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Player agency, politics, and narrative design in Disco Elysium

On GDC Podcast episode 25 we have Justin Keenan, writer and narrative designer on ZA/UM's groundbreaking RPG Disco Elysium. Here are some highlights...

Kris Graft, Contributor

October 22, 2021

This episode brought to you by Xsolla

On GDC Podcast episode 25 we have Justin Keenan, writer and narrative designer on ZA/UM's groundbreaking RPG Disco Elysium. We talk about world-building, writing on a team, and his approach to creating characters.

Music by Mike Meehan.

Listen now on iTunes, Google Podcasts, and Spotify

Check out some highlights:

On creating characters

"There are some characters in the game [who] we know exist because they serve some important plot function. And then there are other characters that we knew we wanted to write in because we wanted to have somebody who embodies or represents some certain idea or concept. Some characters are jokes, frankly (laughs)...

"There are other characters who are just figures who we wanted to fill out this world. The map in Disco Elysium is not very big--I think of the world as not especially broad like a typical open world RPG is, but it's deep--there are many reasons to go back and forth and connect with different characters and different pieces of the world. Some characters exist to kind of fill in the texture or make the world feel appropriately dense..."

On working with a team

"A lot of us on the writing team, we don't just play games. We read a lot--novels, politics, history, all that. Part of writing from not just the [vantage] point of different characters, but different worldviews, does require you to read a lot and be curious, and to sit and think and stew in those ideas before you understand them...

"I think the measure is always [whether] it feel true and does it feel real, and we have a very good team of very, very thoughtful writers, and we all do our work and do our research and we're very honest with each other about what we think...

"You couldn't write a game like this that asks so much of the players and of the writers who are writing it if you don't have that intense kind of trust and dedication...

"We have an audience and we have players and obviously we're very appreciative for them, but in some ways this is also a thing that we make for one another. When I'm writing a new character, my first order of concern isn't, 'Is this mass of players going to like this?' but [rather] 'Are my friends at the studio going to like it?'"

On player agency

"In Disco, you are both nobody and somebody...One of my favorite parts about the game is that it's not a classic Fallout game where you venture out into the world and you find out that all the other forces in the world are in perfect stasis with one another, [a world] that's waiting for just one survivor or courier or vault-dweller to destabilize that political situation for your own benefit.

"The kind of model there is the movie Yojimbo, the classic Kurosawa samurai movie where you have multiple forces that you can play off each other, but no matter what you're the indispensable figure...Spoiler! Harry is not going to change the balance of political power in the world. He is not going to murder the heads of the various political factions and install himself as the ruler of Martinaise (laughs).

"We're very clear about what the bounds of your agency represent. And for us that's because we take the politics of our games very seriously, and this is a point about agency in the real world--that at any given point you can only have so much agency over the material circumstance of the world you live in. But what you do have very profound control over is what that world represents to you."

Listen now on iTunes, Google Podcasts, and Spotify

Read more about:

Game Developer Podcast

About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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