How Disco Elysium’s Skill Tree Teaches You Valuable Life Lessons

So Disco Elysium. Best game of the year. If you like great writing, in the vein of Planescape: Torment, then buy it right away.

But Disco Elysium is great in part because it makes some startlingly deep insights about human consciousness – and those insights are rooted straight in its skill tree.

Because in Disco Elysium, you start out with twenty-four wildly unique skills to distribute your points in – yet each of those skills not only covers the skill, but your desire to use the skill. Electrochemistry not only tracks your knowledge of drug use, but your fiending for a good shot of heroin. The Authority skill not only tells you how to respond when someone challenges your position in life’s hierarchy, but also tracks your need for respect.

Furthermore: Each of those twenty-four skills is a unique voice within your head, fully characterized. Conceptualization is forever trying to make sense of the world for you, making strange observations. Savoir Faire is lofty, hip, above it all. Encyclopedia is an eager little kid who can’t wait to info-dump what they know into your brain.

That’s all weird, but that’s not the insightful bit.

Because I played Disco Elysium in my traditional style – if there’s a way to be a charismatic psychology major in a game, I will. So I dumped my hard-earned points into Rhetoric, Suggestion, and Drama as the game went on, becoming more and more insightful.

And as I maxed out those skills to superhuman levels, I got a lot worse at the game.

Because the skills were not just skills, but personality traits unto their own. And my mighty Rhetoric skill was forever leaping into conversations, mentioning this person had a bad argument that I could dismantle; my flex of a Logic skill informed me that this human being had just contradicted themself, would I like to make a skill check to point that out?

And unlike every other RPG in the galaxy, just because Disco Elysium gives you a skill check doesn’t mean that it is wise to take that skill check.

What I discovered as the game went on is that Rhetoric was not actually my friend. It allowed me to out-argue people – but often that just made them sullenly compliant, or swayed them away from helpful insights they might have been able to offer, or it let me talk myself into bad ideas that a less-debateful person might have avoided. Taking every Encyclopedia check made me into a know-it-all. Logic could point out when someone contradicted themselves, but we all do that, and maybe Empathy would have been a better choice.

The game eventually became about not just having these immense skills, but knowing when to use them.

Which reflects a lot of my personal life. I’m a tenacious debater, fiercely committed to the tussle of ideas both in the public and personal sphere. But there have been times I’ve been so caught up in “winning the argument” that I failed to notice that I was attempting to debate someone out of a legitimate complaint, or so caught up in pursuing contradictions that I missed the deep well of suffering and denial that those contradictions sprung from.

Disco Elysium is a unique experience because of all games, it teaches you that there’s a big difference between having a strength and knowing when to use it. And the skill tree is not quite as treacherous as I’m making it seem – usually, getting a good roll leads to good results.

But you have to be careful. Because it’s not enough to have the highest IQ in the room. You have to balance that out with the emotional intelligence to know when it’s time to apply those skills, and when it’s time to not be misled by the internal biases of your own strengths.

It’s a lot closer to life. And a lot more meaningful.

And, it must be said, a lot more satisfying when you nail that balance.

Hello. I Have A Penis. Are You Turned On Yet?

My penis can even be erect for you! I mean, that’s gotta set me apart, right?

No? But wait, there’s more! My penis (erect) likes to receive blowjobs! That’s a helluva draw, I know.

But this penis – which, just to remind you, I am currently in possession of – can also be inserted into your vagina, ladies! In fact, in addition to my penis-delivery methods, I can also give you graphic details of all the ways I would like my penis to intersect with your body!

No, I won’t check to see if you’d like those penile intrusions. Why would I? If I’m turned on, you must be. That’s the way arousal works.

Just so you can verify the ownership of this penis, I have several options to send you photos of it, which I will whether you asked for them or not:

  • Penis in a bathroom
  • Penis next to a beer can or flashlight
  • Penis with a hand gripping the base so the penis looks bigger.

So act now, to get a penis! I’ll deliver! Or, more actually, I’ll probably just talk a lot about delivering and then chicken out and masturbate to pictures of you, then ghost. But that’s okay, because it’s satisfying to me. And therefore you.

