Scorn Review – Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Scorn Review–Spoiler Free

What terrifies you? The pause right before the doctor gives you the test results? Maybe it’s the thought of a hand reaching from under the bed to close on a casually dangling foot. Or maybe it’s the idea of having to thrust your hand into a moist, mouthlike hole filled with who knows what…teeth, tendons or bones, perhaps. If any of this is making your pulse race a little, best to avoid Scorn, the new first person “shooter” from Ebb Software. But if you love dark, creepy, and uncomfortable experiences, Scorn might be the game you’ve been searching for.

What’s that Noise?

There are games with opaque narratives and minimal UIs, and then there’s Scorn. It takes the credo of directionless gameplay to a whole new level. Scorn doesn’t care if you get lost. It isn’t concerned that you missed a critical weapon or ammo pick up. There’s no kindly narrator or witty field recordings to fill you in on the story. Scorn’s gameplay mechanics aren’t entirely free from prompts, but beyond the absolute basics of alerting the player to an interactive object, everything else is subject to discovery, trial and error.

Scorn is a first person game, and there is some shooting, but it isn’t a “first person shooter.” Nor is it, strictly speaking, one of those pixel-hunting adventure games. There are, however, puzzles. Lots of them, and they gate your progress through the game and world. Solving them is also the key to survival, because shooting sure isn’t in most cases.

Commitment to a Vision

Whether you call it biomechanical or biopunk or Giger-esque, Scorn is first and foremost an aesthetic experiment, a long and ardor-filled love song to artists H.R. Giger and Zdzislaw Beksinski. If neither of those names are familiar, rest assured you know their work. If you’ve seen the original Alien film, you’ve seen Giger’s designs. His art fuses recognizable elements of biology — bones, sinew, coils of intestines — and mechanical structures like locks and gears and doors.

Lots of games have copped bits and pieces from Giger’s palette, but Scorn perfectly translates the artist’s style from start to finish. Now, this does mean that, with some exceptions, you’re going to spend eight or so hours washed in a world of muted grays, blues and browns. You’ll also spend a lot of time inching through claustrophobic spaces that glisten with some secreted substance or another. Now and then, Scorn’s world opens up into surreal cathedrals of bone, tall and imposing rooms with side paths, and nooks and crannies to explore. Mostly, playing Scorn makes you feel like you’re crawling through a long alien gastro-intestinal track.

You are literally birthed into the world at the start of the game. You tentatively begin to move gears and switches, always by merging your hand with living tissue and with more than a hint of pain. Doors open. There are signs of abandonment everywhere. Eventually you acquire the foundation for a weapon. At first it’s a piston, but later attachments are found that turn it into a shotgun or a rocket launcher. There’s never enough ammo, so you learn the best way to deal with enemies is to avoid them. Yes, there are others in the world. Humanoids, otherworldly monsters and every inch of them nightmarish and dark. Dispatching them nearly always results in a spray of alien glop.

Puzzle It Out

I’ve been cagey about the game’s story, action and mechanics, because Scorn is a game of surprises and discoveries. A large number of those involve finding the solutions to puzzles. This is one of two areas where Scorn fails to make a convincing case for itself. The puzzles range from relatively straightforward to obtuse and arbitrary. Many of the puzzles have multiple stages and mechanics. You know, turn a switch, which powers up a device in one room, that then generates another puzzle which lets you move objects that are key to the next stage. And so it goes. On and on. Sometimes, solving a puzzle doesn’t just result in progress, but a horrific and disturbing scene, like a humanoid I’d just figured how to transport being dismembered by a buzzsaw, so “it” could be used to power another device.

But for many gamers, devious puzzles are why they play, and more power to them. For me, a lot of the puzzles in Scorn feel like videogame constructs, disconnected from the narrative and incongruous with living even an alien life. Imagine living in a world where you had to flip three switches in two rooms every time you wanted to open your front door. Scorn isn’t alone in this. Arbitrary environmental puzzles are a tradition as far back as Myst. Come to think of it, Myst went out of its way to explain the why of its puzzles, and dropped a lot of clues to help solve them.

Disturbing but Drab

It’s hard not to appreciate Scorn’s commitment to its Giger-like art direction. It’s unsettling, dark, and creates an atmosphere heavy with loss and pain. Its levels are often labyrinthine and difficult to negotiate. It’s easy to get lost, miss important items or controls, and spend a lot of time aimlessly wandering. And while the developers might not care if I waste my time being lost and clueless, I do. It’s easy to shift from admiring the commitment to design to being resentful of it. Finally, Scorn’s art direction is remarkable, but its graphics aren’t quite as impressive. The textures lack clarity and sharpness. Movement and animations aren’t always smooth.

Scorn’s spare electronic music is blended into its overall excellent sound design, which helps create the game’s unrelenting tension. The range of biomechanical sounds, screams, shrieks, whimpers, and groans would terrify even the steeliest haunted house-goer. It’s heavy on wet, gloppy and sticky samples, grinding machinery and echoes in cavernous spaces.

It’s hard not to admire developer Ebb’s commitment to a bleak and violent biomechanical world. No game has ever nailed the style of Giger quite so precisely and consistently. Scorn is genuinely disturbing in the way of an unsettling nightmare, but even unrelenting tension eventually loses impact. Its puzzles and exploration sometimes feel arbitrary and needlessly obtuse. Ebb might not care if I waste time getting lost or missing important clues, but Scorn’s rewards aren’t always worth the effort. Scorn is a darkly beautiful vision but just not much fun to play.

***PC code provided by the developer***

The Good

  • Incredible art design
  • Genuinely disturbing
  • Some engaging puzzles

The Bad

  • Directionless exploration
  • Lack of variety
  • Some puzzles are frustrating and obtuse