Scorn Looks Like Giger, But Might Play Like The Witness
Scorn feels as though it teeters on the gunk-covered ledge between “intriguingly disturbing” and “willfully grotesque.” In the hour or so I play of the the game – its completely tutorial-less opening section – I’m introduced to a truly unpleasant biotechnological setting, shown how its many opaque puzzles will link together to form neat chains of wordless storytelling, and gently repulsed by it occasionally pushing beyond its Giger-indebted fleshscape and into less impressive straight body horror.
The core of Scorn is in its puzzles. It may play from the perspective of an FPS, and occasionally offers you what look like weapons, but this is a cerebral game at its core. Opening with your mysterious main character literally ripping themselves out of its seemingly living landscape, Scorn gives no on screen indication of what to do, or how anything works, leaving you to trudge the gently undulating corridors of its world, occasionally sticking your hands into horrible contraptions just to see what happens.
To Scorn’s credit, this self-directed approach works well. Quickly, you’re given (well, violently implanted with) equipment that allows you to manipulate biotech machinery, leaving you to try and work out what the hell any of it is for. The player’s then drawn to a single puzzle - unlock this big door - that you slowly realize is, in fact, made up of multiple smaller puzzles that must be chained together.
These range from the oddly familiar (one puzzle about retrieving a huge, disgusting egg from a wall is actually a simple sliding puzzle in disguise) to the truly bizarre (one section had me using what seemed like an abattoir bolt gun to destroy floating, steam-spewing machines in an effort to… feed a huge column?). It’s a very elegant way to tie gameplay into the world and vice versa – and the mixture of hands-off design and deeply unfamiliar locations makes it a gratifying challenge to solve.
The story of Scorn is seemingly left intentionally as blank as its puzzle solutions – I imagine interpreting this world will require as much mental effort as the gameplay – but it feels clear that we’re in a horrible location that has gone even more horribly to seed. For the most part, it’s fascinatingly unique as far as gaming goes, a worthy ode to the likes of Cronenberg, Giger, perhaps even Junji Ito.
On one occasion, however, I felt it tip closer to something like Agony; adopting a more gleeful, voyeuristic unpleasantness. Without giving too much away about the solution, the core puzzle in this opening area centers on using an almost fetus-like person as the means of your escape. Your mileage may vary, but having to repeatedly mutilate them – watching them writhe, scream, and wordlessly beg you to stop – felt less like intrigue and more like provocation to me. It repulsed, but not in the way I’d come to expect from what seems otherwise like an exercise in quiet, creeping horror.
I’ll be very interested to see how much a part of the wider game this more overt grim-ness becomes, not least because it entirely changes the mood set up by its other puzzles. At its best, Scorn already feels like a deeply odd, deeply thoughtful approach to more open puzzling, perhaps most easily comparable to The Witness. Personally, that’s what I hope to see more of – but if you’re looking for a dose of real unpleasantness, it seems to have you covered there too. The balance between those two sides will be the key to its success.