I began much like any other prisoner introduced to SCUM’s massive, 144-square-kilometer island mass: decked out in an orange jumpsuit, shaved bald, tattooed, and with pockets pulled inside out. No quest prompt or map marker appears, so I jog down a winding dirt road through a stunningly detailed, sun-dappled forest glade. Soon enough, gunfire peppers the air like popcorn popping, directly in front of me, erratic muzzles flashing around what appears to be a nearby gated campsite.
Okay. So, let’s try the other way, then.
SCUM is the newest game from publisher Devolver Digital, long in development but with a mysterious intention that’s never been effectively clarified. Its early access release later today has connected streamers with many thousands of excited Twitch viewers, all of whom are trying to figure it out together. At first glance, it seems to draw comparisons to survival/griefing simulator DayZ and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, but with a decidedly weird sense of dark humor. You play as one of 64 inmates trapped on an island, all of whom are cast as unwitting contestants on the deadly reality show SCUM, broadcast on fictional channel TEC1. There’s an interesting meta-fictional alignment there, in video game streamers throwing themselves on the island for kicks, with the sci-fi reality show happening underneath the hood.
It’s hard to imagine how preposterously large 144 square kilometers is, especially without the benefit of vehicles or any fast travel method. You simply huff and puff your way to parts unknown, following strange beads on the map looking for loot and constantly hounded by your dwindling stamina reserves. Opening up a few menus reveals a ludicrous array of metabolic feedback stats: the contents of your stomach, your aspiring nutritional diet segmented into carbs, protein, and fat, and even a bladder percentage value. On that last note, yes, you can go to the bathroom in the game (it may even interrupt you at the wrong time, if you’re not attentive to those needs), and can induce vomiting on cue.
And you can also, of course, kill other prisoners. Weaponry in SCUM runs the gamut from pitchforks and cans of spam to fling wildly at an opponent, all the way up to rifles and AK-47s (you can also opt to just eat the spam instead). Can’t find a worthy weapon? Search the ground for a few rocks to make a handy stone knife, or cut down a tall bush and craft an ax or a wooden practice sword, then look for anyone who hasn’t done those things yet.
A strange feeling emerges from the possibility space of such a hyper-detailed survival sim with militaristic overtones — there’s something within SCUM which seems to request another play-style, something more contemplative than simply killing other players in yet another battle royale. Considering the gargantuan size of the map, running into another player is almost always a heart-skipping surprise, and with global chat active, you’re likely to hear them on-mic when they’re close by. While a few specific hotspots like police stations house a predictable cache of weapons, you’re often left with the discouraging position of having plenty of ammo but no guns, or a gun with no magazine (requiring that bullets be fed one shot at a time, similar to DayZ), or simply a wet trucker hat, fanny pack, and shovel.
Let’s not forget the mechs, a number of which have been spotted pacing around the island. These hulking walkers look like steampunk retrofits of Robocop’s ED-209 and stomp menacingly through specific zones, barking garbled threats with a hair trigger. Entering a firefight among several players looting these guarded areas means contending with human threats, robot threats, and maybe even a zombie or two; the latter are known as “puppets,” and look to be undead former prisoner contestants, reanimated and mobbing you on sight.
The zombies and robots seem to feed into the wider mystery and lore of the game, its underlying narrative about incarceration and surveillance in a dystopic future, which bears an interesting contrast to the idyllic-seeming environment. In my first outing, after stumbling into a terrifying but ultimately harmless balaclava-wearing player, a mysterious spherical camera droid flew in from the sky, and stared us down from a safe distance. Neither of us had a decent weapon, so we jumped and punched at it in the air like fools until it soared away. What was that thing? Was that an example of a TEC1 film camera? Is that the developers themselves, peeking in on the game in progress, and making sure we knew that we were being watched?
Some forum-dwellers have opined that the meta-game will involve a proper escape from the island, a task that may be performed alone or in groups. Already, clutches of players of dubious morality tend to manifest on servers, tormenting empty-pocketed peons fresh from a respawn (easy to spot in those bright orange outfits), but it’s a little difficult to really hunt and grief in the game thus far. It’s just too big to reliably find others, which makes an optional quartet of instanced multiplayer modes a good option for the trigger-happy. Spending your accumulated fame points — which are accrued by staying alive longer and completing certain tasks, or otherwise pleasing the unseen television audience — you can join these matches and have a few straightforward battles in designated zones, all without risking a character death. When the match is over, you teleport right back to your original location, back to looting farmhouses of painkillers, camera lenses, olive oil, and all the other random junk that may or may not carry some yet-unknown importance.
It’s going to be the job of SCUM’s early access players to root out the meaning behind the game, and Twitch streamers have already uncovered a variety of strange systems. Clothing can become damp and heavier in the rain, be dried out slowly by a campfire, and there are even recipes that can be made out of the dozens of food ingredients you scavenge or pluck from trees. You’ll also need a pot and a fire source, of course, not to mention a few solid objects between you and an unseen sniper.
SCUM arrives to PC in early access later today, and is priced at $19.99. While server issues and a few dysfunctional mechanics have been notably present in this preliminary period, the developers are working to smooth things out in time for its public release.