Indie Wonderland: Dyscourse

A few hours in

I fucked up.

Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

I didn’t even mean to hilariously fuck up, either! I was fully intending to keep Steve alive. But then we went to the plane, and there was the box of flares, and the cigarette, and the jet fuel… it all happened so fast.

And while it would be hilarious in its own right to have Steve be the only person to die on the island, after all my yelling, the sad reality is that fully half of my starting group will never see their homes again. While I made it past thirst, hunger, storms, and a close encounter with volcanic gas unscathed, Jolene sadly perished when the raft we were on — there was a raft, yeah, try to keep up — proved too unstable for a sudden storm and a shark-infested ocean. And poor Garrett… I should never have left him alone with Teddy. What was I even thinking? Teddy.

Only George, Teddy and myself were finally air-lifted to safety.

I chose… poorly.

For my efforts, I was rewarded with a smattering of paper clippings of the survivors’ lives post-crash. Rita opened a cafe with Taswell, the crash-kitty. Teddy uncovered some government secrets. George caught a big fish and got remarried, but not before opening a memorial fund in honour of Jolene. And so on, and so forth.

I guess it’s alright as far as moving on goes.

Beating Dyscourse once also unlocks the Day Rewind option, which allows the player to go back to any previous day in their current story and pick up the tale from there. My own harrowing tale took ten days to complete, so I could choose to go back to the morning of any of them. Try to set things right, as it were. Almost like Majora’s Mask, except more flexible and less apocalyptic.

Still more than enough *gloom*, though, what with the game helpfully providing an overview of which survivors you *managed to lose*.

So I did. I went back in time, and I tried other paths. I tried mountain-climbing instead of rafting. I tried sticking on the island instead of leaving. I tried fleeing before the floodwater storm instead of being caught unawares. I tried building Teddy’s signal. I tried going right instead of left. I tried every option I could perceive, anything at all, in order to find a way to save everyone. Everyone. By Jove, I didn’t care how long it took: I would not rest until all were safe off the island!

Minor spoiler, right here: I don’t think that’s actually possible.

Case in point:

No, but really. I know what you’re thinking right now, but I tried so many things. It’s possible to avoid some of the earlier, dumber deaths, like Steve’s airplane adventure or Garrett getting bit by snakes. But at some point in this survival story, someone’s gotta die. If you get caught out and save the supplies, somebody has to drown. If you try to head off the storm: leopards. If you get everyone in the cave, poison gas picks one of ’em off. If you stay behind to safeguard the rest: more leopards. And if you somehow manage to avoid every natural disaster this island throws at you, be prepared for the group members to turn on each other.

And that’s not even getting into the *weird* stuff.

I tell you these things now, so you won’t get as frustrated as I did. People die on this deserted island, okay? It’s not fair, I know, and I’m sure you think there must be some clever way to save everyone. Lord knows I did. But if there is, it’s too well-hidden for me to find. I simply had to accept — as will you, I think — that life is short, brutal and unfair, and sometimes good people die for no clear reason.

Anyway.

I played a whole bunch of Dyscourse, trying to hunt for my Perfect Ending that never came. And then I played a bunch more of it, just to see the depths of weirdery it can get up to. It’s an interesting game, that’s for sure: part choose-your-own-adventure, part visual novel, my earlier playthroughs were characterized by a sense of exploration and wonder at what seemed like dozens of possibilities at every turn. Later playthroughs sheared off some of that magic, however: some odd mechanical implementations and the obvious problem of running into the simulation’s invisible borders start hurting Dyscourse in the long run. Which makes it all the stranger that Dyscourse seems like encourage the ‘long run’ so much. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

When I say that Dyscourse is ‘part choose-your-own-adventure, part visual novel’, what I really mean is that it’s a game in the genre that only a few weeks ago I suggested we start calling tell-tales. Linear branching narrative, small handful of distinct characters, clearly delineated choices, ‘this character will remember that’, you get the idea. Dyscourse is like that.

Or, rather, Dyscourse is very much like a tell-tale. Tell-tale-like, if you will. It follows a lot of the design ethos of tell-tale games, and it incorporates a lot of the genre’s key mechanics into its own gameplay design. There’s a significant amount of genre resonance here, is what I’m saying. Dyscourse does set itself apart, however, in the specific things it focuses on, and in the ways it operationalizes some of the key mechanics.

For one, it involves much more *jaguars* than most tell-tales I’ve played.

In a nutshell: Dyscourse is a better tell-tale than most in the short term of gameplay, but a worse tell-tale than most in the long term.

