It’s a Sunday – or at least feels like one. Waking up with a start, you realise you’ve fallen asleep in front of the TV. The dog barks impatiently for his dinner. Reluctantly, you leave your wife’s warm embrace, put your son to bed and drag up the dog chum from the basement. This is how developer Jumpstart’s debut begins: not with a bang but a yawn. It’s an endearingly intimate glimpse of country life which, predictably, doesn’t last.
As soon as you’ve dealt with your mutt’s mealtime, an explosion rocks your countryside abode. Running outside to survey the damage, you see glowing obelisks swarming the sky, their lasers destroying farmland. It’s all extremely HG Wells, and after a strange glowing lifeform knocks you unconscious, you’re mistaken for dead, setting the stage for the tense, solitary journey to come.
Somerville is atmospheric, unashamedly British sci-fi. When films and games so often have us witnessing the apocalypse through American eyes, there’s something oddly comforting about how close to home this horror feels. From sprinting past hay bales and traversing fields ripped right out of a National Trust guide to climbing over dusty Fiat 500s on an abandoned A-road, this is an English armageddon. The regular reappearance of your loyal little terrier is a welcome sight amid the increasingly barren, death-strewn vision of the home you once knew.
In true video game fashion, the aforementioned extraterrestrial encounter leaves you coursing with otherworldly electromagnetic abilities, which are useful for solving puzzles. With a squeeze of the left trigger, your bandaged arm becomes a Thanos-esque glaive, emitting a surge of environment-manipulating electricity that can affect light bulbs, fuse boxes, batteries and any other working wiring you stumble upon.
Somerville tells its entire four-hour story without uttering a single word. Much like co-creator Dino Patti’s previous games, Limbo and Inside, Somerville communicates through expressive animations, quiet interactions, and simple controls. From fleeing four-legged cuboids as you duck and weave through an eerily abandoned music festival, to hardening a river of plasma in order to seal off a flooding cave, its simple mechanics are used effectively. But I spent way too much time meandering around each new vignette, wrestling with the camera as Country Dad clumsily fumbled around near the one thing I wanted him to interact with. He walks painfully slowly, and fiddly movement is always an immersion-breaker.
Much as in Breath of the Wild, music and subwoofer-bothering sound effects are employed sparingly. For long stretches of your perilous journey, your only audio accompaniments are the gentle patter of rain and the impatient huffs of your furry companion. When you are about to have a close encounter of the murderous kind, the sound makes you very much aware of it. This sense of quiet foreboding makes Somerville a decidedly wintry game. As the days grow shorter and the outside world becomes less inviting, this is an adventure built to be enjoyed in one rainy evening, ideally in a dimly lit room.
Somerville is the only game that has ever had me hiding from aliens in a grimy festival Portaloo. Yet its last-ditch attempt at a galaxy-brain sci-fi ending lands with a disappointing thud. While its head-scratcher finale leaves you wishing its nonverbal narrative was a little more verbal, Somerville remains a masterclass in minimal storytelling; a series of memorable, haunting vignettes.