Somerville Review: A Man and His Dog at the End of the World

It’s the season for horror games that start with the letter S. And five years after her announcement, Somerville has finally emerged over the twilight horizon. Directed by veteran film animator Chris Olsen and PLAYDEAD co-founder Dino Patti, Jumpship’s debut title focuses on the lineage of its leaders.

This is recognizable as a marriage of premium visual production quality and the darkness and narrative ambiguity of these games. Somerville however, is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Summerville begins with a long shot of a family driving home to their secluded cottage in the country, and settles on mother, father, child and dog, all of whom have fallen asleep on the sofa in front of the murmur of television. This eerie moment is the last real peace on the other side Somerville’s rough four hours of runtime, and that’s worrying.

Strange lights and noises come from outside the family home, waking them up one by one. A few moments and a few crashed Things later, and you’re in control of the father, who now, along with the faithful mutt, must see what’s left of the world and what has become of the rest of his family.

After a close encounter with something, our protagonist finds himself owned by Somerville’s sole gameplay mechanic: an ability to manipulate the state of the jagged, omnidirectional alien matter now scattered about the location. The caveat is that the ability must be paired with a light source, and lacking the foresight to pack a torch for the end of the world, this quest for light becomes the anchor for many of the game’s puzzles. How do I move this lamp there? Can I unravel these cable bulbs and carry them here?

These puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, but that in and of itself isn’t exactly a criticism. I imagine it’s meant to be fairly quick affairs as you hustle through the ruins of southern England – the big clue is the Glastonbury Festival-inspired area you’ll encounter fairly early on, crammed with a pyramid stage and on you flee ahead the monoliths visible on the horizon, casting their ominous violet light towards the sentience.

The headliner here is the environmental storytelling. It’s clearly the heart and soul of Somervilleand while much credit is due to the world that Jumpship created, along with the stunning graphics and sound design, this comes at the expense of the game itself.

Somerville is a cinematic experience with a brimming widescreen display and a slow panning camera that’s forever out of your control. It’s refreshing to play through an entire experience staged in a cinematic sense, and the long cuts of our suffering father strolling through barren fields while the violet lights seek life in the distance are reminiscent of Alejandro’s style Iñárritu or even Béla Tarr.

This gives the impression of being watched and adds to the unsettling feeling of opening hours while everything is still mysterious. And while it’s one of the game’s greatest strengths aesthetically, it’s often a hindrance to progress.

The resulting disconnect is that when watching a film, the audience doesn’t need to know where the cast is going; we’ll know that when they arrive. This opens up the potential for creative camera work and unusual image settings. But as a gamer playing a video game, these types of shots can prove to be an obstacle as smaller obstacles in your path can either be obscured or completely removed from the camera. Often the angles chosen can leave ambiguities in the level design, as the way forward isn’t always clear. Depth of field can also make analyzing a path through debris awkward and confusing.

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in a (n Interview with Edge Olsen said so earlier this year Somerville “formerly 2D; now we’ve turned it into a 3D game.” I’m inclined to say that you can feel that shift tangibly. The world often feels like it’s operating in a 2.5D plane, with the camera issues exposing the lack of overhaul of these pivot points.

It’s not fun to control our protagonist. It’s unwieldy, even when the camera itself behaves, despite the fact that there’s very limited interaction – just movement and an interaction button that goes beyond the ability to manipulate matter. The worst gripe is that its pace is entirely determined by the game – and I’ve never met a character who’s more reserved when it comes to running into danger.

There are a handful of particularly egregious scenes where the level design, camerawork, and present threat make the player think you’re about to run into the nearest obvious cover, only to let our nameless hero casually saunter to his doom. It’s disorienting to watch and robs the game of some of its grounded sensibility. So does a number of plot points that I don’t want to spoil, as I’ve often found myself wondering “why?” without coming up with a good answer.

During my four hours with the game, I also encountered countless performance issues. The audio either disappeared completely or persisted across scenes, and the vibration function had to be reset hard once to stop the rumble. Character models got stuck in loops and didn’t gesture to anyone. A key item in the back half of the game was flying around wildly when in the protagonist’s hands, no matter how many times I reset the game.

Somerville Review – The bottom line

Advantages

  • Spectacular optics and cinema feeling.
  • Sound design and soundtrack.

Disadvantages

  • Poorly conceived as a video game and feels like it’s a better movie.
  • performance issues and bugs.
  • Unsatisfying to play, both in terms of mechanics and puzzles.

Similar to previous work Dino Pattti has been a part of, nothing is ever quite concrete Somerville. There’s no voice acting, no text, and minimal interaction with anything beyond the puzzle components blocking your progress. The story is shown, not told, as the old aphorism of creative writing goes, leaving much to the player’s imagination.

The ambiguity throughout and through to the end is probably a deliberate means of incentivizing repeat playthrough and encouraging deeper story immersion. And I would have liked more time in this world to decipher some of it myself, despite my struggles with some of the bigger moments in the latter half of the game. But it was far too frustrating an experience and by the time I got to the end I had completely lost patience with it.

[Note: Jumpship provided the copy of Somerville used for this review.]

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