Wireframe

Disco Elysium: designing the city of Revachol

By Konstantinos Dimopoulos. Posted

Disco Elysium is a unique narrative experience, and a rare game that tries to depict all the layers and textures of a real city. With Disco Elysium: The Final Cut out now, I caught up with lead writer Helen Hindpere and artist Kaspar Tamsalu to find out what went into designing the city of Revachol.

“There’s a murder quest in the Bridge District of Baldur’s Gate [II] that first showed us the potential of an urban detective RPG,” says Hindpere of one of Disco Elysium’s early creative touchstones. From it, she adds, came the desire to further explore the idea of chasing a suspect through a living city: “Every street corner, every apartment block hides a new clue, a revelation. A character to talk to or an object to examine”. 

Hindpere says that city locations are what makes her want to crawl inside an RPG’s world. “Cities are inherently existential, melancholic places,” she says. “There’s this sense of something bigger out there; the hustle and bustle of human life that has continued for thousands of years. And then the question: what am I doing here? Every citizen of Revachol is wrestling with that in one way or another. We truly tried to write every character as if they’re the real protagonists. Examine their loneliness, their longing.” 

Harrier Du Bois rocking above the Jam in Martinaise

Regarding the choice of setting, the district of Martinaise is, according to Hindpere, not “representative of the rest of the city or the world”, but rather, “works as a microcosm”. This poverty-stricken, forgotten area in Revachol’s far west wasn’t the writers’ favourite – “We were more fond of using other districts, like culturally diverse Jamrock,” says Hindpere – but Martinaise is where an attempted revolution failed, and the area bears its scars. “You can still see artillery damage and bullet-holes in the walls,” Hindpere continues. “There’s this feeling of being stuck in the past… You have to dig quite a bit to find the soft core of its people, to get under their skin.”

The wider world of Elysium, meanwhile, spans over 50 states and 8000 years of history. And although the setting has been fleshed out with places such as the Scandinavian-inspired social democracy of Vaasa, the team still needed to keep the game’s central location to a reasonable size – which is where Martinaise came in. Besides, giant open worlds often end up barren and repetitive, explains Hindpere. “Players are so used to hearing words like ‘massive’ that saying anything else about your game sounds underwhelming,” she says. “How do you describe a world that’s vertically built content-wise, the way city blocks usually are, with characters thrown closely together? One reviewer called Disco Elysium an ‘intricate’ open world – what a beautiful term for what we set out to achieve.” 

Long-hauler designs by artist Jüri Saks

When it came to storytelling, Hindpere and her team realised that players become more engaged in lore when it’s personal or helps solve a mystery. Tempting as it is to “throw parts of the world-building out there, without much curation or editing”, hoping players will figure it out, developer ZA/UM tried to use more natural storytelling to open up the world. “When you first step out of the hostel, there’s a crack in the pavement – it’s important for you to understand why the earth is cracked,” says Hindpere. “Maybe there’s a sea-monster on the loose? If you follow the crack, you’re led to a crater where you meet two old men playing pétanque. One of the fellows is wearing a uniform. You can ask them about the crater; you can ask them about the crack. The guy in the uniform tells you about artillery damage – it turns out there’s been a war. Now, that type of storytelling isn’t anything new, but our twist has been to add talking skills to the mix. This makes each such interaction deeply personal: it brings up memories, stirs up opinions. You’re not passively taking in the lore; you’re building up your character with his own internal understanding of the complexities of the world.”

MAKING THE GAME

Revachol was first conceived in 2001, and, Hindpere reveals, its name is a misspelling of French anarchist François Claudius Koenigstein’s nom de guerre Ravachol, lifted from the lyrics of Estonian punk band Vennaskond’s lyrics in the song Welcome to America: “Welcome to Saint Petersburg, Emile Henry and Ravachol!”. There, next to Saint Petersburg, “Revachol sounded like the name of a city that could be the capital of another world. A place where (for some improbable, magical reason) Paris and Tallinn meet. A place with a very specific feeling that lingers on long after you’ve left.” 

