Biological horror, macabre biomechanical concepts and other gothic-fringe themes has been variously explored in popular culture, although most often on the margins of the mainstream. Perhaps most associated with films such as Videodrome and other works by Cronenberg; The Human Centipede, The Fly, Eraserhead, etc. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley is a recent literary example, and there’s Junji Ito in the world of manga. But to my knowledge there hasn’t been a lot of games exploring these nightmarish themes explicitly.
This summer I stumbled on a gameplay trailer for the Scorn. I, like many others, immediately recognized the stylistic flirtations with H.R. Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński - artists I’m a great fan of - and my interest was piqued. As I started researching the game, Scorn stood out in an otherwise rather bland mix of generic games, at least looking at major titles at the time of writing.
Scorn is a being developed by Ebb Software, a Serbian game development studio founded in 2013, and is set for a release on Steam and GOG on the PC as well as an Xbox Series X/S exclusive in 2021.
This article focuses primarily on the game’s conceptual design, since that is what I find most interesting, although I’ll say something about the developer and get some of the technical stuff out of the way before we get to that.
This article builds primarily upon various interviews with Ljubomir Peklar of Ebb Software (in the interviews Peklar is variously presented as Game and level designer, Lead developer, Game director; among other titles). You’ll find links to the interviews and other sources at the end of this page. Peklar can be pretty tight-lipped and uncompromising as an interviewee at times it seems. The Shacknews interview is particularly funny.
Scorn is a single-player only, traditional survival horror game. Peklar has described it as 50% gunplay, 50% puzzle solving and exploration. As is a common mechanic in games of this genre, the world design will allow you to explore, but obstacles will funnel you in the “proper” direction.
Ebb Software had a humble start with only four people working on the game initially. They also had trouble financing the game with a failed Kickstarter early on, but then managed to raise shy of 200k Euros in 2017 with a second round. In 2018 they reached a deal with video game investment fund Kowloon Nights.
“[Kowloon Nights are] very hands-off regarding creative elements of the game, and that was the primary reason why we decided to go through with the deal. Creative freedom is the most important aspect for us as a studio. From the very beginning of the project we wanted to create a game without too many compromises, and that indeed isn’t an easy task.” [Kickstarter]
Then in 2020 Ebb Software partnered with Microsoft, gaining additional resources while signing exclusivity rights; making Scorn Xbox Series X/S exclusive on console. That is, for now at least. Ebb Software are quiet when questioned on an eventual PlayStation release. What we will not see is a release on current-gen consoles, though, as Ebb Software has stated repeatedly that they won’t compromise with performance, but want to deliver a high fidelity experience to players. Ebb Software stated, as with the Kowloon Nights deal, that a major factor for the partnering was Microsoft promising to stay out of development.
As of writing Ebb Software has more than 40 people working on the game full time. Peklar has stated that having to go through the growing pains of a new indie studio has been a substantial hurdle.
There has been no word on other projects in Ebb Software pipeline. If there are new games on the horizon, it will not be a Scorn 2, as according to Peklar, Scorn is “a one-shot deal. If we do a game after Scorn it will be something completely different.”[Daily Star]
Engine and system requirements
Scorn uses Unreal Engine 4. As mentioned above Ebb takes performance and fidelity seriously enough to not want to settle for limitations in current-gen consoles. They’re also thinking of us poor PC players with our silly keyboards and mice and whatnot:
“For PC players with keyboard and mouse 60FPS is simply a necessity. We also feel that responsiveness should be as important on consoles. It’s the players direct communication with the game. Even if you are just talking about graphical fidelity, when a game runs at 30FPS you start losing the established details once the camera starts moving.” [Wccf tech]
Speaking of the PC platform, there has been no updated official system requirements released as of yet (there are system requirements listed on Steam as I’m writing this, but those have been confirmed as out of date by Peklar). Although Peklar has said in an interview that the Xbox Series X Trailer (seen above) used a 2080Ti and a Ryzen processor, “but a 2070 Super with a mixture of settings is adequate to run the game at 4K 60FPS”. [Wccf tech]
The 2017 Kickstarter reached a goal that stated that Scorn would have a level which would feature full VR support. The level would have been a part of the main game, but not required to play to progress through the game proper.
Shacknews followed up on this after the Xbox Series X-exclusivity announcement, considering VR wasn’t going to happen on the Xbox. Peklar simply answered that he couldn’t discuss the issue at that time.
Before going into visual design and the fun conceptual stuff, I’ll mention that soundscapes for Scorn are being created by Adis Kutkut (who goes by the artist name Aethek). There isn’t a lot of info on the audio-side of things right now beyond this and what you can hear with your own ears in the videos released, but it’s worth visiting Kutkut’s Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/aethek/popular-tracks), where you can listen to a couple of tracks produced for the game, as well as other music by the artist. Some banger tracks there in my own humble.
Wikluh Sky is also credited as a composer by some sources, but I’m not sure as to what degree he is contributing to the final game.
Ebb Software had a hard time getting off the ground with concept artists. Luckily they found their golden goose early on.
“It’s kind of funny, we never managed to find another concept artist besides [Filip Acovic] because most people have a hard time understanding what I want and have very limited ideas when it comes to design. When [other artists] ran out of ideas, every one of them started doing big teeth, big eyes and some form of bugs. That’s when I know we hit a wall and the artist is scraping from the bottom of the barrel creatively. Most people think it just needs to be weird and that’s it.” [PC Gamer]
To Rock Paper Shotgun Peklar said:
“We designed the main character first, as he is the centerpiece of the game, so we concentrated on the ideas that we wanted to express through him. There is a feature, that we haven’t shown yet, that was really important to get exactly right, both in the concept art and later in the game.”
