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A guy wakes up, massive hangover
So, massive hangover
He's about to throw up and shit
He notices that he's naked, like no jeans, no undies. He reaches his dick and finds out he has four balls
So, he immediately grabs his phone and dials his old man
Dad, dad, I woke up the morning after and suddenly I have four balls!
His dad goes: get out of there, son, you're being fucked!
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Sea of Stars
Oh, he's just like me!
Content warning for discussions of substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
I've been putting off writing this review for a while, because I think this is one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever created. More than any film, more than any song, and certainly more than any other video game. We all have some piece of media that feels wholly personal to us — if you haven't found yours yet, you will eventually — and Disco Elysium is mine. Nothing else has made me feel so seen, so understood; it's a very, very powerful feeling when you discover that you're not as alone as you thought you were. This is review #100, so fuck it. Let's do this.
My closest personal friends know about my struggles with alcoholism. Some of them are on Backloggd, but most of them aren’t, so this is going to be the first time a lot of you who only know me from here are going to hear about this. Some of the roughest years of my life kicked off in 2016. I’d grown up in an abusive household (surely a story for another time), and 2016 was the year that I turned 18. I worked as much as I could, neglected school as much as I was able to, moved out, and never looked back. It fucking sucked. It sucked slightly less than staying at home and having to deal with my father getting shitfaced and threatening to kill me every night, but it sucked.
In Canada, the legal drinking age is 19. We’ve got access to the stuff two years earlier than you Americans do. What that meant for me, with my big beard and sunken eyes and deep voice, was that nobody at the local liquor stores had been carding me since the eleventh grade. The laws have changed since then, and everyone now has to present ID regardless of how old they look — I had a fake in case they asked, anyway — but no cashier ever looked twice at me. So I had easy, consistent access to alcohol, and I gradually gained a dependence on the stuff. Well, I say “gradually”, but it was pretty fast. No pipeline for me, of having a drink before dinner turning into a couple, then a couple more; I drank as much as I could because it made me feel stupid, and then it made me fall asleep, and that was a pattern that felt better than dealing with my shriveling bank account and my constant desire to curl up and quietly die.
One day, probably about a year or two later — I know a lot of people mark the exact day they decided to start being sober, but I was going through my life in a complete fucking blur — I realized that I needed to either stop drinking, or it would kill me. I don’t know what triggered that thought, but I didn’t really care. I’d die, so what? Yeah, the thought was scary, but my life was shit. It’d be like getting upset over losing a quarter in the couch cushions. Oh, well.
Then, another thought hit me: you’re turning into your father.
That one got me.
Spite is a powerful motivator.
Disco Elysium came to me at a time where I was starting to settle into a sober groove. No more drinking, even though I still wanted it. If you’ve never dealt with substance abuse like that, imagine a big plate of your favorite food, constantly in front of you, and you’re not allowed to take a bite. Everyone else is always talking about how delicious it is, and how much they love it, and then they get weird when you try explaining that you can’t have any. People start talking about you behind your back, about how you’re “the guy who says he can’t have any”. Other people will actively bait you into trying some. They’ll tease you, call you a pussy, mock you for your boundaries. It’s shit. It’s fucking shit and it never goes away. I digress.
With time, it gets a little easier. You recognize the kinds of things that’ll set you off, that’ll make you want it. You learn to avoid them, you learn to cope with them. You make little deals with yourself, like how I swapped from booze to weed; the world’s no fun to take on completely sober, is my rationale. It’s the leaf or the sauce, and one of them is a whole lot fucking worse for me than the other.
The detective is in a very similar boat. He’s a man so subsumed by his addictions that he’s lost every part of him that isn’t defined by the substances he takes. His memory of who he is, what he believes, who he loves; it’s all gone, washed away beneath a tide of liquor and pills and powders and research chemicals. Ostensibly, the goal of the game is to solve a murder, but the real mystery is in uncovering who the detective is — was, perhaps — before he drowned every part of himself in drugs. If there’s nothing that can be remembered, it must be uncovered. If there’s nothing to be uncovered, it must be invented. Harry DuBois, Raphael Ambrosius Costeau, Tequila Sunset, the Icebreaker; who is he, really? Some of these? All of them? None?
As you play, the detective is constantly challenged to give in to his vices. It’s easy to take drugs. Beneficial, even! But everything in Revachol can be the catalyst for change, much as it can all be an excuse to keep things going as they are. The detective can begin the long, slow, arduous road to sobriety, doubtlessly inspired by his partner and friend Kim Kitsuragi.
Kim is one of the best characters ever written. He is everything the detective is not. He can control his urges. He’s got himself in order. What he sees in the detective does not impress him…initially. The detective, for all of his faults, has kept one thing true about himself; he is a damn good detective. Kim sees this. He latches onto it, and doesn’t let go. In the darkest times, in the hardest times, he reminds the detective that he is a damn good detective. The detective needs someone like Kim to ground him, and Kim needs someone like the detective to bring the case to a close. Getting Kim to trust you might be the greatest sense of achievement you will ever feel in a game. To be a constant fuck-up who eventually stops fucking up is a triumph, and Disco Elysium captures the feeling perfectly.
