Developer: Ebb Studios
Platforms Xbox Series X, PC
Scorn wants you to reexamine your relationship with the unknown. In its nightmarish world, it isn't something to be faced, but feared. Ljubomir Peklar knows this better than anybody, the lead designer has been haunted by the concept of his passion project for over a decade – now he's finally making it a reality. His desire to create a different breed of horror game has been a constant presence throughout his career, one that followed him on from the formation of Ebb Software in 2013 and through the six-year gestation Scorn has endured since. The obsession with this premise was something he wouldn't – he couldn't – step away from.
"It's mostly about having what sometimes feels like a very unhealthy drive towards certain ideas, and enjoying exploring every aspect of them," Peklar tells me as he explains what has kept him so focused on Scorn for so many years. "Most of the time, it feels like I could do it indefinitely, as I'm always finding ways to improve it and look at it from a different angle... On the other hand, once it's finished I would certainly like to explore some other equally interesting concepts."
The appeal of Scorn should be immediate; it's easy to be drawn into its web of preternatural spaces, a world inspired by the grotesque constructions of H. R. Giger and gothic brushstrokes of Zdzisław Beksiński. A sombre tapestry of strange forms and otherworldly encounters await all who dare to make the descent into this experiential horror shooter.
Scorn's arresting visual aesthetic quickly conjures an idea of its atmosphere, and of the terror that may await you within its maze of interconnected spaces. Still, Peklar tells me that Ebb Software' desire to engage with the expressive works of the aforementioned artists goes beyond the surface connection that many draw when invoking Giger and Beksiński as visual touchstones.
"While Giger became pretty mainstream thanks to Alien, his art style has never been truly embraced", he tells me. "Only superficially, for monsters and aliens. It's also quite logical for that to be the case since his art is not very appealing in a traditional kind of way; Beksinski was always obscure and just as unappealing to the mainstream."
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"Both styles are also very hard to pull off right," Peklar continues, explaining why he believes that people relate Scorn's visuals to specific artists rather than distinct art styles. "It feels like this identification with only the original artists happens much more because these particular art styles never truly became part of their own genre or subgenre like, let's say, cyberpunk, for example. Just imagine if CD Projekt Red had to answer similar questions about the visual influences of Moebius, Bilal, and Syd Mead on Cyberpunk 2077."
For Scorn, then, the connection with artists like Beksiński and Giger is a double-edged sword of sorts. While it works to set a tone without saying a word – a screenshot informing a prospective player to expect a world that is difficult to grasp – it leaves little room for the imagination. That's something Peklar hopes to challenge once players see more of it in action. "As for what we are trying to do with this kind of visual design, it's primarily chosen thematically and it exists to create a certain feel and stimulate certain parts of your subconsciousness while you traverse it."
"The themes and concepts are driving our decisions, not the visual style per se," says Peklar. "For example, most people think that Giger's art is about aliens or alien-ess, but this is a very superficial way of looking at it. It's much more about alienation as a consequence of human interaction and fusion with its surroundings and technology."
Work of art
We have seen iterations of Scorn for six years now. In that time, we've seen the continued influence of lo-fi horror experiences in the form of Amnesia and Outlast, as well as a return to survival horror roots for some of the legacy franchises. Peklar doesn't believe that the horror genre has ultimately changed or evolved all that much since Scorn entered production, although he admits he wasn't expecting Resident Evil to return in the way that it did.
"I'm a bit surprised horror came back to its original survival structure with the Resident Evil 2 remake. The original survival horror structure is what we are basing Scorn on and back in the day we thought foolishly that we would be the ones to bring it back," he says, adding, "the other branch of 'hide and seek mixed with jump scares' horror never interested me."
With no desire to lean on jump scares to induce thrills – and a drive to demonstrate its own vision for the survival horror structure – Ebb is working to ensure that Scorn retains its potency in other ways. This is the type of experience where you'll be left to your own devices for long stretches of time, with Ebb eager to give you the space to quietly explore, figure out the non-linear nature of the level design, solve mechanical puzzles, upgrade your bio-organic equipment, and generally soak up the atmosphere of it all – the silence occasionally punctuated by violence.
Given all of that then, it's possible to draw a clear line of comparison between Scorn and something like a Resident Evil 2, then. Only, Ebb is working to imbue its creation with a real sense of physicality and realism, despite the otherworldly nature of it all. "It's nice that someone noticed this, and it's a big pain in the ass implementing it, but it's crucial for the game's concept."
"Our being is not only defined by our mental processes, but also our experience and awareness of the world and [our] interaction in that world," Peklar continues, explaining why he believes it was important to immerse players in Scorn's world in this way. "While we constantly experience the world, different occurrences and direct interaction help us function and guide us within the world. Once we master specific tasks (some physical in nature) they become unnoticeable, we just do them (exist)."
What does any of this mean for the game itself? That I can't tell you, but the answer is certainly indicative of the esoteric mindset guiding Scorn's development. This isn't your typical first-person horror game. Ebb Software wants you to be aware of your character's body and its movement; it wants you to be present in the world and aware of the dangers that might await you at all times. Survival will be a struggle; understanding the meaning behind the chaos is a challenge the studio hopes you will enjoy unravelling.
Here now, Scorn tomorrow
Even with six years of work behind it, Ebb Software still isn't ready to commit to a release window for its monolithic tapestry of nightmares – Scorn will be done when it's done. For those of you eager to play, however, Peklar assures me that the decision to bring the game to Xbox Series X hasn't had a drastic impact on development because, as he puts it, "next-gen consoles are pretty much PCs at this point".
As for what elements of the Xbox Series X Ebb is eager to take advantage of, Peklar isn't willing to make any commitments just yet. "We are just enjoying the fruits of new hardware at the moment," he tells me. "Fast loading and moving assets is a given, and we are trying out Ray Tracing for some features like shadows and AO, but still haven't decided on anything concrete. Imperative is a smooth game, everything else comes second."
That, he continues, is part of the decision to avoid making a current-gen version of Scorn. With the studio's limited resources, its small team, and focus on realising the creative vision for the game it set out so long ago, attempting to engineer a working version of Scorn for Xbox One would be more of a challenge than building something for next-gen consoles.
"The decision was made both from technical and resources standpoints. From a technical standpoint, we feel the game should run at 60FPS. When it comes to resources, we would have to invest a substantial amount of resources to optimize the game to run at only 30 FPS. So it kind of felt pointless to invest time and money knowing that at the end you will still be unsatisfied with the result."