The Serbian development team behind first-person biopunk odyssey Scorn say that they designed the game around the concept of “being thrown into the world”. That is certainly the impression I received when entering a dark, questionably misty booth to preview the game at this year’s Gamescom. Hidden within the modular, septic halls of the Koelnmesse was an experience so oppositional and claustrophobic that, even after a few short minutes, it quickly made me feel like I was trapped inside a nightmare.
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But in spite of its title, Scorn is a game that deserves a lot of respect, actually. Taking inspiration from the works of H.R. Giger (Alien) and Zdzisław Beksiński (your worst nightmares), Ebb Software has managed to craft a unique setting that is teeming with disgusting flair. Once my ageing techno-corpse of an avatar had managed to yank itself out of its slumber and into the world, I set about exploring this indescribable environment.
Playing Scorn feels like being shrunk down and made to explore the innards of a bloated corpse, one that had been corrupted with metal strata and hardened bones to maintain and profit from its rigor mortis. To call it ‘Fucking Gross’ would be an absolute understatement. This is the best worst-looking game I’ve played, and every time a scripted event arrived, I learned to pre-emptively grimace.
Undulating hives of veins ripple across walls, and morbid machinery controlled by god-knows-what seems to populate rooms everywhere you turn. Careful reminders of long-lost humanity creep in through the appearance of chairs meant for a mortal body and mask-like structures that vaguely resemble facial features. The fact they feel so out of place and novel is a great success on Scorn’s part. It’s full of stuff that is destined to lurk in your head forever, especially if you’re particularly squeamish with regard to the more tenuous, sinewy parts of the human body and their inherent vulnerabilities.
Eyes, wrists, arms and necks… Scorn isn’t afraid to make you think about how weak our flesh suits really are, but it’s also concerned with taking advantage of our unexplored, inhumane versatility. After reaching into sloppy orifices, the protagonist’s arms become augmented bracers, with pulsating blisters that quiver like the eyes of a FromSoftware Basilisk. Suddenly I’ve got a scabby bone rod that looks a bit like Assassin’s Creed’s Hidden Blade, and I’m plunging my fingers into gammy holes to crank open wheels of muscle.
As for what you’re meant to do with all of these terrible tools, Scorn keeps its warped lips tightly shut. The game is non-linear by design – you’re meant to feel lost and trapped here, so don’t expect any sort of handholding. This suits the ambition of the experience, which trades in terror and gristly, confusing puzzles. It also means that it’s a challenging game to demo, sadly. When there’s a very strict time limit between you and the next journalist in the schedule, trying to make the most of a non-linear game like Scorn is hard. I wanted to appreciate it rather than rush through it, but even though I did my best to gawp and ponder its horrid brilliance, the looming pressure of seeing it all in the time allotted definitely impacted my experience in an unfortunate way.
The main crux of my demo involved methodically interacting with outlets and inputs to open doors, but it took a sharp turn for the obscene when I entered a dome-like area with a central pillar and a circular, suspiciously empty cart track. Soon after, I discovered another area with a bunch of crunchy-looking carapaces on the wall. After organising them in some sort of strange game of sour flesh Puyo Puyo, you use a piston to crack and pull it to the floor, revealing that there was a writhing humanoid inside.
Now wailing, you have to use what can only be described as a cartilage trebuchet to deposit the long-limbed little guy into the previously vacant mine cart before peering into a void pool to pivot the train tracks and then taking them to their next torture station. Along the way, you blast it with hot gas — for no apparent reason, because existence is pain, I guess? — and then use a saw and a stone machine shaped like a fingernail to kill it and scrape it out of its shell, like a helpless snail.
The morality of these actions goes unquestioned, and there’s no attempt at empathy or relationship building. It’s just a sadist’s Build-A-Bear workshop where H.R. Giger’s done the set dressing. The unfortunate beast will just scream at you until you kill it, and you move on to the next puzzle by stealing a limb from its corpse. I felt sick to my stomach about it — I still do — and the fact it didn’t linger on why made it even more unsettling.
The final area was less impressive but introduced me to a spot of combat, as I found a new awkward-to-use steam-powered ‘gun’ that shoots out a blunt object from the barrel. I used it to pop these weird, gas-spraying flies. At this point, I was given a UI element for the first time and found out I had a health meter and could actually die, which was surprising. Let’s just say I’m hoping that combat is the least important part of Scorn, as the rest of the game was so much more compelling and far less janky.
As I’m sure you’ll find out when it launches, Scorn is not the kind of game you should rush. It’s frankly gorgeous and easily lives up to the visuals of the trailers. It’s also brimming with detail and rewards total immersion, which is hard to get during a scheduled appointment. Even so, I haven’t stopped thinking about how unbelievably weird and curious it is. This is one to clear your schedule for ahead of its October release date, as long as your stomach can bear it.