Disco Elysium is a groundbreaking, open world role playing game by indie developer Zaum Studio.
We had the privilege of working on the project. Casting Jullian Champenois as the voice of NPC cop partner Kim Kitsuragi. We sat down with writer and designer Robert Kurvitz to learn more about how they built the game and their process for casting and recording the voice actors.
Q: We understand that Disco Elysium has been over five years in the making, how did the concept first come about?
Kurvitz: 5 years huh? Well, that’s not such a long time, Dragon Age: Origins also took 5 years to make and look how well that turned out!
The concept of a cop show set in Elysium (our setting) came about in 2006. It just worked. Bad ass cop sits on the chair gung-ho style: swords, bell bottoms and motor-cars! We were huge fans of The Shield and The Wire back then, but we wanted a supernatural angle to spice things up. So we ran a desktop campaign called “Torson & McLaine” and, of all the campaigns we’ve table-tested for Elysium over the years, this was our favourite. When the chance to make a video game came a knockin’, it was a natural fit. People say Disco Elysium is “unique” and “strange”, for us it’s just greatest hits material, a no-brainer. Probably the most accessible and fun thing we have in us. It’s like our “Shiny Happy People”, really.
Q: Disco Elysium’s game mechanics look highly appealing to old school D&D players. Was this intended from the start or did the development team find itself naturally gravitating that direction over time?
Kurvitz: Human beings live short lives and in my, let’s say, limited temporal view to reality, I really haven’t played anything as awesome as desktop roleplaying. It’s like books, only bigger, communal, a limitless exercise in imagination. The only problem is: you can’t record it. You can’t bottle it. That, to me, is the greatest thing about video games: video games can at least attempt to catch that lightning in a bottle. Playing Disco Elysium is the closest I’ve ever gotten to experiencing a desktop RPG in a PC game. Now, of course, my idea of desktop roleplaying is of the “immersive storytelling”, not “dungeon romp” variety. But – for that – I think history will agree: Disco Elysium is the closest games have gotten to that immersive desktop roleplaying experience.
ALSO READ: Character Alignment & Voice Acting
Q: Disco Elysium features some beautifully crafted artwork. How long did it take to find that unique style?
Kurvitz: Our art director Aleksander Rostov has been working on Elysium from the very beginning. He’s grown as an artist over the years. So the art style grew with him. As he grew out of his steampunk phase and into a bold digital artist, we kept developing the visual design of Elysium. This world has intricate tape computers, telephones, extremely advanced radio technology, modernist architecture, and an an unknowable anti-reality mass called the pale eating away at its edges… Rostov developed a deep, vibrant sense of colour, as a painter. So we made the rather un-intuitive decision to use bold brush-strokes to represent this realistic and 70s influenced world with all this modern technology. The real life 70s didn’t have bold brush-strokes at all. It was all dull photorealism. But that’s Elysium for you – it’s about juxtapositions and what-ifs.
Plus, it just looks juicy as hell.
Q: There are a variety of interactive Characters in Disco Elysium, how many voice actors have you cast in total?
Kurvitz: Ooh, fifty? Maybe over fifty? We didn’t use the “one guy does many voices” trick as much as games usually do. (Spoiler, reader: the “arrow in the knee guy” is actually the same guy as the end boss and the blacksmith in Bethesda’s Skyrim.) It might have been silly of us, but yeah, a throng of people did the voices.
We wanted Revachol (the city Disco Elysium is set in) to sound like a world capital. Because that’s what it is; a tattered and disgraced (former) world capital with first, second and third generation immigrants from all over the world. There’s no such thing as a “native” Revacholian. So we needed a tapestry of voices with accents you don’t often hear in video games. We wanted a lot of French (Even Ubisoft doesn’t do french :D). Also French-speaking African. Also South-East Asian. In addition to British and US, which we also have, for classic cop show flavour. So our voice work was done over four years, not just at the end of the production, as it usually is. It was a massive operation. One of the most ambitious things about this game.
Q: How important would you say character audio is for immersion?
Kurvitz: Immensely. At least 33% of the experience is auditory and VO and music interacting with each other is by far the largest part of that. We had the honour and pleasure to work with with the band British Sea Power, who do some of the (to my taste) best soundtrack work in any industry. Really refreshing, emotionally honest stuff. The combined effect of character theme music and VO can be truly magical. Sprinkle some ambience on top of that and you have a cocktail worth kicking heroin for.
If a character has bad VO, on the other hand, it totally ruins the writing, the game… everything. Bad VO is the most mortifyingly scary thing in the world for us. Voicework doesn’t have to be “perfect” or “smooth” or “professional”. The most important thing is not to be disingenuous. A well cast beginner with an interesting voice who gives a spirited effort can do miracles. So can a seasoned veteran. But when the heart is not in it… this is the bane of video game acting for me. This is what we tried to avoid at all costs.
