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Still Wakes The Deep - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Creature is mesmerizingly beautiful
  • Some good body horror
  • Fantastic voice acting and motion capture performances
  • Character has a physical presence in the world
  • Flashlight effects

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Trivial puzzles and obstacles
  • Frustrating trial-and-error chase sequences
  • Never get to know the supporting characters
  • Never got a sense of place from the oil rig

Overall Impression : C
Tedious gameplay elevated by a
compelling creature and personal drama

Still Wakes The Deep - cover

Developer:
The Chinese Room

Publisher:
Secret Mode / Sumo Group Ltd.

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 5 < (via PSN digital download),
XBox S | X (via XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $35 USD

Original release date:
18 June 2024

Genre:
First-person psychological cosmic horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
5 hours

ESRB Rating: M for Mature (17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence

Official site:
stillwakesthedeep.com/

I keep being drawn to games developed by the Chinese Room, despite always being disappointed by them. Their games always represent the things that people dislike most about "walking simulators". But since I don't have any inherent dislike for walking sims, I keep giving The Chinese Room another chance. Still Wakes The Deep caught my attention by being described as "John Carpenter's The Thing set on an oil rig". The Thing is a masterpiece of horror, and one of my favorite movies ever.

I had visions of Still Wakes The Deep being a story about inter-personal paranoia in the claustrophobic and isolated setting of an oil rig that is gradually being overtaken by a Lovecraftian alien threat. That's only partly true though, as Still Wakes The Deep plays up the cosmic horror element, while downplaying the paranoia element and replacing it with simpler themes about interpersonal relationships and the artificial walls that people tend to put up between themselves and the people they care about.

An oil rig is a great setting for horror, combining dark claustrophobic corridors with the terror of being stuck at sea.

Alone, together, on an oil rig

The setting of an oil rig is an interesting one for a psychological horror story or video game. The environment is completely enclosed and claustrophobic, with little-to-no escape. People are forced to live and work together in close quarters, and their survival is largely dependent on one another. Being stuck in such a setting, with people who you can't trust, would surely be terrifying.

The short length of Still Wakes The Deep does hurt it a lot. Specifically, the inciting incident happens very early and suddenly, with little-to-no build up or transition between "normal" and "everything's gone to shite". I never felt like I got a chance to really get to know any of the supporting characters, to the point that I wasn't even sure what their names were, or which character was being referred to when a name came up in a document or conversation. Similarly, when I find any given body or corpse, I have no idea who it's supposed to be. I had a brief opportunity to snoop around in a few characters' cabins at the start, but all that really told me was that the boss is a hard-ass, and there's one other character who might be a racist, neo-fascist prick. Other than that, there's like one opportunity to have a brief exchange with each of the main supporting characters, and it's all optional, and most of it is more about the state of the rig anyway.

There's hardly any time to explore the rig or get to know the crew before the inciting incident.

The brief intro, and fact that the rig goes to shite so quickly and suddenly, means that there's also never an opportunity for the player to get a feel for the setting itself. I got about 20 minutes to walk through a couple hallways, some crew cabins, the mess hall, and the main deck, and then it's right into the horror, with the rig literally falling apart around me. From here on out, it's hard to ever get a sense for where, exactly, I am on the rig, or how the different sections fit together or relate to one another. When floors and walls literally start collapsing, I can't tell one hallway from another. This is despite the fact that the game loops the player around through the same mess hall and lounge, that we saw in the intro, like 5 or 6 times throughout the game. Despite revisiting this same location multiple times, I never really recognized it until I was inside the lounge or mess hall. Every set piece just feels like a semi-random series of corridors and obstacles in which all I have to do is push forward on the analog stick to get where I need to go. There's no open-ended exploration whatsoever, no hidden secrets, and no alternate paths.

Given that the story is so focused on being about interpersonal relationships, this failure to establish the setting and characters is a big failure for the game -- a much bigger deal than if this were just a straight monster flick. Yes, the most important characters do get enough development and screentime that I actually care about what happens to them (and this is one of the saving graces of the game), but everyone else just feels completely interchangeable, disposable, and perfunctory.

I can't help but think that a lot of my issues with the plot and pacing of Still Wakes The Deep could have been resolved with a longer intro sequence that might have had the player actually using your character's electrician skills to do some actual maintenance or repairs around the rig. This would give the player a chance to visit more sections of the rig before the incident, in order to learn the layout and get a better idea of how an oil rig actually works, and how its sections and machinery are interconnected. It also could have allowed more time and opportunity to interact with different characters and get to know them a bit more. You know, talk about their work, and maybe mention their life outside the rig, their families, their plans for the holidays, or their broader aspirations and dreams.

