A screen can tell you all you need to know about a video game. What its inspirations likely are. How complex it is. What genres it straddles. If the developers care about UI or font consistency at all. In Scum, the latest big hit across Steam and Twitch (at the time of writing this, it's in the top five of viewers on Twitch), it's a menu screen that communicates everything you need to know about it. And it's confounding.
Of course, I'm talking about the metabolism screen. Tabbed over a dash away from the inventory menu, the metabolism screen shows every living aspect of your disgraced prisoner. Are they healthy? Are they sick? Are they injured? Did they have enough to drink today? There is a ridiculous amount to contemplate on this screen, like a text from your mom the first week you live away from home.
Scum is—yes, I can already hear you groaning—yet another survival game, but it's more horrific than the likes of genre leaders such as Ark: Survival Evolved, DayZ, and The Long Dark. In Scum, you're a prisoner on an island, either alone or with other players. Your means for survival take on a Donner Party approach. You can chop up people you kill and eat them for meat, even zombies. If you don't keep an eye on your meters, you can make yourself sick with either vomiting or, uh, a problem on the other end.
It's all for the sake of realism, and management of a different kind. There's always been the saying that your body is a temple, and in Scum that phrase takes on new life. Sure, you have to survive in the wild, but eat too many olives from shrubs in a row and it could spell bad news for your tummy. It's not just intake you have to worry about: It's vitamins, calories, hydration, and maybe a dozen other elements.
That's where the fated screen comes into play. Your vitals are shown in the upper left corner. And then there's everything else: sicknesses, body monitoring, nutrition, vitamins, minerals, and digestion. It's daunting to look at, stacked with meters and words and numbers; there's frankly an insane amount to keep track of. I'm still not entirely certain what vitamins and minerals are in what. (It's made survival a bit more difficult than I imagined.) Scum is the sort of game I can imagine players making obsessive spreadsheets for, cross referencing what remedies what and what tanks another.
It's mostly legible too, which is a bit remarkable for an Early Access game. There's still an element of cluelessness—sorry that I don't know what minerals are in my food—but it's adding another complex layer to the well-trodden survival simulator. We don't think about that part of dystopian fiction usually: How do you stay healthy when there's no healthy options around? It's not like you can drop into your local Whole Foods for a kale salad when you're in need of a health pick-me-up or whatever. Instead, you manage.
This in-depth system is largely what's setting Scum apart from its competitors in the field. Earlier this year, I praised State of Decay 2's take on the management sim with zombies subgenre for its community-driven systems. It's part of what a survival game needs to stand out: A unique quality for which it can stand on alone. For The Long Dark, it's a combination of logical survival and a stunning art style. For Scum, its uniqueness resides squarely in its metabolism managing. It's the sort of system that's endlessly intricate, frustrating, and even rewarding. While I'm mostly seeing folks around the internet comment on its pooping and vomiting systems, I find the menu that ties it all together is what makes Scum worth paying attention to.
Before Scum launched on Steam Early Access this week, it was thriving on pre-alpha. Obviously, Scum hasn't hit its 1.0 release yet—it's particularly evident on the character creation screen where sliders such as "crime," "BioChem," and "female" are grayed out—but for what's there now in the detailed character customization is a wide assortment of body builds. Plus, some abhorrent tattoos. (For DLC, Scum was even offering some Nazi-related tattoos. After controversy and an apology from both the developers Gamepires and publisher Devolver Digital, those particular tattoos have since been removed.) I made my character a 50-year-old man with Juggalo tattoos and an apparently excellent skincare regimen, because he looks about 30.
Though as for the moment to moment, I'm finding my time with Scum underwhelming. Zombies are a nuisance, and I find myself only fighting them when I'm hungry and need meat. Other players are even worse encounters. The Metal Gear-lookin' robots are even more of a threat. Melee is generally sluggish and tedious. If you're a fan of the likes of DayZ, you'll likely find a lot to love in the complex Scum, even in its rough Early Access state. As for someone like me who feels like she can eat more than one slice of watermelon without vomiting her guts out thank you very much, I'll probably stick to the survival games I already know and love. The ones where my metabolism is the least of my worries.