Clicky

The War of Body and Mind in Scorn

Written By David Kane

David Kane is a Californian writer, who also produces & performs absurdist theater in Los Angeles. He is passionate about Weird fiction, Doom metal, and Horror. He is the disgruntled warden of a churlish black cat named Rockatansky. You can find more of his work at doompunkdispatch.com.

You awake in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by the decayed ruin of a civilization insistent on propagating life for an occluded purpose. Naked and fragile, you shamble in the only direction afforded to you: forward. This is Scorn, a biomechanical nightmare of cosmic horror. The artistic influences of H.R. Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński are front-facing in the game’s design, but my concern lies with its philosophical and mythological themes, which extend to the furthest reaches of imagination. At the end of the story, life conquers death in a perverse victory of the parasite.

The campaign follows a path shared by all living things. Trudging through a sludgy landscape of endless mutation, the player strives for a chance at absolution, at freedom in some incorporeal dimension of eternal bliss. There are three locations in the world of Scorn: a wasteland stretching from the primordial Genesis Wall where humanoids sprout from egg pods; a massive Crater housing a decrepit factory named the Assembly which becomes infested with a cancerous species; and the Polis, a charnel temple suggesting the strange terminus of this crumbling epoch.

At the center of any good story is a strong relationship. In Scorn, that role is filled by a Host and Parasite. The player takes command of two separate protagonists who, by means of body horror transmogrification, begin fusing together into a wretched hybrid creature. The Parasite’s claws dig deeper as the story progresses. In the end, the Host must detach the monster from his body, and then extract himself from his body. In a world without hope, the struggle of a meaningless life is to achieve death, here defined as freedom from the relentless, mechanical churn of organic processes.

We see the Host/Parasite relationship mirrored everywhere. The player manipulates a low-born moldman to advance the story. Fetal homunculi remain dependent on cyborg carapaces. The enraptured denizens of Polis have given over all control to fully automated attendants. The most striking example of the dynamic is the cancerous Crater Queen and her coterie of crawling tumors. The brood provides the primary antagonism for a large portion of the game. The Assembly is overrun with the Queen’s drones, which take all manner of malignant shapes straight out of Naked Lunch. What is cancer if not the radical proliferation of genetic experimentation? A wildfire of wildlife. Furious, festerous fauna. Consumptive manifest destiny. Life runs rampant.

The protagonist is an invader in their domain, which the Queen has reclaimed after the previous culture’s extinction. Parasites within parasites. As you battle her malformed children, you recognize life’s singular desire to keep going. Nothing else matters, even as cartilaginous walls crack under glutinous flab, even as intestinal gutters overflow with greasy slime. Moderation is an atavistic defect. We are all prisoners of life’s drive to stay alive.

The civilization within Scorn is gray and pale. Seminal effluents ooze from the machinery. Calcified root systems ensnare the disaster site that created the Parasite. The Queen’s progeny bears a contrasting color palette: waxy jaundiced skin strains to cover juicy innards resembling pomegranates (the Persephone resonances abound). Vein networks of familiar red blood bloom like slime mold on the walls of every infected chamber. The curiously cosmological conflict between a gray landscape and an industrious scarlet lifeforce brings to mind a certain tale of existential horror: Thomas Ligotti’s short story “The Red Tower.”

Certain scholars claim Ligotti’s message is that life itself is a parasite suckling on the face of a lifeless universe. Scorn appears to sympathize with that idea, except that the forces of destruction originate within the same mechanism of creation. All of these embattled organisms place the central thematic conflict within the body. The warring factions are Freud’s id and ego: blindly lunging instinct versus the baffled operator who finds themself piloting such a faulty machine. We are the virus inhabiting our own flesh, which is hellbent on extermination. The Assembly and its infestation represent the body’s victory: consciousness is supplanted by mindless procreation and excretion.

The last chapter of the game occurs once the player arrives at the Polis. The final goal is to reach some sort of undefined afterlife. If the first chunk of the campaign is dominated by the suffering of the body—its guts and genitalia a festering cluster of disease and disorder—then the end represents the transcendence of the spirit. At the Polis, the player discovers the fate befalling the latter-day Buddhas of this eldritch apocalypse cult. Humanoid cadavers are strapped up, Hellraiser-style, their brains unspooled and synced to a mysterious synaptic biomass.

Here, the ego conspires to construct the superego. Exit your individual organism and join the “body politic.” The humanoid spirit endeavors to disembody itself from the trappings of Mother Nature and has forged a new kind of maternal scaffold. The escapees plumb an amniotic consciousness, cradled by beneficent technological golems. It’s no accident that the surgical automaton cutting open their skulls resembles a Luciferian angel. Paradise found at last.

