Disco Elysium: Bringing a Million Words to Life for The Final Cut
There are over a million words in Disco Elysium. That’s not hyperbole. For a benchmark, picture the entirety of The Lord of the Rings – all three books, plus The Hobbit for good measure – twice. And all of those million words, most of which previously sat in silence on the screen, are going to be read aloud in the upcoming Final Cut edition of the game. Full voice acting is coming to Disco Elysium, and – as you can probably guess – it’s been no small undertaking.
Wanting to know more about how this feat has been achieved, I sent a few questions to developer ZA/UM. In response, Disco Elysium’s lead writer, Helen Hindpere, sent me 1,549 words worth of answers, written in such a manner that I felt our interview had become an extension of the game itself. Words, it would seem, are as essential as breathing to the studio.
“I just watched an interview with a Soviet poet from the fifties,” Hindpere tells me. “Arvi Siig, a hero of mine. He said: poetry must belong to the masses.
“I was like: f**k yeah, Arvi! With all my heart I agree. Disco Elysium is a wild and singular adventure, but it’s also meant for the widest possible audience.”
Currently, Disco Elysium’s mostly speechless original form is only available on PC and Mac. But with The Final Cut, it will arrive on PlayStation in March, and on Xbox and Switch later in 2021. And with those extra platforms comes the potential of a much wider audience. “Games are just so much more accessible with full VO [voiceover], especially RPGs,” says Hindpere. “And it’s crucial for the console experience too… TV screens just aren’t made for reading like monitors are. You need VO.”
Adding voice acting isn’t just about making Disco Elysium accessible to more people, though. ZA/UM wrote the game with VO in mind, and so the Final Cut’s script remains “99% the same” as the original release. As such, the addition of acting brings Disco Elysium closer to its intended vision.
“Our intent was always to simulate how real life conversations work,” says Hindpere. “Not film conversations, or even book conversations, but real conversations. Ours are probably the most sprawling dialogue trees ever written. That’s because Disco Elysium is a conversation simulator. The VO brings us even closer to that.”
Of course, making those conversations come alive requires the right talent. The original version of Disco Elysium has a small amount of voice acting that’s notable for its authentic, scrappy feeling, in part generated by a “ragtag band of miscreants, friends, and friends of friends,” that ZA/UM remains thankful for. These recordings work as the blueprint for The Final Cut’s approach.
“We had to voice the entire character this time, not just the beginnings of the dialogues,” notes Hindpere. “Your conversations take you to some rather extreme places psychologically. So we did re-casting with professional actors. Many we kept too – from the original. Favourites like Kim Kitsuragi and Evrart Claire (Jullian Champenois and Tariq Khan). It’s a mix. Hopefully we kept that colourful vibe, only now with added acting chops.”
Finding the right cast has been a sprawling task. “You need people from all over the world to pull this kind of project off,” says Hindpere. “One day – a Moroccan rapper from the Canaries. The other – a Taiwanese rapper from Taiwan. Then a Liverpudlian scouse comes in and absolutely tears it up as Cuno. The casting process has been very planetary. That’s how we’ve found the right voices, I think.”
Finding the ideal actors for the likes of The Deserter and Paledriver has been one thing, but the biggest challenge ZA/UM faced was finding a voice to bring the whole experience together. “The narrator is the voice of Disco Elysium,” Hindpere emphasises. “He reads all non-direct speech. This means every object, every parenthesis, and so on. Only when we miraculously stumbled upon Lenval Brown did we know: ok, we have the voice of Disco Elysium now. We can really attempt to do this.”
Brown, who’s voice can be heard in the above trailer, is a jazz musician when he’s not bringing video game dialogue to life. He voices around half of Disco Elysium’s script. As a reminder, that’s half a million words, the same as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “No Lenval – no Disco Elysium VO,” says Hindpere. “It’s that central.”
The role of the narrator in Disco Elysium is much more than a voice to guide the player between conversations. As well as a storyteller, Brown is also the voice of the 24 different skills, which manifest as individual ‘characters’ within the protagonist’s mind.
“It seems like a natural choice to have each skill voiced by a different actor, but believe me, it would be awful,” says Hindpere, answering the most obvious question. “Grating, cartoonish, hyperactive. There’s something about Disco Elysium that not a lot of people realize – it’s actually a very calm and cosy game…. It’s cosy, like watching a series of dark detective fiction – while curled up on the couch with your SO. Or reading a book. It has that vibe to it. Taking the skills as narration, rather than a band of harpies tearing at you, was essential to keeping the experience level.”
“As a final note – I’ll get pretty in-depth now, but hey! you’re reading an interview with a Disco Elysium dev so you get what you pay for – in our psychological system the 24 skills all reside in the same part of your character’s brain: the Posterior Neocortex, where modern science says consciousness lies,” adds Hindpere. “The casting sheet literally says: POSTERIOR NEOCORTEX. So the skills all share the voice of the Posterior Neocortex. There are different brain-voices in the game too: the Ancient Reptilian Brain, the Limbic System and the Spinal Cord (all narrate your dreams). Those have different voices, because they are truly different parts of your character’s brain.”
Finding the right actors, inviting back beloved voices, and recording over a million words has taken ZA/UM around 14 months to do. The small studio has done almost all of this while the world has been suffering from the impact of what Hindpere refers to as “the microorganism”, which has meant recording sessions over Zoom and a lot of rescheduling.
“It’s been a whole-studio challenge, too,” Hindpere makes clear. “Everyone is on VO one way or another. We have our own in-house trio of directors working with the actors. Plus every single writer on call and doing QA. We all share the responsibility to get it right. The Final Cut really needs to be the ultimate edition of Disco Elysium.”
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As well as being the ultimate edition, I also think The Final Cut will help deliver the truest version of ZA/UM’s world. I am guilty of waxing lyrical about the world of Revachol and its loftiness, but Hindpere reminds me that Disco Elysium is also weird and wild and wacky.
“Disco Elysium has as much in common with the Eurodance band Scooter and the 2006 comedy “Dude, Where’s My Car?” as it has with… what have we been accused of lately? Hauntology? Existentialism?,” Hindpere says. “We’re about that, but we’re also about Scooter. Faster, Harder, Scooter!”
And… well, yes. It’s all in the title. Disco Elysium. Of course it’s wild. This is a game where you can have debates with your own necktie, afterall. The Apocalypse Cop route, in which you act as a prophet of the end of all things, is delivered with playful absurdity. Full voice work will bring these aspects to life in a way that will balance out the dark, haunting sound of British Sea Power’s score, hopefully making for a version that conveys Disco Elysium’s full personality spectrum for the ears as well as the eyes.
“It feels quite luxurious,” Hindpere says, summing up VO’s impact on the game. “High production values usually do. But then it also feels more direct and personal.”
Disco Elysium already feels like it speaks directly to the player. But currently, the relationship is akin to an author talking to a reader. That in itself has a particular kind of intimacy, and is certainly part of why I find its story so impactful. But the promise of experiencing it all again, where that relationship is replaced with more authentic conversation, is something that has me excited for The Final Cut. And for those on console who have never played this convention-shattering RPG, Disco Elysium’s upcoming incarnation will hopefully be the best possible way to first experience it.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer.