Dyscourse is a 2013 Kickstarted “choose-your-own adventure” game from Owlchemy Labs that I only heard about last year, but was nonetheless excited to give it a go. You play as Rita, a college graduate and temporary barista, who finds herself the leader of a ragtag group of survivors whose plane crashed on an unassuming desert island, having to make the hard decisions. I love narrative-driven games like this and the advertised scope of choices available in this game seemed like an awesome proposition. And it is, kind of.
First off, can I just say that I am truly impressed with how much actual choice there is in Dyscourse. I played through twice and watched a third through a Let’s Play, and to say these stories branched off radically would be an understatement. You are told this from the get-go; “THE PATHS YOU FORGE ARE YOUR OWN. CHOOSE WISELY” and there are a few choices that made me lean back from my keyboard and really struggle with what kind of person I wanted Rita to be – usually to disastrous effect. Your survivors will die. A lot. Instantly, and absolutely because of the choice you just made. In my first playthrough, I pretty much got three people gored, cut and probably suffering severe blood loss within 10 minutes, so if our plane goes Black Hawk down, don’t elect me leader of any surviving groups.
Unfortunately, the game sort of skims over these consequences quickly to get the next choice and that leads me to probably my biggest problem I had with Dyscourse. The pace was, for lack of a better word, weird. Because this game is meant to be replayed many times, to appreciate all the work that the developers put into this experience, you are constantly being pushed forward quickly. There are no real moments to breathe and enjoy the obvious craftsmanship that has gone into this game and I found myself soon mindlessly making choices with none of the previously mentioned hesitations and thought behind them. And yet, the game still felt quite slow as well. When I finished my first game I was surprised that it had only taken me 50 minutes, it felt way longer than that when I was sitting there.
I was upset that this was the case because Dyscourse has a lot of things going for it – I love the blocky and almost paper cut art style. It was simple but beautifully stylised, and the character designs were amazing. They provided so much extra information about these characters just from looking at them. This really complemented the ability to talk to these people and find out about their lives before you were all stranded on the island. It was really great to see the way everyone gets more and more dishevelled the longer you are there and avoiding animals, starvation and, at times, each other. The voices do sound like the adults from Charlie Brown, speaking into a pillow through a wind tunnel and they are strangely quiet against the music, but there is an option to turn them off which I much preferred.
In terms of gameplay, it is very simple and along somewhat similar lines to the Telltale games – you make dialogue choices from the options available. Other than that, there isn’t a lot else you do. There are a few elements to interact with and things you need to pick up and bring back, but the game is focused on the dialogue choices. This is where the game changes. When you decide who to talk to, who to encourage, and who to accompany, it very directly affects who lives and dies, as well as how your group works together and moves on to the next day. This is the crux of the game, and it was cool to see how you could pull the group together or set someone up to be removed.
So far I have been quite negative about a game that’s been fairly well received, and that is a shame. As I said, this seemed like something right up my alley and an interesting premise, but that isn’t enough anymore. Dyscourse came out end of March 2015 and since then there have been story and choice games that have managed to genuinely engage people. While playing, I just couldn’t help thinking that, while obviously Until Dawn is a very different game, they executed the stakes a lot better than Dyscourse when it came to losing the characters you are spending this time with. And Firewatch, which I just played, is again very different but told a much better dialogue-driven narrative. Maybe if I had played this when it came out, I wouldn’t be so critical, but it only took a year for this genre of games to really figure out how to be excellent.
Ultimately my problem with Dyscourse was that I didn’t have fun, which is fine. A game doesn’t need to be fun if it makes me feel something, think harder than I otherwise would, or give me a great conversation with my friends, but Dyscourse did none of these things. I spent two hours with this game, which weren’t the worst hours I’ve spent, but at the end, I kind of wish I’d just played Firewatch again. And this is tough because Dyscourse does so something that so many games have struggled with. Which is having a cat. Seriously, game devs, more cats please.