB Studio and wanted a project where I could try and design a “modern” UI for the hardware. The stiff restrictions of what you can draw on screen with a Game Boy work as both a challenge and an interesting limit on project scope.
Brannan: I think I still had Disco on my mind and the two thoughts crossed paths. GB Studio does not handle action games or lots of elements on-screen very well, because the Game Boy can’t handle those things. The thing it can do well is simple math. Disco Elysium revolves around 2d6 rolls + modifiers, exploring environments, and has plenty of information to present the player. I spent an evening mapping out what I could adapt, and what sacrifices I would have to make, then got to work.
ZeroIndent: Your GameBoy remake captures the spirit of Disco—the dreadfully weighty yet light approach to morality and converts these modern mechanics into old school loot em shoot em dice rolls (has some major Baldur’s Gate’s vibe)—how did you go about converting these game mechanics into the GB format?
Brannan: It’s funny, I really haven’t played many of the classic CRPGs everyone compares Disco to, like Baldur’s Gate. I always drew the connection directly to tabletop games. I was running a game of The Sprawl by Hamish Cameron at the time I started, which uses a similar 2d6 mechanic for skill checks.
Brannan: The Game Boy has no problem with simple dice rolls, but the real issue was with scope and graphical restrictions. I was aiming for a 15 minute experience, not 20 hours, and only had a 160 x 144 display to work with. Collapsing the 24 skills into their 4 types (Intellect, Psyche, Physique and Motorics) was pretty obvious and much easier to display on screen, though it does lose some nuance. To have meaningful character growth in such a short time, I chose to have characters level up automatically at every skill check, regardless of outcome. Specifically it’s inspired by the idea of “fail forward” mechanics found in many tabletop games. I think increasing a skill on a failed roll is a great way to mechanically represent learning from a mistake, and making mistakes is often what makes a game interesting.
ZeroIndent: I’m struck playing your “port” how weirdly the format fits the content. Somehow taking the game’s ideas back to our childhood feels fitting. Perhaps it’s that those Cold War themes carried through to the Bush Junior era, perhaps it’s that they never went away. What are you hoping folk might take away from your project (aside from a good time), if anything?
Brannan: Your read on the project is fascinating, because the Game Boy is actually older than I am. I spent most of my youth with the GBA in my pocket. I think my hopes are much more mechanical, that people think about what you can do with just a handful of pixels and some basic math.
Brannan: By that thought, I hope more people check out GB Studio. I didn’t have to write a single line of code to make this project because much more technical people put a lot of hard work into the tools.
ZeroIndent: What are your plans moving forward? You’ve got the start ironed out solidly, do you intend to keep working on the project, and if so, what do you hope comes next?
Brannan: I’m working with Forrest Sable (@forrestsable on twitter) to adapt British Sea Power’s soundtrack to the game. The lack of haunting, melancholic horns was a pretty glaring omission. I’m not a musical person, so it’s something I could never have done on my own. Hoping to have that update out in a few weeks.
Brannan: But after that, I don’t plan to adapt the rest of the game. The choices I made here were specifically intended for this short experience, and at some point I’d be wrestling with more frustrating technical challenges than interesting design ones.
ZeroIndent: What else should people know you’re working on? How could people support you?
Brannan: Nothing big at the moment, but I’ve been having a lot of fun with the #Vectober design challenge this month on my twitter, @bloodystapler. When I do have something ready to show, that’s where it will be.
The de-make proves something unusually vital: that Disco Elysium’s medium and concepts transcend graphics, but are instead inherently tied to the very nature of choose your own adventure mechanics. This could easily be a choose your own adventure novel: a terribly complicated one, but it would be possible. Tabletop games, however, require only your imagination and a pair of dice. It’s not difficult to see what makes Brannan’s version of the game so appealing.