Skin Deep

Scorn is a beautiful game. It’s vile, gratuitously so, but elegant in its portrayal of the disgusting. The biomechanical hallways twist and turn like the innards of a far larger beast, its remaining occupants lurking in the shadows, hungrily awaiting the next victim to cross their blood-soaked path. I, like many others, highly anticipated Scorn‘s release and looked forward to having it test my resolve, resourcefulness, and ability to keep down bile. But not all that glitters is gore, and after completing the game it only succeeded in testing my patience.

This vending machine’s selection sucks but at least it never runs out.

You play as the last living crane operator as they go about a particularly rough workday. If you think I’m joking about the cranes, no, you will operate cranes. So many cranes. Big cranes, small cranes, spindly cranes, chonky cranes. Objects -will- be moved from one area to another via a device of some kind, generally operated with a series of knuckle-deep meat holes in a control panel. You will plunge your phalanges deep into machine after machine to open doors, operate machines, and commit acts of cruelty on presumably sentient creatures for…actually you’re never really given a motivation beyond wanting to see more of the world. Maybe your character just wants to collect their paycheck?

There is a moment, mostly in act 1, where the game seems like it’s trying to be Myst with more meat. It’s a bit slow and awkward, sure, but so was Myst! The game’s best puzzle and strongest emotional moment occur here, and it seems like a strong start to what could be a compelling arc. I’m horribly desensitized from years of horror media and I physically winced at a particular moment! It was wonderful! Then the game takes a sharp left turn towards Survivalhorrorville only to smash through the guardrail and careen off a cliff, never to recover.

Thank goodness I spent my childhood mastering the claw machine at the Denny’s.

The game’s biggest issue, the One True Problem of Scorn, is its combat. It is a drag at best and a straight up slog at worst. You have no movement beyond move and move slower, which you’ll never have reason to use. Enemies are easily spotted against the dark backgrounds and almost never surprise you. Most take several hits to take out, no fine aim finishers or risk/reward involved. And bizarrely, despite all of these flaws, it’s also never especially challenging. You always have just enough ammo, just enough warning, just enough of everything you need to push through any given threat. I never lost any combat encounter more than once. It could be argued that this means Scorn rationed its supplies out well, but I’d argue never having to make a difficult choice between running/fighting or which weapon to use is a hefty price to pay.

Your starter “weapon” is barely one, some kind of marital aid meets hydraulic hammer that’s way less fun than either of those things. Basically it does a tiny thrust directly in front of you that produces about as much force as a limp punch. Moreover it can only punch twice before succumbing to a refractory period, and as such I called it the Two Pump Chump. You will use this, albeit reluctantly. Second is a terrible shotgun. Its name describes it sufficiently. Third is a larger gun that invalidates every encounter you use it in. The fourth and final, which I won’t describe in detail in a modicum of respect for spoilers, is forced upon you in the lategame and hardly leaves an impression.

What lurks in the depths? You’ll find out soon enough, they never feel like hiding.

But having a weak arsenal of weapons in a game like this isn’t the nail in Scorn‘s coffin. I mean it’s -a- nail, but not the final one. Combat being weak or punitive can be an effective design choice after all. No, the fatal flaw is that the game’s combat only serves to take away from the game’s strengths. At no point is winning a fight ever satisfying, nor does barely scraping by ever feel like a relief. Fighting enemies purely exists to drain the resources that were introduced for the purposes of fighting enemies to begin with. The game gains nothing for having this combat, despite the amount of time wasted on it, because it never actually connects with the puzzle solving or exploration in any meaningful way. You never have to solve a puzzle while defending yourself or destroy enemies in a particular manner to progress, just fight to reach a puzzle to reach a fight to reach a puzzle. And considering the game’s best puzzle ideas are used up early, this approach wears paper-thin by the end.

There is a plot to Scorn, or more accurately a story delivered via action and no words. Credit where credit’s due, this approach to environmental storytelling on this scale is impressive for a while. Then it stops showing and starts telling. Call it “Metaphorz” if you want; the game all but screams its central themes at you for the duration of its runtime. You can practically hear the developers asking “Do you get it? How about now?” as things get increasingly blatant with each forward step. I will not elaborate in depth for the purposes of avoiding spoilers but by act 5 it completely drops all pretense and mercilessly beats you over the head with the imagery, somehow becoming even less subtle than Giger’s actual work, a feat I wasn’t aware was possible.

