It’s late evening. A family dozes off in front of the television, their dog at their feet. Suddenly the TV goes silent and the ground shakes. While the parents continue to sleep peacefully, the toddler stirs. Oh no. I immediately expect the worst for the toddler when I see whose game I’m playing – developer Jumpship was co-founded by Dino Patti, himself a co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind Limbo and Inside. Neither of them are known for treating their childish 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 made many people think of Somerville as a Playdead game at first confound.
Sonically, Somerville is in a league of its own. While I won’t spoil what happens to the toddler, Somerville’s protagonist is actually the father. After the ominous shaking turns out to be an alien invasion, he is separated from the rest of his family and has to go in search of them. Our protagonist is nameless and almost mute as Somerville tells his whole story non-verbally. All I hear is the man’s strained groans 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 evening in front of the telly before the aliens came.
At the heart of Somerville is a supernatural power that the man accidentally acquires, a kind of magical ray of light capable of melting all alien structures. When he touches any type of current, like water, a junction box, or a light, he can spread the magical light over hard-to-reach places. He also later learns a way to harden previously melted structures.
But Dad doesn’t just make a quick trip downtown. 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 massive, making the moments you encounter them some of the best moments in the game. There’s just something about a giant monster stomping through the forest that makes you feel small and vulnerable.
This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, this is a game that celebrates its leadership, and so am I.
And the father is vulnerable. He can 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 cheers for its leadership, and by extension, so am I. Both the puzzles and the stealth sequences are pretty easy, if I ever get stuck it’s because you can be fiddly with positioning dad to grab something the way he’s supposed to. He faces a gate or button and clenches and opens his fist like a Sim who can’t reach the dishes he wants to clear but can get the tactile sensation of doing something as simple as pushing a button and pulling a cart is actually oddly enjoyable, thanks to some stunning animations.
At its best, much like the Playdead games, Somerville is downright – yes, I’m going to use the forbidden word here – cinematic. It just knows how to make the most of its often almost Resident Evil-esque camera angles, and while it’s not the kind of game that wants to stand around and smell the roses, I’ve taken the time to stop and stare whenever I could.
However, Somerville’s locations could have been a little more interesting. In turn, perhaps his puzzles could have been more complicated. There are some highlights in the beginning, like a big, deserted music festival, but most of the gameplay takes place in caves, which strikes me as a waste. Of course, game design affects locations, because if you’re looking for a place to manipulate mine carts, levers, and floodlights, a mine is an obvious choice, just not the most visually interesting.
Despite its many caves, Somerville isn’t a dark play and the atmosphere isn’t as oppressive as you might expect. It manages to say a lot of hopeful things entirely without words, just with the use of some subtle sounds and animations. Whenever the protagonist takes a fall and needs to take just a moment to cling to their sides, I feel it somewhere deep in my gamer swayback.
You don’t spend much time with the whole family but when you do it’s so emotional I would have loved more of it. Because honestly, in those important moments, you’re all alone – nothing more than a dad scrambling around in a cave, and god knows you can have that in any other game. But the little friendly touches Somerville invests in make the difference, whether it’s your dog or an unexpectedly friendly face that comes to the rescue, they turn Somerville from a simple game of hide-and-seek with aliens into something worth playing with yours To spend time .
However, Somerville failed to fully convince me in the last third, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unlike a game like Signalis, which intentionally obfuscates its intentions, this felt more like a game pushing the limits of non-verbal storytelling. The way you unlock the different endings of Somerville, for example, feels completely random and frankly boring. The endings also feel kind of abrupt, making Somerville feel like a game that had a good idea of the main part of its plot, but maybe not so much of its ending.
With a maximum of 6 hours of gameplay, Somerville could have been a tad longer to make its ending more graceful. Controversial, I know, but after all I’ve been through with this family, none of the goodbyes Somerville offered really satisfied me like the others.