Meet Scorn, the HR Giger game you never knew you wanted

By Steven T. Wright, Contributor

Scorn makes a striking first impression. The opening shot pans down to a horrifying pseudo-human figure with visible veins and translucent skin stirring from a long slumber. Next,  you—for it is you—crawl through a dismal landscape of glistening wet roots, eventually tumbling into a great rift at the edge of a citadel.

From there, you begin exploring a biosynthetic wasteland of bleached ribs and stained wires, trying to figure out what exactly you're here to do. An early interaction sets the tone: Your character sticks their naked arm into a strange aperture that sucks and snaps, attaching a bizarre gauntlet-device with a retractable blade to your now-bleeding arm.

If that sounds gross to you, that's very much the intention—or so says Miloš Hetlerović, manager and self-proclaimed "finance guy" at developer Ebb Software. Though Scorn's truly unique art style quickly captures people's attention, Hetlerović says that the team always envisioned the project as a potentially niche game—something that's not necessarily for everyone.

"Most of the games today, they tend to create a sensation of accomplishment or happiness for the player," says Hetlerović. "And that's all fine. But horror sensations are a bit different. We didn't want to do jump-scares, we wanted the player to feel uneasy throughout the entire game."

Hetlerović even says that this gauntlet moment could be viewed as a sort of litmus test for Scorn. If it's too much for you, perhaps you should watch a friend play instead.

"Within the first 30 seconds, you have to stick your hand into something and you get stabbed to get a sort of key for your arm," he says, laughing. "But it's inside your flesh, and that makes people uneasy. It's definitely the body horror elements that we were aiming to do…As a game creator, you're driven by the things that you like within all sorts of experiences."
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Though Scorn is often pitched as "the HR Giger game," Hetlerović notes that it was inspired by a variety of artists, including Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński (famed for his use of skeletal figures) and filmmaker David Cronenberg. He also remarks that Giger's work has been associated with a number of video games over the years, particularly the Alien franchise and the little-known adventure game Dark Seed 2 (which outright licensed Giger's artwork). However, Scorn is unique in how it places the player in a biomechanical world and forces them to experience it firsthand—all without a single line of dialogue.

"The idea was not to use HR Giger as a direct inspiration, per se, but to be inspired by ideas he was experimenting with, his utilitarian ideas," Hetlerović says. "If you look at the art of Giger, it creates a feeling of loneliness and dystopia—like the world was left behind at some point and now it's just continuing. It's not something that's thriving or evolving or going forward, but something that's almost abandoned, and you have to find your place in that."

Scorn's striking art style garnered a lot of attention when it was first announced, but finding funding for the project was far more difficult than Ebb Software anticipated. What started as a team of four in a rented one-room office eventually ballooned to 60 full-time employees frantically working to finish the game.

Hetlerović recalls that the team chose to emphasize the shooting and combat elements of Scorn when putting together its initial trailers, in an attempt to appeal to a broad audience. Some players who picked up the game in its early stages were surprised to learn that it's not a Doom-style first-person shooter with a Giger skin, but rather an immersive horror experience where combat takes a back seat to puzzles and atmosphere.

"We knew it would be divisive," Hetlerović says. "The combat system is part of the horror elements of the game, because you're supposed to be feeling helpless and fragile. If we put you into the world like Rambo with unlimited ammunition, you could just shoot your way through. The shooting in Scorn was intended to help the horror elements, in that your ammunition is very limited and you have to pick your battles…You pretty much don't need to engage anyone, just a couple of them…We wanted to create a different paradigm."
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Hetlerović points to games like Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, and Inside as models for the style of puzzle gameplay that Ebb Software brought to Scorn. Rather than a series of discrete problems to solve, the developers strove to create what he calls "world puzzles," where the entire environment of the game serves as a conundrum for you to carefully unravel. This also serves to support the greater mystery of Scorn's world (or "lore," if you prefer), which is left to the player to piece together and interpret.

Scorn's relatively short runtime and sharp aesthetics have caused some players to occasionally label it a "walking simulator," a half-joking term often associated with talky narrative titles. But while Hetlerović doesn't agree with that conclusion, he understands how some people might reach it. From the start, Ebb Software set out to create a "slow" game, one where "the world really did the storytelling," as he puts it.

Hetlerović says that by one measure, 80% of player reviews for Scorn were either one-star or five-stars, meaning that there was very little in-between. "There's no middle ground," he says. "Players either loved it or hated it."

Overall, Hetlerović seems happy with Scorn as a project, calling it "a learning experience" for the developer. He notes that games like Scorn have to fight hard to stand out in today's crowded gaming space—and though their gross-out art style got eyeballs on them, the team still had to work to achieve their goals.

"On one hand, it's not that easy to create an art style or visuals that jump out from the tens of thousands of games released every year right now," he says. "But then again, even if you have an interesting visual, you need to have something under the surface to relate to those visuals. It's not just painting, it will work only if there is substance behind it, something interesting."
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Ebb Software views Scorn as a complete project, and they don't plan to update the game any further. However, while they're currently working on several projects for publisher Kepler Interactive, Hetlerović suggests that the next game they make will likely be in a similar vein to Scorn—though nothing is set in stone yet.

"Let's put it this way: Immersive experiences are something we like, and we like creating games that we like," says Hetlerović.

Scorn is available now on the Epic Games Store.