(WARNING: The owner of the penis makes no promises as to his ability to maintain an erection, maintain interest in a woman when he has no erection, maintain a safe operating environment for any woman engaged in isolated activities with him, maintain a healthy emotional distance where he won’t fuck you once and then get murderously jealous of everyone else in your life regardless of your requests for him to leave, maintain a washed physical form, maintain a job, maintain ethical integrity with regards to the spouse he’s probably not mentioning, maintain his mansplaining ascertainment, maintain his secrecy with regards to any photos you may send him, or maintain the rains on the plain in Spain. Please take penis as directed. Do not taunt happy fun penis or he might just up and strangle you. For real.)

What Do You Do When Someone’s Flying High But About To Crash?

So you’ve got a friend who’s walking into a field full of red flags.

Usually, those red flags are relationship-based – “Oh, we opened up our relationship, but I’m not allowed to date men, only women!” they cry, thrilled about the hot sex they’re going to be getting, unaware of how that story usually ends. Or they’re a desperate guy who’s ecstatic to have his first real girlfriend, a girlfriend who is quietly encouraging to drop all his friends and hobbies because she doesn’t really seem to like who he is, only who he might be with a little molding.

But he’s in love, so what can you say?

Sometimes the Waving Field of Red Flags comes from other, more mundane topics – the friend who’s quitting their job to sell CutCo knives for a living, the relative who’s found a friendly bank to loan them money to buy a house they can’t possibly afford.

The specific shade of this Waving Field of Red Flags doesn’t matter. The point is that they’re rhapsodic because they’re at the top of this particular rollercoaster ride, the point of max exhilaration where it’s all giddy anticipation as the coaster ratchets to the top, and they don’t see the massive plunge coming.


But experience tells you it’s gonna happen.

So how do you warn them off? Especially when they’re so goddamned happy right now?

And this is when my take on advice comes in strong.

Because nobody seeks advice when they know what they’re doing. You get advice when you’re not sure about which way to go – things like, “What college is best?” and “How do I save for retirement?” There’s usually a research stage before life’s decisions, and that’s when someone is receptive to input.

Ah, but in matters of the heart…

Once the emotions kick in, they’re no longer seeking advice – in fact, logic becomes their enemy. Because when you’re really committed to this new relationship or this lovely house they could buy or this profitable dream of a career they could have, the logical portion of most people’s brains stops seeking input and starts becoming a Rationalization Engine. They’ll cling to any sign of goodness as long as it supports the facts they want to see.

So if you think a friend’s in trouble, well, you can talk. Heck, you almost certainly should. But you have to realize, you’re probably not going to make a difference. They may claim they’re open to feedback, but in truth they’re probably locked and loaded. At best you might be able to wrestle them off the path through a combination of leverage and guilt, but even then you’ll have to deal with their resentment because they were sure they had a good thing – and maybe they’ll fall for the same trick the next time.

So what do you do?

You change your conception of “advice.”

Because the way I see it, advice isn’t actually meant to change someone’s point of view.

It’s a lockbox you bury in their basement.

Because call me cynical, but what I find is that most people won’t change their behavior when things are going right – they only consider alternate paths when they’ve burnt everything to the ground and are wandering dazed through the wreckage, trying to figure out what the heck happened.

Your job is to seed the basement with enough fireproof lockboxes so when they’re pawing through the ashes, they might find the box of your old advice and go, “Crap, that’s what I did.”

Or, if you’d like to be slightly more hopefully, advice is the box that they open when things start to turn sour and they go, “Oh, maybe my friend was right.” Sometimes they leave a little earlier thanks to what you said. It can happen.

But the important thing is this: Advice almost never stops someone in their tracks.

And that’s actually good. Because you’re not always right. I know I’ve done some damn fool things that worked out in my life that arguably shouldn’t have, most notably “Quitting my job and moving to Alaska to marry my Internet sweetheart,” a move that literally nobody at the wedding including the bride and groom thought would work out, and yet here we are twenty years later.

I’m not saying you’re not probably right. But advice is fraught with its own issues – your personal biases, differences in personality, misinterpretations, dumb luck. If what someone’s going to is super-obvious then yes, maybe you wanna go to the mat, but the darkly cynical side of me would like to suggest a darkly cynical solution:

Some people gotta catch wood or drown.

