I Like: Dyscourse

Posted by Mat on 31st March, 2015

I don’t think “Dyscourse” is a good name for the video game it’s been affixed on. The post-it slapped to the game’s box with “Dyscourse” scrawled over is barely affixed, about to come loose and drift slowly down like a fluorescent square leaf in a humid ketamine autumn. Underneath there’s the placeholder title: “It’s A Game About Crash Landing On A Desert Island But We Don’t Know What To Call It Yet”.

I get why Owlchemy would have settled on this name and presumably gone to a late lunch immediately afterward. Dyscourse. Discourse. There are conversations in the game, but they’re… bad? And the ensemble cast is on a “course” somewhere else, but instead they’re stranded after a plane-crash. Everyone in the story makes a “course” of action in order to try and survive the next day and hopefully get home, but maybe that also doesn’t go as intended. It’s clever, but it’s not very evocative of the setting. A game with the name Dyscourse could be set anywhere. Richard Hoffmeier could have called “Cart Life” Dyscourse and it still would have technically worked, but wouldn’t have felt any more appropriate there than it does here.

Maybe call the game “I’ll Land”. Like… Island, but… it’s referring to a helicopter pilot there to finally pick whoever’s left up at the end of the story. Maybe it’s also like how cats will always land on their feet; suffering through adversity but you eventually make it through unscathed.

See? That’s also terrible. It’s difficult to name something. I don’t begrudge the team for settling.

Dyscourse is a decent overlap of Telltale-style narrative-point-and-clicks and wildly careening choose-your-own-adventures. It’s very silly, which is at times charming and at others totally dissonant. It’s a ridiculous romp with jokes and mascots and comical irony, but it’s also a fairly serious game where characters die in gruesome circumstances. Then, usually, barely a moment passes before the next lighthearted quip.

The inaugural choice in Dyscourse is which of two people who’ve appeared on screen for the first time should be saved from minor grazes from an attack by angry crabs. That’s pretty funny, right? That’s some Monkey Island-type shenanigans. Some naughty crabs are having a cheeky nip at the shins of two poor lads down by the beach until they’re scared away by a barista holding a frying pan as a weapon. We know what we’re in store for in the rest of the story, right?

But… later on, depending on narrative branches, a choice could be “which person should distract a predator, knowingly being mauled to death so that others can escape”. Moments after that, maybe the choice is “should one of the injured and hungry survivors give up looking for a chance to send a radio signal and maybe just lay down and die”.

Dyscourse’s narrative branches are too short, failing to get enough light, blocked out by the bulbous overhead Thistle of limited game development budget. The scope is too wide. In emulating recent narrative adventure games it’s let down by its lack of ability to characterise its cast in limited time and the uncertainty over narrative path can lead to wildly veering tone.

The Walking Dead’s the gold standard in this genre now. It allows full five episode seasons of two hour long games to properly introduce the cast, display their motivations and have them plucked away unduly. Telltale also decided to keep the decisions largely maintained to limited narrative quirks. A character remembering your reaction and later having dialogue based on your choice leads to a story tailored enough to your decisions and also reigns in the narrative, prevents some choices veering wildly into an area that would require more development effort than absolutely necessary.

Dyscourse is a different game. Playthroughs are short, intending that the game should be played multiple times in order to see everything available. Most decisions can make the narrative go in wildly different ways. These veering turns have meant a lack of focus and direction, an inability to ensure that a certainty of character development arc exists and it leaves the main cast feeling one dimensional. Telltale’s fairly linear narratives and episodic structure work in its favour when developing tonally consistent words that allow for levity but are largely grim over all. They know that a horror beat occurred moments before and can write around it. Dyscourse’s total playthroughs are a little too short to feel like every character is properly given time to develop, and especially too short to ensure there’s enough of a buffer between tragedy and a quick gag.

The developers have said that there’s a novel’s worth of dialogue written for the game and though that’s an impressive statistic, it’s fairly worrying in implementation. Inevitably some paths are better produced and considered than others just as a reality of game development’s struggle against deadline.

After completing the first playthrough a tool for rewinding a day is unlocked and this can be used to savescum out a more preferable result or just see all of the other branches. I mentioned Cart Life earlier, a game that made similar decisions about terrible things happening to its protagonists and it also benefited from retrying after an initial completion with knowledge that couldn’t have possibly been obtained in the first attempt.

Cart Life was using this difficulty and lack of understanding to say something about adult life without a financial safety net. That being in this situation is perilous and would inevitably lead to sacrifices and misery for reasons utterly disconnected from your own actions. I don’t know what Dyscourse is saying other than it’s a game where you can try and save everyone the second time if you’re perfect at deciding which day is best to go gather food and when you should try and get some water.

And still, all of this in mind, I quite like it. Cute character moments in the face of adversity are charming, though the cast rarely feel like cardboard representations of their initial appearance, they’re fun to speak to while setting aside the assumption they’ll have any growth. The game’s strengths are in its silliness, dragged down by a setting and tone which doesn’t benefit it.
I wish the team was making a different game, one which actually plays to their strengths. Something as ridiculous as Dyscourse is attempting to be without being brought down by an inconsistent tone.

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