Still Wakes the Deep review – The Thing, but on a Scottish oil rig in the 1970s

<span>Likely the most Scottish game you’ll ever play … Still Wakes the Deep.</span><span>Photograph: Secret Mode</span>
Likely the most Scottish game you’ll ever play … Still Wakes the Deep.Photograph: Secret Mode

The premise here is a genre classic: one day, workers on the oil rig Beira D hit something with their drill they shouldn’t have, and soon, a nameless horror descends on the ship and picks off the crew one by one. When it happens, Glaswegian electrician Cameron “Caz” McCleary is already on his way off the rig, fired from the remote job he fled to in order to dodge the police after a serious scrap at a bar. It’s his work boots we step into as he desperately searches for an escape.

While the team that made Still Wakes the Deep is almost entirely different from the incarnation of developer The Chinese Room that made its previous hits Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, all share high visual fidelity, realistic sound work and affecting acting as their trademark. Still Wakes the Deep’s setting is probably the most realistic oil rig in any media to date, down to hundreds of little hissing valves and a labyrinth of perilously groaning metal staircases. Even without an encroaching horror from the deep, this isn’t a place to tell health and safety about, and the rig is without a doubt the game’s most outstanding character.

Still Wakes the Deep is also probably the most Scottish game you’ll ever play, right down to a staggering amount of swearing. Each bit of dialogue is a fantastic example of how natural conversations should sound, both when Caz is talking to his few remaining colleagues and when he is thinking of the events that led him to the Beira D. But since this is a short game, of about six hours, there simply isn’t enough time for much character work beyond perfunctory introductions. This makes it difficult to feel much for them, and the ham-fisted device of several characters in a row calling you on the phone just so you can listen to them die on the line doesn’t help.

This is one of The Chinese Room’s most interactive games, and has you doing much more than just walking around and looking at things. But its gameplay design has one big problem: me, the knowing player. Every gameplay device in Still Wakes has been used in so many games that the first time I saw yellow paint splattered on to a ledge that I was supposed to grab on to, I couldn’t help but groan. After that, the yellow is everywhere. It’s the yellow tarpaulin showing where to climb, and the yellow rim on the bullseye I can jump through. The Beira D turns from an intriguing labyrinth into a smooth parkour course.

When enemies make an appearance, Caz can’t fight them. Instead, he must sneak past. Areas are littered with crouching spaces and items to throw as a distraction, often in rooms that I cross several times before I have to start hiding in them. Ideally, this would be a source of tension, but just as it does with its navigation, the game tells me what’s coming (and going: at one point a rig worker literally yells across a large, echoing room that the monster is in fact leaving) so clearly that there’s not much left for me to do as a player but follow the path.

I was dissatisfied to realise that the light of my headlamp didn’t bother the monsters, making sneaking around incredibly easy. Or I’d fumble a jump for purely camera-related reasons and have to listen to McCleary swear as he falls to his death again and again, feeling the tension dissolve. The ever-present desire to help the player out contrasts with the need for a horror game to leave us in the dark sometimes. Whenever the illusion broke, I was left with a game I tolerated in order to see what happened to a character I wasn’t particularly attached to.

Still Wakes the Deep succeeds in creating an atmospheric portrait of an everyman with no special skills just trying to stay alive in the most inhospitable environment imaginable – but there aren’t enough real scares or engaging moments to make it memorable beyond that.

  • Still Wakes The Deep is out now; £29.99