Still Wakes The Deep Suggests The Game I Was Making Could Have Worked

Still Wakes The Deep Suggests The Game I Was Making Could Have Worked

Near the beginning of Still Wakes The Deep, electrician Cameron “Caz” McLeary meets with his boss, Rennick, aboard the Beira D oil rig. Caz, a gruff Glaswegian presented with enough nuance to avoid being called a stereotype, has told many of his mates back in the dining hall what he thinks of Rennick: the word he uses throughout the game starts with a “c” and rhymes with “blunt”, another word that applies well to Caz.

As the two quarrelled – the police had been in contact because Caz came to the rig to avoid being arrested over a drunken brawl – I thought about what the game was setting up. Caz is a character with a pronounced cultural background who is at a remote location to perform a job, whose personal life struggles will guide how he deals with the monster promised by the game’s marketing. The most obvious point of comparison might be John Carpenter’s towering masterwork The Thing, but that wasn’t where my mind went.

“Ah,” I thought. “I know why this feels so familiar. This is a lot like [REDACTED]“. 

I need to be intentionally vague here. Most people who have spent a few years in game development have projects that never happened, games that they can’t really talk about in specifics. Still Wakes The Deep feels a lot like one of mine. I can’t say what the game was, what company the work was done for, or really give away any further details. What I can say is that Still Wakes The Deep, while far from being perfect, basically works – which makes me think that maybe this cancelled game I worked on could have, too. 

Still Wakes The Deep comes from The Chinese Room, probably still best known for their excellent, genre-defining “walking simulator” Dear Esther (and the 1000 think pieces it spawned). It’s a horror game in which you’ll often find yourself running and hiding from giant gloopy monstrosities, but it doesn’t veer too dramatically away from the company’s roots. According to an achievement I unlocked as the credits rolled, I spent less than ten total minutes running throughout the game’s four-hour run-time.

The game is set in 1975 and features a gloriously Glasgow-specific cast, evocatively scripted by Dan Pinchbeck. In the game I worked on, the characters were also of a specific region, time, and dialect – but I was several polish passes and a decade of experience behind Pinchbeck, who imbues these characters with a great deal of personality and specificity. They curse and shout and make fun of each other the way you might expect a bawdy ragtag bunch of 70s Scottish rig operators to do, and the way their individual personalities and allegiances string together from Caz’s perspective is the game’s greatest triumph. This is, I realised, what I was aiming for in my work on [REDACTED].

But as strong as the character work is, it can’t quite paper over all the weaknesses inherent to the story.  Caz is far too prone to speaking all his feelings out loud, guilty of the sort of “I better say exactly what I’m doing so that the player knows what to do next” dialogue that I had to keep cutting from my own work. The supernatural elements – which land hard about an hour in – are an odd mix of overexposed and under-explained, with the game revealing a lot all at once about the awful events plaguing the rig but feeling, for much of its running time, oddly incurious about them. The scariest moments all happen before you see a monster for the first time, and once you’re actually in danger, the sense of fear evaporates. It’s not all bad – Caz remains interesting throughout, and the ending wraps things up in an appropriate way – but the script could have used another editing pass.

Progressing through the game means following the fairly prescriptive path forward at all times, occasionally holding a button or stick to move an object, climb an obstacle, or swim through an underwater passage as the rig starts to take on more damage and rooms start flooding. With [REDACTED], we never got to the point where we could solve the problems inherent in this kind of design. It’s not the most engaging gameplay model. Still Wakes the Deep isn’t long enough to grow properly tedious, and it’s enough of a looker that there’s always something engaging in front of you. This is one of those “damn, games look like this now” titles that you tend to see a lot of in the middle of a console generation. However, there are still times when it feels like the game is essentially playing itself. Some more clever puzzles would have gone a long way to keep things engaging throughout, but as it stands, Still Wakes The Deep never asks the player to be particularly clever.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy traversing through these linear sections, though. Mindlessly progressing forward in the face of extreme danger can be comforting.

The monster encounters are surprisingly few and far between and come in two varieties: stealth encounters where you sneak through vents, throwing found objects to distract them and tracking their paths through the room (often a little frustrating), and more intense sections where you run away from a pursuing enemy, finding the way forward as they nip at your heels (far more thrilling). The design of the monsters is appropriately fun and disgusting, albeit slightly derivative (again, John Carpenter comes to mind). The game is pretty easy, even when you’re under attack, which is not a bad thing. As someone who often struggles to play horror games, I was able to get through this one without becoming too anxious or frustrated.

All of this adds up to a generally okay game, one with few soaring highs and no crushing lows. It’s a polished experience that doesn’t hit its full potential but is nevertheless entertaining and well-designed enough to basically work. A solid little horror walking experience with some great character writing, excellent graphics, great audio design, and a few design quirks that veer it towards the edges of being boring, even if it doesn’t totally tip over. A dictionary definition 7-out-of-10 – short and shiny, pretty good with some hints of greatness. The sort of game you need in a good, balanced media diet. 

As I played the game and thought about my own project, I found myself wondering if this happens on every new release. There are surely folks playing other new games in 2024 and thinking, “damn, we could have pulled it off”, or even “Our game would have been better than this”. I am actually not convinced that [REDACTED] had the juice to be as good as Still Wakes the Deep – we were making a lot of the same mistakes this game makes, ultimately, but with a smaller budget. But I also think it might have been at least not bad. There would have been an audience for it, even if it was a small one. 

The maxim in game reviewing is that you review what the game is and not what it’s not, so I have made sure not to judge Still Wakes The Deep by the standards of an entire other game that simply isn’t. On its own merits, this is a solid narrative-focused horror game with great characters, excellent graphics, and a mechanical simplicity that prevents it from being truly great. It’s a decent riff on the horror tropes of a stranded crew dealing with a mysterious otherworldly creature, and it features a few strong setpieces. It’s a decent game, and I’m glad that it’s able to exist! Not every game is so lucky. 

Still Wakes the Deep is available now on Xbox Series X/S, PS5, and PC, including Xbox Game Pass. This review was conducted using the Game Pass version.

Image: Secret Mode, Kotaku Australia

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