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.