There is no birth without sex, no life without birth, no birth without life, and no life without death. This cyclical motif is sewn throughout Scorn, running through it like a rotting umbilical cord. It’s a world where animal and automation are fused together in an uneasy alliance, blended so seamlessly you’re never entirely sure where organic matter ends and machine begins.
For such a taciturn game – Scorn has no text prompts, no dialogue, and no map; you move through its world by organic exploration, hope, luck, and nothing more – this circle-of-life stuff is surprisingly in your face. Before you’re out of the opening hour, you will have pried a deformed form from a rotting egg and ripped an organic weapon from its umbilical holster moments before you’re soaked in a thick, milky substance so overwhelming, it knocks you out. At the end, there are statues in, uh, compromising positions. Swollen abdomens and yes, more umbilical cords. Subtle this is not.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Scorn is ripe with phallic imagery and actions. Our protagonist – a half-dead husk of a humanoid roaming around a (mostly) deserted alien world – endlessly thrusts their weapon into mysterious holes and sinks their fingers into fleshy control panels. There are holes and tubes and thrusting pistons – enough to make Freud blush – all openly inspired by the nightmare dreamscapes of the grimly delightful H.R. Giger and Zdzislaw Beksiński. It is stunningly disgusting and disgustingly stunning in all the right ways and for all of Scorn’s faults – and I have a few, I’m afraid – its meticulously detailed aesthetic is not one of them.
And it’s dark, too; figuratively and thematically. Scorn’s sickly pallor is often interrupted by a shock of scarlet, haphazard piles of miscellaneous meat – meat that used to think and feel – discarded carelessly in corners. There are claustrophobic corridors where the walls look like they’re constructed from bone and skin, and you can’t shake the feeling that the track on the ground below your bare feet looks more like a spine than a transport system.
That’s not to say Scorn is a horror, though; it’s not, at least, not in the way some think of horror these days. There are no cheap spooks or jump scares, and instead, it relies on an ominous soundtrack and its (admittedly brilliant) environmental cues to ratchet up the tension. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism – I’m never happier than playing a jump scare-free horror – but combat aside (more on that in a bit) I never felt uneasy. Grossed out? Sure – there was plenty of that. Scared? Nope. And I can’t help but admit just a sliver of disappointment at that.
If you’ve seen or played the opening act then you’ve likely already encountered the first puzzle, and it sets a very intentional tone for the rest of your adventure. Yes, these puzzles are deliberately opaque. No, you will not get a hint. Yes, you will be frustrated but yes, you will solve it in the end. Honestly. I solved them in my own time and I am firmly of the belief that if I – the Most Average of All the Average Gamers – can, so can you.
Some will be environmental. Some require tools, things that have been fashioned from muscle and sinew and slot into fleshy machines that hang expectantly on the wall. Sometimes you’ll know what you have to do, if not quite how to do it, and those are some of my favourites. You’ll puzzle in tight hallways and cavernous cathedrals and marvel at the bioengineering this mysterious civilisation has constructed all around you. Some you’ll work through methodically, step by step. Other times, success may be an accident, a side-effect of brute force or idle experimentation. You’re always making progress, even when it feels like you’re not.
Alas, if only obscure puzzling was the most frustrating thing I encountered in Scorn.
There’s no manual save here and going to the “load game” option will only ever spawn you at the beginning of an act, even if you were, say, halfway through when you stopped. Hitting “continue” will give you a more generous checkpoint, sure, but as you’re not given any clue as to when and where those checkpoints are, you’ll be taking a bit of a gamble every time you take a break. Yes, I know; that’s old-school, and some people love old-school stuff – I’m not one of them, though.
To go along with the cerebral puzzling, lack of direction, and measly checkpoint system, you also have to take on enemies. As my time here should attest, I play a lot of shooters. I like shooters. But I cannot get to grips with the combat in Scorn.
I’m raising this hesitantly and with the full disclaimer that I have no idea if the problems I encountered were because I was using a controller (which admittedly developer Ebb says it only “partially” supports on PC) or if I’m just, well, shit, but when I switched away from the grenade launcher, I often couldn’t get it back without reloading a checkpoint, and even though the reticle said I was getting the headshot, I seemingly wasn’t. It was really weird and, for obvious reasons, incredibly frustrating. Coupled with enemies who could seemingly acid-snipe me with unerring precision from the other side of a room, it resulted in me dreading combat segments and I stopped enjoying this cryptic, otherworldly adventure and got fed up instead.
Even running away isn’t always a viable option; some enemies will retreat if you back up and give them enough space, sure, but it’s agonisingly easy to get stunlocked, and twice – twice! – I had to restart Act 3 because, having checkpointed after completing a puzzle, an enemy would kill me during the you’ve-completed-this-puzzle animation. Every time I respawned, I was stuck in the same animation and died. Don’t get me wrong; the better you know an environment the quicker you can move through it – I replayed Act 3 so often I reckon I could speedrun it now – but if, like me, sometimes puzzle solutions were happy accidents rather than deliberate intent, additional backtracking can make for a miserable reprise.
I want to love Scorn. On paper, I should love Scorn. It’s a slow, thoughtful, atmospheric sci-fi horror – my favourite! – with that special kind of puzzling that makes you feel simultaneously both the smartest and stupidest person who ever lived. It sounds great. It looks even better. But it embodies the very definition of style over substance. It doesn’t matter how gloriously grim its set pieces are if the gameplay elements are uneven and, at times, unfair.
I suspect Scorn will be one of the more polarising games of the year, with some hailing it a masterpiece, and others insisting it’s too short, badly paced, too obscure, not scary enough, and with no satisfying narrative conclusion. I fall somewhere in the middle. I love Scorn for its atmosphere, its light-touch storytelling, its world-building, and confident hands-off puzzling. It’s just a shame those wonderful attributes are a tad undermined by that measly save system and tedious combat.