And like the lockboxes, the best you can do sometimes is hold your dumbass friend’s hand while they descend into darkness, knowing that this is probably disaster, knowing that they’ll need a friendly face when this is all done to wipe the ashes off their cheeks and help them back to their feet.

Or maybe you throw a party in a few years and celebrate because whee, you were wrong, it’s the twentieth wedding anniversary and wasn’t it great that you didn’t stop them?

But probably not. This is probably disaster. But your advice is not meant to wall them off from this. Your advice is that lockbox they open up later on, when they’re confused and hurt, and maybe you help them to shape their experience with this so that next time, next time, they’re a little slower to plunge into stupidity.

That’s how cynical people keep friends. We love, but we don’t expect. We stash the love for them for when they need it later. And be ready to pick them up when they fall.

That’s the best we can do. And sometimes, hopefully, it’s even good enough.

Potentially Perilous Poly Patterns: The Catalyst

You’re polyamorous, so you’re able to date anyone you want. That’s good!

Except the person you’ve fallen in love with is married, and they’re not polyamorous. That’s bad!

EXCEPT that after some awkward discussions, the married couple decides that they’ve been wanting to expand their horizons for some time – and since you’re right there and waiting, they’ll open up their relationship, starting with you. That’s good!

If you’re thinking “Isn’t there a hidden ‘That’s bad’ coming?”, well, you’re way ahead of the curve.

Because I’ve written before about how first-timer couples have a habit of treating their new polyamorous partners more like an experiment than an actual love. (Insert hashtag #notallcouples.) They tend not to see this new lover as a person with needs, but rather as some exciting adjunct to their existing relationship – they get more sex, they get more excitement, they get the fascinating experience of handling jealousy and attractions in a different way –

And that pattern often works for the third party, right up until that person has a need that conflicts with the needs of the couple.

Classically speaking, the trigger point that causes the break is one of two things:

  • The other partner is “okay” with polyamory as long as they also get to boink the outside partner at the same time, which usually leads to a couple of uncomfortable threesomes and a discussion of “No, I just want to date this person, not both of you”;
  • One of the two couple-partners gets way more into the external partner than the other half was expecting, at which point the reins get yanked and yanked back hard.

At which point there’s an awkward discussion about Oh, sorry, we weren’t ready for this and the new person gets tossed out on their ear.

Basically: We like you, but we’re not willing to accommodate you.

Now, that’s all a known danger, Khaleesi. Being people’s firsts runs the obvious risk of becoming someone’s last when they discover this is not for them. I’m not saying never to do starter poly – even though, full revelation, I don’t – but I am saying that if you’re attracted to anyone who’s in flux, you need to be prepared for the very real concept that this might not evolve the way you thought it would.

Yet there’s an ugly kicker to all of this:

Sometimes, it turns out that you were not only an experiment for this couple, but you were a successful one.

What often happens afterwards is that the couple has been on autopilot for so long that you’ve woken them up again – your new and sexy hotness has gotten them to talk about sex more and started up all those old kinky negotiations they stopped having, and the threat you posed to their happiness actually forced them into talking more and hashing out issues they’d quietly buried.

You see them around. They’re lovey-dovey in ways they weren’t before, their spark flaring ever-hotter, maybe even dating quietly on the side in better-defined polyamorous relationships. And one of the partners – the one you were into – will look at you and give a little sigh-smile that goes Oh you kid but that part’s over because they’ve prioritized themselves properly and you didn’t fit.

Which can be a heartbreak if you’re still single and looking. Or even just still not over that person.

But you gotta ask yourself when you’re getting into a relationship with inexperienced folks: Am I an actual priority, or just a potential catalyst? And keep in mind, there’s nothing wrong with being a catalyst if you want to. It can be super-fun being someone’s gateway to a new world.

Just… keep your heart properly protected. Because if you think this is A True Relationship and it turns out that you were a nice-to-have, you can damage yourself in ways you don’t want to. And you’re worth keeping safe.