Ooooooooh you mean to tell me the [REDACTED] that’s been [REDACTED] my body for most of the game means something???

After completing the game in about 4 hours (minus 1 achievement early on that just didn’t work correctly and appears to be broadly bugged at time of writing) I felt compelled to look over the store page again and see what sort of experience was being advertised. The goal was to essentially self-audit, to make sure I hadn’t brought unfair expectations to my playthrough. I’d like to address the page’s bullet points one by one because they paint a very different picture than the game itself provides.

“Explore different interconnected regions in a non-linear fashion”: Not present. Scorn is a completely linear game with a set list of puzzle triggers that, when done in the correct order, will advance you to the next act. There is no room for creativity, no backtracking or areas changing, no motivation or ability to explore beyond looking for the right button to push.

“Every location contains its own theme (story), puzzles and characters that are integral in creating a cohesive world. Throughout the game you will open up new areas, acquire different skill sets, weapons, various items and try to comprehend the sights presented to you.”: The first portion is largely true – each area does have a specific focus that ties into the greater narrative – but some of these mentions are weak or outright missing. Weapons are present, but skill sets don’t exist in any form. Items technically do in that you move some objects around especially in early and late game, but this is barely a factor and hardly worth mention as a feature. We’re talking “pick up a key” or “move a block” levels of item here. Operating a crane doesn’t mean you managed an item.

“Cohesive lived-in world”: Cohesive is a strange choice of words for an intentionally unsettling and unpredictable setting with unclear “rules”. Lived in, on the other hand, is just not arguable. No one could have lived or worked here in its glory days, much less now. The layouts are wonky and built entirely around puzzles that initially appear area-appropriate but quickly shift away from any present in-universe logic. Why does a building have meat-ripping functionality installed in ways that would never work as tools or defenses? Why is moving an elevator car with a crane the only way to get from floor to floor? Why does a particular section late in the game have – ahem – “degloving” devices strewn throughout when nowhere else does? The answer is always “because video game”, not because it makes any kind of sense in the setting. If Scorn‘s areas could justify being called “lived-in” we would be seeing Resident Evil mansions on Zillow.

“Full body awareness”: If this is intended to mean that bad things happen to various parts of your body, I suppose this is present. In terms of caring about the use of your hands and the state of your body? Absolutely not. There are no impactful injuries or impairments of any kind, just cutscene meat horror that almost never affects play. You have a health meter, you drink the health juice to make it go up, if that’s above zero you’re fine, the end. This is subverted exactly once in the very last area of the game with the previously hinted at hand devices, which purely exist because the area’s puzzle demands them.

“Inventory and ammo management”: Ammo management is almost never a factor as the clearly marked meaty vending machines offer more than enough, but at least its technically present. Inventory management, though? Literally nonexistent, there is no inventory. You still have the requisite magic FPS powers, stowing your stuff in hammerspace until you magically summon them when needed. You’ll carry a heavy thing with both hands once in a while, but it’s not like you have to move your gear around or risk losing it to do so.

Such wasted beauty.

My theory, which is only that and nothing else, is that Scorn‘s openly troubled development is to blame for most if not all of these disconnects. Such turbulence is often to blame when unfinished or missing features are called into question. That combined with it being delivered 4 years late likely leaves its original Kickstarter backers feeling a bit raw, though perhaps relieved that something was delivered at all. I would love to see the team’s original design documents, to read up on the game as envisioned, to get more detail on the bullet points above as they were intended to be realized, but in the end none of that matters. The game that was originally pitched, and as it is currently being sold to prospective customers, simply does not exist.

There is the core of a brilliant concept within Scorn‘s husk, a game so intense and atmospheric that it would become a must-play among passionate players, endlessly and breathlessly recommending it upon learning a that friend hadn’t seen its sights. But once Scorn emerges as a malformed FPS, clawing itself free from its puzzly exoskeleton, everything unravels like entrails exposed to fresh air. It’s more than a miss, it’s a massive disappointment and waste of potential that stings like little else because its strengths are so evident and so completely ignored.

Though on the plus side the game did elicit the phrase “they probed my chussy” out of me at one point. At least I’ll remember that.


Reviewed on Xbox Game Pass.