There are certain games in which the story is all important; the writers spend years to ensure that their audience understands it completely. They spend months making up this yarn, all so that the player fully embraces the creativity of their minds. This is sometimes done through cut scenes, as the main character explains the plot or the protagonist self-narrates every detail. But some other stories and tales are left up for interpretation and even question whether the narrator is a reliable one or not.
Somerville has a narrative that, at first, seems simple but then opens up through many different pathways; routes that leave you wondering and theorising for days.
Chris Olsen, an animator for movies and games, came up with the concept for Somerville in 2014. From there, the co-founder of Playdead Studio – one Dino Patti – found some serious success before leaving the company to join up with Chris in order to form Jumpship, working together on this game. In terms of similarities between Inside and Limbo, you can only say that Somerville has the same strangeness in the narrative. It’s a story that is told without any words, just through the visuals. And I love it.
Told visually, Somerville starts with a camera shot of a car traveling through the English countryside. It arrives at a house with a view as the family of two adults, a toddler and a dog get out and go inside. From there, while all asleep and watching TV there is an alien invasion and the world turns upside down. The husband – who you play mostly as throughout the game – is separated from his family, apart from the dog and after gaining an alien power ventures out across the world to try and find his family again. That’s as far as I’m going to delve into the tale on offer, for fear of spoiling what happens.
The way the story is told and how the exploration of the narrative comes across are both immense; at times stunning. There are destroyed environments that you walk through and try to navigate, leaving you to try and only guess as to what has happened from the visual clues in the foreground and the epic backdrops on display. Fires and strange alien craft are dotted around in the carnage. At one point, as you get closer, another survivor never to be seen again scatters away. You see others in a refugee camp huddled together, with a wall of photos of the ones lost. It’s hard stuff but it’s all played delicately throughout. And then there are the stranger bits, like dreams or a sci-fi book that takes place as Somerville progresses. I may never have really quite comprehended what goes on, but that doesn’t matter one jot.
Somerville doesn’t explain anything. You move your character around the landscapes, left to pick things up or move objects. You get – pretty early on – a strange alien power that gives you the ability when near light to use this power, and it makes certain matter disintegrate so you can move through it. Even later on, you get the opposite ability – that of making things solid. In a way, this is when the game feels most like Inside, working simple gameplay mechanics and neat ways of interacting with the environments. It all feels pretty familiar.
You will end up underwater at times, having to run away from danger and at times go about stopping traffic with your powers. It all works well for the most part, but during my playthrough a few bugs did pop up. Just be aware that at times you’ll find yourself stuck, mostly as you miss the slightest opening which you need to get through. But the puzzles in the game are fun and interesting to try and solve.
Somerville has an amazing visual design that borrows from the sci-fi world, working straight lines and amazing colours. The backdrops are brilliant, all as you travel through this broken land. One of my highlights has to be going through an abandoned music festival, whilst the underwater sections are incredible. It does a very intriguing thing too, pushing the camera far away from the action, making you feel like an observer or spy, watching the action unfold. But it’s when Somerville gets stranger and more dreamlike, working sharp cuts and visions that it really excels.
There isn’t any voice-over with this game, but the soundtrack provides the narrative the support it needs. Most of the time it is pretty quiet, and the soundtrack is used sparingly. But when it does come in, it’s brilliant, poignant, and affecting. Somerville plays with some great audio effects that help to drive the game’s drama along.
Somerville is an important addition to our gaming diet. It’s not worried about pushing boundaries in terms of narrative structure or story, and never wants to guide the player too much, letting them find their own journey through a brilliant linear adventure.
Like all the best gaming experiences, Somerville is one that will stay with you well after the end credits roll.
Somerville is on the Xbox Store