Peklar has said that a playthrough of the game will last about eight to ten hours for an average player.
Visual and conceptual influences
Many has pointed out the clear visual references to Giger and Beksiński in the videos, but Peklar has in interviews expanded on what has influenced Scorn. He has mentioned filmmakers like Cronenberg, Argento, Lynch, Carpenter and Jodorowsky. All the good things in life in other words.
There’s also games mentioned such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Metroid Prime. Among all these big names and titles Peklar points out that Ebb Software also tried to create their own style with Scorn.
Although it’s Giger’s influence that might be most easily recognizable (his work is also more widely known that Beksiński’s) in the videos, Peklar has stated that it’s “not about taking cues from [Giger’s] work. It’s about developing ideas and concepts you want to explore and then making it work in a context of the world. Doing it any other way would be just surface deep, without any substance.” [GamingBolt]
Peklar goes on to mention influences from literature; such as Lovecraft, Barker, Thomas Ligotti, J.G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem, Kafka, Albert Camus; the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus; Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Ernest Becker’s psychology.
So how do this wide barrage of visual and conceptual influences meet, and what does Ebb Software bring to the table to funnel these influences into the game?
Peklar tells PC Gamer: “My interest comes from the relation between a man and an object, how one changes the other. For that you need familiarity. I noticed that with our new trailer, people just want it to be weird for the sake of weird, and that is not what we are doing.”
So there’s clearly something going on in Peklar’s mind that’s more than producing a fever dream that’s weird for weirdness sake.
To Rock Paper Shotgun he says: “Human beings are conditioned to like the external beauty of their bodies and see the internal organs, bones and tissue as something repulsive. It’s a reflex. It’s something most people want to forget. Most of the time you are not aware of your body but when you get ill or old your body turns against you.”
Peklar, to PC Gamer again: “[The world of Scorn] deals with human anatomy in a utilitarian way, how our organs and flesh work as a cohesive system. Every part of human anatomy interests me as part of a greater system.”
Perhaps we’re starting to glimpse here something of the amalgamation of themes and concepts that Ebb Software wants us to explore with Scorn. Peklar gives more clues when describing at length the particular flavor of horror they’re going for.
“Most importantly we do not rely on cheap jump scares. It’s all about immersing players into the world and creating the feeling of dread by experiencing this world’s mood and atmosphere. Most horror games nowadays, like most horror movies, are very trivial in their pursuit to scare the audience. Loud sounds and spooky ghost children is all they have to offer. We will try to get under your skin very slowly, and build on it even slower, hoping that once the feeling of anxiety emerges it will stay with you for some time.” [Shacknews]
“Like the best of nightmares that surreal imagery will start playing with your psyche the more you play the game. When you wake up from a nightmare it’s really hard to define what you dreamt, only snippets remain, and the feeling of anxiety. That is something we are trying to recreate. If looking at Giger’s or Beksiński paintings all you see is weird organic structures then that’s what you will get out of Scorn as well. There is lot of untapped substance dormant in our subconsciousness and most won’t be able to ignore it. Think of the opening in the original Suspiria. It’s a montage of sights and sounds that creates the uneasy feeling. Nothing is set up story-wise and nothing truly graphic is happening. It just is.” [Shacknews]
Actualizing the world and telling a story
All of this is fine and well, but to explore these heavy themes we need a story to hang everything up on. Can’t just plop the player into a world and not give them anything to go by, right? Right…?
Apparently there is “no conventional plot, or even language”; the environment will tell the story according to Ebb Software’s vision. “[W]e are not trying to push traditional plot-driven narrative”, as Peklar told PC Gamer.
Expanding on the “no language”, Peklar tells Opium Pulses that there “will be no dialogue, it works in a similar manner to German expressionistic films. It’s all implied through visuals and audio”.
Peklar says that the structure of Scorn will be unorthodox and people coming in with preconceived notions about the game might be in for a surprise. “It’s so indirect in its approach that it may end up its own special category.” [GamingBolt]
This may sound a teeny tiny bit pretentious, but it’s in line with the uncompromising approach to the vision and their game that Ebb Software clearly has. As Peklar tells Opium Pulses, “We are not interested in being twitch friendly, we are making the game that we want to make and that is it”.
I for one can respect that. Let’s hope it shines through in the game.
Whatever story Scorn will try to tell, Peklar has given us one concrete piece of information.
It’s not about aliens.
Links & references
Kickstarter — Scorn Part 1 of 2 : Dasein
State of the Art: The Visceral Style Of Scorn — Rock Paper Shotgun, 19th July 2016
Behind the beautifully grotesque art of Scorn — PC Gamer, 15th September 2017
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH LEAD DEVELOPER OF SCORN — Opium Pulses, 1st October 2017
Scorn game director Ljubomir Peklar talks sexual imagery & “weird organic structures” — Shacknews, 25th May, 2020
Scorn Interview — Wccf tech , 29th May 2020
Scorn Interview: Xbox Series X exclusive is “an old survival horror game at its core” — Daily Star, 1st June 2020 https://www.dailystar.co.uk/tech/gaming/scorn-interview-22107138
Scorn Interview — Storytelling, Inspirations, Structure, and More — GamingBolt, 2nd June 2020
Ebb Software YouTube channel
Scorn official page