Need to know
what is that Atmospheric first-person horror shooter thing inspired by the art of HR Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński.
Wait to pay $40/£32
Release date October 14, 2022
Developer Ebb Software
Publisher Kepler Interactive
Revised on Core i5 12600K, RTX 3070, 32 GB RAM
Link Official website (opens in a new tab)
In 2021, a whimsical pilgrim called “bogleech” expressing himself in the crumbling remains of Tumblr. (opens in a new tab) insightfully compared cosmic horror to the notion of an ant exploring a circuit board. From the ant’s perspective, this is some kind of terrifying alien city, and if an ant could capture, even for a moment, a sliver of the terrifying purpose and context of a human computer, how could it ever go back to being an ant?
I kept thinking about that post while playing Scorn, especially during my favorite moment late in the game (some spoilers ahead, I’ll try not to be too specific), when you go from the industrial underling of a forgotten civilization to its alien. and a terrible, yet also still somehow mournful, royal capital.
The whole game so far you have seen the terrible brown machinery of this ancient people grinding to make. something tearing apart familiar human-like creatures, sometimes while they are still alive, for some unknown purpose. Now you see a dilapidated cathedral adorned with colossal statues of these same creatures, some striking heroic poses, others cradling red, glowing wombs, and many of them copulating. How did this civilization digest the contradiction in how it represented itself versus how it treated its people?
This gray cathedral bathed in lilac light was the part of the game that reminded me the most of Zdzisław Beksiński’s work. (opens in a new tab)a Polish artist who “wanted to paint as if [he] photographed dreams” and is cited alongside xenomorph creator HR Giger as one of Scorn’s main inspirations. The striking visual feast of the alien capital, accompanied by mournful audio, almost moved me to tears. It was so strange and wonderful, and seemed suggest me at some greater mystery at the heart of Scorn.
An hour into the next level, Scorn popped up and I had to start the chapter over. You can’t manually save, and the game’s more generous regular checkpoints are only accessible by player death—from the main menu, you can only load at the start of a chapter, or occasional semi-colon markers. I sped through the parts of the chapter I had already beaten, yada yada ancient people, yada yada unknowable goal, beat the little game I had left to play. after that, and rolled credits. The technical hiccup and frustrating cornering at this crucial moment really, seriously killed my buzz.
I think Scorn is a really great work of science fiction, but it annoys me sometimes.
Scorn’s core gameplay loop reminds me most of Portal or the shrines in Breath of the Wild. You enter a new area and must slowly make your way through, soaking up the eerie atmosphere and wearing out the function of the various grotesque biological devices left behind by this lost civilization. The protagonist of Scorn looks like a member of that civilization, perhaps the last one left after everyone else went to the body-horror Rapture.
You follow lines of inquiry, pushing into dead ends, picking up keys or puzzle pieces, trying to figure out how everything fits together until it finally clicks. For example, Scorn’s first major setup sees you play a kind of crane-stacking game to extract a surprising piece of cargo, then rearrange a small railway, allowing you to deliver the cargo by handcart to its final destination. I found the crane bit to be a taxing, yet enjoyable puzzle, and it was fascinating (and also a bit terrifying) to then see the machinery in motion after passing it in an inert state.
There were points where my prompting and puzzling presented dire consequences for the few non-hostile creatures you encounter in the world of Scorn, and these scenes made me feel worse than any bad dialogue choice I’ve accidentally made in an RPG. Seriously, think “negating Kim’s Aces High (opens in a new tab) in Disco Elysium” for a frame of reference of how bad it made me feel. If it’s not clear, I think it’s proof that Scorn can deliver emotional punches like that with no dialogue at all.
The battle of Scorn is reminiscent of the classic survival horror. You move slowly, enemies hit hard, and more than two facing you at once is overwhelming. To fight your enemies, which mostly consist of a mindless, mushroom-like species of animal that has infested the ruins, you use an arsenal of living weapons.
The bread and butter is a phallic melee launcher that has to cool down every two shots, though later you get a pistol, shotgun, and eventually a slingshot. I’m enjoying the Scorn fight, if enjoying is the right word. It’s tight as Resident Evil, and always feels like I’m barely making it by the skin of my teeth as I go to avoid attacks, weaving close to these strange flesh monsters to bop them with my penis gun.
Unfortunately, the penalty fight definitely exacerbated those checkpoints I mentioned. Before that glitch in the last level disturbed my deep, cosmic horror vibe, I also lost about an hour and a half of playtime halfway through. After a long Contempt sesh ending with reality bastard of a puzzle, I reached a new area and died instantly to the introduction of Scorn’s most serious normal enemies—think the Lickers or Hunters in Resident Evil. It recharged about a minute before I fought the guys, so I gave up to go do something else, figuring I could charge right there when I sat down to play later.
I couldn’t load right there when I later sat down to play. I had to redo the whole act from square one, bastard puzzle and all. Proportionately then, I lost roughly half of Scorn’s advertised playtime of five hours to its crossing. Different play habits or simple luck might help someone avoid this pain point entirely, but I feel a reasonable developer-side solution would be to have a single scrolling control point save slot accessible from the menu.
Still, checkpoints, five-hour runtime, and all, I think Scorn is worth $40. It’s eye-catching, unique, and represents something I desperately want to see more of from triple-A and triple-A-adjacent developers: good ideas allowed to run their course instead of being stretched thin to meet ballooning playtime demands. Contempt could certainly work as a low-fi, Haunted PS1-style project, but its commitment to the grotesque really benefits from high-end, modern rendering. And anyway, the cost of Scorn can be avoided by accessing it
Xbox PC Game Pass.
Scorn’s condensed focus makes for an interesting counterpoint to another first-person horror experience with striking visual design released in 2022: Ghostwire Tokyo. (opens in a new tab). Ghostwire had about five hours of fresh ideas stretched across 10-20 hours of open-world collecting and base-cleaning, and after an intense rush of initial excitement, I slowed to the end of its main quest and promptly uninstalled. I would say that I value the lower amount of time I spent with Scorn more than the bit I gave to Ghostwire Tokyo.
Contempt, in a word, rocks. It makes meaningful use of its advanced art and imaging resources. Instead of 200 gigabytes of battle royale maps or the most realistic simulation of Ronald Reagan’s jaws the world has ever seen, Scorn presents something more deliberately, artistically unsettling: a truly alien world that by turns surprised, sickened and genuinely moved me. I hope its checkpoint pain can be alleviated with a patch, and it’s the kind of game I’d just like to see more of.