Suddenly deciding to tie the next few years of his life to video games, young Estonian writer Robert Kurvits wrote a one-page design document describing the future game as a mixture of AD&D board games with a 70s cop series, spiced with fantastic realism in the form of swords, weapons and cars.
In fact, Kurvitz had little faith that he and his friends could make a sane game out of all this, but in the end, in 2019, they managed to surprise the industry with one of the most thoughtful and exciting RPGs in recent times, Disco Elysium. On March 30, its expanded version was released with the prefix “The Final Cut”.
Kurvitz never thought that in the future he would work in the video game industry, but even more surprising for him was the fact that the world he invented with his friends, which the writer has been honing for about twenty years, will be recognized by millions of people around the planet, Yes, and in such an interactive form.
The history of the world called “Elysium” started with Kurvitz’s discovery of complex tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. True, the writer’s streak took up very quickly, and Kurvitz began to come up with his own setting, devoid of orcs, elves and other things. Around this moment, he met one of his best friends, and now the art director of Disco Elysium, artist Alexander Rostov.
“I met Robert when I was 17. At some point, there were rumors about crazy guys doing weird D&D sessions where characters wore top hats and drove cars. It all looked like steampunk, but not vanilla, but inspired by the French Revolution,” recalls Rostov.
In 2005, when, according to Kurvitz, he was going through a difficult time in his life, being on the verge of poverty, he and his friends had the idea to somehow combine their desire to create in one place. Thus was born ZA/UM, a creative community of artists in a variety of genres. Kurwitz himself, by the way, then, in addition to working on Elysium, was listed as a vocalist in the Ultramelanhool group.
It was at ZA/UM that Kurvitz and company met writer and entrepreneur Kaur Kender, who not only became part of the community, but also played an important role both in Kurvitz’s life and in the fate of Disco Elysium.
“As soon as Kaur appeared on our team, things began to improve, because he has a superpower that is extremely important in capitalism. He understands how money works. At the same time, he is also a very good writer, which is extremely rare to find in one person, ”said the game designer.
It was Kender who decided to fund the publication of Kurvitz’s first novel, Sacred and Terrible Air, which took place in Elysium. The writer completed the first version in 2008, and then, with the help of his ZA/UM friends, he worked on the book for another five years. Rostov, of course, was responsible for the illustrations.
However, years of hard work did not pay off, and despite positive reviews from critics, Kurvitz was only able to sell about a thousand copies. In the same year, he and Kender had to leave the editorial office of Sirp magazine due to the publication of material without the consent of the author. Having reached a creative impasse, Kurvitz fell into depression for several years.
Watching a friend slowly kill himself with alcohol, Kender, who had been pulled out of such a binge by Kurvitz himself, decided to find him a new project, a goal that could bring the writer out of apathy. He wanted to persuade Kurvitz to write another book, but his growing children told him: “Books are the last century. You need to make video games.”
Initially, the idea seemed intimidating to Kurvitz, but at the same time, video games had a separate place in his heart.
“The biggest influences in my life have been Estonian punk rock bands with their vision of politics and game designer Chris Avellone with his game Planescape: Torment. Punk rock helped me live to 27 or 28, and Avellone’s work got me past 29. Without him, I would never have thought that you could be so ambitious and literary in video games, ”Kurwitz said.
Finally, Rostov’s enthusiasm convinced him of the relevance of the writer’s undertaking.
“I remember how Robert came to my house, looked into my eyes and said: “My friend, we failed so many ideas. Now let’s fail in video games, ”recalls Rostov.
Having drawn up the aforementioned one-page plan, Kurvitz immediately noted that the game should also have a well-thought-out combat system and a plot twisted around the exploration of the poor areas of the fictional city of Revachol.
The financial component of the project, of course, was handled by Kender. In order to raise start-up capital, he had to sell his old Ferrari car, which, according to him, once belonged to actor Dolph Lundgren.
“One of the cheapest models. Lundgren wanted to go to Cannes on it, but he never got the prize, ”Kender explained.
Later, they managed to get much more serious investments from Fortress Occident Holding and Tütreke, and in 2017 the studio grew to 28 people. Kurvitz traveled to England to work with indie band British Sea Power to write a soundtrack and realized that ZA/UM needed to move from Estonia to the British capital.