Joker: A Review

There’s been a lot of critical frothing about how JOKER is the first superhero movie that’s worthy of an Oscar. So let me say this:

JOKER is what an Oscar movie looks like to people who haven’t seen a lot of Oscar movies. It’s mirroring the superficial aspects of much better films, but without the underlying philosophies that made them actually resonant. So what you get is a pastiche of other, more interesting, movies, held together by one amazing performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

There’s also been a lot of critical frothing about how JOKER is an incel’s paradise, designed to make sad rejected men feel vindicated when they lash out at society. So let me also say this:

JOKER is not really interesting enough to launch a movement like that. If you think of FIGHT CLUB, remember all the interesting philosophical questions about what it meant to be a man in this modern age and how nihilism wasn’t quite the answer but neither was faith?

Well, JOKER doesn’t have that.

Remember how TAXI DRIVER indicated that Travis Bickle was an alienated loner, but also looked insightfully into the ways he manufactured his own loneliness and in fact played into the idea that maybe being the savior of women wasn’t entirely a selfless act?

Well, JOKER doesn’t have that either.

Now, all that sounds like I hated this movie – and I didn’t! It was well worth my AMC Moviepass money, and I had a good time in the theater. My advice is that you go see it!

But JOKER has been blown up to be all sorts of interesting things that it’s not actually interested in being.

Because JOKER is, at its heart, a comic-book movie. It exists in an absurd cartoon world where, in the course of literally three days, two entirely different men decide to beat the shit out of a random clown. It exists in a world where a guy shoots three people on a train and the newspapers thunder headlines of, “SHOOTING RICH ASSHOLES: A NEW TREND?” because the plot demands it.

If you’ve ever seen any of the PLANET OF THE APES movies, you know where literally every character in the film is a completely vindictive asshole, with each supporting character’s entire goal is to grind down the protagonists’ lives until they finally snap?

Well, that’s JOKER.

It’s a big, sloppy soap opera of a movie, and that’s absolutely great, but the Oscar movies it’s trying to emulate usually have one other aspect that JOKER purposefully ignores:

A philosophy.

And Oscar films love a little philosophy.

A more interesting film – and mind you, JOKER is pretty interesting as it is – would have made some judgments about baby Joker; whether people were in some way right to reject him, or whether society itself is designed to hinder some sorts of people and help others. It might have asked how a real-life Joker comes to be, and as such it might have been either sympathetic to the incel movement (don’t be) or deconstructing the idea of it, or just looking at what a nice white dude can get away with.

JOKER… isn’t any of that. Joaquin Phoenix has said specifically he didn’t want anyone to understand or sympathize with Joker, he wanted him to be something that no psychiatrist could diagnose, and as such the film is oddly hands-off in asking the question, “Is this guy justified?” It basically rains shit down on the Joker in an entirely predictable fashion where if you ask, “What would make this guy the most miserable?”, you can call every beat of the plot.

Which isn’t to say that it might not launch its own movement if it gets popular enough; hell, THE MATRIX has shown that even with an explicit philosophy, you show a movie to enough people and they’ll start seeing things that aren’t really there (cough cough Red Pill man-movement centered around a film made by two trans people transmuting their experiences into science fiction). JOKER might well honestly create something, but that won’t be so much the movie as aimless folks looking for any handy movement to latch on to.

What I suspect we’ll get are a lot of edgelords in cosplay, which means we’ll see a reduction in the number of Rorschach masks sold this Halloween.

But JOKER is like an Oscar movie in one very specific way: there is a brand of Oscar movie, at least one per year, that features an amazing actor’s performance housed in a pretty mediocre movie. If you every watched Philip Seymour Hoffman in CAPOTE, he absolutely blazed every moment of the screen nailing becoming someone else entirely, a masterwork of actor’s skills.

The plot? Predictable. The directing? Mediocre. But you come for the acting and don’t expect much else, and you’ll be okay.

JOKER is kind of like CAPOTE in that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is every bit as good as people say, and watching him transform himself into the unknowable is well worth the price of admission. And the directing is quite good at times, coming alive at the correct moments of violence.

But one of my prime moments of nerddom is that I saw THE DARK KNIGHT with Neil Gaiman on opening night (along with the other 17 members of my Clarion class). And he came out frowning and said, “I’m not sure if I watched a magnificent movie or just a magnificent performance.”

