Scorn: Niche Silent Art-Horror

The real surrealist biomechanical nightmare is deadlines and financial considerations…

An artist, an audio engineer and a writer walk into a game development studio. Then they remember they need a programmer. Scorn represents the definitive argument as to why aesthetic excellence alone cannot carry a game. This is a game of extremes. What it gets right, it nails to the absolute core. When it gets things wrong, it does so spectacularly.

You could be forgiven for mistaking Scorn for an action survival horror FPS. It is not. It is a surrealist art-inspired existentialist puzzler. There’s a whole academic distinction between the subtleties of horror and terror, but to forego misplaced concerns given their contextual irrelevance, Scorn is very much a slow-burn experience. In keeping with the visual themes, it seems more inclined towards burrowing under your skin than providing a palpitation-provoking distraction. How well it achieves that goal is going to be utterly dependent on what you came looking for.

Sorry for the poorly filtered screenshot, but there’s no way I can represent Scorn with my meagre artistic abilities

The puzzles operate on similar extremes. Some are easy to figure out, others just operate on whatever inane troll logic the developers were running on at the time or rely on having a rough idea of the answer before you start, because some of the puzzle mechanics can be quite convoluted. The game runs into a serious problem, though, because while all other puzzle games, since about the turn of the century, if not before, have worked out that you need a reset button on puzzles. Ebb Software just missed that memo somehow, so if you want to reset the puzzle you have to go back to the main menu and reload from there. Baffling.

Other puzzles are completely decontextualised. Maybe I’m just not MENSA level galaxy brain enough, but I’d have liked to know what I was even looking at or how it related to anything else before being expected to solve something.  You’ll be ambushed by a weird little minigame for which there is precisely zero frame of reference and zero means of intuiting an answer. At times I just walked right past them until I could figure out what Ebb Software were even attempting to suggest. Your best bet is to just look some of the solutions up online, because the way they’re implemented is interesting, but significantly flawed.

This also extends to the environment at times. There’s an extending bridge/gullet contraption in the second act which connects a series of floors. Unfortunately, because all the tunnel-gullets are effectively identical and there is zero indication as to which gullet goes to which floor, there mere act of navigation becomes needlessly frustrating trial and error. It’s tempting to write this off as a side-effect of the environmental art direction or the deliberately alienating underpinnings, but arguably it’s the job of designers to incorporate readable or intuitive markers into standard elements of gameplay.   

The combat is abysmal. It’s got that Pathologic ‘it’s supposed to be bad’ undertone, but in Pathologic there was some push and pull and you could work out a system or usually avoid it. In Scorn, if you want to shoot something, you’ll need to stand stock still. I suppose this was designed to stop the enemies being trivialised, except they can usually tank several shots and move faster than your reticule can refocus; so shooting things without getting hit yourself is more or less a coin flip. Doing that while a series of deformed chicken carcasses are spitting blood at you can effectively mean death. Weapons can also be unexpectedly cantankerous. Is the drill thing going to fire? Is it going to recharge whatever it is that needs recharging? Maybe but maybe not. Flip a coin.

Whether an attack hits or misses – either for you or the enemies – is effectively a dice roll. Shots inexplicably miss, enemies you attempt to avoid hit anyway, other times you’ll be sure you are dead only for an incoming attack to whiff with no clear reason. In addition, the environments are incredibly claustrophobic, which only compounds the problems. Half the time you’re in a very narrow corridor and there is nowhere to go if you’re trying to make some space. Whether you avoid an attack seems less to do with your ability to take evasive actions or maintain distance, and more to do with funky hitboxes. This is a shame because the gun designs are these fascinating biomechanical semi-living things, the first of which comes with an umbilical cord. They look and sound great, I can see what Ebb were doing, but the combat is broadly a weak point.