In Gnosticism, the universe’s architect is revealed as an entity named the demiurge. All suffering and evil is the sole result of a fumbling accident by this idiotic god. In biological evolution, the body is the creator of consciousness. Without the necessary neurochemical dance steps, our minds could never tango. Therefore in our secular techno-organic culture, the body itself is God—the creator of mind—and we are merely servants of its needs.

In the world of Scorn, this mind/body problem is reflected in the Crater and the Polis; the dungeon-factory forms the murky guts that feed the feverish dreams of the philosopher-kings enthroned above. These mutants have emerged from Plato’s fleshy cave into the luminous world of the Forms. The telling detail is found in the environmental design. Every structure of the Assembly is purely functional, a massive skeleton which cannot spare an inch on indulgence. In contrast, the Polis boasts friezes and statuary: pregnant figures, copulating couples, a carven creature that suspiciously resembles the Parasite itself. The decadent grandeur of the corpse-city titillates my nostalgia for the speculative wanderings of J.G. Ballard and H.P. Lovecraft.

Whatever it is the humanoids have achieved, the Host is trying to reach it, too. At the end of the game, the player defeats several cyborg homunculi and pumps their blood into twin organic androids called Shells, who appear as faceless, sexless Adams. The Host must then surgically excise the Parasite, whose gorgeously grotesque body gets put on display for the player. Because the pair have bonded so progressively, the Host is left bleeding and limping toward the final moment of the story. An angelic robot plugs his brain into the neuronic biomass above. Then the player takes control of the Shells, revealed as drones of the hivemind (again, the Host/Parasite dynamic dominates).

One of them carries the Host’s weak body through an ornate gate decorated with artistic gore (the single most colorful image in Scorn) and toward a wall of iridescence. The exact nature of this portal is one of the game’s chief mysteries. Does it promise a psychedelic afterlife? A discarnate enlightenment? Its imagery calls to mind many spiritual archetypes of the Sublime. If the Genesis Wall represents the unknowable origin of life, then this barrier heralds the terminal point of one’s journey.

The final conflict reveals that, in contrast to his many enemies, the Host is not fighting to stay alive; he is fighting precisely so that he can die. The portal seems to offer a peaceful death. Nirvana ensures escape from the cycle of samsara with its insidious hunger and hate. The beginning of utopia is the end of competitive evolution, which oversees all suffering in this biomechanical world. I regard the portal as the border of the Eschaton, which Terence McKenna implored us to immanentize into cosmic consciousness. Face ego-death with courage and melt into Everything Else. However, the Parasite finds absolution in the Host…

At the last second, the monster returns to wreak havoc. It squelches their bodies together, finally consummating their mutational union. The resulting biological singularity stands, a horrific parody of life, at the threshold of death’s gate. Consciousness sits rooted in unforgiving flesh. Heaven, perfection, whatever we seek, is always outside the self. When framed as a nihilistic mosh pit, the natural world is populated by fallen creatures striving to complete themselves by stealing nutrients from others, doomed by DNA to prey upon their fellows. Even plants strangle each other to better reach the sun. A galactic raptocracy is seeded in the hateful merging of a victimizer and victim.

Philosophically, Scorn is a psychoactive weed sprouting from the writings of Marshall McLuhan, the pop-prophet who called technology an extension of the human body. In the game, the process has reversed. An alienated human form is reproduced by monstrous epigenetic machinery and then preys upon itself. The cold, even contemptuous, relationship between creator and creation echoes Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and Ligotti. The orgiastic convergence of surgery, sex, and horror invokes David Cronenberg—a lifelong acolyte of McLuhan.

Jung is here too. The psychosexual extravaganza of Scorn is mined from the slick, oil-rich collective unconscious. The Genesis Wall is a birthing matrix, one characterized as distant and imposing. From his abdomen the protagonist extracts a long tendril that simultaneously resembles an umbilical cord and an insectile ovipositor. This “natural birth” extrudes the newborn mind into a heartless world. From there, it becomes the goal of civilization—found at the Polis—to build its own source of maternal care. Nature Versus Nurture with no survivors. At the climax, an “unnatural birth” produces yet another aberrant form in the pageant of disgust. The Parasite emerges triumphant. The Red Tower wins again. Life goes on, slouching into the gray fog of indeterminate futures.

Evolution’s arc relies on the interplay between a subject and its environment. As humanity quickly overtook its environment and crowned itself the steward of reality, our reward has become our prison. A cloud of ash, descending like marine snow from inherited violence, chokes the biosphere. You are an errant mutant on your own home planet. The worst part is knowing that even after you perish, the sickening parade of evolution will march on undeterred. Toward what? The only direction afforded us: doom. Endless, endless doom.

[Images courtesy of the author, taken in-game]