You know how most tell-tales tend to boil down their ‘player influence on the story’ to two or three major, clearly marked Big Choices? And everyone who plays the game gets those same Big Choices at the same time, until it starts feeling that nothing but those moments Really Matter and everything else is just so much world-building filler?

Dyscourse is actually pretty good at avoiding this. Sure, it has the occasional Clear Choice Moment: saving Teddy or Steve on the beach, chasing the boar or not, running for new shelter or not… but it doesn’t take much more than a second playthrough to start noticing all the ways in which your small, seemingly insignificant choices influence the story as it plays out.

For example: the first time I hid from the storm in the cave, and the subject of food was raised, Garrett quickly took Rita apart. He handed me his hidden chocolate and told me to distribute it to the rest of the group as I saw fit. Since this played so strongly into what happened the next few days, I figured it was more or less a scripted event…

…but then the second time I hit this point, Garrett actually took the then-alive Steve apart instead. And when they came back, no mention was made of secret chocolate. It turned out that because I told Garrett to stand up to boars this time around — causing him to get injured — he just didn’t like me as much as in the previous timeline.

I mean, I can’t *really* blame him. I *did* tell them to stand their ground.

Dyscourse is full of moments like these: dozens of seemingly smaller choices that add up to sway the larger moments one way or another, rather than just having the one moment to determine everything. Maybe this survivor will or will not give up the warmth of their sleeping bag for you, depending on how you treated them. Maybe that survivor will be able to survive minor injuries, or maybe the injuries you already managed to get them earlier will compound. Maybe you’ll make it back to the cave in time to save everyone from poison gas, or maybe you’ll be forced to rest inside the abandoned ship. Maybe you won’t even be able to climb the mountain in search of rescue, given that you suddenly only have one arm left.

As will happen while snowboarding.

Woven through this larger tale of trying to survive on the island are the smaller stories of the five survivors, each of whom you can choose to chat and spend time with. All of them are interesting to puzzle out in their own right: Teddy’s paranoia, Garrett’s ‘IRL quest’, George and Jolene’s backstory… And Dyscourse being as relatively short of a story as it is, it doesn’t take all that much time and investment to get to the end, and see how your choices changes the survivors’ fates after the island.

Rita in particular has like half a dozen things she can end up doing.

And for you fans of hard-to-figure-out achievements out there, Dyscourse has a ton of goodies for you. I mean, assuming you don’t use a guide like I did. Can you figure out how to get the chocolate-icon ‘Baby Ruthless’ achievement? I don’t think I would have, if we’re being honest. It is so no what you think.

And finally, the whole game just oozes charm. The graphical style is colourful and fairly unique, the musical accompaniments provide each scene with matching easy listening, the character writing is pretty on-point and good use of the limited body language really helps sell certain scenes, and have I mentioned each character has their own pitch and ‘dialect’ of nonsensical Simlish? Dozens of small touches, all, that add up to give this game a feel and identity all its own.

And party hats!

So yeah, Dyscourse: pretty fun game to run through once or twice! You’ll talk to some new characters, you’ll learn the cool ways some of your choices influence the larger plot, you’ll see a few endings, it’s all good.

The problem is that Dyscourse itself seems to encourage repeated playthroughs. Not once or twice, more like a dozen. The often mutually exclusive achievements are displayed proudly on the front page, stamps collected over four neat post cards. And the ‘day rewind’ system seems to encourage both farming more different achievements, and trying certain choices out again and again.

This is where the Dyscourse experience breaks down a little.

But to briefly return to those *stamps*…

Like in many tell-tales, a significant part of Dyscourse’s ‘choices’ amount to little more than smoke and mirrors. Certain things will always play out in certain ways: you’ll meet the survivors, you’ll forage, you’ll plan to get off this rock. That’s just the nature of linear storytelling. And as far-reaching as Dyscourse’s accumulated choices go, they don’t quite break this mold.

In most tell-tales, this obfuscation doesn’t matter all that much, on account of how you’re really only supposed to play through the game once. It’s making the choices in and by itself that’s important, not how they do or do not change the story. But Dyscourse very deliberately tempts you to do just this: run what is essentially the same story, over and over and over. And as you can imagine, this has… consequences.

I’ve already ranted a little on how it doesn’t seem possible to save everyone. Which, sure, fair enough, that’s a reasonable narrative choice. Even if sometimes the only reason these people die is because they have the self-preservation instincts of Disney lemmings. But the linearity goes a little deeper than just that. And in all cases, repeated play will slowly make you realize that something you thought was mutable and choice-driven is actually set in stone.