I get the impression you should avoid the fighting altogether; that seems to be the direction they’re pushing you in. The enemies start out feeling like part of the environment, half the time they’re just attacking you because you’re there but if you leave them alone, they’ll ignore you and sod off into some kind of wall abscess. This is great, everything is very integrated, and it reinforces the impression that you’re just in their bizarre alien nightmare ecosystem, and beyond the fact that you’re ostensibly the protagonist, you’re insignificant.

In the later game, however, enemies are very specifically a roadblock that you seem to be expected to fight. And so when you get ambushed by mutilated poultry and die because your weapons are throwing a bitch fit and have decided to do their own thing, death is a foregone conclusion. The bad taste in your mouth afterwards comes from the fact that very few of the deaths you will suffer will feel like they were a result of poor play. There is one singular fight in the entire game that seems like it was designed with the combat system in mind. All other enemies almost feel out of sync with it.

Then there’s the save system. I hope you like doing arbitrary bollocks repeatedly because Ebb didn’t put a manual save system in. Apparently, this is ‘so survival horror’ or something, but… no. Stop making bad excuses for bad decisions so you can feel like an important person or something. This was a stupid decision by the developers. There is no other excuse.

There are some mouthy brainlets who will jump up and down while claiming that the combat being bad on purpose and the archaic save system is a good thing or whatever, but quite frankly the rest of us have lives to get on with. No, you herd of suppurating grease lickers, bad game mechanics are not a good way to ‘enhance the existential dread’ or whatever copes you’re selling yourselves. There are mechanical ways to convey disempowerment and there’s what Scorn is doing.

Outside of that, most of the game boils down to ‘get the keycard-adjacent thing to progress’. It’s linear, which is fine. A branching narrative or open world probably would not have helped this game. With that said, there are a reasonable number of little side paths and crevices that you’ll be tempted to explore but will boil down to a gotcha ambush death or simply nothing at all. It’s incredibly disappointing. In addition to this, you will run into numerous invisible walls, and after a while the facade, as compelling as it is, starts to make itself extremely apparent. 

In all the places the gameplay is not, Scorn excels. The atmosphere is fantastic, the sound is brilliant, the art direction is phenomenal and breath-taking in its overwhelming detail, taking cues not only from Geiger but also Beksinksi and Bacon, with all the phallic and vaginal surrealist horror that implies. In fact, in the early levels there seems to be several direct allusions to specific paintings. Always look up in open areas – there’s a surprising amount going on overhead. There is a real oppressive sense of dread permeating the whole arc of the experience and I respect that infinitely. This could have easily been another idiotic series of ‘oogily boogily’ jumpscares, but it’s not. Thank God.

Jumpscares are to horror what quotations are to profundity. 

The narrative is all environmental and insinuation. It’s unsettling and unnerving and pervasive. You’re not waiting for things to get bad – you’re in the middle of the bad from minute one and it does not get better. More developers could take a lesson here, the power of suggestion is chronically underused, in a great deal of modern horror. It’s one reason that Silent Hill 2 and SOMA are still respected and remembered to this day, while every other Outlast knockoff is view farmed for a week by social media types looking to peddle their OnlyFans, before falling off the face of the Earth. Subtlety is effective. Some people are going to be put off by the complete lack of exposition or cut scenes – but sod them.

There are several ways you could interpret various aspects of the narrative and more than a few things to unpack with this one, some points of nuance that might spark an ‘oh, right’ moment in the middle of a morning shower. It’s ambiguous as to whether you’re even the main character. The ‘entity’ or ‘force’ which you seem to be struggling against, may not be detrimental, whereas you, arguably, are. If you matter at all. There is a suggestion that your actions are ultimately significant, reinforced by the fact that the game does not take place over one lifetime. This might indicate a certain amount of meditation on the idea that no single person is responsible for an overarching metanarrative, if you will, which in turn is reinforced by the idea that you’re not the focus of this story – the world you’re stumbling through is the main character.

