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A gelatinous monster reaches its tentacles out to grab people Image: Phobia Game Studios/Devolver Digital via Polygon

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Carrion is a body horror masterpiece

You’re the monster, and you’re very hungry

Carrion is a game for anyone who has ever stopped at a mirror to glance at that screaming flesh prison we call a body and thought, “Ugh, I’m a monster.”

A pixelated side-scrolling “reverse horror” game, Carrion puts players in the role of its own anomalous creature: a cartilaginous mass of mouths, teeth, and tendrils that moves like a sentient wad of spaghetti meat possessed by some eldritch horror. It looks like it should be the end boss of this sort of adventure, not the hero of it.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward: You’re an extraterrestrial entity that was discovered by agents of a shadowy biotech corporation and subjected to a battery of invasive and humiliating experiments.

But one day, you break free of the containment chamber and immediately begin to rip and tear through everyone and everything in your single-minded pursuit of escape. Imagine, if possible, a version of Ape Out filtered through the body horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried this kind of switch in pop culture, let alone evoked comparisons to Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic. Peter Watts published a short story called “The Things” in 2010 that retells the events of that film, except this time from the point of view of its titular monster.

In the seventh paragraph of “The Things,” the nameless creature that describes itself as, among several other titles, “the very hand by which Creation perfects itself,” reflects back on the excruciating pain it endured during the violent shipwreck that stranded it on our planet:

“I remember the crash [...] It killed most of this offshoot outright, but a little crawled from the wreckage: a few trillion cells, a soul too weak to keep them in check. Mutinous biomass sloughed off despite my most desperate attempts to hold myself together: panic-stricken little clots of meat, instinctively growing whatever limbs they could remember and fleeing across the burning ice.”

Yeah, that sounds about right. The resemblance between Watts’ description of the “mutinous biomass” and “panic-stricken clots of meat” that make up the iconic monstrosity of Carpenter’s film, and the anomalous fleshy abomination you embody in Carrion, is so close as to be familial.

There is no name for what you are in Carrion. If the creature from The Thing is the right hand of creation, you’re the left hand of vengeance — meting out punishment and extracting the price of cruelty from each and every one of your hapless would-be human captors.

It’s hard to talk about Carrion without bringing up other games and movies, because it borrows so much, so well, and remixes the elements together with gusto. Carrion itself in many ways feels like a spiritual successor to Midway’s monster arcade series Rampage, where players control giant creatures patterned after kaiju movie monsters that level skyscrapers and devour bystanders, while channeling 2017’s Rain World, worming through the byzantine pipework of a vast and inscrutable megastructure seemingly spanning several different continents and climates in a quest for survival.

Carrion’s control scheme is intuitive, relying mostly on the right and left mouse buttons and at most five keys, all labeled by the game’s minimalist heads-up display.

You move by aiming the cursor and pressing the left mouse button to push the creature’s central mass in that direction, while right-clicking to extend the creature’s main tentacle appendage in order to grab enemies or objects in the world.

Special abilities are activated by pressing their corresponding buttons, allowing you to fling yourself against breakable doors, take control of human bodies, or use echolocation to find one of the game’s many save points. The control scheme is very different from what you may be used to from previous games in this genre, but it helps you feel like a huge, grasping, slithering monstrosity.

I felt powerful from the game’s opening seconds, due to the way I’m able to use my tentacles to open doors; grab humans to pull toward one of my many hungry, gaping mouths; and yank grating off the wall and fling it at my enemies. I crawl and glide across the floors and ceilings of a vast network of interconnected research facilities, pouncing on my human adversaries and acquiring new abilities by cracking open biomass containers I discover along the way.

But evolution comes at a cost. Certain abilities are suppressed in order to make way for new ones as you grow in size and assimilate more biomass. I often had to shed pieces of myself in shallow bodies of water to regain these abilities and continue moving forward, selectively evolving and devolving my body in response to my next goal.

