Contempt is a hard game so far. It’s slow, sends you through winding labyrinths with little guidance, offers no narrative comfort (at least initially), and takes place in a dramatically uncomfortable and grotesque world clearly inspired by the works of Swiss artist HR Giger. I found it not fun, painful live. But if I’m being honest, I think the discomfort is the point. And in this, Contempt could be a successful game.
Developed by Ebb Software and released yesterday on PC and Xbox—I’m on PC—Contempt has been in development since 2014. After a failed Kickstarter campaign and a since-abandoned plan to release the game in two installments, it reappeared on Kickstarter in 2017 to successfully secure funding and is now available to play. It bills itself as “an atmospheric first-person horror adventure game set in a nightmarish universe of strange shapes and dark tapestry” and also is inspired by Heideggerian philosophy.
I leave you, reader, to deal with the philosophical angle, because it is not my specialty and I have no desire to comment on the work of Martin Heidegger or how it applies to this game. Contempt from the perspective of someone who is deeply moved by the work of HR Giger; I often appreciate art that is not fun, difficult and, intentionally or not, abrasive. I’m no expert on Giger’s biography or his intentions behind his work, but I know how I reacted to his art. And that’s how I approach this game.
Contempt, in the five hours I’ve spent with it, appeals to me because it creates so much friction on the player. I’m not necessarily having a good time, but I’m nonetheless drawn into the halls of this macabre plodfest, more of an adventure game than a first-person shooter, because of the depth with which the art extremely Giger-esque hits me.
As a trans woman who has spent most of her life locked away, I have found that HR Giger’s work viscerally communicates a vibe of doomed sex, sexuality and physical forms, a general sense of unease and confusion that resonates with how I have seen the world for most of my life. His images offer meditative spaces that are much more cerebral and in tune with my feelings of the world than the more simplistic utility, gore for gore’s sake, that Hollywood has often reduced it to. That’s why I’m drawn to this game. And while Contempt isn’t for everyone (not for most, probably), so far it manages to mirror what I get from Giger’s art in refusing to pander to “AAA” gaming expectations of be easy to play and understand.
There is no grip. No card. No objective benchmark. The HUD elements are confusing (wrongly, actually), and the puzzles take a bit of time to figure out. You cannot jump. You cannot crouch. Invisible walls are everywhere, which makes Contempt feel more like a museum. The first “weapon” you get is nearly useless against early enemies, and once you finally acquire a gun, it’s woefully inaccurate. This game has one of the worst instances of “where-the-shit-am-I-supposed-to-go-now” I’ve experienced in years. And yet, I want to keep playing it until the end.
Contempt manages to communicate, to use, what I love about HR Giger’s work in two main ways. But he fails in a third, possibly fatal.
His first success comes from nailing confusion and surrealism. I don’t know what anything will do. As a player, I feel frustrated by this. But as myself, Claire, I’m thrilled to be so lost and forced into a place of ignorance.
The way this tends to play out is that you come across strange rooms and devices whose purposes aren’t clear. You try to activate them somehow, either using the weird objects you pick up or mashing the A button, only to be frustrated when the animation plays with no effect. You then stomp through hallways and touch gross things over and over again until you finally know where you’re supposed to go or which dirt interacts with which pulsing organelle.
It’s definitely boring, but I’d say, in Giger’s mind, that’s how it should be. If this game assigned random words and slogans to objects and spaces around you, or otherwise made itself more user-friendly, it would corrupt the natural flow of weird bullshit you have to deal with. The protagonist (so far) is silent, letting my own thoughts tell what I’m going through. Contempt becomes very personal in this void of character and voice.
A game that draws so directly from Giger should be inherently surreal and confusing. That said, many of these puzzles are the kind we’ve seen in other games before. What makes them work, for me at least, leads me to ContemptSecond key success so far: it brings to life the “mechanical” source material of the “biomechanical” material. Seeing this kind of art style bend and slide through my manipulations gives a sense of movement that Giger’s still works usually don’t have.
Combined, these two assets give me a gaming experience similar to what I get when lost in a Giger room. If he had played softer, softer, he would have been much more Prometheus that “brain salad surgery.” Contempton its own is not “brain salad surgery”, “Necronomist IV,” Where “birth device“, but I find that, as a video game, it resonates with what I’m going into these works for.
Read more: When Sexually Disgusting Art and Adventure Games Came Together
ContemptThe ultimate failure of, in my opinion, has little to do with its clumsiness as a game. Of course, the protagonist walks far too slowly (get used to holding “sprint”) and you really should turn off motion blur and increase the FoV by at least a notch or two. Additionally, the game suffers from a kind of stutter that I’m starting to notice more and more in Unreal Engine games. These are all valid reasons for players to bounce back from this game.
But to me, its main flaw is the art design’s almost shocking (given the source material) lack of engagement with human sexuality. I think Contempt could have learned more about the eroticism of Giger’s work. There is of course some bloody body horror here, but the watering down of its erotic motives deprives ContemptThe art of the sense of humanity, as twisted and distorted as it may seem, is present in Giger.
I understand why this is probably the case. Any game that followed HR Giger’s depictions of deformed genitalia, monstrous penises and vaginas, would likely land in adult territory. There are enough “insert”, phallic images and gaping openings to hint in the right directions, but Contempt suffers from not going all the way.
Frankly, more penises, vulvas, and body parts would make this game so much better. Giger’s fingerprints of biomechanical sexuality are present in the design of its various ascending phallic tunnels and objects, but lack the clear details of actual human anatomy. This key way Contempt is almost like a radio-friendly version of an otherwise self-explanatory song. To be fair, I don’t know if I trust a modern video game to work with such themes tastefully in the first place, but the mix of horror, confusion, and eroticism is a major draw of this art style. for me and it’s a shame to see him like this, well, castrated in Contempt. The hauntingly raw, surreal eroticism is what so often draws me to Giger, and its omission here saps the play of potential vitality.
Contempt is not a fun game. It’s confusing and painful to play. It’s like listening Dillinger Escape Plan backwards. But for these reasons, I’ll keep walking these corridors as long as the botched combat doesn’t spoil the experience too much.
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