It’s late evening. A family is dozing in front of the TV, their dog at their feet. Suddenly the TV turns to static, the ground shakes. While the parents peacefully sleep on, the toddler stirs. Oh no. I instantly expect nothing but the worst for the toddler, seeing whose game I’m playing – developer Jumpship was co-founded by Dino Patti, himself co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind Limbo and Inside. Both aren’t exactly known for treating their child protagonists well.
Somerville has clear stylistic parallels to Playdead’s work. Its 3D sidescrolling and light puzzle mechanics are similar, and though Playdead’s Chris Olsen worked on the art long before Patti joined him, the beautiful lighting effects and minimalist environments have led a lot of people to initially confuse Somerville as a Playdead game.
Tonally, however, Somerville is in a league all of its own. While I won’t spoil what happens to the toddler, Somerville’s protagonist is actually the father. After the ominous shaking actually turns out to be an alien invasion, he gets separated from the rest of his family and has to set off to find them. Our protagonist is nameless and near-mute, as Somerville tells its entire story non-verbally. I only hear the man’s groans of exertion as he moves heavy items or tries to recover from a heavy fall. More importantly, he is 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 the man randomly acquires, a kind of magical light beam that can melt away any alien structures. If he touches any type of current, such as water, a junction box, or a light, he can spread the magical light across hard-to-reach areas. Later, he also acquires a way to harden previously melted structures.
However, Dad isn’t just making his way downtown, walking fast. Soon it becomes clear that the aliens are still around to collect some stragglers, so you will have to sneak your way 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 woods that leaves you feeling small and vulnerable.
This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, this is a game cheering for its lead, and by extension, so am I.
And the Dad is vulnerable. He can die, but Somerville doesn’t make a spectacle out of it. This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, this is a game cheering for its lead, and by extension, so am I. Both the puzzles and sneaking sequences are rather simple, if I ever got stuck it’s because it can be fiddly to position Dad so that he grabs something the way he’s supposed to. He will stand in front of a gate or button, clenching and unclenching 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 pleasant, thanks to some stunning animations.
At its best, Somerville, much like the Playdead games is downright – yes, I’m going to say the forbidden word here – cinematic. It just knows how to use its often almost Resident Evil-like camera angles to maximum effect, and while it’s not the kind of game that wants to stand around and smell the roses, I took the time to stop and stare whenever I could.
Somerville’s locations could have been a little more interesting, however. In turn, its puzzles could perhaps have been more intricate, too. There are some standouts at the beginning, like a large, deserted music festival, but most of the game takes place in caves, which to me seems like a bit of a waste. Naturally, the game design influences the locations, because if you’re looking for a place with minecarts, levers, and floodlights to manipulate, a mine is going to be an obvious choice, just not the visually most interesting one.
Still, despite its many caves, Somerville isn’t a dark game and the atmosphere isn’t as oppressive as you might expect. It manages to say a great many hopeful things entirely without words, just with the use of some subtle sounds and animations. Whenever the protagonist takes a tumble and just needs to take a moment, clutching his sides, I feel that somewhere deep in my gamer swayback.
You don’t spend a lot of time with the whole family, but when you do, it’s so emotive I would have loved more of that. 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 already have that in any other game. But the small friendly touches Somerville invests in are what makes it stand out, whether that’s your dog or an unexpected friendly face coming to the rescue, they are what elevates Somerville from simple hide-and-seek with aliens to something worth spending your time with.
However, Somerville couldn’t completely sell me on its last third, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unlike a game such as Signalis that purposefully obscures its intentions, this felt more like a case of a game coming up against the limits of non-verbal storytelling. The way you unlock Somerville’s several different endings, for example, feels completely arbitrary and honestly kind of boring. The endings also feel kind of abrupt, making Somerville feel like a game that had a good idea of the main body of its plot, but maybe not so much its ending.
With at most 6 hours of playtime, Somerville could perhaps have been just a tiny bit longer to set up its ending more elegantly. Controversial, I know, but after everything I went through with this family, none of the goodbyes Somerville offered really left me as satisfied as the rest.