However, things do become a bit one-note, and there’s a definite lack of escalation right up until the very end. At which point there’s no space to develop an emotional attachment to the character and so we get nihilistic body-horror instead. This is probably a result of the incidental involvement of the character with the story. It’s more an archaeological dig through the twisted corpse of a humanity that has long since warped beyond recognition, as opposed to a Silent Hill-esque psychological projection. As a result, you’re always detached and there isn’t really a personal sense of tension for the horror to escalate. That may or may not fit into the surrealism-soaked existentialist machinic thematics underpinning Scorn. It becomes questionable as to whether the psychosexual imagery is reinforcing the entropic overtones or just there for titillation. How does parasitism play into the messianic tone that creeps into the character right at the end? Why do the themes of inevitability and cycles become so prominent? How do they interact with the themes of life-as-utility and use-case value? Sure, I can take a monorail ride through an iron vagina the size of Big Ben, but am I supposed to consider that or just giggle inanely?

This is especially the case in the last act of the game, in which a significant amount of thematic imagery and ideas are on full display. This is presumably where the majority of the budget and time went. There’s a lot to unpack here. To speculate, act 3 and a certain amount of act 4 seem like they may have been the victims of developmental problems. In contrast to Acts 1 and 2, there’s a lack of differentiation or identity. It’s not to the level of copy-paste, but parts of one area really start to blur into the next. This may just be a problem with this very busy Giger-inspired aesthetic and there is a growing balance contrast of machine-to-flesh as you progress, with the game starting out more or less barren and almost entirely mechanical, slowly transitioning to a flesh-infested catacomb by the end. Given the skeletal focus of these aesthetic influences, you can’t tell whether you’re watching a virus or a regrowth. Which is why the presentational jump in the final chapter ultimately seems disjointed due to the sudden shift into a delineated organic-artificial divide/integration.

Act 5 may have been where they started, because of that definitive shift in presentation. It is also the most overtly explicit. While earlier acts were leaning on the sexual suggestiveness of their artistic influences, sex and childbirth are at the thematic forefront from the word go. The contrast is to such an extent that the earlier levels almost feel disconnected from the final act. Which in turn could arguably make you wonder if there even a narrative was running underneath it all, as opposed to a loose collection of concepts that are vaguely tied together by an aesthetic, because the environmental storytelling seems completely back-end heavy and lopsided. It’s a bit Heart of Darkness in that sense – there’s a long slog that you may or may not bother with in order to get to the crux of the matter. Executing a climax with enough force to counterbalance the rest of a story, is a monumental task and whether they achieved that is up for debate. To the point where you could be forgiven for getting to the final act and wondering how a literal statue of a couple having sex on the back of a giant suspended biomechanical phallus ties in with the rest of the game world. But given the environment of the final chapter, it doesn’t feel out of place. Given the environments of the previous chapters, it almost does. Even the way in which the meat growths manifest in the final quarter of the game seems subtly different. The overarching impression is that we’re missing significant pieces of the narrative.

There’s a serious sense that Ebb Software ran out of time and/or money. I have significant questions as to what was going on with the development. Scorn entered full development in 2015, making for a 7-year development process. But given that it’s only a handful of hours long, I can only conclude that Ebb Software ran into serious hurdles throughout the process. It’s a shame that the real highlight of Scorn comes right at the end, I wonder how many people will get there? Perhaps in time we’ll see the proverbial guts of this one, it certainly seems like it might be interesting, but it also might explain the progressively mounting sense that they would have done more if they’d had the space or time to. Perhaps they’ll elaborate in a DLC or sequel if the game does well enough. I’m still not sure how the idea of scorn as an emotion is even relevant, to be honest.

Scorn is an experience. Not quite a walking simulator, a little bit horror-Myst, with some seriously disappointing gunplay. That said, there are very few games that make me stop and stare. It’s a short game but given the fact that the aesthetic is so concentrated, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Arguably it already stretches what it had to breaking point, and to drag it out would not have helped. Ultimately, I want more of this setting. I want to know more about the world and what is going on. I have many questions about numerous things. Whether you want to spend £30 on that experience is for you to decide, but understand that the gameplay was clearly not the primary concern.

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