What games have you been playing, and what's your opinion on them?
What have you been playing lately? Discussion about video games and board games are both welcome. Please don't just make a list of titles, give some thoughts about the game(s) as well.
Initial impressions on Disco Elysium
When I was playing MUDs, it became clear that the distinction between them and interactive fiction (IF) is clearer than it seemed, even though they kind of look the same just because they're both made of textual characters. In IF, usually, minimal gameplay brings the story to life. In MUDs, it is the story that serves the gameplay.
Going further, in IF the function of text is closer to that of a novel. It delineates the world, its moveable pieces, and the events of the story. In MUDs, text is an interface for gameplay. Experienced players learn to quickly recognize textual patterns, scanning large blocks to get a glimpse of the mechanics without actually reading it. They'll interpret colors, length, timing, and formatting to better respond to the world around them, chiefly in combat. Descriptions and dialogue are scrutinized for keywords: "north", "south", "in", "out", "kill". They are not read, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. MUD gamers recognize shapes in the same way that normal players decode visual and auditory cues.
With that, it is easy to understand the difference. Both interactive fiction and MUD games are composed textually, but they employ text very differently.
Playing Disco Elysium, I initially have trouble placing it -- the game is seemingly at the frontier of many genres without being precisely any of them. Not really. I haven't played a lot of the game either. I should probably wait till the end to make a classification, but for now, I would like to share my initial impressions.
A simplistic categorization is bound to ignore some essential aspects of the experience. In Disco, you create a character with initial stats that you can freely choose. The distribution of skill points will determine the outcome of events and the information you'll have access to. Additionally, you'll make consequential choices in dialogue, and there are many. From that, I would conclude that I'm playing an RPG.
However, most of the skills checks will happen automatically and without intervention. The game will roll in the background and present the result. Although those are the majority of the skills checks, there are quite a few occasions where you can decide to have them or not.
So yeah, Disco Elysium is an RPG. I think we can settle on that. But why do I feel the urge to say that it is not? What am I missing? Why does it not feel like an RPG videogame?
Disco Elysium often abstracts the RPG mechanics to a fault and borrows way too much from interactive fiction for it to feel like a proper RPG. First, text is its main interface. Despite the fact that the current version of the game is fully voiced, it is the voice that follows the text and not the other way around, and the voiceover can be largely disabled in the options. This is a text game with accompanying media that makes it more palatable and engrossing, but graphics and audio could be removed while maintaining its core. And RPG videogames are generally not text-based -- interactive fiction is. In addition to that, Disco is adapted from a novel, and has, because of that, a distinct literary feel (down to the wording) that is uncommon in RPG videogames, but is the norm in interactive fiction.
It could also be a visual novel -- in fact, a search for visual novels on Steam will show Disco Elysium in the top results. Moving around the map is neither an essential nor particularly interesting mechanic, and could be easily replaced by point-and-click. And abstracting movement might be even beneficial, reducing downtime and allowing the player to quickly talk to whoever they wanted, focusing on the best element of the game: the dialogues.
Going back to MUDs vs IF, I'd like to talk about the different uses of text in Disco. We have two different uses for text in all of these games: (1) text as a mechanical tool, and (2) text as storytelling. In my view, Disco fails to take that distinction into account, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. Because your skills function like characters, the results of your rolls are mechanics and storytelling at once. The good is that a lot of times the narration gives color and flair to an otherwise dull bit of information. The bad is that by giving everything a narrative flair, the game risks creating apathy in the player. It's like they say, "If everything is important, then nothing is.
Looking at the text alone, they could use some whitespace and also make formatting more distinct between the kinds of registry (in MUDs, a lot of people split the kind of output into several in-client windows. Disco definitely could use some separation as well). This becomes particularly problematic if you opt for the full narration. IMHO, it is good to mix between both registers when there's a reason for it, but not every single roll should be voiced or have extensive quirk narrations, only critical hits or those with narrative significance. The novelty gets old very quickly. It doesn't help that the voice artist for the skills (and other things in the game), while excellent, is extremely slow and adds a lot of unnecessary pauses EVERY-SINGLE-SENTENCE. It would do this game good to understand the different registers of narration, using different strategies for what is narratively relevant and what is largely mechanical. In other words, be a bit more like a MUD and less like interactive fiction.
Not everyone finds value in discussions about genre, but I view genre as an operational concept, a tool that helps me clarify my relationship with art and my expectations towards it. Understanding Disco Elysium's unique position in this context allows me to realize how even its mistakes are rooted in productive insights, preventing me from being too general and definitive in my criticism. If I sound too harsh, it's only because I am very particular and have difficulty tuning out bothersome details. Hopefully, the reader will be more generous with me than I'm being with the game. That said, I wouldn't be writing about it if I didn't find it interesting and intriguing.
I didn't even talk about the story.
Hopefully, I'll finish the game. I'll have more thoughts then.
 I use this term as it is generally used today when the literary aspects of genre are emphasized to distinguish it from gameplay-focused products.