We never get to see the protagonist doing normal repairs or maintenance,
and the subplot about the poor maintenance of the rig is dropped after the intro anyway.

And I want to make it very clear that the lackluster characterization is not the fault of the actors or of the dialogue writers. In fact, the voice acting and motion capture performances are top notch. All of the dialogue is well-written and feels natural and organic in the moment. There's a lot of banter and teasing between the characters that helps establish that these characters have spent a lot of time with each other, and are closer to each other than the brief intro lets on. The voice performances and body language of the motion capture also sells the fear, desperation, and hopelessness of the characters, including some of the body language of the player character during first-person cutscenes.

Valves and levers

The poorly-established setting is further hampered by generally bad level and scenario design. Still Wakes The Deep doesn't put much resistance up against the player's progress. The player is constantly being told to go somewhere and fix something, only to have something else immediately break on the other side of the rig. Getting to a place is a simple matter of following the completely linear corridors that try to trick the player into thinking you're doing more than you're actually doing by requiring you to constantly climb, jump, or swim. But you're still always just going forward, following the lights and yellow paint in the only direction the game will let you go.

And when you get to the destination, there's never anything more complicated for you to do than flip a switch, pull a lever, or turn a valve -- sometimes a combination of all 3. If you need a key, the key is always hanging on a wall next to the thing it unlocks. If there's a fire or electrical hazard in your way, the extinguisher or fuse box is always just right around the corner. There is nothing in this game that I would classify as a "puzzle", and I never had to stop and think about what I'm supposed to be doing or how to do it.

The whole game is walking, climbing, and jumping to places where you just turn a valve or pull a lever.

This has kind of always been my problem with The Chinese Room's approach to designing its games. They err too far into the "bad" kind of "walking sim": a series of mindless tasks to perform. "Go to place, and click on thing." Compare this to some of my favorite walking sims, like Gone Home, What Remains Of Edith Finch, or Firewatch. Those games have plenty of objectives that require the player to go to a place and click on a thing, but they fill almost all of the time between with story and characterization. Gone Home gives the illusion of player-driven, open-ended exploration, in which almost everything you pick up provides characterization for the protagonist and her family. Every hallway and room of Edith Finch is loaded to the brim with whimsical character and personality. And the nature walks of Firewatch are full of radio conversations between the protagonist and his companion Delilah, talking themselves deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and paranoia.

But in Still Wakes the Deep, you're just walking and crawling through the hallways and maintenance shafts of an oil rig, only to turn a valve or pull a lever when you get to the destination. It's all mechanical and matter-of-fact. This might also be fine if the rig itself were more of a "character", like Sevastapol Station in Alien: Isolation. But the fact that the rig is haphazardly constructed, poorly maintained, and under-staffed is mostly just background details that is never expounded upon after the first 30 minutes of the game. After all, the rig isn't falling apart due to shoddy construction, neglect, or mis-management; it's falling apart because it's being consumed by a literal alien monster. I mean, yeah, sure, the alien thing could probably be read as a metaphor for the poor conditions of the rig and the callous indifference of the corporate management for the safety and working conditions of its employees. But man, that's really abstract.

Hazards are trivially resolved with a valve or fire extinguisher that's always in arm's reach.

The character is an electrician by trade, so I actually don't have a problem with it being easy for him to walk up to a fuse box, pull out a broken fuse, and plug a new one in with just a single button press from the player. This is his specialty. But he repeatedly reminds the other characters (and the player) that he has no clue about how the rest of the rig works. But yet, all the player ever has to do to perform supposedly-complicated or dangerous tasks is to push a single button to pull lever or turn a valve. It would make sense if things like pumping flood water, or operating the flare stack, or balancing the ballasts were actual, complicated puzzles for the player, because they are also outside of the wheelhouse of the character.

The Colour Out Of The Deep

As much as Still Wakes The Deep was compared to The Thing in promotional materials and pre-release hype, it actually reminds me a lot more of another work of fiction. It reminds me of the H.P. Lovecraft story The Colour Out Of Space, which is perhaps my favorite Lovecraft story. Part of the reason why I like The Colour Out Of Space so much is that the ... thing ... that causes the story is genuinely alien and mysterious. The "monster" -- if you can even call it that -- isn't a slender gray alien with big eyes, nor is it the typical Lovecraftian tentacle monster. The alien is literally a color -- a color slightly outside of the visible light spectrum, but still somehow perceptible to human senses -- not quite visible, but yet still something that we can see and feel. Of all of Lovecraft's madness-inducing monsters, the Colour is perhaps the most genuinely incomprehensible. While reading the story, it's something that is vividly described, yet still impossible to imagine. How can we possibly visualize a color that isn't actually visible to the human eye?

