The team behind Somerville, a delightfully bizarre physics-based puzzle adventure game, included the executive producer of Playdead’s two contemporary classics: Inside and in limbo. With its upside-down setting, color palette, character renderings, and ever-rotating camera orientation from scene to scene, it plays very differently from those other options. In fact, it reminds me more of Out of This World than of Limbo or Inside. This was a pleasant surprise, even though it isn’t nearly as polished or thought-provoking as its predecessors. As a result, we have a very good game, but I don’t think I’ll be thinking about it much longer now that I’ve finished it.
The most wholesome way to begin Somerville: After falling asleep in front of the television, a man, a woman, their infant child, and their dog are all on the couch in the living room. You assume command of the man, who is not identified. In fact, neither he nor anyone else ever speaks to us. There is no dialogue, like in Limbo, Inside, and Out of This World; The narratives of Somerville are purely visual. Additionally, I adore the developer Jumpship’s work here visually. Because each of these characters is more like an impressionist rendering of people, our nameless, voiceless hero is also essentially faceless. However, when necessary, the use of color and, more specifically, the contrast makes the world pop, as when a dash of yellow informs you that you can interact with an object without saying a word.
In contrast, minimalist sound design is effective. Apart from the piano soundtrack, which does a good job of raising the drama or tension when the designers of Somerville want it to, the only sound you’ll hear is our hero’s aching breathing and movement. Whatever happened to him plainly truly harms him, and the further into this weird new world he gets, the more aggravation he’s in.
With extraterrestrial objects suddenly filling the sky outside of your remote cabin in the first moments, the story immediately ramps up the danger and paints a very gloomy, bleak, yet intriguing mystery. From there, it only gets mesmerizingly weirder.
As a result, Somerville is a search for the truth that can be completed in slightly less than four hours. Using your mysteriously glowing arm’s newly acquired power, you’ll have to solve physics-based puzzles, primarily by turning the alien structure invading into a water-like, permeable substance by shining light on it. Specifically, light that has been given an extra boost by the power of your arm. These powers gain additional layers as you advance, but they are rather thin; Even though there was enough gameplay to keep Somerville from becoming a walking simulator, the game’s puzzles won’t hold you up for more than a few seconds at a time. In point of fact, the one time I did get stuck, it was more a problem with the physics system than the game’s design.
Somerville keeps its control scheme simple, which contributes to the fact that its puzzles never become overly complicated. You only need the triggers and one face button at a time. That simplicity, including the fact that its interface is absent 99 percent of the time, is admirable. I love it when the atmospheric world shines through unimpeded, especially in a moody adventure like this.
An Imperfect World
Although the idea of having a four-legged wingman initially enthralled me, your canine companion serves almost no purpose here other than occasionally and subtly directing you in the right direction. You can’t even pet him at will, and he has no effect on the story, puzzles, or gameplay. In such a lonely world, companionship is valuable, but he seems to have been given too little to do.
Even though it may be lonely and isolated, the altered Earth is still pretty. Being able to move around freely in the 3D space of each scene, which Somerville constantly alters, is also refreshing. This is not a stage progression from left to right; you’ll go up, down, left, and right at different times, and in that regard, Somerville works effectively of fighting off anything in any way whatsoever looking like dullness during its short-run. That was definitely a good thing because that is where the aforementioned Out of This World reminder comes from. I was always curious about the next scene in Somerville, just like that precious gem.
However, when you move from one room to another, this freedom occasionally causes awkward transitions. It never ceases to be an annoyance when the room you’re entering has a different camera angle, forcing you to move in the opposite direction, right back where you came from.
As the credits rolled, I realized that the story had come to an end and left me with far more questions than answers. I must admit that I was disappointed that I didn’t immediately feel compelled to gather my friends around the nearest water cooler to discuss those questions. It’s hard to say without giving away too much, but I suppose I would say that I didn’t find Somerville’s mystery to be as captivating as I had hoped.
Within the puzzle-adventure genre, Somerville follows its own distinct path. The story is more strange for the sake of being strange than it is for provoking thought, and camera annoyances and physics wackiness occasionally serve as a pebble in your shoe while solving its series of pleasantly challenging puzzles. That path is not always a smooth one. However, Somerville is still a very good tour through an extremely bleak scenario thanks to its strong visual storytelling techniques and the way the opening minutes inspire an irresistible desire to find out what happened to this man and whether or not he will ever find his family. All of this is successfully conveyed without a single line of dialogue.