Scorn is a rough game so far. It’s slow, send you down winding labyrinths with little guidance, offers zero narrative comforts (at least early on), and is set in a dramatically uncomfortable and grotesque world clearly inspired by the works of Swiss artist HR Giger. I’ve found it to be an unfun, painstaking experience. But if I’m being honest, I think the discomfort is the point. And in that, Scorn might be a successful game.
Developed by Ebb Software and out yesterday on PC and Xbox—I’m on PC—Scorn has been in development since 2014. After a failed Kickstarter campaign and a since-ditched plan to release the game in two installments, it reappeared on Kickstarter in 2017 to successfully secure its funding and is now available to play. It bills itself as “an atmospheric first-person horror adventure game set in a nightmarish universe of odd forms and somber tapestry” and also takes inspiration from Heideggeran philosophy.
I’ll let you, the reader, deal with the philosophical angle, as that’s not my specialty and I have no desire to comment on Martin Heidegger’s work or how it applies to this game. I approach Scorn from the perspective of someone who is deeply moved by the works of HR Giger; I often appreciate art that is unfun, difficult, and, either intentionally or not, abrasive. I am not an expert on Giger’s biography or his intentions behind his work, but I know how I’ve responded to his art. And it’s with that which I approach this game.
Scorn, in the five hours I’ve spent with it, appeals to me because it imparts so much friction on the player. I am not necessarily having a good time, but am nonetheless being pulled down the corridors of this macabre plodfest, more adventure game than first-person shooter, because of how deeply the extremely Giger-esque art hits me.
As a trans woman who’s spent most of her life closeted, I’ve found HR Giger’s work viscerally communicates an ambience of doomed sex, sexuality, and physical forms, a general sense of unease and confusion that resonates with how I’ve seen the world for most of my life. His images provide meditative spaces that are much more cerebral and in tune with my feelings of the world than the more simplistic, gore-for-gore’s-sake utility Hollywood has often reduced it to. It’s why I’m drawn to this game. And while Scorn ain’t for everyone (not for most, probably), so far it is managing to mirror what I get out of Giger’s art by refusing to bend to “AAA” gaming expectations of being easy to play and understand.
There’s no hand-holding. No map. No objective marker. The HUD elements are confusing (to a fault, actually), and the puzzles take a bit of time to wrap your head around. You can’t jump. You can’t crouch. Invisible walls are everywhere, making Scorn feel more like a museum. The first “weapon” you get is nearly useless against the early enemies, and once you finally acquire a firearm, it is woefully inaccurate. This game has one of the worst cases of “where-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-go-now-itis” I’ve experienced in years. And yet, I want to continue playing it ‘til the end.
Scorn succeeds at communicating, at utilizing, what I love about HR Giger’s work in two key ways. But it fails in a third, perhaps fatal one.
Its first success comes in nailing the confusion and surrealism. I don’t know what anything will do. As the gamer, I feel frustrated by that. But as myself, Claire, I am delighted by being so lost and forced into a place of unknowing.
The way it tends to play out is you come across strange rooms and devices whose purposes are unclear. You try to activate these in some way, using either the weird objects you pick up or by mashing the A button, only to be frustrated when the animation plays out to no effect. You then stomp around the corridors and touch gross things over and over until you finally figure out where you’re supposed to go or what piece of filth interacts with what pulsing organelle.
This is undoubtedly annoying, but I’d argue that, in the spirit of Giger, this is how it should be. If this game assigned random lore words and catchphrases to objects and spaces around you, or otherwise made itself more friendly, it would corrupt the natural flow of bizarre bullshit that you have to manage. The protagonist (thus far) is silent, leaving my own thoughts to narrate what I’m experiencing. Scorn becomes very personal in this vacuum of character and voice.
A game that so directly pulls from Giger should be inherently surrealist and confusing. That said, many of these puzzles are of the kind that we’ve seen before in other games. What makes them work, for me at least, brings me to Scorn’s second key success so far: It brings the “mechanical” of the “biomechanical” source material to life. Seeing this kind of art style bend and slither through my manipulations conveys a sense of movement that Giger’s still works typically do not.
Combined, these two strengths grant me a game experience similar to what I experience when lost in a Giger piece. Had it played more smoothly, more gently, it would have been far more Prometheus than “Brain Salad Surgery.” Scorn, on its own, is no “Brain Salad Surgery,” “Necronom IV,” or “Birth Machine,” but I find it, as a video game, to be resonant with what I go to those works for.
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Scorn’s ultimate failing, in my opinion, has little to do with its clunkiness as a game. Sure, the protagonist walks way too slowly (get used to holding down “sprint”) and you really ought to turn off motion blur and crank up the FoV by at least a notch or two. Also, the game is suffering from a kind of stutter I’m starting to notice more and more of in Unreal Engine games. These are all valid reasons for players to bounce off this game.
But for me, its key failing is the art design’s almost shocking (given the source material’s) lack of engagement with human sexuality. I think Scorn could’ve stood to learn more from the eroticism of Giger’s work in its gameplay as well. There’s gory body horror here for sure, but the watering down of its erotic motifs deprives Scorn’s art of the sense of humanity, as twisted and warped as it may appear, present in Giger.
I understand why this is likely the case. Any game that followed HR Giger’s depictions of distorted genitalia, of monstrous penises and vaginas, would likely land in Adults Only territory. There is enough “inserting,” phallic imagery, and yawning openings to hint in the right directions, but Scorn suffers for not going all the way.
Frankly, more penises and vulvas and body parts would make this game much better. The fingerprints of Giger-esque biomechanical sexuality are there in the design of its various tunnels and rising phallic objects, but lack the clear details of actual human anatomy. In this one key way Scorn is almost like a radio-friendly version of an otherwise explicit song. To be fair, I don’t know if I trust a modern video game to work with such themes tastefully in the first place, but the mashup of horror, confusion, and eroticism is a major appeal of this art style for me and it’s a shame to see it so, well, neutered in Scorn. Raw, hauntingly surrealist eroticism is what so often draws me to Giger, and its omission here saps the game of potential vitality.
Scorn is not a fun game. It’s confusing and painful to play. It’s like listening to Dillinger Escape Plan in reverse. But for those reasons, I will continue plodding through these corridors so long as the sloppy combat doesn’t sour the experience too much.