I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Scorn ever since it was unveiled. A first-person adventure game set in an H.R. Giger-inspired world, it was impossible for me to not be drawn in. However, I’ve never been able to really identify exactly what it is about the game’s idea that feels so appealing to me until just now.
It’s not like body horror is a new addition to gaming: Resident Evil, Dead Space, BioShock, Amnesia, Prototype, even elements of Fallout all heavily feature it in one way or another. However, they differ from Scorn in one major way that makes it stick out like a mutated thumb: they lack sympathy.
All the games listed use body horror as a direct threat. Dead Space’s Necromorphs are twisted, reanimated corpses out to kill you, BioShock’s Splicers need the ADAM inside you, and guess what? Fallout’s Centaurs are in on it too. How they look, and suggestions of what might have been, aren’t the truly “scary” thing about them, it’s the fact they’re trying to destroy your face.
Scorn looks different. It’s quiet, it’s neutral, and most importantly it’s passive. From the limited footage we’ve seen, nothing in its world seems to attack the player. It just… exists. It’s there for you to look at, take in, and sympathise with. And that is where the horror lies.
Scorn shifts the focus from “oh god, what will you do to me” that is prevalent in other games to “oh god, what has been done to you?”. By sympathising with the state the creatures you encounter are in, rather than immediately pulling out your laser cutter and zapping them, Scorn lets you get right up close and personal with just how horrific our own flesh and blood can be.
Body horror plays on very specific fears about our own physical form. Fears of injury and disease are part of it, but the thing that separates body horror from the slasher or other horror genres is it’s not about dying. At its core, the genre is all about worries of our own bodies turning against us. Aging, deformation, abnormalities, body horror brings to light just how lucky (most) people are to have a body that’s in full working order, and it achieves that by rubbing the viewer’s face in what could have been. It’s the act of forcing the viewer to consider their own structural integrity that causes discomfort, not the fact the resulting monsters look a bit spooky.
Admittedly there have been games that have tried to pull this off before, but I think Scorn’s seemingly non-combative nature makes it all the more effective. The Binding of Isaac’s enemies often seem sad or lonely rather than angry, and Prototype puts you in control of the creature itself. However, they’re still threats in and of themselves. The body horror isn’t the key to their intensity, it’s the immediate challenge that has to be overcome because of them.
Whether Scorn manages to maintain this weird mix of sadness and horror across a multiple-hour game has yet to be seen. I think the game potentially has the problem of running out of steam once the initial shock of its visuals wears off.
Even if that is the case, the fact it is using a genre we’ve seen so many times before in games and framing it in a new, more sympathetic way is something I am very excited to get my hands on. Even if there’s probably pus spewing out of it.