A Journey Through Hell if Designed by H.R. Giger
Scorn would be much easier to talk about in a messier way, like around a smoldering campfire. One of those fires that twists and crackles, almost violently, which feels like the only appropriate way to describe it. Instead, I’m going to try to elegantly discuss and explain why this may be one of the most interesting and disgusting games that I’ve ever questioned my time with.
It’s easy to see the influence of H.R. Giger as quickly as the game’s Main Menu, even if you’ve never knowingly engaged with the artist’s work. You just know it when you see it but perhaps the shortest way to describe Giger’s work would be to say it’s often an uncomfortable combination of organic matter and mechanical parts.
This isn’t to say the game doesn’t possess variety or a wide array of designs. On the contrary actually, Scorn is a haunted house turned inside out with fully functional lungs that insist on continuing, despite nature begging otherwise. And it’s this body horror wonderland that makes up the entirety of Scorn.
Well, that and the game’s pulsating puzzles, which will no doubt cause some agitation, though thankfully not in the literal sense, which is the fate most of the game’s sweating and nervous surfaces feel trapped in. It’s like some kind of unholy amalgamation between early 90’s DOS computer games and the gross, long level that most people didn’t like in Halo 3, except it’s actually really good.
Gigabytes of Giger Bites
The game starts with a Main Menu that kind of serves as Scorn’s Trigger Warning. While there are certainly nastier things past the start screen, the cryptic and chilling face staring back at you says all you need to know when it lunges toward the screen, beginning the game’s loop-de-loop through a wet and wriggling hell.
Scorn doesn’t provide a lot in the way of Tutorials or Objectives. You start off presumably dead on the ground and just kind of get up and start moving.
It becomes almost immediately clear that Scorn is taking an approach that sits firmly between games like Portal and the 0451 games. Even when weapons are introduced, it’s firmly communicated by physical, interactive puzzles that the primary purpose of weapons is interaction with environmental puzzles.
There are moments where you’ll have to kill something but the blow just isn’t delivered with the weight of a standard shooter. And that’s because Scorn is just a neat little MS-DOS game, except instead of exploring the Titanic or searching across virtual worlds in magical books, we’re exploring an unsettling realm that makes Doom (2016) look pretty laid back by comparison.
And yet, most of Scorn‘s puzzles draw up more squishy feelings than any of the Doomslayer’s ripping or tearing.
Slippery When Wet
Witnessing a gooey mass of flesh and bone resembling some sort of forbidden, nightmare baby tumbling down an ancient drain was more disgusting and unsettling than anything I’ve ever seen in a video game. And it wasn’t a boss or enemy that had to be dealt with through force and weapons. No, it was just one of the puzzle solutions of Scorn. Crushing and crunching this bag of flesh down what may as well be a garbage disposal, except it’s half-machine and half … stalagmite?
How well everything works for players is going to depend on a few things, but if everything clicks into place, you’ll fall down the garbage chute, nightmare hole with me and anyone else that seems to understand what Scorn is stirring up. It isn’t just disgusting. It’s beyond disgusting. And while it fits the atmosphere and tone to a tentacle, it doesn’t make what you’re witnessing onscreen any less stomach churning, if that’s the effect it has on you.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the body horror and gross-out factor of Scorn is the biggest barrier to entry but there’s actually something far bigger. Scorn’s puzzles are often obtuse and can be painful to piece together sometimes. One could make an argument for finding pleasure in maintaining persistence but the opposite can also be said.
If I wasn’t reviewing Scorn then I don’t think I would have finished it. It’s worth experiencing but a big question that you’ll need to ask yourself is: How much friction is too much? Because for every “git gud” or “just use a guide” statement, there’s ultimately always going to just be the possibility of a game also just asking too much of a player.
Many of Scorn’s puzzles will require a lot of trial and error. Though there were moments that felt like some of the more satisfying puzzles in Resident Evil, most of the time I think most of my joy while playing Scorn came from how everything congealed as a whole.
Put differently: I played Scorn twice to completion for this review and had a good time but I had an incredible time on my third run through the game, which was through a no-commentary playthrough of the game.
This will differ for individual players but I firmly believe that the dialogue Scorn engages in with any who dare to bear witness is an interesting conversation. I just also think a lot of people aren’t going to enjoy the ride if they also have to double as the ride operator, which is obviously the expectation being levied.
A Nightmare Focused Odyssey
It’s impossible for me to discuss Scorn’s story without spoiling a little bit of details but I will be as vague as possible, but spoilers are possible for a few ‘graphs starting now. It’s just virtually impossible for me to explain what Scorn is doing without discussing the parts as a whole.
Scorn’s story and events are absolutely up to interpretation, but there are some pretty clear things happening as well. The game’s sections all feature themes and depictions of life emerging, life growing, and life ending. It would be easy to label it as being about childbirth but I believe that to be primitive and missing out on most of the game’s message.
I believe Scorn is ultimately about life but also about the compromises we make with ourselves to stay alive but, to a much higher degree, I believe that Scorn is about how disgusting and pointless life can be if it’s simply about creating more life.
It feels like Scorn is attempting to have a conversation and engage in a dialogue with players about how empires ultimately all require a sliding scale of suppression so that everything can be fine tuned for creating more and more life. Creation for the sake of creation. Birth for the sake of birth. Life for the sake of life. And, while trying to remain as absolutely vague as possible, in the end, anything different or outside the binary must be struck down.
You can always start again because all that really matters in this equation is the sustained loop of life and efficiency at every twist and turn, especially if it comes with the cost of compromised humanity. This is shown in the different sections as things escalate from predominantly being the gross mixture of flesh and metal, in the earlier areas, to the more “pristine” and futuristic environments, which are very prominent in the later areas.
Again, it cannot be stressed enough: Scorn is a weird game and part of what makes it interesting art is that it is open to interpretation. But it just feels very clear to me that Scorn is trying to, at a minimum, ask the following questions: Is any of the suffering of life worth it if it’s just to keep going? And, should lives be suppressed for the sake of upholding empires?
The Joy of Agony
Scorn is one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played, and on its themes and the dialogue, I feel like it is trying to have with players. Not just in its main story but also in the game’s design and individual moments. But I personally think the friction to get there is high, and won’t be worth it for some players. But I do think everyone should experience Scorn, in some way, shape, or form, and through whichever method will provide the right amount of friction.
Be it through a streamer you enjoy that can reduce the tension at the right times while also getting you through the game’s puzzles, watching a no-commentary playthrough, or making the trek through the weird and wiggling hells of Scorn on your own, or just reading about the game in wikis and purchasing an art book for reference: you need to experience Scorn.
There’s something here not just for game design and interesting ideas, but also a mesmerizing tale with things to say on life, death, and all the gooey parts in between, you just need to approach it on the right terms so you can take the trip.
Ultimately, Scorn is worth the trip but there’s also a very real risk of the game’s best parts being scrubbed off by the friction of both the difficulty and obtuse design.
Disclaimer: Tinsley PR provided the game used in this review.
This review is the critique and thoughts of one writer. If you want to see how other critics felt then check it out on OpenCritic.
8Bit/Digi is an independent media outlet that provides an insight into the gamer community of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Scorn (Xbox One)
- Aesthetics are detailed and disgusting working in harmony with the story as a whole.
- The gooey and crunchy sound design adds to its atmosphere.
- Story and themes should be for you to discover and uncover but what’s here is impressive.
- Puzzles can be rewarding for patient players that are willing to see them through.
- Could be obtuse and difficult regardless of your skill level.
- At times it can be shocking just to be shocking