Concept painting for the fishing village in Martinaise

Tamsalu points out that “when you play the game, you’ll quickly realise that while everything looks [familiar] at first glance, Elysium is actually a world unlike any other”. Even passing details like vehicles were given special consideration, Tamsalu adds. “Artist Jüri Saks sketched the unique designs for motor carriages and long-haul motor lorries – there are no [traditional] cars in Elysium,” he says. There are entire art histories and technologies dating back millennia, as well as narrative, thematic, and gameplay needs that had to be depicted by environment artists. Designing the city and its surrounding areas was, Tamsalu explains, “anything but a straightforward process”, as locations went through total redesigns due to rewrites, while others received innumerable tweaks “until they felt right”.

A tiny old church on  the coast of Martinaise.  All the art presented  here, unless otherwise specified, was created  by Aleksander Rostov

“The architecture in Martinaise mirrors its turbulent history, and we wanted to use our references to bring it out,” says Hindpere. “For urban planning, we looked into Caribbean colonial architecture, particularly in Cuba and Haiti. Paris was an inspiration for the pre-revolutionary revival project of Martinaise – the plazas and townhouses that have now fallen into disarray.”

Then, she adds, “there’s the utter libertarian chaos of 1990s Eastern Europe thrown into the mix”, with its disregard for urban planning. “It’s these unorganised shanty town aesthetics that define Martinaise” – a chaotic mix that looks hideous in real life, but great in isometric 3D. A place where the “ruins of a commercial complex become modern dungeons, and an old wooden church becomes an entire questline… it’s a mix of two 70s: the 1870s and the 1970s”.

The complex, deeply evocative Revachol skyline

To manage the characters populating this unique place, ZA/UM used an inclusion matrix to ensure the balance of kids, old people, men, and women was just right. Says Hindpere: ”Revachol is a world capital with people from many different cultural backgrounds. We wanted to use these differences to show more of the world – there’s a merchant from another archipelago to tell you about Revachol’s colonialist past.” 

A DISCO SOUL

Hindpere points out that music is the soul of any place. Walk around London, and “it’s mostly grime or UK garage you hear from the cars passing by. In Athens, it’s Greek folk music entertaining tourists in restaurants – and noughties indie rock coming from the balconies above”. As for the soul of Martinaise, it’s best captured in the melancholic soundscapes of British Sea Power. “Their music works wonders with literature,” adds Hindpere. “It has the power to express something that manages to elude the narration itself – something ghastly, emotional, yet hopeful.”

Early on in development, the team considered building the city using prefab modules like these, but eventually dropped that idea

Regarding the game’s painterly visuals, Tamsalu reveals that “ZA/UM’s two principal concept artists come from a fine art background… For us [artists], the technical side of video game art-making was completely uncharted territory, and experimenting in these circumstances [was] endlessly inspirational and invigorating. While the majority of video game art riffs off other video game art, we took what we knew best and ran wild with it”.

And then there’s the detective genre itself, which helps audiences take in the granularity of Revachol. “It invites the player to go over every nook and cranny with the utmost care,” Hindpere notes. “Every character, every object becomes part of a larger system.” 

It’s not only the murder case you’re investigating, either: you’re learning more about the world itself, or even what killed your character’s soul. It’s an approach that stands in stark contrast to more loot-obsessed RPGs, Hindpere says. “One of my pet peeves in modern open-world games is how they handle loot and information”, she adds. “You’re not a role-player anymore, you’re a vacuum cleaner. Guns, crafting parts, trash; every piece of paper, every stupid USB stick – as a player, you’re compelled to pick them up.” 

Disco Elysium combines imaginative world-building and an emotion that ZA/UM describes as “Elytical”. But what is this emotion? It’s despair and hope walking hand in hand, Hindpere tells us. “It’s the shadow of utter annihilation waiting in the wings – next to the unshakeable belief in the greatness of [human]kind,” she explains. 

“That’s what we’re trying to chase down every time we consider whether an event or a name or an object belongs to Elysium. It’s not just characters that are emanating this feeling – it’s the entire world.”

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