‘You can’t escape from your own mind as you can from a monster’: Scorn’s original, unsettling body-horror

It’s a genre famous for its tropes, horror can also be deeply personal. For Ebb Software, the Serbian nightmare-smiths behind the forthcoming Scorn, effective horror is all about giving the player time for reflection. “While you’re in the middle of a horrific event your fears are purely instinctual,” says studio manager Miloš Hetlerović. “Reflecting on them later or experiencing them secondhand is where the psychological side of horror comes in. You can’t escape from your own mind as you can from a monster.”

Set in a lysergic, unsettling world of “odd forms and sombre tapestry,” Scorn’s striking visual direction takes cues from both Alien progenitor HR Giger and Polish surrealist painter Zdzisław Beksiński, Hetlerović tells me – as well as the films of Cronenberg, Argento, Lynch, Carpenter and Jodorowsky, and the fiction of Lovecraft, Barker, Ligotti, JG Ballard, and Stanislaw Lem. Like all good biomechanical art, gazing into Scorn’s world imparts the sense of a place composed of familiar motifs – our own bodies, and the synthetic extensions we willingly construct – but fused and skewed to impart dissociative dread. “Fans of classic survival horror should feel right at home with Scorn,” says Hetlerović, although homeliness itself shouldn’t be expected. The reassuring oasis of a Resident Evil safe room seems unlikely here; Scorn aims to isolate, confuse and trap the player in a world that actively spurns their attempts to understand it.

Scorn screenshot.
Horrific ecosystem … Scorn screenshot. Photograph: Kepler Interactive

So, while you’ll still find your share of weapons, puzzles and encounters that require careful consideration, the game’s horror stems not from jump scares or similar tricks, but the atmosphere and the world itself. “We want players to feel dread and unease during the entire course of the game, and to be left thinking about it long after they have stepped away from the controller,” Hetlerović explains. And, as the recent trailer (narrated by Hellraiser actor Doug Bradley) makes clear, you won’t be striking up any conversations with the locals. This is a realm well past its expiration date, inhabited only by an unknowable, slumbering intelligence that doesn’t seem likely to take your intrusion kindly. There’s an underlying rationale, exemplified by its horrific ecosystem, but it’s one whose uncanny nightmare logic you’ll have to parse alone.

All of this has taken almost a decade to get right: the game was first teased in 2014, and the team has grown from 4 to 60 members since. Such lengthy development periods often spell disaster, and it’s true that Ebb Software confronted a host of financial and business challenges, but this timespan represents a vision refined and fought for. “The project was an exploration for each member of the team, since all of us had little game development experience to start with,” says Hetlerović. “Much of it was a learning process. However, we are satisfied with the fact that the core concepts and values of Scorn have actually changed very little since the beginning.”

In an industry that’s no stranger to cynical trend-chasing and cancellations at the first whiff of risk, having such a stark and original vision survive long enough to arrive writhing and squirming on to our screens this coming October feels like no mean feat.

Scorn is out in October for Xbox and PC

The Guardian

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