[REVIEW] Scorn – A twisted and puzzling beauty

Art is in the eye of the beholder. Even if one might not fully grasp the artist’s philosophy, it is often considered a potent medium that makes you ponder. And once you do get to the underlying meaning, the appreciation grows. So, maybe that’s what’s still missing in my experience with Scorn. Because it’s art, alright. And beautiful art to boot. But what does it mean and why is its artist – Ebb Software – so obscure with it? I wish I knew.

Scorn has left me with many questions while also answering one that has lingered since it was announced. Is a Serbian indie developer capable of producing an H.R. Giger-influenced game that’s genuinely as good as people make it out to be? I mean, I’ve seen my fair share of ‘groundbreaking’ indie titles that couldn’t live up to their hype. Remember the hellish Agony? I sure do, even though I wish I didn’t. And there are many more like it. But with Scorn, things are different. Scorn actually delivers the visual quality that nobody believed was possible.

Because if there’s one thing that all of us can agree on, it’s Ebb’s accomplishment of submerging us into a fleshy, biomechanical, sometimes even erotical and phallic alien world that has H.R. Giger written all over it. This unequivocally means that even though it’s majestic in every possible way, it’s also as grim as a game can be. There’s no room for a vast color palette. It’s fifty shades of grey, only to be broken by the blood-red and pink-ish hues of entrails and finger-friendly orifices. And that’s fine by me. It has worked before. I remember playing Clive Barker’s Jericho some twenty years ago, also thinking to myself “this depressing scenery is oddly satisfying in its own weird, grotesque way”. Having ominous background music and highly audible flesh noises amplify the weirdness… that’s just a bonus.

Weird is also the only correct term to describe Scorn’s entire purpose, from the looks of it. Who you are or what your goal is, it’s all a little vague. The only thing that’s clear is the heavy emphasis on gore, even though it (mostly) doesn’t get to a Hellraiser level. Everything within Scorn’s gameplay revolves around a nameless, mouthless entity, trying to piece together – or rather pull apart – the reason for its survival. Who you are, where you’re heading, and most importantly why are questions with the answers hidden behind a fleshy curtain. And even after struggling to get through the 7-hour campaign, I’m still not sure if I found the answers I was looking for.

And that’s a bit of the problem with Scorn. Even with Ebb Software trying to hide a deeper meaning, Scorn can feel a little obtuse. And that sentiment gets fed by the game’s general lack of direction. Maybe it’s all premeditated – and if that’s the case, kudos to Ebb – but for the most part I had no idea what to do or where to start because getting a hint or even a direction is out of the question. No matter what the circumstance, you’re on your own. And that can really drag you down when you’re stuck on a puzzle, even if most of them aren’t of a horribly taxing level.

Unfortunately, Scorn’s lack of direction isn’t its biggest pitfall. Its combat is. Even with just a portion of the game primed on gunplay, handling weaponry is the most atrocious thing in Scorn. Bear in mind, we’re talking about a game that literally has you turning embryos into a smoothie. As beautifully sculpted as your handgun (and the reload animations) may be, its horrible handling makes you want to forget about it most of the time. In fact, I mostly resorted to a ‘lure them away and run like hell’ tactic. Unfortunately, that also doesn’t come with a success guarantee. Poor environmental collision detection will make sure of that.

Frankly, it’s almost a shame that Scorn has turned out the way it has. On the one hand, it’s a masterpiece. A disturbing, unsettling, and horrifying work of art. But on the other hand, it’s also incomprehensible in so many ways that it will likely fly over the heads of many. This brings us back to where we started: art is in the eye of the beholder. You might have to look at it over and over to really appreciate it to the fullest. But that would also imply that you’d have to sit through the dreadful combat sequences again. Scorn will eventually turn out to be a demon to some and an angel to others.

“Pain and pleasure, indivisible”

Frank Cotton – Hellraiser (1987)

A demon to some, an angel to others
The Weirdly Satisfying
The visual fidelity of this H.R. Giger-inspired world is beyond stunning
The feeling of roaming a treacherous, fleshy labyrinth gets amplified by impeccable sound design
The entire story behind Scorn is actually quite intriguing...
So many orifices to put your fingers in
The Horribly Grotesque
The combat-heavy sequences are an absolute nightmare
There's no sense of direction or purpose
...but only if you get to understand it