Media does not have to be fun to be interesting or worth your time. That’s an accepted notion with literature and film, but it’s a harder pill to swallow with video games. After all, this is a medium that took on the words “game” and “play” well before anyone was saying things like “interactive fiction”.
With games the story is almost always flipped. A game can be so fun that its poor narrative aspirations don’t matter at all. “Sure, the story is absurd, but it’s just so much fun to pop headshots!” Games that aspire to be closer to interactive fiction often go for breezy adventure game mechanics that aren’t very engaging, but distract from the story.
Scorn is not a fun game at all. Its world is gory, squishy, cold, and lonely. The first puzzle is like a sliding tile puzzle from hell. When you finally get a gun, all it does is introduce the threat of death and reloading checkpoints. The combat is slow, unforgiving, and not even remotely “fun”. Nothing is explained, there is no dialogue, and it’s easy to get lost or stuck.
This all seems to be by design. You really can’t catch a break in Scorn. The unnamed protagonist acquires…let’s call it a sickness, early on in the game. Every once in a while pain from the sickness will hit and cause you to lose a bit of health. In a game with extremely limited health and ammo items, these moments aim to wear you down. They’re a prickling little reminder that Scorn is out to hurt you.
Outside of a button layout in the pause menu, Scorn does not really explain how you’re meant to do anything. Everything feels like the gristle gun scene from Existenz. Your character is shoving their hand into random holes, some of which tear into their flesh, leaving them with a bloody upgrade or a new path. Nothing you interact with ever makes sense at first, and before long you’re carrying around all manner of weird meaty, boney doodads.
It’s some truly gnarly body horror and evocative world design. The comparisons to Alien and H.R. Geiger are hard to deny, but Scorn goes all in on this aesthetic in a way that elevates it into something that feels new and original. Early on, I was happy to just walk around and admire the craft of it all.
In fact, if you have Xbox Game Pass, an Xbox Series X or a beefy PC, and a strong stomach, I implore you to download Scorn and at least walk around for a bit. It’s at least a few minutes before you hit that first puzzle, and far longer before you get into combat, so it’s worth just seeing how stunning the game looks and how smoothly it performs.
Sadly, past that my recommendation of Scorn gets a little dicey. I think you have to have a real masochistic streak to stick with Scorn, because it does not play nice. Once weapons and enemies are introduced, the game gets a lot more unforgiving. There’s too little ammo, too many enemies, and a melee weapon that will get you into bad situations, taking a bunch of damage. Unless you’re intentionally practicing encounters, I suspect you’ll be running out of ammo and subsequently running from enemies at least once or twice in the game’s 4-6 hour playtime.
And honestly that would be fine. I love survival horror, and even the best examples of the genre are rarely cruel enough to leave you with nothing and expect you to persevere. That concept is really cool, and it takes a special kind of game to be willing to go that far with resource management.
The problem, the thing that makes Scorn incredibly hard to recommend, is that the combat is truly awful to engage with. All of your guns are part of the same core, so even swapping weapons is a laborious animation. Reloading is a bullet-by-bullet process. You can’t even aim precisely without standing still for a second. All of that is fine, honestly. I grew up on Silent Hill and the early Resident Evils. Clunky controls were the name of the game. But it’s not just slow or punishing. The way you have to fight just sucks all the atmosphere out of the game.
Because everything is so slow you have to rely on the level design and the enemy patterns to succeed. The end result is that you’re often kiting enemies around little bits of collision in the environment, looping in circles while waiting for animations to play out. It’s annoying and simplistic, and worse, it’s really goofy looking.
The puzzles sometimes fall into this trap as well. They should feel like the puzzle box from Hellraiser—a portent to violence, arcane and unknowable—instead they are sometimes very hard versions of puzzles you’ve seen a million times in other video games. That one puzzle that’s in every game, where you rotate one thing and it rotates the others, and you have to line up something; the aforementioned sliding puzzle from hell. It can feel like you’re playing some kind of “twisted” mobile game.
Scorn sadly stumbles along this very fine line it’s trying to walk because of the combat and puzzles, but I still couldn’t put it down. Despite tricky puzzles and awful combat that caused me to replay entire levels multiple times to get a clean run with enough health and ammo, I was deeply compelled to keep at it. I pushed through the entire game in two relentless sessions.
Scorn’s big issue isn’t that it’s an intentionally miserable slog through an awful, suffocating world. Its big flaw isn’t that the puzzles are really hard or that the combat encounters are oppressive. The fatal flaw of Scorn is that the traditional gamey stuff pulls you out of the experience. It’s just hard to take any of this seriously when you’re playing musical chairs with an unintelligent AI or stuck on a puzzle that belongs in a souvenir shop.
But Scorn still kind of worked for me in the end because I think the developers were truly onto something. It’s a game full of negative feelings—I was often confused, frustrated, or lost—but those negative feelings were interesting and drove me forward. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t refine the combat (and some of the more silly puzzles) to match the rest of the game’s oppressive, psychologically-torturous tone. Scorn is a miss, but a fascinating one worth seeing through for dedicated horror fans.