I want to start off by saying that Somerville is a beautiful game. It’s got visuals like nothing else out there, evocative music, and it clearly has strong ideas about what makes tension, excitement, mystery, and wonder work. The makers behind this game know exactly what they want to achieve here.
Sadly, this doesn’t always translate into the game itself — because actually playing is a frustrating experience.
Somerville is a short science fiction game featuring a family living in a small rural home who are swept up in an intergalactic war they can barely understand. The man of the family is seemingly killed when an alien grants him strange powers — when he wakes up, his wife and child are gone, and he sets out immediately to find them, all while dodging various alien entities and ships along his way.
For a game whose main mechanic is simply walking from one place to another, the movement is what makes this game especially frustrating to play. You walk like you’re underwater or in a dream. There’s no way to move slower or faster — in fact, in some places where speed is of the essence, you may find yourself moving even slower than usual for reasons that make little sense. You have no idea WHY the main character is going a certain way or why some environments are climbable and some aren’t; it’s all arbitrary. You’ll run into (sorry, awkwardly walk into) a lot of being unable to move to a certain slightly higher ledge unless you walk up to it from a very particular angle.
You will also constantly be abandoning your dog. Don’t worry about it — he always finds you again. Sadly, no, you can’t pet him, despite what a good boy he is.
There is also a fair bit of puzzling in this game. You’re granted the visually fantastic ability to supercharge electric lights to dissolve alien constructs, an ability that evolves to do more as the story progresses. It’s a great looking mechanic — but the puzzles can be frustrating. Not just because I’m dim (I am,) but there’s a difference between puzzles with a cleverness you can see when you finally figure them out and puzzles that ought to have multiple solutions but can only be solved a certain way — a way that, to boot, is not made clear at all to players.
Somerville aims to be an immersive experience for good and for ill. In the short 3-4 hour play time, there’s extremely little hand-holding. Almost nothing in the way of hints, quests logs, or indications about what you’re about to do next. The protagonist journeys in a certain direction to find his family, and it’s never explained why he chose that direction, and that’s just something you have to suspend your disbelief about.
It’s in the non-action, non-puzzling, simple moments that the game’s refusal to help a player out can get the most frustrating. These are parts of the game where the story and the storytelling should take center stage. In action scenes, there’s always a part of you that understands why you’re failing. In puzzle scenes, even the most obtuse, you know that having to look around for the thing you’ve missed is part of the experience.
In what are meant to be tranquil moments of human beauty, however, spending twenty minutes wandering up and down the same hallway looking for the one tiny little thing that helps you progress the scene doesn’t add anything to the experience. It rips you right out of the story being told far more than a simple “go this way!” arrow would have.
I don’t think I’d be this upset if this were a boring game. When the game works, it’s magic. There are entire sections of the game where every complaint I have seems to be dealt with. The potential of what Somerville could be is breathtaking. It has beautiful scenery, a strong sense of the mood it’s trying to convey, and an ever-present mystery in the background. When certain animations or scene transitions are triggered, you can see the scope of what this game ought to be. The silence is eerie. The fear you feel is real.
There’s no dialogue, but there is some stellar voice acting nonetheless. Simple breaths, pants, sobs, and even grunts convey an impressive range of human emotion in the game — the voice acting does more with less.
You’re largely distant, camera-angle-wise, from the person whose story you are supposedly enacting, which is an interesting choice. Most games try to have you identify with the protagonist and make it feel like this is your story, even if you look different from them. Here, though…though you have (some) agency in the game, this feels like you’re mostly aiding the motions of someone else’s tale. It also brings the focus to the environments, the scope of a much, much larger story, and how small the protagonist feels within them.
If you can somehow set aside the frustrating gameplay of Somerville, you’re left with a masterfully crafted experience. The camera angles, the way threats creep up on you, the humanity at the heart of it all, it all shines strong. There’s a mystery that slowly unfolds in this game — you’re never given the full answers, but the picture starts to come together in a way that is awe-inspiring. And just when you get used to that…sigh. The ending.
I don’t want to spoil the ending. I do want to say that I was deeply unsatisfied by it. When I reached the ending, a Steam Achievement let me know I had inadvertently made a choice, but going back and replaying through the latter parts of the game multiple times, there was never any indication of how I made that choice or how I could possibly have made any others. Maybe it’s a glitch that needs fixing, maybe I’m just obtuse, and there’s something both simple and incredibly obvious that I’ve mixed, but the fact that I can’t tell the difference just reminds me of how draining this game that I want to love turned out to be.
I love nothing more than the way games amplify the power of storytelling by putting agency in the players’ hands. How it can draw players in by making protagonists’ struggles, failures and triumphs the players’ struggles, failures and triumphs. Even in stories that are completely linear, being able to move through it on your own adds so much to how the elements of a game affects you.
There is real, unparalleled art to be found in Somerville. Unfortunately, the gameplay undercuts instead of enhances everything that ought to make it great.