Let’s talk about one of the most specific niches in the entire genre of horror: first-person sci-fi horror video games. Unpacking that phrase might take a minute but we kind of have to in order to talk about the two games (Scorn and System Shock) we’re here to talk about, so let’s get the boring stuff out the way. There’s a long and rich history of first person sci-fi horror in video games, starting with the granddaddy of them all, DOOM. Of course, the complex legacy of DOOM is that it (arguably) let action overwhelm the horror aspects of the game. The game certainly has plenty of horror and, surprisingly, a fair dose of suspense at times, but the horror of DOOM is ultimately one of isolation, of nihilism, not a fear of the unknown or, ironically, the unknowable. These may be creatures of some alien hell dimension but they’re simply invaders to be repelled, whose undefined motivations are entirely arbitrary. In fact, perhaps the reason DOOM is not a truly frightening game is that it is simply war and you a soldier in it, and what makes war itself truly horrifying is that it is a human you are killing. Replace that human with a Cacodemon or Cyberdemon and you further remove war from the source of its horror.
In contrast to DOOM is System Shock. Released less than a year after DOOM, System Shock‘s similarities to DOOM happened somewhat by accident, being designed as an RPG modeled off of the medieval fantasy Ultima series. Where DOOM‘s setting was directly influenced by the films ALIENS and Evil Dead 2, instead System Shock took its inspiration from dystopian futurism, the likes of which were represented at the time by films like Hardware and T2: Judgement Day. In particular, developers Looking Glass Technologies sought to reproduce the oppressive technological nightmares of those films by having an omniscient artificial intelligence as the primary antagonist and removing other human characters from the story. Thus, like DOOM, the nameless protagonist is isolated in a hostile environment, facing an inhuman enemy constantly awaiting them around every turn. So, how did System Shock succeed at being more horrifying than DOOM? Unlike DOOM, there is a lot of backstory about what happened/is happening to the rest of the humans aboard the space station of the game’s setting and none of it is pleasant and there is a fate worse than death in the world of System Shock that you will witness second-hand at points. Additionally, the opening of the portal to hell in DOOM is the result of simple human stupidity; the circumstances leading to the state of affairs in System Shock are… maddeningly complicated.
So with DOOM recently undergoing a revitalization, it makes a certain amount of sense that the relatively new developers/owners of System Shock want to remake their own iconic classic, especially since the original game’s “director’s cut” (aka Enhanced Edition) of sorts was only recently available. Unfortunately, Nightdive Studios is not a developer of video games per say; rather, they’re known for acquiring rights to old, in-demand games and “remastering” them for re-release. And even though this System Shock remake will have the exact same layout, story and gameplay, it still has to be completely rebuilt from the ground up and that’s going to be incredibly demanding. Even though they have a cadre of acclaimed developers from other studios joining them (promisingly, most from Fallout: New Vegas) I am wary, despite the presence of a well-received playable alpha demo. If the gaming has learned anything lately about Kickstarting, it’s that the end product will never be what is promised. It also doesn’t help that there is a dozen promising horror video games launching on Kickstarter right now and a remake of one doesn’t seem like what the industry needs right now.
On the other hand, we have Scorn, a recently reborn first person horror title from a truly independent Serbian developer going by the name Ebb Software. A failed Kickstarter back in 2014 apparently hasn’t kept the developers from continuing to “flesh” out their project, which appears to be Bioshock as imagined by H.R. Giger. The exponential growth of video game engines is likely the biggest contributing factor, with accessibility as open as ever. The result is a short cinematic video showing off a truly astonishing world that is incredible in its emulation of Giger’s bio-horror. There’s also a hint of gameplay as well, which stands in a bit of contrast to what was shown in the 2014 gameplay trailer; unlike back then, we see the protagonist, apparently just as terrifyingly inhuman-looking as the game’s environment and denizens, but also wielding what looks like a Giger-like gun that has modules of sorts. It’s kind of disappointing, honestly, that such a remarkably alien-looking game still has to conform to such a disappointing trope, though we never see this gun “fired” so to speak, so perhaps it isn’t a weapon at all. I’m not, of course, the only person to make this observation; similar complaints appear in the comments of the YouTube video so hopefully the developers will have anticipated this.
Regardless of what form the gameplay ends up taking, it’s exciting to see that not only is a game like this getting a second chance but that it is being received more warmly this time around, I think. Even though it visually steals hard from Giger, it also doesn’t look like it is blatantly imitating Aliens either. It looks like a genuinely unique video game experience and that’s such a rare thing in the video game industry. And what’s better, there’s no crowdfunding campaign (yet) so the studio gets to deliver whatever kind of product they can manage and the press doesn’t get to gorge themselves on controversy.