Q: What was your process for identifying the vocal qualities and attributes you were seeking for each character role?
Kurvitz: So, now is a good time to say: I am a writer and designer on Disco Elysium, I am not the VO director. We actually have two VO directors. Our first VO director is Mikee W Goodman, a voice actor and a singer in the metal band SikTh. He’s the star of the show here. In fact, he should be giving this interview. Or Jim Ashilevi, our second VO director, a longtime friend, an actor, director, and writer who helped us immensely with our most important character — your partner Kim — and many others. But they’re busy finishing the game so all you get is boring old me.
We – Mikee and Jim mostly, but also the writers who wrote the characters – were looking for: accents, musicality, sincerity. First we went for the right accent to get the right cultural mix for Revachol. Then we really like musicality too. It’s quite unusual, but we have a ton of musicians working on the game. A lot of the performances are quite melodic. For example, we have Mark Holcomb from Periphery and Dot Major from London Grammar. Music plays an unusually large role in the game’s story too: you can start a nightclub! Sing karaoke!
And then there’s that magic connection. Some characters just fit some people. They start expressing themselves through them. They “get” them. When that happens, screw the accent, screw the tone, we can even rework the character’s look and portrait! That’s magic. We were lucky to get quite a few such instances.
Q: Did you ask any of the voice actors to record auditions before making a final decision?
Kurvitz: Yes. Anything will do, really — just a reading into an iphone on a crowded street is good enough. Oftentimes these first iphone readings are amazing takes, by the way. Later in the studio you try to recapture that easygoing vibe.
Doing a little audition in private can also instil a less experienced actor with some much needed confidence.
Q: Did you conduct all of the recording sessions in person or were any done remotely?
Kurvitz: We tried to do most things in person. But some cases were done remotely. Seasoned veterans can do great work over a Skype session, but since we used a lot of first timers our VO directors preferred to do it in a studio.
Also, you can get amazing stuff when an actor performs like a singer, not an actor, which is what Mikee, our lead director and actor, did. He does the voice of this melodic and very personal character called Ancient Reptilian Brain, a facet of the player character’s psyche. Mikee, who has a recording studio at home, would get behind the mic at night – in all kinds of different emotional states – alone. And then he sent me the takes on the next day. Real harrowing stuff. Some of the best voicework leaves the recording structures of voicework entirely, and can be done like singers record takes. Meticulously.
Oh, and rappers too, man! The very last character for the game, a giant bodybuilder called Measurehead, was recorded only a week ago in Gran Canaria. Measurehead is played by the Moroccan rapper Dizzy DROS. Jim and Mikee travelled all the way to him, set up a makeshift studio in the hotel room and had the maddest recording session. You can really sense this fun and energy when you talk to Measurehead in the game.
Q: How did you find casting voice over actors with Voquent?
Kurvitz: You came in to solve our biggest VO challenge: voicing the most complicated character in the game, Kim Kitsuragi. Lieutenant Kitsuragi is your partner, so he’s in every scene. Interacting with loads of other voice actors. We really adore this character and we were really running out of time to record him. We knew we wanted him to sound French. Which can be complicated. French can sound amazing… but then it can also sound… odd. It took us years to find Jullian Champenois, but he’s perfect as Kim. Just simply perfect.
Jim was listening to hundreds of voice samples. But with Jullian it just felt right. When he sent in his audition tapes we were all smiles — he nailed it instantly. Even on his own, without direction. He was instantly Kim. Professional, friendly, smooth.
Working with Voquent was smooth sailing. You guys really helped us out and made it all so much easier.
Q: Are there any intentions to localise the game into other languages in the future?
Kurvitz: Yes. We’ve started work on simplified Chinese, which will be released early 2020. After that we hope to do: French, German, Russian and Polish. But remember – Disco Elysium is one million words long. And these are really deliberate, carefully weighed words. So patience, please — to any fans listening in on this interview 🙂 The process takes time.
Q: Do you envisage future instalments or major content updates to the Disco Elysium universe?
Kurvitz: Uhm, the technical term — I believe — is “shit yeah!”. I think once people finish this beast of a game – which takes many weeks to do, by the way – they will find it has quite a bit of buildup for something in the future. People might even find hints for possible expansions, but, honestly, all this is gravy. Disco Elysium is a complete, or, as the Germans would say, “total” artwork. Everything after Disco Elysium is an encore. I hope that encore takes decades and spans multiple games in multiple genres, but – for the player – all you need to know about us, what we think about life, art, video games, storytelling, worldbuilding and pen and paper RPG’s is compressed into Disco Elysium.
Q: What aspect of the Disco Elysium project has kept the development team up at night the most?
Kurvitz: Hah! VO problems were definitely up there. All solved now, thankfully. On to to bug squashing!
PODCAST INTERVIEW: Ep. 119: Interview With Disco Elysiums Kim Kitsuragi Jullian Champenois