Somerville Bears the Heavy Weight of Unreasonable Expectation
Expectation can be a cruel master, and so is the case for Somerville
The weight of expectations is a mixed blessing. Hit a certain level of success and the scrutiny your work will attract skyrockets. Martin Scorsese's films are disseminated as pieces of an increasingly large tapestry composed of his 40+ year oeuvre. Taylor Swift's albums must be obsessively contextualised, analysed, and studied simultaneously as "fun pop" and within the broader vector of how they fit within her entire life trajectory. Hideo Kojima, forming a new studio, must invent a new sub-genre of action games to meet expectations. Somerville is the first game from Jumpship, a studio formed by former Playdead co-founder Dino Patti. Patti left Playdead, the studio behind Limbo and Inside, after a falling out of some kind that will probably never be revealed in full.
Somerville is another game with a mononym title, a silent protagonist, and forced-perspective puzzle solving. It's 3D instead of 2D, but it's still, very much, in the vein of those Playdead titles. And, look, few games in my life have hit me with the sort of seismic force Limbo did. I remember reviewing it for Hyper magazine during a strange, wild-west period of the magazine's life when the magazine was first trailing production without an assistant editor, and the freelance budget skyrocketed (terrible for the magazine and its readers; very good for me specifically). I had emailed the editor, frantically, telling him that the under-the-radar indie I'd just gotten a code for was one of the best games I'd ever played. I gave it a 10/10, a score I absolutely stand by.
Inside, while not quite hitting the same personal heights - and how could it, with the extraordinary expectations I brought to it - was still, undoubtedly, a masterpiece. The ending haunts me. There are moments when I find myself reflecting on the game and wondering if it was, in fact, perfect. When the dust settled, it just drove expectations for the next thing even higher. The Playdead split builds in a new set of questions and expectations, too– was this a good call? Can Patti's new studio hit the same heights as they did? Will this game be an evolution of those titles, which I loved so much? These are not sensible, reasonable questions to ask and demand answers to, but they are questions that nevertheless have sat in my head, stinking up the joint.
So that's the baggage I brought to my playthrough of Somerville, Jumpship's interesting, clever, somewhat-janky debut. I went in with the quiet hope that this would be yet another masterpiece, one that took Playdead's aesthetic sensibilities and clever design quirks, introduced new wrinkles, and showed me even more of what Patti can do. Yes, even as a seasoned critic and developer myself, I fell into the trap of pinning my expectations of a single person onto a larger team. It was the part of my brain that knows how development actually works being overridden by the version of me that sees certain directors announce a new game and thinks "well if they're involved it'll obviously be good".
In the end, I got at least some of what I wanted from Somerville, and came away from it with fond, if not fervent, feelings. At the game's opening, its nameless, silent protagonist has just moved into a secluded rural home with his wife and toddler. Following a pleasant little domestic tutorial, all hell breaks loose and the man soon finds himself separated from his family amid an enormous alien invasion, one of his arms imbued with a mysterious power that lets him use electrical sources to dissolve alien materials.
The mechanics deepen a little as you go, but the core fundamentals stay the same most of the way through - you are able to grab and manipulate certain items, but your controls are otherwise limited. Despite the added depth of 3D, environments still feel fairly static, and it's prone to glitches and clipping. There are some neat puzzles, a handful of annoying sections, and control issues that persist throughout.
I will say, though, that it gets legitimately great in the last half-hour or so when the story and gameplay go particularly hard down a very weird path. It's this last part of the game that feels most of a piece with the other Dino Patti games I've so enjoyed. Without spoiling anything it really leans into the ambiguity of both its set-up and the powers you've been granted, wordlessly suggesting a lot of ideas through imagery and mechanics, and then leaving it up to the player to read as much or as little into it as they want. It reminded me of how hard the endings of both Limbo and Inside hit for me, and how much time I spent trying to disseminate them.
But that's the thing - I can't think about Somerville without thinking about those games, without drawing these comparisons, positive and negative. The things I liked the most about it were all the parts that most evoked those other games. After reflecting on it for a few weeks, I think viewing Somerville as a spiritual follow-up to those games made me like it more; for others, I think, it likely had the opposite effect, because it's definitely not as good.
But the more I look at this game through this lens, the less fair it feels to do so. It's not fair on Dino Patti, and it's especially not fair to the other talented folks at Jumpship, who all made a pretty good game on their own merits. It's not fair to players who want to be able to play a game and judge or enjoy it on its own merits, not weighing it against the other games critics can't help but weigh it against. Reviewed completely blind of context, Somerville would still likely garner comparisons to Limbo and Inside, but there would be no expectation that it might exceed those titles; they're two of the best games ever made. I wonder how this pressure has affected the folks at Jumpship, and I wonder what we can do to lessen it.
I have not seen sales figures, but Somerville seems to have already achieved all the success it needs to - publisher Thunderful announced their acquisition of the studio just before the game debuted, and its launch on Xbox Game Pass hopefully took some pressure off the importance of early sales. Reviews have been decent, but well behind Patti's Playdead titles. Perhaps none of this actually matters to the folks at the studio; they're likely proud to have launched their first game and to have achieved these visible early successes. But I also wonder if Limbo and Inside will follow them around forever; if every review, think piece, video essay, will continue to mention these past successes. Despite working in an industry that is often looking aggressively towards the future, a lot of folks involved in games - myself included - can't help holding onto the past.
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