This very concept makes The Colour Out Of Space fundamentally difficult to adapt to any visual medium, and even attempting to do so is a bold decision. The approach taken by film adaptations that I've seen is for the performers to try to sell the idea that they perceive something beyond whatever the special effects artists actually put on screen, and to limit what is put on the screen so that the audience's impression of the Colour is filtered through the performative perception of the actors. This method doesn't quite work as well for video games, since the interactive nature means that the player is supposed to be in the same head space as the player character, directly experiencing what the character experiences.

The highlight of the game is the mesmerizingly beautiful alien entity.

As such, The Chinese Room takes a slightly different approach, using subtle sound cues to make it seem as though the alien (and the colors that it emits) are something that we hear as well as see. If you stand too close to the alien, there will also be a bubbling effect in the periphery of the screen, as if film is burning and melting. It's also similar to having an intense migraine, and I think the character even remarks occasionally that looking at the thing makes his head hurt. This kind of gives an effect as though proximity to the alien (and its strange color) is too intense for the character's eyes (or mind). But it isn't actually burning the character's eyes the way that, say, staring into the sun would, since there's no permanent damage. As soon as you turn the camera away, the effect ceases.

This is where the design gets uniquely interesting: the creature is kind of pretty, and I (the player) want to look at it. Of course, beauty is subjective, so your reaction will vary. I found the specific visual effect to be beautiful and genuinely mesmerizing. At times, I found myself just standing and staring at the vibrant purples, blues, greens, and reds, especially when they shone through glass or windows, or the seams of doorways, and formed a moving kaleidoscope effect (like light being filtered through water). At every opportunity, I wanted to see more of it, as if I, the player, were being drawn into the alien's madness-inducing hypnosis. Making me, the player, feel drawn to the alien is an exceptional feat that I haven't really encountered in any other cosmic horror video games that I've played.

The Beira D may not have much personality in its art design, but this alien is an absolute master class in both video game and Lovecraftian creature design!

Any resemblance to The Thing is superficial only.

The mutated monsters that chase and threaten the player don't quite live up to the standard of the main creature, but their movement is also unusual and alien. There's some good body horror that is pulled straight from John Carpenter's The Thing. In addition to the screen-burning effect, the flashlight also blinks and flickers whenever it's pointed directly at a monster. This helps to prevent the player from ever getting a really good, up close look at the creatures, while also reinforcing the idea of the alien and monsters being a force that disrupts light itself.

It was also cool to see the character's eyes have to adjust to different light levels. If you enter a dark area with the flashlight turned on, and then turn it off, the screen goes almost completely black for a couple seconds, before gradually fading to a brighter ambient light level.

The hide-and-seek and chase sequences are also very simple and not worth writing home about. They take place in tiny arenas where the monsters just patrol around 1 small square. You're supposed to be able to throw tools in order to distract the monster, but the small arenas makes this unreliable. When it works, it trivializes the encounter; when it doesn't work, it leads to an unfair death. The monsters' movement is difficult to read and erratic, and I died multiple times because I either couldn't see the monster when I was emerging from a hiding place, or I couldn't tell what direction the monster was facing. It was more frustrating than it was scary.

Better cosmic horror than body horror

Disappointingly, the comparison to The Thing (which is one of my favorite movies ever) only really applies to the superficial monster design. Still Wakes The Deep doesn't have the suspense or paranoia that is the hallmark of The Thing's horror. This is owing largely to the fact that there is never any transitional period in which the characters are becoming monsters. You meet them in the intro as fully human, and then the next time you see them, they are already deformed, hulking monsters that are trying to kill you.

Even though Still Wakes The Deep misses the mark in its explicit and deliberate comparisons to The Thing, I think it absolutely nails any comparison to The Colour Out Of Space -- whether this comparison was deliberate or not. As such, it's a much more worthy adaptation of Lovecraft's cosmic horror than of John Carpenter's body horror. It's story lacks suspenseful paranoia, but is instead a more personal and relatable stories about fighting to protect relationships, and about the importance of listening to one another.

It's a shame that the worthwhile cosmic horror story isn't attached to a better game that gives the player more to do than mindlessly run across hallways to flip levers and turn valves.

Dude, there's like 3 buttons... It's not a friggin' spaceship.

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