It is late at night. A family is dozing in front of the TV, their dog at their feet. Suddenly, the TV becomes static, the ground shakes. While the parents sleep peacefully, the toddler is restless. Oh no. I instantly expect the worst for the toddler, given what game I’m playing – developer Jumpship was co-founded by Dino Patti, himself co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind Limbo and On the inside. The two aren’t exactly known for treating their child protagonists well.
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 him, the beautiful lighting effects and minimalistic environments led many people to initially mistaking Somerville for a Playdead game.
Tonally, however, Somerville is in a league of its own. While I’m not spoiling what happens to the toddler, the protagonist of Somerville is actually the father. After the ominous tremor turns out to be an alien invasion, he is separated from the rest of his family and must go in search of them. Our protagonist is nameless and nearly mute, as Somerville tells his entire story non-verbally. I only hear the man’s moans of effort as he moves heavy objects or tries to recover from a heavy fall. More importantly, he’s really just a man – someone who spent a normal evening watching TV before the aliens arrived.
At the heart of Somerville is a supernatural power that man acquires randomly, a kind of magical light beam that can melt all alien structures. If he touches any type of current, such as water, a junction box, or a light, he can spread magic light to hard-to-reach areas. Later, he also acquires a means of hardening previously melted structures.
However, dad is not content to just walk downtown. Soon it becomes clear that the aliens are still out to pick up stragglers, so you’ll need to sneak past them. Some of these aliens are massive, making the times 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.
It’s a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, it’s a game that encourages his lead, and by extension, me too.
And dad is vulnerable. He may die, but Somerville doesn’t make a show of it. It’s a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, it’s a game that encourages his lead, and by extension, me too. The puzzles and stealth sequences are pretty simple, if I ever get stuck it’s because it can be tricky to position Dad to grab something like he’s supposed to. He’ll stand in front of a door or button, clenching and unclenching his fist like a Sim who can’t reach the dishes he wants to clean, but the tactile feel of doing something as simple as pressing a button and pulling a cart is actually oddly enjoyable, thanks to stunning animations.
At its best, Somerville, much like Playdead games is downright – yes, I’ll say the forbidden word here – cinematic. He just knows how to use his often almost resident Evil-like the camera angles for maximum effect, and while it’s not the kind of game that wants to sit there and smell the roses, I took the time to stop and watch whenever I could.
The Somerville locations could have been a little more interesting, however. In turn, his puzzles could also possibly have been more complex. There are a few early highlights, like a large, deserted music festival, but most of the game takes place in caves, which feels a bit marred to me. Naturally, game design influences locations, because if you’re looking for a place with minecarts, levers, and spotlights to manipulate, a mine will be an obvious choice, but not the most visually interesting.
Still, despite its many caves, Somerville isn’t a dark game, and the atmosphere isn’t as oppressive as one might expect. He manages to say a lot of hopeful things entirely without words, just with the use of some subtle sounds and animations. Every time the protagonist takes a fall and just needs to take a moment, hugging their sides, I feel that somewhere deep in my gamer sway.
You don’t spend a lot of time with the whole family, but when you do it’s so emotional I wish I had more of it. Because honestly, in those important moments, you’re on your own – nothing more than a dad hustling in a cave, and god knows you can have that in any other game already. But the little touches friendly faces that Somerville invests in are what set it apart, whether it’s your dog or an unexpected friendly face coming to the rescue, these are what elevate Somerville from just hide and seek with aliens to something worth watching. spend your time with .
However, Somerville couldn’t completely sell me their last third, mostly because I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unlike a game like Signalis which deliberately obscures its intentions, it felt more like a case of acting bumping into the limits of non-verbal storytelling. How you unlock the various endings in Somerville, for example, seems completely arbitrary and honestly boring. The endings also feel pretty abrupt, making Somerville feel like a game that had a good sense of its main plot, but perhaps not so much of its ending.
With at most 6 hours of play, Somerville could perhaps have taken a little more time to set up his ending with more elegance. Controversial, I know, but after all I’ve been through with this family, none of the farewells offered by Somerville have truly left me as satisfied as the others.