It’s late at night. A family is dozing off in front of the TV, their dog at their feet. Suddenly the TV goes static, the ground shakes. While the parents sleep peacefully, the toddler stirs. Oh no. I immediately expect nothing but the worst for the toddler, given whose game I play – developer Jumpship was co-founded by Dino Patti, himself a co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind Limbo and Inside. Both are not exactly known for treating their protagonists well.
Somerville has clear stylistic parallels to Playdead’s work. The 3D sidescrolling and light puzzle mechanics are similar, and although Playdead’s Chris Olsen worked on the art long before Patti joined him, the beautiful lighting effects and minimalistic environments have led many people to initially mistake Somerville as a Playdead game.
Tonally, however, Somerville is in a league of its own. While I won’t reveal what happens to the toddler, Somerville’s protagonist is actually the father. After the ominous shaking turns out to actually be an alien invasion, he is separated from the rest of his family and must set out to find them. Our protagonist is nameless and almost mute, as Somerville tells his entire story non-verbally. All I hear is the man’s groan of effort as he moves heavy objects or tries to recover from a bad fall. More importantly, he’s really just a man – someone who had a normal night in front of the television before the aliens came.
At the core of Somerville is a supernatural power that the man gains at random, a kind of magical beam of light that can melt away all alien structures. If he touches some kind of current, such as water, a junction box or a lamp, he can spread the magical light to hard-to-reach places. He later also acquires a way to harden previously molten structures.
Papa doesn’t just go downtown fast, though. It soon becomes clear that the aliens are still around to collect some stragglers, so you’ll have to sneak past them. Some of these aliens are huge, making the moments when you encounter them some of the best moments in the game. There’s just something about a giant monster stomping through the woods that makes you feel small and vulnerable.
This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, this is a game that applauds its edge, and by extension, so am I.
And the father is vulnerable. He may die, but Somerville doesn’t make a spectacle of it. This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, this is a game that celebrates its edge, and by extension, so am I. Both the puzzles and sneak sequences are pretty easy, if I ever got stuck it’s because be clumsy positioning daddy to grab something like he’s supposed to. He will stand in front of a gate or button, clenching and unclamping his fist like a Sim who can’t reach the dishes they want to clean up, but the tactile sensation of doing something as simple as holding down a button and pulling a cart is actually oddly enjoyable, thanks to some mind-blowing animations.
At its best, Somerville, like the Playdead games, is downright – yes, I’m going to say the forbidden word here – cinematic. It just knows how to max out its often almost Resident Evil-esque camera angles, and while it’s not the kind of game that wants to stand and smell the roses, I took the time to stop and stare whenever I could could.
However, Somerville’s locations could have been a little more interesting. In turn, perhaps the puzzles could have been more complicated. There are some highlights in the beginning, such as a large, abandoned music festival, but most of the game takes place in caves, which seems a bit of a shame to me. Of course the game design influences the locations, because if you’re looking for a place with minecarts, levers and floodlights to manipulate, a mine will be an obvious choice, but not the most visually interesting.
Yet, despite the many caves, Somerville is not a dark game and the atmosphere is not as oppressive as you might expect. It manages to say a lot of hopeful things, completely without words, just with the help of some subtle sounds and animations. Whenever the protagonist gets confused and has to take a moment, grabbing his sides, I feel that flinch somewhere deep inside my gamer.
You don’t spend a lot of time with the whole family, but when you do, it’s so emotional that I wish I had more of that. Because honestly, in those key moments you’re all alone – nothing more than a dad crawling around in a cave, and God knows you can already have that in any other game. But the little, kind touches Somerville invests in are what make it stand out, whether that’s your dog or an unexpectedly friendly face coming to the rescue, they elevate Somerville from simple alien hide and seek to something worth having. spend your time with.
However, Somerville couldn’t fully sell me on the last third, mostly because I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unlike a game like Signalis that purposefully obscures its intentions, this felt more like a case of a game hitting the limits of non-verbal storytelling. The way you unlock Somerville’s various endings, for example, feels completely random and, frankly, a little boring. The endings also feel rather abrupt, making Somerville feel like a game that had a good idea of the main body of its plot, but perhaps not so much the ending.
With a maximum of 6 hours of play time, Somerville could have gone just a little longer to set up the ending more elegantly. Controversial, I know, but after all I’ve been through with this family, none of the goodbyes Somerville offered me were as satisfying as the rest.