Somerville is a spiritual sequel to Limbo but with blockbuster appeal

The first thing you should know Somervillethe spiritual continuation of limbo and Inside, is that the story makes sense. Its predecessors lived at the other end of the narrative spectrum, somewhere between “Buñuelian Nightmare” and “back when you smoked salvia in college and broke up reading Orwell”. but Somerville, well, it’s a bit normal. At first.

That Somerville Elevator Pitch only needs one floor: “What if someone finally did it war of the Worlds into a decent video game?” As HG Wells’ novel (and its countless variants) has reached this rare level of ubiquitous pop culture, the early beats will be familiar: a bit of domestic bliss punctuated by an apocalyptic alien invasion; The collapse of the earth as seen by the people on the ground; the distant possibility of a counter-attack to save humanity from total annihilation.

Instead of following the president or the sexiest scientist alive, this time we get a guy who just wants to see his wife and kid again. The guy has no talent for violence and no talent for survival, apart from a slightly increased ability to solve problems on the fly. He’s like a particularly clever and/or lucky ant who stays alive during a family picnic.

From all war of the Worlds adjustments, Somerville has most in common with Steven Spielberg’s Tom Cruise vehicle, released a few years after the 9/11 attacks. Cars speed erratically down a freeway, fleeing in a direction where things are likely to be just as bad – maybe worse. Survivors hide in sewers or gather in makeshift evacuation centers. An outdoor festival is abandoned – as if its party-goers were rapt.

Image: Jumpship over Polygon

Since this is a video game, our guy can wander into the night with superhuman strength. In the moments after the invasion but before the family is torn apart, the father has a close encounter with an alien soldier. With a tap of his finger and a period of unconsciousness, he gains the gift of turning light into a world-changing tool.

When he touches a desk lamp, ceiling fan, or spotlight, he can channel blue energy through the stream, converting the natural white light into a meerschaum glow that melts alien materials into a sort of living goo. Not much later, he acquires a red energy that, with a convulsive pulse, solidifies the alien slime like lava that instantly turns to stone. Most of the game’s puzzles involve dissolving and restoring materials, liquifying rocks to fill a gap with melted mud from another world, and then hardening their surface so the guy and his dog can hobble across the crust.

And so the father embarks on a journey through a world that looks a bit like ours, but moodier and completely destroyed. This way the game looks and plays very much like Playdead’s games. You’ll move left or right through a more or less 2D space, solving puzzles, hiding from unstoppable enemies, and piecing together a story performed with pantomime rather than dialogue.

At the beginning of Somerville, an alien soldier offers a supernatural power to the average human.

Image: Jumpship over Polygon

But this is not a playdead game. After the release of InsidePlaydead co-founder and executive producer Dino Patti left the studio and founded Jumpship, where he hired new talent. SomervilleChris Olsen’s director-writer comes from the world of animation and brings with him a more keen interest in the art of cinema – not just blockbuster set pieces, but also the little things: long shots and close-ups – high.

So the game presents itself at first glance as something else limbo or Insideas his journey continues, the similarities rub off like a snake shedding its skin.

What do I mean? Basically, the game works best when it’s not a game at all. As the guy exits his demolished house, he leans against the door frame and cranes his neck to look for his dog. As he dodges the searchlights of a giant alien ship, the camera pans back until he is a dot on the screen. You can tell an animator had more control than usual because so much time and care was given to every character, every creature, and every disaster. We’ve seen this level of detail — in which characters engage with the world and the people around them — in mega-budget projects like The Last of Us Part 2but rarely in a game of this size where prioritizing animation means deprioritizing something else.

A couple tries to flee their home during an alien apocalypse in Somerville.

