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Everybody’s gone to the North Sea oil rig? Yes, please!

Still Wakes the Deep is set on an oil rig in the North Sea, in 1975. We play Caz, an electrician who specialises in quick fixes and makeshift solutions. One of the first things he does is mend a circuit box, winkling out a melted fuse only to slot its neighbour into place. He’s a gap-plugger, thinking only moments ahead and hoping that luck stays on his side. “You’re the jammiest bastard on this rig,” says one of his colleagues, “and we need that right now.” True enough, good fortune is in short supply. The operation soon comes to a clanging halt. Something beneath the waves decides that it would rather not be on the business end of a large drill, and would, if given the chance, prefer to be the one doing the burrowing.

Still Wakes the Deep

This it manages in style – slipping into bodies and sallying forth, it turns men into mounds of wet beige and ground-up red, like plates of homicidal pasta. At one point, Caz stops and stares at the busted apparatus, raised from the water, coiled with sticky pink kelp. From then on, his primary task is to not run into the thing. Or, rather, into The Thing. It’s impossible not to think of John Carpenter’s film (and of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?) as you barge your way around leaky gantries, in scuffling first person, on the lookout for anything with tentacles.

That movie didn’t end well for Kurt Russell, caked in snow and numbing himself with scotch, as the base blazed away. You want Caz to make it out, to tinker and jury-rig his way off the platform. When the lifeboats fail and an evac chopper goes up in flames, it only hardens your resolve, and it’s just as well: even though his working day is cut abruptly short, it carries right on as usual for us. The bulk of the game is taken up with levers, padlocks, pulleys, generators, and cranks. Exactly the sort of stuff that Caz would be doing anyway. This is a smart choice, winching us down to earth as the otherworldly horrors break loose. It keeps you in sight of your goal, and now and then you find yourself stopping to gaze out the windows – through the drizzle, toward the dream of escape.

Still Wakes the Deep

There is a desperate sense that all of this bother could slide down under the slate-grey waters and never even reach the mainland. For Caz, life on terra firma has its own complications. We get flashbacks of a fight with his wife, Suze, and mention of a pub brawl that put a man in hospital and brought the police calling. These troubles end up becoming a lifeline, as the panic mounts; a stretch in prison would be a relief, compared to being stretched beyond all recognition. There is a lovely domestic shabbiness to the early scenes: private quarters decorated in shades of muddy orange and pondlike green – the fashionable colours of the decade, in all their queasy glory. I liked the coffee thermos that stands vigilant on a desk, like a mini-lighthouse, as the Shipping Forecast gusts out of a radio. Down in the canteen, we spot a ladle anchored in a sea of baked beans.

These keen British details should come as no surprise, given that the developer is The Chinese Room. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was similarly awash. Set in a vacant Shropshire village in the nineteen-eighties, it told of the world’s end, but you couldn’t stop marvelling at the boxy cars, the pub notice boards, with their unthinkably low prices, and the still-lit cigarettes stuck in the grooves of ashtrays. It was a vision from a world that had already ended – a violent goodbye frozen to a fixed point in time. Still Wakes the Deep has the same twining of close texture and far-out trouble. The effect, as horror goes, is powerful, a fast-acting version of the trick used in Half-Life and Doom 3. Those games gave you ten minutes of curated normality before wrenching you into dimensional weirdness. Here, the whole thing is stitched with reminders of daily dullness, and the effect is a kind of prolonged joke – you run from something awful, only to glance past a newspaper turned to the football scores.

Still Wakes the Deep

The writer and director is Dan Pinchbeck, and he gets a few good jokes out of this. Caz says, of another character in a bind, that he’s used to praying on account of being a Barnsley fan. You hear a line like that and chuckle with relief – not because it shatters the atmosphere but because it sharpens it. If anything, the scares here are all the more effective for having taken root in the everyday and morphed from there, and it’s all the more disturbing when your former friends give chase. There isn’t any combat. Set pieces turn on the peekaboo: you hide in lockers and squint through the slats, and you can toss objects as distractions, but you do most of your navigating with sound. These are close encounters of the heard kind, and your best bet is to shuffle quietly away from the warped shouts of old comrades, rather than try and keep track of their writhing movements.

There is enough of Alien: Isolation here, only with more of an emphasis on fleeing; Ripley could hide but she couldn’t run, whereas here it’s encouraged. In an ingenious flourish, there is a button dedicated to looking back as you sprint. It’s one part useful to two parts private torture: you always regret doing it, whipping your attention forwards again with your eyes freshly menaced, but you can never resist. The Chinese Room also appears to have tapped into a secret that eludes a lot of horror developers: keep us away from failure, and the stress only mounts. There is nothing that cracks the spell of a good fright – that hots and coarsens it into frustration – like having to reload from the last checkpoint. Keep us in the game, and defeat will only gather and thicken around us, like a doomy mood.

Still Wakes the Deep

Still Wakes the Deep only lasts around four hours, but that’s because it never lets up. It doesn’t tense into paranoia, like The Thing does, as the creature here isn’t interested in mimicry. We don’t get any face-staring interrogations, L.A. Noire-style, watching for twitches of concealment. The mechanics shunt us to the end, and we’re ready for it when it comes. A few more hours, and the atmosphere would dilute and clear; as it is, it clings – dark and difficult scrub away. The studio’s last game was Little Orpheus, a bright and funny adventure, also about a big drill. That one bore into the earth and broached a forgotten land; this one uncorks something you would rather forget, and I like to imagine the grim possibilities of the new game oozing from the shadows of the old. The same pitch, spiralling the other way. In jammy fashion, The Chinese Room has managed to strike a rich vein, welding bits of the walking sim with puzzles and glistening predators into something new – a quick fix for an often-faulty genre. And we need that right now.

Game: Still Wakes the Deep
Platform: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Secret Mode
Release Date: June 18, 2024

Still Wakes the Deep review

Still Wakes the Deep
4 5 0 1
Some might see it as doing the game a disservice, to always refer back to other things, to boil Still Wakes the Deep down to the intersection of the Venn diagram of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Alien: Isolation, and John Carpenter's The Thing. But honestly? In our book, that's some of the highest praise we can give.
Some might see it as doing the game a disservice, to always refer back to other things, to boil Still Wakes the Deep down to the intersection of the Venn diagram of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Alien: Isolation, and John Carpenter's The Thing. But honestly? In our book, that's some of the highest praise we can give.
4.0 rating
Total Score
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