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Op-ed: The problem with Somerville (or the fine art of telling me what to do)

Somerville is a beautiful title, but one that proves freedom can be a pitfall.

Video games are an illusion. Some of the very best make us forget that, momentarily convincing us that we're exercising that fanciful thing called free will to determine an undeterminable outcome and somehow influence the painstakingly engineered programming purring away behind the scenes.

The reality is that we're all puppets on a string, pirouetting away to the tune of a development team like a bunch of well-drilled ballet dancers. It might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes selling that illusion means actively stripping choice away from players. Make them believe they're the masters of their own destiny while guiding them down a preordained path without ever breaking cover.

After all, by picking up the controller players become part of the deception. They're offering to suspend their disbelief so you can whisk them away. They know the outcome is a forgone conclusion – or "conclusions," if you're playing with branching narratives – but sometimes the key to convincing them otherwise is ensuring they do exactly what they're told, precisely when they're told to do it.

Therein lies the problem with Somerville.

Up, down, left, right – but only one way forward

Developed by Jumpship and produced by Dino Patti, the co-founder and former CEO of Limbo and Inside developer Playdead, Somerville has been touted by the press as something of a pseudo-successor to those acclaimed titles. The obvious connection fo Playdead aside, it's easy to see why. The sci-fi adventure delivers a wordless show-don't-tell yarn that provides an existential commentary on what it means to live while deploying incredible sound design, art direction, and emotive animation.

There's so much to admire about Somerville, from the opening act that sees a quiet homestead and loving family torn asunder by an alien invasion to more introspective moments of humanity that contrast the metallic, surgical oppression of Earth's new overseers. Those wonderful highs only serve to highlight Somerville's biggest flaw: a lack of pacing borne out of a misplaced desire to give players freedom.

somerville_3.jpeg

Unlike its spiritual forebears Limbo and Inside, Somerville places players in an isometric world that seemingly presents multiple pathways and therefore choice. The decision to expand Somerville beyond the two dimensional confines of its contemporaries might've worked had Jumpship committed to the illusion, but in Somerville 'freedom' simply equates to 'more time spent walking in circles.' 

Technical hiccups aside, this is the game's biggest transgression. The main story beats are all triggered by heading in one specific direction, usually by solving a puzzle that equates to pulling a lever or holding down one of the triggers while trudging ahead, so why let players veer off course with vague signposting and false promises of tantalizing "somethings" that in most cases remain just out of reach.

Some who wander are lost

Playdead deployed a similar approach to narrative and world building with both Limbo and Inside, but in those cases keeping players locked onto a specific path (forwards or backwards) elevated both to new heights, allowing the dev team to exert a clear level of control over how each title was paced to make each twist and turn hit that much harder.

In Somerville, players are made to feel like they should wander – only to find that, really, they can't. Or at the very least, shouldn't. During the early stages of the game, I was shepherded towards a series of fields that seemed primed for exploration. Alien artefacts and other enticing oddities littered the horizon, but head towards them and you'll be met with resistance. An invisible wall or clumsy ditch blocking your path. 

Somerville_1.jpg

The only way forward is to follow a carefully placed breadcrumb trail, so why didn't Jumpship make it easier to find? A few hidden rooms aside, there's nothing to be gained from exploring in Somerville, and doing so only butchers the pacing of a title that should be experienced in metronomic fashion.

I've seen some folks comment that Somerville is more rewarding on a second playthrough because it becomes possible to hit the narrative beats at a brisker pace, which is pretty fundamental when a title leans as far into the abstract as Somerville

That, though, represents a failure on Jumpship's part to understand how sometimes the illusion of freedom is better than the real thing. Don't be afraid to commit to the pretence and whisk me along, because this is your world – I'm just passing through.

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