Scorn is one of those games that makes my career as a writer rather difficult. I’m expected to be quick with a quip and verbally insightful – and often have something to say about everything and anything – but Scorn continually left me lost for words. That is, except for the continuous swearing I did whenever I found myself stumped by a puzzle or particularly aggressive enemy. Which was often.
This first-person horror game, which is heavily inspired by the artwork of H. R. Giger (of Alien fame) and Zdzisław Beksiński, does a wonderful job of immersing and disorienting you in its desolate, biomechanical world. You – some sort of humanoid – wake up in this unfamiliar place, with no idea as to who or where you are, or what your purpose is. Immediately, however, it becomes clear that you probably want to get some answers and escape this place, and that’s what you set off to try and do.
The alien world you then proceed to explore is so intricately detailed that you’ll find yourself spending time just taking it all in; this facility is a mess of flesh, bones, and rotting mass that you must get to know. And I mean that literally. The environment is not just pretty to look at. It boasts bizarre alien technology in the form of puzzles, all of which connect to each other in one way or another.
You’ll regularly be shoving your arms and fingers into meaty crevices made of God-knows-what, and when you’re not cringing at the visceral sounds this all makes, you’ll be solving puzzles that would, frankly, feel obtuse in any other game. Later into the game, you'll be expected to try your hand at combat between puzzles. It's difficult to master, but it occurs little and often; Scorn is not a shooter, but more of an all-round experience of what this world has to offer.
Scorn’s attention to detail in terms of its art and level design is some of the best I’ve seen, but to many, I can see this also being its downfall. There’s simply no denying that in all its disturbing glory, walking around the world of Scorn feels almost like stepping inside a H. R. Giger painting. However, I can imagine some players will take all this in, struggle with Scorn’s myriad mazes, find themselves stumped over a particularly frustrating puzzle, and then disregard it for its lack of story or direction.
There’s nothing wrong with this; however, I would argue that what Scorn lacks — constant, fluid storytelling — is intentional, and simply another one of this game's intricacies. If Scorn held my hand, I wouldn’t experience the fear of the unknown that is so excellently built up using environment and sound alone, nor would I be able to place my own interpretation on it; that Scorn is quite literally the world of a long-lost civilisation that has been scorned, and the humanoid we find ourselves controlling is one of the many pawns that must deal with the eternal suffering caused by their counterparts. Sound familiar?
When you wake up in this obscure alien facility with absolutely zero idea of the who, what, when, why, and where of your situation, your innate urge as a human (or humanoid, in this instance), is obviously to approach that distant, grandiose building and somehow escape this world. With nobody else quite like you around, you’re on this gruelling adventure all alone. Scorn then refuses to tell you anything about itself. While some may suggest this makes the game more difficult to understand and solve, this is perhaps what made the game just so powerful that I couldn’t quite put my thoughts into words (initially, anyway).
You’re made to feel like you could be victim to this world at any given moment. During the prologue, you quite literally leave a fellow humanoid – one of the few signs of remotely intelligent life that isn’t trying to kill you – for dead. You continually see more corpses of these humanoids everywhere you go, and every minute playing Scorn you’re reminded that any one of those corpses could be you; and what if they were all different versions of you, and the humanoids before you? This, in combination with a lack of guidance, then has you feeling helpless. By the time you’re starting Act 3, Scorn will have sunk its claws into you; you become a cog in this gigantic, alien machine, not just desperate to escape, but desperate to figure Scorn out.
Scorn isn’t easy, but dealing with the scenario you’re placed into wouldn’t at all be easy either. A lack of guidance bar some very basic UI instructions for your controls, the constant reminder that you’re likely no different from the bodies littered around you, and an environment that begs that you analyse it, all form the perfect synergy to disorient you. As you reach the summit of Scorn and begin to understand how each piece of haunting machinery works in connection with each other, you finally stumble upon answers.
Scorn doesn’t give you these answers, though. You come to these answers yourself by carefully making your way through this ghastly, hostile world. You begin to understand what this long-lost civilisation might’ve once looked like, and what your part in it all was. What’s better, is that this all feels incredibly satisfying to unfold; Scorn gives you this evocative environment, chilling sound design, intricate puzzles, and nothing else. It leaves you to your own devices. As you sprint down each claustrophobic tunnel or flee that acid-spitting alien, slotting tools into machines and spinning nodes to no end, this is environmental storytelling at its finest.
In truth, Scorn doesn’t tell a particularly fascinating story, but it hardly matters; the way in which it’s told is done to perfection, and provides an incredibly refreshing horror experience that truly gets under your skin.