“In fact, it would be almost impossible to advertise something from Estonia. The Internet is no help in this, otherwise we would know much more Chilean and Peruvian movie hits. If you want to do a real promotion, you have to be in London or Los Angeles. Nowhere else in Europe could such a strong marketing campaign have been implemented,” says Kender.
As a result, ZA / UM opened two more offices in different parts of London, where a solid part of the studio team moved. At the same time, there were people working not only from Estonia, but also from Poland, Romania, and even China. Over the entire development period, more than a hundred people had a hand in the game.
Although the first steps were taken back in 2014, the main development began only in the fall of 2016, and in the winter Rostov launched a devblog, where he showed the public the first screenshots and described the concept.
The player acts as a detective who has to investigate a murder. It would seem nothing unusual, but there is one caveat. Waking up in a broken state after in a hotel room, the hero discovers that this time, in addition to a hangover, he also picked up amnesia. The detective does not remember his name, or even his past, and only the partner who arrived brings a little clarity, saying that they need to solve the murder. In this case, the victim is in the backyard of the same hotel.
According to Kurvitz, he wrote more than a million words for the game, which will provide, if necessary, 120 hours of play. However, he did not work alone. Together with him, the staff of writers consists of eight people, as, for example, in the development of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
“We wanted the player not to notice how they read the dialogue. Reading is only enjoyable when one forgets what one is reading. It was terribly difficult to understand the logical structures that we used in the dialogue skills and how they intertwine with each other, ”said Kurvitz.
Almost everything in Disco Elysium happens through conversations, sometimes exclusively with oneself. In addition to a set of basic skills, the so-called “Thought Cabinet” is available to the player, which allows the cultivation of certain thoughts through dialogues. Thoughts can then be turned into interesting concepts that affect the gameplay in some ways positively, but in some ways negatively.
All this makes Disco Elysium an extremely replayable title, in each passage of which the player can grow completely different protagonists.
“It seems to me that we managed to find a completely original approach to building chains of events, which is why the passages differ from each other. We really want players to restart Disco Elysium without hesitation,” said Kurvits.
Although Kurwitz has given up all bad habits since the beginning of development, began to follow a diet and exercise regularly, alcoholism and addiction in general is one of the main themes of Disco Elysium.
“If you drink at least a little every week and you just can’t talk to your friends without alcohol, you might have a problem. Maybe we, as a society, have become too accustomed to relying on some kind of sweetener and should ask ourselves: can we build a reality that we could face without sucking on a bottle every day,” Kurvits argues.
On October 15th, Disco Elysium was released on PC and immediately received critical acclaim. By the time of release, it was already clear to everyone that the title would become one of the pearls of the indie scene, but few expected that the game would eventually receive GDC, DICE, BAFTA prizes, not to mention winning all four nominations at The Game Awards 2019.
The gaming community was left in awe of the flexibility of the story and dialogue system, comparing the open world of Disco Elysium with such giants as The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2. Kurvitz, who tried to avoid reading reviews, was still in seventh heaven, because he invented the universe has become interesting to everyone.
The Final Cut
“From the very beginning, we planned to release The Final Cut. In a way, this is the version of the game we dreamed about when we started working on it in 2014,” said screenwriter Helen Hindpere.
The release of The Final Cut, of course, is notable for the fact that along with its release, the game will debut on PS4 and PS5, and later get to other consoles. In addition, absolutely the entire text of the game was voiced especially for the new version, including those invited by celebrities. According to Hindpere, the developers immediately created Disco Elysium, as if the game had voice acting, so there was practically no need to change the text.
“We were faced with a clear task – to simulate dialogues from real life. Not to create dialogues like in movies or books, but to write real conversations. Basically, Disco Elysium is a conversation simulator, and the voice acting allowed us to come one step closer to realism, ”Hindpere.
Other additions include controller support and new sidequests that better explore the different political philosophies available in the game. Finally, the art team has also been busy adding tons of details, animations, and effects to the game.
As for ZA/UM’s future plans, Kurvitz has already revealed his intentions to develop a sequel alongside a board game called You Are Vapor. Also, after the recognition of Disco Elysium, Kurvitz decided to translate his novel into English, because now the demand for it has seriously increased.
“I always knew that my calling was to invent worlds,” Kurvitz admitted. “We wanted to create something really weird and unimaginable. Our goal was to create a world that would end all worlds, and that’s what I did.”