Image: Jumpship over Polygon

Speaking of which, as the adventure takes hold, its creators seem to be losing interest in puzzles altogether — for the better, frankly. The puzzles are delicate, finicky and a bit forgotten. In the back half, our man’s journey approaches the running simulators of the 2010s, where the only real obligation is to keep moving forward. Again, this comes with some minor irritations, as the game’s dark graphics and character’s small size can lead to some confusion about how to interact with the world. At times I understood where the game was trying to get me, but couldn’t immediately grasp how it expected me to climb a rock or swim across a pond, for example. Most annoying were the few instant death action sequences that completely cut the flow and forced me to repeat it 3 or 4 times.

These shortcomings held back Inside and limboand it’s disappointing to see that they now span three games over 12 years, presumably pursuing creative talent from one studio to another.

To counter me, the problems might just be the inevitable side effects of this playstyle. And the solution can fall to both the player (read: me) and the designer. For example, the way I play this type of platformer adventure game has changed over the years. They are narratively static, constructed like films, moving from scene to scene in exactly the same way every time. So now I treat them like films that I can perform. The first playthrough serves as script notation and dress rehearsal so I can work out the kinks and catches. On the second playthrough, the game sort of becomes itself as I play through the journey at perfected pace. I hit my targets and in return the game plays like the spectacle it was always meant to be.

A man looks at a crashed jet plane covered in alien rock in Somerville.

Image: Jumpship over Polygon

I wonder if Somerville Expect most players to have a similar experience, hitting credits and starting over, this time with less interest in puzzles and more interest in the cinematic. The short running time of the game (just a few hours) and the possibility of alternative endings (we’ll leave the unpacking to Reddit and YouTube) suggest this.

For the second playthrough, I switched from Steam Deck to a big TV, which made the second playthrough even more of a departure because while this game doesn’t look like an AAA game, it feels like it. So play on the biggest screen with the best headphones or speakers you can find.

Somerville is a delightful, delicious bite to end the year that will be remembered for multi-course meals. We could probably leave it at that. But I want to go back to the game’s family tree one last time. Because apart from being an entertaining video game, Somerville carries an unusual meaning in the gaming industry – or baggage – depending on your approach.

A millennial father, mother, son and dog sleep on a couch in front of a glowing TV in Somerville.

Image: Jumpship over Polygon

In 2010 the Danish studio released Playdead limbo, one of the first indie games to benefit from internet-connected consoles and digital storefronts. A small team could reach a massive audience without appearing on the shelf at Walmart — and without all the overhead that goes with it. Inside appeared six years later amid the “indie apocalypse” when the same online stores were crammed with dozens of new releases every week. Its predecessor guaranteed reviewers’ attention, and its quality received high marks, elevating the dystopian yarn above thousands of contemporaries. Now, another six years later, we have sort of a closure Somerville, a game that shows how indie games haven’t gotten so indie anymore that established talent has the cash and stash to break apart and do separate things. Additionally, Jumpship has partnered with Microsoft to be available on Game Pass at launch and draw a direct line limbo‘s Original appearance on Xbox Live Arcade. The upstarts have become the old.

sure, Inside Developer Playdead still exists. In 2020, the studio announced a partnership with game publisher and storefront Epic Games. If this deal bears fruit, we may see the official conclusion of this historic indie game trilogy. With Somerville in the world as a kind of intermediate result, one can assume that both the original plant and its cutting will be fine and will branch out in their own whimsy and beautiful way.

I have withheld from you one thing, and that is the final act. limbo, and specially Inside, understood that a memorable ending makes for a memorable game. Somerville maintains that lesson, and for all its familiarity and narrative clarity, the game loosens its grip on the wheel until it suddenly hurtles off-road into… something you have to experience for yourself.

So I guess that Somerville is the most inviting of the three games, starting with the familiar and riding the slow, exponential line up into the bizarre. Wise decision. For all the craftsmanship required to create a crisp, playable film, nothing beats the otherworldly weirdness of video games.

Somerville will be released on November 15th on Windows PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X via Game Pass. The game was verified on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Jumpship. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions on products purchased through affiliate links. You can find For more information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy, click here.

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