America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 16th Nov 2022 | 3,943 views
Reviewer's Note: Given its importance to my critique, there are SPOILERS about a specific entity that's tied to the story and gameplay. Read at your own risk.
"You either love it or hate it." That honest slogan belongs to Marmite, a popular UK food spread that began over a century ago. I've noticed this odd brand name has slowly transformed into an adjectival noun in recent years as another way to explain artistic works with divisive reactions; for example, something like Spring Breakers or Antichrist would count as "marmite movies." Since Scorn's Kickstarter origins in 2014, Serbian developer Ebb Software had a vision that was unconcerned with widestream appeal. Even though that myopic framework informs its contestable creative decisions, some credit is due in forging its own path.
Scorn signals its intent out of the gate too. Opening up the main menu, you're greeted by an unconscious humanoid that seems half-dead: his head and twitching left hand are partially subsumed by a strange bony overgrowth, eyes rolled up in his head with no activity, and he doesn't appear to be breathing. After selecting New Game, the camera slowly transitions to his perspective, he wakes up, and begins to tear himself away from his prior prison. There's a door on the other side of this decrepit room, but a subtle UI element reveals it's locked. As with the rest of the game, there's no dialogue nor any objective notifications of how to proceed; just your own intuition and visual signposts littered across this gross biomechanical world.
Ebb Software wants to consistently maintain a distance when you're interacting with the world. As you're stumbling through the first big puzzle, it's easy to spot a dash of Myst's influence (despite being more linear in design). One of the initial areas is an immense room with a spire in the middle, inviting you to fiddle with track controls, even though you're missing a critical component. A few segmented rooms are set aside, yet nothing within them can be interactive with. This muted instruction forces you to focus on this grimy place, sometimes brute-forcing ahead until heuristically uncovering a solution. You're slowly being invited into the world and learning how to interact with its grotesque machinery.
While enjoyable challenges in their own right, each puzzle sequence is also invested in showcasing the impressive presentation and atmosphere. Scorn's pastiche of H.R. Giger, Zdzisław Beksiński, and Francis Bacon intersects with the visual design and gameplay in interesting ways. The phallic and yonic symbolism found in Alien (Giger's work) can be readily spotted across various locales and certain interactions: your first weapon is essentially a hydraulic 'penis-puncher' that can be inserted into orifices, there are statues in various sexual positions, and even calling an elevator has your character gently fingering each fleshy switch. It's weird to detail this stuff in writing, but what makes the world so palpable are these micro-interactions. This isn't just a gross-out art gallery; you have to be an active participant in this synergy between flesh and metal.
Beyond Giger's biomechanical templates of innuendo and gestation in the background, there's Beksiński's and Bacon's distorted body horror littering the walkways. Entire areas can be so inundated with flesh-creatures that simply activating an elevator or moving a large door will rip them off the wall or crush them to bits. It's treated like the equivalent of brushing away spiderwebs in your house, only these decomposing meat-webs can fill a slaughterhouse. No matter how uncomfortable you are with this imagery, these artists do their damnedest to keep you rapt in its gory splendor. The incessant over-exposure to these Cronenbergian monstrosities writhing on the walls and ceilings will feel too one-note for some, but that semi-homogeneity alters just enough to keep my attention before taking a different aesthetic direction towards the end.
After getting the hydraulic puncher, this atmospheric puzzler starts mixing in deliberate survival-horror combat. Unlike the brainteasers, this doesn't start on the best foot. The acid-spitting flesh-hounds have a lumbering wind-up that's easy to avoid by strafing left or right. Dodge the spit, sneak in two punches, make some distance to dodge again, and repeat. It's a very basic & unintuitive system of kiting around while sprinting then going in for the kill, aside from the times you're stumbling into the geometry. Eventually, your arsenal expands to fleshy ranged weapons with organic bullets, which also demand greater focus on resource management.
So, is it any good? The reason that's a contentious topic is because the answer is both "no" and "it's not meant to be either." Whether it's the basic quadruped, the annoying little bipedal chicken nugget, or whatever else, their inclusion isn't about scoring sick headshots but rather to disrupt tempo between puzzles. Hell, if you're patient enough you can probably avoid fighting most of them; sometimes it's as simple as running towards the next place or they might grow disinterested and crawl back into their nest. Ironically, the tensest part of the whole game features a fast, unique enemy type who just latches onto you like a parasite, routinely clawing into your stomach.
With all of that said, I can understand some players despising this structure. If the thought of navigating this world with half a health bar and scarce ammo reserves for long stretches isn't for you, then check out now. I'm sympathetic to that revulsion too with automatic checkpoints spaced this far apart; as one example, it was especially demoralizing when a surprise one-hit kill knocked me back several minutes. When you tie this in with other pesky elements, like scripted moments of your parasitic buddy taking part of your health, the pinpoint accuracy of the flesh-chicken's projectiles, and a couple of trial-n-error sequences, there are enough negatives to make it intolerable for some.
Even after Scorn's fleshy façade slowly reveals a rather typical template, I'm still wont to go to bat for its better traits. Remember that locked door at the beginning? Well, you just need a Cronenberg remote keycard to open it, and have to upgrade along the way. Go to various nodes to collect weapon-specific ammo or fill up one your portable health bulbs. It's a common action-adventure foundation, but little touches like the lumbering reload and weapon-swapping animations or the diegetic inventory marry perfectly within this nauseating atmosphere.
For all of its tantalizing imagery and potentially interesting subtext buried in these mystifying places, I don't think any theme was adequately explored. As hinted previously, Scorn is less of a typical story and more a connected set of sequences with an abstract motivation. You're naturally impelled to move forward because that seems like a better option. It plucks from its inspirations – visual motifs of conception, transhumanism, the unsettling overlap between sex and violence, and so on – but doesn't evolve past being nice baubles to ponder. To cover my bases: I'm not committed to saying it’s pretentious emptiness either; there's enough to imply more is going on that might require a fresh pair of eyes. Although I can't confirm this, I've also heard rumors that the official art book puts in more legwork in developing these themes altogether.
Aside from investigating that narrative potential or replaying the beginning for an achievement, there's virtually no other replay value. Ebb put all its stock on a single 6/7-hour playthrough for $40 (retail). It's all about drinking in every ounce of atmosphere – the crunchy sound design, the oppressive soundtrack, your part in the panoply of grody horrors, etc. – and leaving it behind. Despite also finding the quality of the experience rather suspect, I can respect that creative decision.
A lukewarm reaction to a marmite game feels annoyingly contrarian, but that's as far as I can honestly go. When measured up to other '22 horror adventures with enthralling concepts (In Nightmare, Martha Is Dead, and MADiSON), Scorn stands above them; however, certain qualities damage its great early momentum to the point where some will quickly check out. It's not entirely a case of "style over substance," but enough so as to reserve my enthusiasm towards its great presentation and world design. An easier sell for horror fans – those that can stomach it, at least.
Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.