(contains minor spoilers)
A weird thing about humans (or all living organisms really) is that we're frighteningly adaptable. Conditions we might have once called upsetting or untenable can be made numbingly commonplace after an extended period of time. Likewise, even luxury and leisure can be rendered stale and boring as they become one's new normal. In the best cases, we can transform an annoyance into a non-issue; in the worst cases, we grow immune to unspeakable cruelty. Our adaptability can help us survive, but in doing so, we can lose sight of the reason why, driven to keep on living long after the reasons for doing so have entirely vanished.
Scorn takes at this carnal ability to adapt and deifies it, imagining a world where death is one of the least worrisome things that could happen to you. The game has its fair share of problems (most of which is derived from its laborious combat), but it's a fascinating experience, completely unlike most other games I've played. Scorn takes its art design seriously, prioritizing it over coddling the player or ensuring they're having a smooth "gaming experience". That's because Scorn aims to immerse you in a world where life itself is a cancer, twisting the need to survive even in the most dire of circumstances into a new, violent nightmare.
The worst thing I can say about Scorn is that it's fully indebted to the groundwork paved by H.R. Giger and Zdzislaw Beksinski. Their haunting, unsettling artwork is the periodic table from which every molecule of Scorn is formed. Although the films Alien and Species partnered with Giger to help bring his vile creations to life, it's this game that best embraces his work, offering an ostensible museum wherein even the walls are designed by the Swiss surrealist. On one hand, you might be tempted to damn Scorn as a sycophantic knockoff of its betters... but on the other, Scorn is a visual masterpiece, flawlessly bringing its feverish inspirations to life. If there's one reason to play Scorn, it's to bear witness to Ebb Software's dilapidated playground of oozing insanity, where you can personally inspect every rotten orifice and gawk at the turgid abominations retching acid from what you can only assume is their "face".
Besides its putrid, cannabalistic world, the other way Scorn upsets the player is with a sharp genre shift midway through your journey. At first Scorn plays somewhere between Gone Home and Myst, tasking the player to solve contextless puzzles in a possibly-abandoned, possibly-haunted environment. But near the halfway point of the game (or rather, its middle third), Scorn becomes a full-on oldschool FPS, complete with ADS, health stations, and a shotgun made from bone and flesh. Wisely managing your health and ammo trumps analyzing the environment, as you'll soon find that enemies are numerous and supplies are rare. There are still puzzles here and there to solve, but most of your time will be spent keeping your hide intact as sinewy monsters close in on you, blood and sweat dripping from their pores. You might come to Scorn eager to explore its morbid environment, but cumbersome shooting will eventually take center stage—for arguably too long.
As an avid appreciator of both environmental puzzles and tough combat, I didn't mind Scorn's shift towards the latter... but it's obvious the game is more adroit at the former. Despite the lack of enemies early on, Scorn is comes off as eerie and unnerving, making the world feel as tense as it is revolting. Unfortunately, once you've tangoed with the game's four basic enemies enough times, a lot of the apprehension vanishes, the tension refocused. Now what's scary is trying to figure out where the next health station is, or if you're about to get sandwiched, or when to use your precious pistol ammo. Scuffles can get dire quickly, prompting you to lean on the weaknesses in the enemy AI such as camping corners or de-aggroing your foes so you can run up and stab them from behind. By the time you reach the game's (somewhat silly) final boss, fear has been stripped from your mind, replaced by stoic analyzation, the urge to reload, and a tinge of annoyance.
Scorn's combat is pretty terrible—but at least I understand why it's there. One of the unique ways video games can convey horror is through punishing gameplay systems, like depriving you of resources (Resident Evil), making your character difficult to control (Clock Tower), or even threatening to trap you in an unwinnable save state (Silent Hill 4). While Scorn comfortably slides into the survivor horror compartment, it lacks the items, bestiary, and maze-like setting that makes games like the Resident Evil franchise so lush and captivating to experience. Scorn by comparison is crude and brutish, largely concerned with robbing you of health and ammo whenever you happen to stumble across an. There aren't interesting systems at play, secret caches, or special items to uncover (beyond a single, uninteresting key ring)—all that stands between you and the ending is an intestinal hallway clogged with locked doors and faceless foes.
Yet despite having the ability to fend for yourself, there's a moon-sized gulf between you and action heroes like Doomguy and Gordon Freeman. They are veritable gods of death, grim reapers that dispense a personal justice one pile of corpses at a time. But in Scorn, you're just a weak, scared, naked nobody that lives health station to health station, the grim knowledge that death is inevitable eating away at the back of your mind. Scorn's combat sucks to play because Scorn's world sucks to live in—it has to be one of the absolute worst in fictional media, eclipsing even the desolate apocalypse of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Happiness was never even an option here—the only hope you carry is that your death will be swift and painless... a baseless fancy you know is too good to be true.
In a twisted turn of events however, you'll learn to appreciate Scorn's world for what it is. While it stays viscerally upsetting to the very end, you'll adapt to its once-grotesque imagery, marveling instead at its grandeur. You'll pass under spinal archways, climb atop flaking steeples, and operate machinery that mimics the human body: disgusting, yet indescribably ornate. Even the way creatures congregate together can be strangely, uncomfortably beautiful, with disemboweled corpses in the latter half of the game posed in a serene, nearly-orgasmic state together. Like Giger before them, Ebb Software deliberately blends pleasure and pain together, turning every wretched hallway into a painting, every pulsating health station into an blessed confessional. You'll adapt to its wriggling hell, giving up on finding a way out in favor of discover what happens next.
Scorn is simultaneously tortured and beautiful, narrowly treading the line between fetishistic grotesquerie and high art. It's clearly not for everyone—especially for those with a tender disposition or fans of concrete stories—but if you shut off all the lights and immerse yourself in its world, Scorn provides an awesome experience. It's a game that's nearly impossible to predict, pulling you in a dozen different directions before climaxing in an ungodly carnival of pain. Scorn emphasizes that death is not the goal of life; rather, more life is. And that should scare you more than anything you can possibly imagine.