It’s no secret that Robert Kurvitz, the lead writer of the game, has struggled with substance abuse in the past. He once mentioned in an interview that he believed everyone else on the development team had, too. This is the kind of story that can only be written at this level of depth and nuance by people who truly understand what it’s like to find themselves at rock bottom and claw their way back up. It’s masterful. I’ve shed a lot of tears over Disco Elysium, and I know there are going to be a whole lot more to come.
I’m about five years dry, I think. My sense of time is all fucked up. It’s gotten easier to stay away, but not much.
Disco Elysium is still my favorite game.
Pirate it. ZA/UM got stolen from its creators by Estonian businessmen.
Post-ironic capitalism. Satirizing the grindset in the most toothless manner possible while transparently begging for money might’ve been amusing as some parody on corporate anti-capitalist media made for profit, except it utilizes the same Skinner box mechanics as so many other idle games to entrap players and compel them to spend to watch number go up. There’s not even any attempt at some sort of novel spin on idle gaming to set it apart; as an actual game, it’s barebones. The naked shamelessness in being the very thing it satirizes yields a special sort of disgust from me.
Super Mario 64
My Dinner with André
Baldur's Gate 3
Not particularly enamored with this one although I can certainly understand why many are, since it allows for those kinds of conversations that frequently feel impossible in 2023, the kind where you and your friends or coworkers come together to talk for hours about the choices you made at a particular juncture and what happens if you pick option C instead of option B, you know what I mean - conversations that are much rarer when a modern game's sense of mystery can be completely dispelled within 10 hours by front page reddit posts and scores of "articles" reducing each dialogue prompt to Baldur's Gate 3: How To Get THE BEST Companion Cutscenes. The #general chat in my Discord server has people I haven't spoken to in years coming out of the woodwork to talk about the results of character creation, about the companions they've romanced and killed, about all the ways their characters lost an eye, and they all seem pretty content with the breadth of discoveries that this game enables.
For my first 20 hours, I was basically the same - there's a lot of fun to be had in poking around these early areas with the horniest party of all time (despite that fact) and chatting with rats, cats, and dead guys. In these early chapters the game best supports my preferred playstyle: a big circuitous route around the map, looking at everything as I drive past but only stopping to drink deeply from a select few side stories. Push further into the main story, though, and find yourself woefully underleveled because you grew tired of these fights 10 hours ago. It's never so difficult as to completely block you from progressing, but it's easy to feel that your punishment for not seeking out each and every side quest is being forced to initiate every fight from the (admittedly cumbersome) stealth or spend the whole fight herding enemies into a big circle so you can use your Level 3 AOE Spell of choice to meme the encounters until they're finished. I have no experience with D&D or this particular ruleset aside from other video games, but the adherence to such a system and its limits are obvious when you spend forty hours playing this game just to unlock a single cast of a spell that these developers would've given you immediately in their last game. It's a pace that works pretty well for weekly tabletop adventures with a group of IRL friends, but feels a bit too slow and unrewarding when I'm sitting alone, staring at a menu of unappetizing "roll advantage"/"create difficult terrain" spells as a reward for my once-nightly level-up.
What's kept me playing are the settings and companions - the mind flayers are arguably the least interesting part of this whole deal, so while it sucks that the main plot so prominently revolves around them, the side quests are generally well-crafted enough that one or two of them would be a satisfying enough adventure to fill the entire night on their own. I do wish that the companions would Talk Normally for five minutes but they've done well enough in telling some of the companion stories (Gale is a particular standout) that they can create genuinely affecting moments if you look in the right places. Not all of them are told so well, and some of the companions feel deeply artificial as a result, but generally speaking I can understand why a player might recruit any given companion not named Lae'zel to their party. For the most part, I'm also fond of the party chatter - every once in a while you'll get a nice bit of banter that feels like the result of actual role-playing with friends, whether it's a joke or a short flavorful exchange revealing how two companions interact or a story that fleshes out someone's background. It's not as personal as it could be if it were your real friends bantering with you, but it's a fun approximation and it's deployed tastefully.
Ultimately my grade for the experience is a big ol' shrug and the word "Sure?" written exactly like so. I think the lipstick looks fantastic even if it fails to produce miracles for the pig that is 5th edition rules, with its Vancian magic system and glacial level progression and a litany of boring buffs. Compared to the average person I'd be considered a "hater" of Divinity Original Sin 2 but it felt so colorful compared to this! I love killing bosses by shoving them into a pit as much as the next guy, but much of this experience feels like the developers are skillfully wringing every drop of charisma that they can from the source material and hoping that the player doesn't notice that "the chill druid left so the mean druid is being mean, go fetch the chill druid" feels a little trite. I'll be doing my best to hit the end credits, but if I don't make it, know that I'm probably out there starting a new save on Tyranny instead.
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