JOKER is a magnificent performance. Go see it for the one-man show. But when it falls way short of winning the Best Picture Oscar this year, don’t be surprised.

Two New Stories From The Sol Majestic, In Case You’re Not Hungry Enough

So my food-porn-romance-in-space book The Sol Majestic has been out for a few months now – enough to pick up stellar reviews like this one from Locus, the place where science fiction publishing gets all its news:

Smart, compelling, joyful and blistering in both its honesty and emotional reckoning, The Sol Majestic is a singularly original novel that has the power to be a true life-changer for its teen readers. Ferrett Steinmetz has created something exceptional here, it’s quirky and it’s real and it’s highly relevant to our world and our time.

Colleen Mondor,

Those of you who’ve read it can judge whether that’s true or not. But regardless of whether you loved The Sol Majestic and want more, or haven’t purchased The Sol Majestic yet and want a taste, there’s two stories out there for you that are free to read:

First off is a special story I wrote for, called “Yelp Reviews From The Greatest Restaurant In The Galaxy.” Four customers share their experiences of what it was like dining at The Sol Majestic, which interweave a bit to show you more of how Paulius and Scrimshaw (the Sol Majestic’s owners) run things behind the scenes. This tale made my wife tear up; with luck, maybe it’ll draw a bit of wetness to your eyes.

The second story isn’t actually new, but if you’re new to The Sol Majestic you might not have read it’s sorta-prequel – the Nebula-nominated novella I wrote in 2012 called “Sauerkraut Station.” If you’re new to the Sol Majesticverse, this gives the backstory of how Savor Station came to be, told through the eyes of a small girl called Lizzie in what I have described as “Little House On The Prairie, But In Space.” And if you remember reading this tale – one of my most popular stories – then know that The Sol Majestic shows you the woman little Lizzie has grown into.

And if you like either of those, consider picking up a copy of The Sol Majestic; it’ll do yer tastebuds good. And if you’ve read The Sol Majestic, whether you liked it or not, consider leaving a review at GoodReads or Amazon. Every review helps feed the mighty algorithms that drive recommendations!

Bon appetit.

In Which I Make Friends With Inanimate Objects.

The first friend I met today was a towel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a very good friend to the towel, but I did my best to console it.

Because the towel in the hotel room had been hanging there since I used it yesterday, and it was slightly damp. I reached to the hotel rack for a fresh towel, then realized this poor towel had been hanging all night just waiting for me to get back, and now it was watching me choose a newer, better towel right in front of it….

So, yes. I reached out and squeezed the old towel affectionately just to let it know this was nothing personal.

I do this all the time.

I once stopped my wife from pouring water out of a jug, because I’d been using it for weeks to water our plants, and “It wants to feel useful.” I made friends with a small sample-sized bottle of shampoo, for absolutely no good reason I could explain, being absolutely convinced it wanted to sit happily in the left corner of the tub, and consistently moved it back whenever anyone shifted it. I apologize to chairs I bump into.

(The flip side to this, of course, is when I bang my head on the door sill when I’m getting out of a van and get angry because it meant to hurt me.)

I’m not crazy, or at least not entirely; I don’t think they come alive in the night, Pixar-style, to dance and hold hushed conferences on how kind I was that day. I just sort of sloppily imbue ambitions onto whatever’s around me, and pack-bond them the way a three-year-old suddenly picks up an affection for some random spork.

It’s a harmless quirk, and not a strong one; when the shower bottle was empty, I didn’t carry it around with me because we were besties, I said a happy farewell and chucked it in the trash can. (Which, now that I think about it, did not have an opinion on me insofar as I could tell.) But I’m not quite sure why I do this; is it because I spend so much time trying to model the behavior of other humans that it spills over into ordinary life? Did I have some past childhood trauma related to a toy being taken away?

I dunno. Either way, I just sort of do it, so subconsciously that it’s taken me years of married life to have my wife inform me that this is, in fact, a thing for me.

By writing this, I’m kind of hoping to find that other people also feel sympathy for inanimate carbon rods. Or I may just find out I’m totally bonkers.

Doesn’t matter much either way. I know the shampoo bottle thinks well of me.