However, this emphasis on experiential navigation is held back by the frustration of a lack of any form of minimap in the game to keep track of where you’ve been. This is no big deal in the beginning, sure, when the world’s wide open and everything’s for the taking. But things quickly turn tedious when you’re tracking down the last optional upgrades or even the final section of the game and have nothing to rely on to navigate the sprawling hub world, save your own spotty memory.

The opposing humans evolve as well, unfortunately. Helpless office workers and armed security guards are quickly replaced by armored soldiers carrying electrified body shields and flamethrowers, flying drones with sharpened saw blades, and hulking bipedal mechs with Gatling guns that all that stand between my slimy flesh and the outside world.

A human attacks the monster with a flame thrower
The humans begin to escalate their counter-attacks and defenses
Image: Phobia Game Studios/Devolver Digital via Polygon

Different threats require different tactics, so I always have to make sure I’m managing my hideous body well, losing and gaining powers in the most strategic way possible. My health is displayed at the top of the screen, and early in the game I can be taken out by just a few shots from my human opposition. The good news is that healing is as simple as eating more human “victims” who probably should have known how this was all going to end up.

Everything about the game reinforces the reality and fleshy horror of my orifice-covered body, from its opening screen to its icon on the Nintendo Switch dashboard. You even save your progress by shoving parts of your own biomass into cracks scattered across the bedrock of the facility, which then blossom into grotesque orifices of heaving flesh and teeth that replenish your health and tear open new pathways between obstacles.

It’s disgusting. It’s awesome. Carrion’s tone strikes a chord between horror and gruesome slapstick as I prey on my unsuspecting victims at their most vulnerable, often hunched intensely over a keyboard or even while they’re sitting in the restroom. All hell breaks loose as soon as they see me.

Unarmed humans will either run screaming, falling down helplessly as they attempt to shut doors between themselves and my straining tentacles, or stand trembling in a fit of fear-induced paralysis. The more foolhardy of humans, equipped with more guns than common sense, will do their best to play the hero. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t that type of game.

Enemies disintegrate into sputtering geysers of pixelated blood as I pull them apart with my teeth and tentacles, slamming their mangled bodies against the floors and ceilings of my prison.

Carrion’s sound design and score are just as impressive, with discordant violin strings and ominous trumpets providing background music for the shrill screams and squelching sounds of biological destruction. The lashing whipcord noise of my tendrils as I scramble across a corridor or descend into a sewer grate never gets old.

I feel like an apex predator, even in this vast and “alien” environment, flying down hallways at the speed of a banshee with an insatiable drive to rip and tear apart anything that has the misfortune of being alive and moving. No matter how challenging a particular puzzle or miniboss encounter might be, it doesn’t feel like anything is nearly smart or powerful enough to keep me down for long. I am inevitable, yet squishy.

The Carrion icon on Nintendo Switch
Carrion’s Switch icon is certainly a design decision
Image: Russ Frushtick/Polygon

There’s not much in the way of exposition or explicit plot beats when it comes to Carrion’s story, but the game does manage to throw some curveballs by having me occasionally play as one of the human scientists who first discovered the creature. These flashback sections look like, play like, and feel reminiscent of the level design and character animations of old cinematic platformers like 1991’s Another World or the original 1989 Prince of Persia.

Carrion communicates most of its major goals entirely through its environment design and puzzles, ditching any formal objective screen. Scrolling LED chyrons signal the humans’ awareness and corresponding response to the threat of my presence, while the animation of each new save point often cuts away to show sealed hatches slowly being peeled apart from the inside by tiny tentacles, as I grow larger and more formidable.

Other recent games have tried to show the world through the eyes of someone you thought was an enemy, making the point that what we consider monstrous is extremely relative. The difference is that Carrion dives into this idea with all its power and weight, finding joy in a theme that might have been maudlin in different hands. I exist only to destroy, and escape, and I have done both.

Carrion launches July 23 on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a Steam download code provided by Devolver Digital. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.