There is always water. There is always food. There is always a camp, and a cave, and a camp. And no matter what happens, Rita will always survive until the end of the game. Always. It doesn’t matter how much ridiculous danger you put her through. Cheetah attacks Jolene? Rita may lose an arm, but she scares that thing right off. Wild boars charge straight at her? A helpful party member takes the hit. Cave full of poison gas? If you push her too hard, she’ll pass out right outside? Breaking a branch and falling all the way down a cliff? Don’t worry, there’s an achievement for that. Putting Rita on the shittiest possible raft you can build, then having that raft break apart in a storm, then giving up the one remaining dry space to your fellow traveler to save them from the shark-infested waters, all while still only having one arm? No problem!

Rita: *basically* a Highlander.

Similarly, the more you play, the more you find out that certain story beats are essentially pre-ordained to happen. Regardless of which supporting characters are with you at the time. When you go forage, for instance, the game will put the exact same dialogue into the mouth of whoever you happen to go with. No matter how wildly out-of-tone it sounds for them.

Or how about this? If you instead send two other characters out to forage, only one of them will come back. “[other character]’s… gone, I’m afraid.” they’ll say, exactly like that, in a very I-guess-that-happened-what-cha-gonna-do way. They’ll even say it exactly like that if, say, the people you sent out were George and Jolene. Husband and wife of several decades.

What I’m saying is that I would expect Jolene to be a little less *laissez-faire* about this.

While Dyscourse is pretty good at making your accumulated choices matter on the small scale, repeated play makes it clear it still follows a strict set of railroad tracks on the large scale. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t encourage repeated play, but there you have it. As far as I can tell, in fact, there’s absolutely no way to deviate from certain have-to-happen moments…

…which is not to say that can’t happen, of course: the way this game puts certain combinations of choices together for interesting effect is quite impressive sometimes. But after a dozen of so playthroughs, I gave up on trying to find out everything. While I appreciate the whole Day Rewind thing as a factor to cut down unnecessary replay time, y’see, Dyscourse’s strict attachment to super-simple controls means it lacks that most essential of visual novel controls: the fast-forward button.

Yes, I would like to try out whether or not doing this particular combination of things somehow helps me reach a new ending. I’d love to! I did this a dozen or so times in my hopeless quest to ‘save everyone’, remember? But at this point, I’ve saved Steve and Teddy from crabs more times than I can count. I’ve gotten water, I build a signal, I dragged people out of a cave, over and over and over. Manually, every time! It starts to get a little boring, is what I’m saying. Given that situations with an actual time limit are rare, it would have behooved Dyscourse to allow me to ‘skip’ the essentially binary decision points after I’ve successfully shown my chops at them. Say, after the tenth time or so. Or even some way of rapid-firing Spacebar, so that I don’t have to hammer away at that poor button while the same text I’ve read dozens of times already whiles on agonizingly slowly.

But alas. If I’m to find out just what the influence is of getting Disky first thing, or of getting Steve to wait on the plane on day 2, or of having any certain character fight off the marauding jaguars… I’m gonna have to play through the whole thing over again. And while Dyscourse is not a long game by any stretch, at some point, I just feel I’ve seen enough of it. There’s not that much to do on a deserted desert island, after all.

Final thoughts

Alright, I played through it once more. I got what I consider my personal best ending:

Everyone survived, except for Jolene.

Overall, I had my fun with Dyscourse. It’s an interesting operationalization of the tell-tale genre, it looks and sounds good, and it’s funny and well-written. Its explicit and implicit encouraging of repeated play, however, quickly makes it start showing the occasionally very visible seams. And I haven’t even touched on the occasional weird tonal mismatch between gameplay and setting yet. You don’t really ever need to eat in this game, did you know that? Supplies, schmupplies, you’ll do fine regardless. But that’s a story for a different time, and maybe a different writer.

If you end up getting it, I would honestly suggest not playing through Dyscourse more than three times. That’ll get you all the major endings, allows enough room to play with the different meaningful choices, and gets you your fill of each character’s personality and backstory. Anything more than that is just curtain-pulling, ignoring the fancy giant wizard in favour of the pair of boots you can see hiding behind it.

Dyscourse can be yours for about fifteen Steam dollars. Or twenty-three dollars, for the massive special soundtrack edition. Jaguar growling sounds may or may not be included.

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Jarenth was never a fan of jaguars to begin with, but after Dyscourse… convince him jaguars are really neat and friendly and just misunderstood on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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