Imagine if you had to stick your hands into a sink full of dirty, putrid-smelling water to fish around for clues to a mystery. You keep pulling out weirder and more confusing stuff, and you really don’t want to go back in again – but what you’ve found so far makes you extremely curious about what other secrets may be hiding in there. That’s the best way I can describe the overall experience of playing Scorn, a first-person puzzle game about exploring the ruins of a dead civilization. With a mesmerizing, biomechanical aesthetic inspired by the likes of H.R. Giger and Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, it’s far more disturbing and unsettling than it is horrifying. But the vibes it creates can be very potent.
The most impressive bone in this mangled skeleton is the macabre art direction, which creates a cohesive world even when each of Scorn’s hubs are distinct in their upsetting grandeur. The architecture and weird puzzle contraptions exist in a space that’s not so much a fusion of flesh and machine, but more like someone blended the two until you can’t quite tell if anything you’re looking at is alive or artificial. Soaring, alien spires mimic the shapes of bone and viscera, while foreboding tunnels give you the distinct impression of being swallowed whole.
Since there’s no dialogue or text of any kind to explain why you’re here or what happened, you’re forced to look closely at all of this fascinatingly unpleasant imagery to get some kind of clue as to why the world is so messed up and mostly deserted. And for my part, I do think I was able to piece it together by the end of my brief but dense seven-and-a half hour journey into hell. This is a world where there are ultimately no definite answers, but I liked that it trusted me to draw my own conclusions and gave me enough hints to do so.
The otherworldly Myst-like contraptions aren’t exactly Mensa-level brain teasers, but some of them were tricky enough that I felt pretty satisfied when I finally caught on to their workings. They all have mechanical parts that fit together and feel a bit like a mechanical engineering exam. Sometimes you have to get several different wheels that can rotate together or independently to line up with a central hub. Other times you need to count the rotations of a spinning disc in order to lock it into place when your view is partially obscured. Some of the more elaborate ones take up the space of an entire level and have you running back and forth to move walkable platforms with a giant, crane game claw arm.
Scorn stars an equally enigmatic zombie… thing who wakes up in the middle of this mess and sets about solving some moderately challenging puzzles with no stated mission other than to keep moving forward. Thus, it’s purely curiosity that motivated me to keep going. This nameless homunculus, or whatever he is, presents me with the same question as the expanse around him: Is any of this even worth saving? And an unskippable cutscene early on seems to suggest that, no, he isn’t. So I didn’t really develop any sense of self-preservation or hope for salvation. This place and this character probably got what they deserved. I just wanted to see what was beyond the next rib cage door.
And that highlights another issue with Scorn, in that it’s constantly, unforgivingly grim. Better horror games like Amnesia or Resident Evil intersperse moments of stress and unease with islands of calm, then very effectively inspire dread by taking them away or making you leave them behind. Scorn’s world simply doesn’t feature anything like that. There are parts of it that could perhaps be called darkly beautiful, but once you strap in, you’re in for a journey that will never let up on trying to shock and unsettle you. This eventually ended up having the opposite effect on me, as I grew somewhat numb to the ceaseless psychological torment. Without anything to fight for, any sense of serenity to look forward to, or anything worth keeping to be robbed of, it loses its impact.
Still, I have to applaud the singular, clear vision behind every sight and sound. There isn’t so much a soundtrack to Scorn as there is a subtle, electronic ambience that deserves to be experienced on some nice, surround sound headphones with good bass. It’s also impressive how everything you can interact with has moving parts that fit together – whether that’s one of those colossal puzzles the size of an entire tower, or even your inventory, which is made up of these weird, fleshy artifacts. Each round that goes into one of your weapons has to be hand-loaded, and getting more from a replenishment station is another animation all its own. This really served to make me feel grounded in the world.
Unfortunately, the combat itself is dreadful. And I don’t mean that in a good way. Most enemies have highly accurate ranged attacks, your strafing speed is painfully slow, and the only weapons that do a decent amount of damage have very limited ammo. Some of the hitboxes are ridiculous: it looks like you should be able to shoot through the bars on a cage-like, rotating platform, but you can’t, which undermines the tactile feeling Scorn tries to create. And both healing items and checkpoints can be very stingy in places. Thankfully combat is only a major part of one of five chapters, which is the only reason it didn’t entirely ruin the experience for me.
I don’t think any of this was an accident. On the contrary, it seems like combat was meant to be a pain in the ass to encourage you to avoid it if you can. But there’s no real stealth or cover system either, so I generally resorted to cheap but tedious strategies, such as running around a pillar like a cartoon character and getting in a hit whenever I could, or attempting to run past all the enemies and praying I wouldn’t take too much damage. If you don’t want me to fight them, you need to give me better tools for avoiding them. Removing most if not all of the enemies from the combat-heavy Act 3 would make Scorn a better experience, as it very much works against the exploration and puzzle-solving aspects. There was probably no need to include combat at all, and especially not like this.
Source: IGN Video Games All