Navigating Horror and Humanity: A Deep Dive into Still Wakes the Deep

  • Maria Bianchi
  • Jun-17-2024
Navigating Horror and Humanity: A Deep Dive into Still Wakes the Deep

As horror locations go, an oil rig is a spectacular choice. It's remote, claustrophobic on the inside, and no less oppressive on the outside, 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.

Cameron McLeary's Fateful Day

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 tumultuous day on the Beira D oil rig, out in the churning North Sea.

An Immersive Nightmare

Still Wakes the Deep might be playing in the register of horror, but it's horror with a very human heart. The Chinese Room holds back the pyrotechnics for a good long while, providing ample time to ease into its richly realized 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 battered cigarette packs and dirty magazines, the union missives and National Front flyers, 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 traveled 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.

Still Wakes game art

Humanity Amidst Horror

It’s a baseline of believability amplified further by Still Wakes Deep's beautifully nuanced writing. It incorporates what might well be the best, most perfectly deployed profanity ever committed to a video game, along with 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 faces escalating disasters so comically unfortunate in their timing, there's rarely a moment The Chinese Room isn't reaching for the humanity of its vividly realized world.

The Flaws Beneath the Surface

It is, therefore, more than a little devastating that 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 incredible light and sound show, it remains a game of relentless, stifling forward momentum. With minimal space for deviation or player choice, it can't quite escape the numbing effects of its inflexible control.  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 to feel like one can explore.

But for all of Still Wakes 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 funneled along a singular path, only ever stopping to perform the same handful of arbitrary, endlessly repeated tasks. Worse, it's all so aggressively signposted that it starts to feel a little insulting.

The only way forward is liberally marked in yellow paint, doors lock behind you should you dare try and assert some agency, and puzzle solutions (if you can even call turning a valve or flicking a lone switch a puzzle) are invariably placed so they can't possibly be missed. It's mindless, and the unwavering mundanity forever undercuts the tension and ever-escalating spectacle.

Game art Still Wakes

A Glimmer Amidst Predictability

The game's handful of stealth-like cat-and-mouse monster encounters do at least take a step back from all this excessive coddling. Here, 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 ominous! It's just a shame these sequences are so heavily scripted that it only takes a careless misstep or two to shatter the illusion.

Pair 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 handyman before reaching a predictably inconclusive ending. This ending would have worked much better if his emotional arc wasn't so thoroughly unexplored. I honestly struggled to stay engaged across its five-to-six-hour runtime. For me—whose horror interests lie squarely at the intersection of cosmic, nautical, and wilfully ambivalent—this should have been a slam dunk.

The Magnificent Texture

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. Within its countless, beautifully observed character moments lies something genuinely special. Yes—as the horror expands, reality falters, and the storm-battered oil rig slowly sinks into the ocean—Still Wakes the Deep’s phenomenally orchestrated set-pieces are incredible, but beneath that bombast lurks a profoundly human core that succeeds on a vividly emotional level.

It’s there in the gallows humor of a group increasingly resigned to oblivion as one disaster begets another, in the devastating grief when loved ones are lost, and even in its exquisitely unsettling monsters, somehow as heart-breaking as they are frightening.

Still Wakes horror

An Awe-Inspiring Experience

Still Wakes the Deep is magnificent in so much of its craft, making it all the more frustrating that it's so consistently undermined by disengaging game design. I suspect, for some, the incredible artistry of it all will be consuming enough, thrilling enough, impressive enough, and emotionally resonant enough to overlook 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.