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Still Wakes the Deep review – astonishing artistry can’t quite keep this oil rig horror afloat

While Still Wakes the Deep is a beautiful work of atmosphere and tension, all that can be shattered by its strictly linear trappings.

As horror locations go, an oil rig is a doozy. It’s remote, claustrophobic on the inside, and no less oppressive on the outside, what with its thrashing storms and merciless seas. But for all its bleakness, there’s warmth and life, a last bit of humanity and light at the edge of the world – and Still Wakes the Deep, the latest from Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture developer The Chinese Room, embraces all these wonderful extremities as its first-person narrative adventure unfolds.

It’s 23rd December 1975, and electrician Cameron McLeary – Caz to friends – has just received a letter from his wife, begging him to come home. There’s tension, we sense, and more to the story we don’t yet know, but it’s soon brushed aside as his duties call. And so begins one hell of a day on the Beira D oil rig, out in the churning North Sea.

Still Wakes the Deep might be playing in the register of horror, but it’s horror with a very human heart, and The Chinese Room holds back the pyrotechnics for a good long while, providing ample time to ease into its richly realised reality before unknowable forces are allowed to take hold. The Beira D might be a grim period nightmare of gaudy fabrics and grubby linoleum, but – in the fag packs and dirty mags, the union missives and National Front fliers, the tragic tinsel trimmings and lovingly recreated baked bean breakfasts – there’s so much life here too. Even if you’ve never stepped foot on an oil rig – or travelled back in time to 1975, for that matter – Still Wakes the Deep’s lived-in spaces reveal so much about the people who inhabit them, even before they’ve properly said hello, it’s easy to buy into the authenticity of its world.


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Still Wakes the Deep trailer.Watch on YouTube

It’s a baseline of believability amplified further by Still Wakes the Deep’s beautifully nuanced writing – incorporating what might well be the best, most perfectly deployed profanity ever committed to a video game – and some stellar, understated performances from an immaculate cast. Even as The Chinese Room shifts gears from Ken Loach to John Carpenter, by way of The Poseidon Adventure and Frank Darabont’s The Mist; even as the grotesquely contorted bodies pile up and Caz is funnelled through a series of escalating disasters so comically unfortunate in their timing the whole thing teeters on the edge of farce, there’s rarely a moment The Chinese Room isn’t reaching for the humanity of its vividly realised world.

Image credit: The Chinese Room/Secret Mode

It is, then, more than a little devastating that all this impeccable artistry is constantly undercut by interactive design that feels so rote. Structurally, Still Wakes the Deep is, I suppose, a sort of walking simulator disaster movie – like Dear Esther with endless calamity and wonderfully physical first-person traversal animations, with gruesome body horror instead of strained car metaphors. But while it undoubtedly puts on one hell of a distracting light and sound show, it remains a game of relentless, stifling forward momentum, and – with minimal space for deviation or player choice – it can’t quite escape the numbing effects of its inflexible control.

Me, I love a good walking simulator, but even the most unapologetically linear of the bunch understands the importance of creating at least some semblance of agency, even if it just means widening out the prescribed route long enough that it feels like you can explore. But for all Still Wakes the Deep’s elaborate set dressing, there’s rarely a moment – between its claustrophobic interiors and precarious exterior walkways – it doesn’t feel like you’re being funnelled along a singular path, only ever stopping to perform the same handful of arbitrary, endlessly repeated tasks. Worse, it’s all so aggressively signposted, it starts to feel a little insulting – the only way forward liberally daubed in yellow paint, doors locking behind you should you dare try and assert some agency, puzzle solutions (as much as you can call turning a valve or flicking a lone switch a puzzle) invariably placed so they can’t possibly be missed. It’s mindless, the unwavering mundanity forever undercutting the tension and ever-escalating spectacle.

Image credit: The Chinese Room/Secret Mode

The game’s handful of stealth-like cat-and-mouse monster encounters do at least take a step back from all this excessive coddling, and, with players finally given some personal responsibility, the faultless atmospherics work on a more primal level – and things can get pretty damned frightening. The shipping forecast has never been so ominious! It’s just a shame these sequences are so heavily scripted it only takes a careless death or two to shatter the illusion. Pair all this with an overarching story that struggles to generate much in the way of convincing narrative propulsion for Caz – turning him into a largely passive end-of-the-world oddjobsman before reaching a predictably inconclusive ending that would have worked much better if his emotional arc wasn’t so thoroughly unexplored – and I honestly struggled to stay engaged across its five-to-six-hour runtime. And for me – whose horror interests lie squarely at the intersection of cosmic, nautical, and wilfully ambivalent – this should have been a slam dunk.

And yet Still Wakes the Deep remains an experience I’ve found confoundingly hard to shake since its credits rolled. It might flub the broader strokes but it’s a game of magnificent texture – and within its countless, beautifully observed character moments lies something genuinely special. Yes – as the horror unbounds, as reality falters, and as the storm-battered oil rig slowly sinks into the ocean – Still Wakes the Deep’s phenomenally orchestrated set-pieces are incredible, but beneath the bombast lurks a profoundly human core that succeeds on a vividly emotional level. It’s there in the gallows humour of a group increasingly resigned to oblivion as one disaster begets another, in the devastatingly palpable grief when loved ones are lost, and even in its exquisitely icky monsters, somehow as heart-breaking as they are unsettling.

Still Wakes the Deep is magnificent in so much of its craft, it’s all the more frustrating it’s so consistently undercut by actively disengaging game design. I suspect, for some, the incredible artistry of it all will be consuming enough, thrilling enough, impressive enough, emotionally resonant enough, that they’ll be more forgiving of its flaws; for me, it pains me to say, I’ve never been so genuinely in awe of an experience I didn’t particularly enjoy.

A copy of Still Wakes the Deep was provided for review by Secret Mode.


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