When I demoed Scorn at Gamescom in August, the atmosphere was just right. While most of my play sessions at the show were in brightly lit rooms filled with members of the press, Scorn was a more intimate affair. I was shuffled into a dark corner of a massive booth with the lights kept off. It was a rare moment of quiet in a loud week, putting me in the exact frame of mind developer Ebb Software likely wants players to be in when they play it next month.
Based on my 45 minutes with the game, that level of immersion is Scorn’s key trick. The grotesque psychological horror game transports players to one of the most uncomfortable locales I’ve ever experienced in a game. It’s like someone got into the darkest corner of H.R. Geiger’s mind and brought it to life.
I’m already seeing both pros and cons of the all-encompassing nature of Scorn. While my time with it was genuinely harrowing thanks to gnarly body horror that would make David Cronenberg wince, I found myself walking around in circles trying to solve the world’s esoteric objectives. It’s a level of give-and-take that makes Scorn feel more puzzling than terrifying.
It didn’t take long for my stomach to churn when I loaded into Scorn. The camera slowly dipped down onto a fleshy body, veins skittering around his scalp. He suddenly wakes up, breaking his gnarled arms out from the tendril-like terrain imprisoning it. He drags himself through a field of flesh, but the environment around him suddenly shifts to a desert. He plummets down a cliff and wakes up in some sort of dilapidated alien corridor, where my demo would take place.
In terms of atmosphere, Scorn is already unforgettable (and that’ll be good or bad depending on your stomach). It’s hard to really describe many of the game’s sights as they feel too otherworldly to name. It’s a creepy combination of the organic and mechanical, like a structure made out of deconstructed bodies but caked in layers of rust and dust. There’s very little music during my session, with atmospheric hums filling the eerily silent space. I might have fallen asleep if the visuals weren’t so nauseating.
Early in the demo, I’d jab my arm into a wall fixture, grafting a blade-like tool around my bleeding fist. I assumed that would be the gnarliest body horror I’d see in my demo, but I was naïve. Later, I’d find a mangled body trapped in an egg-like cart, its limbs twisted in every direction. As I push it around, the barely-living figure groans through its bloodied mouth and desperately claws at its restraints. He’d eventually be put out of his misery when a mechanical scoop would split him down the middle, letting me grab one of his severed arms.
If you already feel sick reading this, I don’t advise you to check this one out. Its disturbing visuals are etched into my brain — even watching my capture from the show back makes me physically ill one month later. It’s hard to get a sense of how important that horrifying imagery is to the overall vision of the game after only 45 minutes. I’m not sure if it’s building towards a story that’ll contextualize it or if it’s simply a psychological tone piece.
Either way, bring a barf bag.
While I’m intrigued by Scorn’s unsettling atmosphere and psychological horror, I’m a little less sold on its moment-to-moment gameplay. The section of Scorn I played is, perhaps surprisingly, best described as a first-person puzzle game. I’d spend my 45 minutes essentially solving an atmospheric escape room with a few objects I could interact with.
When I began my session and asked the person manning my station how long the demo would take, he noted that it could take 20 minutes or four hours. It was only a half-joke, I’d quickly learn, as I often find myself wandering around corridors unsure of what to do next. The game features no on-screen UI, objectives, or hints for what to do next. I’d often walk by key objects entirely, unaware that I could interact with them at all. I could tell there was some kind of track moving through the rooms leading to a chair, but I looked around aimlessly for the first domino.
Eventually, the staffer watching over my shoulder had to give me a nudge, noting that I’d overlooked a small device in the area’s second floor that kicked off the game’s version of a tile-moving puzzle. I had to slide a dimly glowing pod (something I simply couldn’t see and again had to have it pointed out) into the right position so a mechanical arm would grab it. When I did that, the arm knocked it off the wall, so I assumed it had fallen to the floor below me. I wandered around to no avail, having to (again) be told that it wasn’t knocked down, I just had to do it again and get a second pod moved into place.
During my play session, I overheard another press member who’d just finished his demo asking a demoist about the game’s accessibility considerations. The answer was that there aren’t really many to speak of, as Ebb Software wanted all players to have the same experience. I appreciate that the developers want to maintain a fully immersive experience that doesn’t clog the screen with typical UI and hints. It feels more organic and less “video gamey.” But I worry that the game won’t be friendly to certain players (those with lower visibility, for instance), which could make the experience completely different for players, not the same.
There’s definitely much more to Scorn that I didn’t see during my hands-on. Notably, I didn’t get to the game’s “combat,” if there is much. I did get one handgun-equivalent tool, which was more like a fleshy piston that could pop some creatures floating in my path, but it seems like the game has four weapon slots overall. I’m not sure if that signals an action aspect of the game or if they’ll strictly be puzzle-solving tools, but I’d welcome some additional interactions that can diversify some of the esoteric point-and-click aspects of the game.
Less than an hour during a trade show really isn’t enough time to get a sense of Scorn, a game that seems like it’ll be a slow burn. It could be an eerie creep show that fans of psychological horror will appreciate over the genre’s usual cheap jump scares. It could also be a frustratingly obtuse puzzle game that’s just trying to gross you out. For now, I’ll give Ebb Software the benefit of the doubt and assume all that raw flesh is building around a skeleton.
Scorn launches on October 21 for Xbox Series X/S and PC.