It is late in the evening. A family snoozes in front of the TV with a dog at their feet. Suddenly the TV goes static, the ground shakes. While the parents sleep peacefully, the baby moves. Oh no. I expect nothing but the worst for the baby when I see who I’m playing – developer Jumpship was founded by Dino Patti, co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind it. Limbo and Inside. Both are not exactly known for their good take on child heroes.
Somerville has clear stylistic parallels to Playdead’s work. Its 3D side-scrolling and light puzzle mechanics are similar, and although Playdead’s Chris Olsen worked on the art long before Patti joined it, the beautiful lighting effects and minimalistic environments led many to initially mistake Somerville as a Playdead game.
However, Somerville is in a league of its own. While I won’t spoil what happens to the kid, Somerville’s hero is actually the father. After an ominous tremor turns out to 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 silent as Somerville tells his entire story non-verbally. I can only hear the strained groan of a man moving heavy objects or trying to recover from a hard fall. More importantly, he’s really just a human – someone who spent a normal evening in front of the TV before the aliens arrived.
At the heart of Somerville is a supernatural power that man accidentally acquired, a kind of magical beam of light that can melt any alien structures. If it touches any current, such as water, a junction box, or light, it can spread magical light into hard-to-reach areas. Later, it also acquires a way to harden previously melted structures.
However, dad doesn’t just go downtown, he goes fast. It soon becomes clear that the aliens are still around to round up some stragglers, so you’ll have to sneak past them. Some of these aliens are huge and make your encounters with them some of the best moments in the game. There’s something about a giant wolf stomping through the woods that makes you feel small and vulnerable.
It’s a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, it’s a game that supports its leadership, and I do.
And the father is sensitive. He may be dead, but Somerville isn’t making a spectacle of it. It’s a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, it’s a game that supports its lead, and so do I. Both the puzzles and the hidden sequences are pretty simple, if I ever got stuck, that’s because of it. Position the father so that he can hold something properly. He’ll clench and unclench his fist like a Sim standing in front of a gate or button, unable to reach the dishes they want to clean, but the tactile sensation of doing something as simple as pushing a button and pulling a cart. it’s actually oddly enjoyable thanks to some amazing animations.
At its best, Somerville is like the Playdead games – yes, I’m going to use the forbidden word here – cinematic. He almost always knows how to use it Resident Evil-like maximizing camera angles and while this isn’t the kind of game where you want to stand around and smell the roses, I found time to stop and stare as much as I could.
Somerville’s locations could have been a bit more interesting. For his part, his puzzles could perhaps be more complex. There are some highlights, like a big, empty music festival at the start, but most of the game takes place in caves, which seems a bit of a waste to me. Of course the game design affects the locations, because if you’re looking for a place with mine carts, levers and projectors to manipulate, a mine would be the obvious choice, it’s just not the most visually interesting.
Still, despite its many caves, Somerville isn’t a dark game, and the atmosphere isn’t as oppressive as you might expect. Just by using some subtle sounds and animations, it manages to say a lot of hopeful things completely without words. Every time a hero falls and needs to take a moment to cling to his sides, I feel like my player is deep in my swing.
You don’t spend a lot of time with your whole family, but when you do, it’s so emotional that I’d rather have it. Because honestly, in those crucial moments, you’re on your own – nothing more than a dad wandering around in a cave, and god knows you can have that in any other game. But it’s the little friendly touches that Somerville invests in that set it apart, whether it’s your dog or an unexpected friendly face coming to the rescue that elevate Somerville from a simple hideout with aliens to something worth spending your time with. .
However, Somerville didn’t quite sell me on the last third, mostly because I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unlike a game like signaled purposefully obscuring its intentions, it was more like a game that defied the limits of non-verbal storytelling. For example, having to unlock several different endings for Somerville feels completely arbitrary and frankly boring. The endings also feel kind of abrupt, making Somerville feel like a game that has a good idea of the core of its plot, but perhaps its ending not so much.
With a running time of 6 hours at most, Somerville could have perhaps been a bit longer to set up the ending more elegantly. Controversial, I know, but after everything I’ve been through with this family, none of the goodbyes Somerville offers have pleased me as much as the others.