Still Wakes the Deep is a horror gem that won’t get out of my head

A screenshot from Still Wakes the Deep, showing a mundane-looking room in an oil rig. The exception is a door with a vertical window in it, and bright blue energy is pulsing through the window and lighting the room ominously.
Image: The Chinese Room/Secret Mode

Corporate greed meets an ancient entity

The best horror games stick around long after credits have rolled, squirming in and tickling the back of your brain. Still Wakes the Deep has stuck around in my noggin, provoking questions that I know I will never have the answers to. There are plenty of familiar elements in Still Wakes the Deep, and in less deft hands, it could come off as derivative or redundant. But the atmosphere, the characters, and the restraint exercised by developer The Chinese Room all come together to create a special four-hour experience that I can’t forget.

Still Wakes the Deep takes place on a Scottish oil rig in 1975. The protagonist, Caz McLeary, is dodging an assault charge by taking a position here. The game gives us a little bit of exposition via a letter from Caz’s wife, and then we’re off to meet some of Caz’s co-workers. There’s a whole crew of boisterous blue-collar workers here, but we only get a couple of quick conversations with most of them before shit hits the fan. The voice acting is superb and very Scottish, so it might be worth turning on subtitles (if you aren’t familiar with Scottish accents) to catch the intricacies of these conversations.

A greedy manager insists the oil rig drill down into something that feels “off” to the workers, and something ancient awakens. Some crew members die, others are injured, and some are trapped under wreckage or in a diving bell. The early game is a very industrial horror experience, and Caz’s electrical skills are essential to try and salvage things. It’s chaotic, but the crew guesses at first that it was an air pocket or some similar, mundane catastrophe. They’ll soon be proven wrong, but the crew’s initial reactions set a tone of fear very well.

The crew members of an oil rig chat amongst themselves in a mundane-looking mess hall. They are wearing uniforms to traverse the oil rig. The scene is calm.
Image: The Chinese Room/Secret Mode

From here, Caz is tasked with trying to help as many of his colleagues survive as possible. One early scene that sticks with me is of a rookie diver, stuck in a diving bell, screaming incoherently. His partner, distraught with grief and guilt, is trying to get him out. At the time, this seemed like the morally right thing to do, but those primal howls gave me the unsettling feeling that freeing him was the wrong choice. Sure enough, whatever emerged from the drill began writhing and climbing up the oil rig, claiming and corrupting any workers it could reach.

This is where Still Wakes the Deep really shines. My corrupted co-workers become my biggest obstacle. They’re out of their minds with pain and fear, and their bipedal forms twist and contort into something unrecognizable. The monster designs are deeply unnerving, and The Chinese Room did a fantastic job at allowing them to pursue and menace Caz while never giving the player a full look at them. Being around the supernatural creature from the depths or the monsters it produces obscures Caz’s vision; a colorful oil-like substance dances around the colors of his perception.

It would have been very easy for Still Wakes the Deep to overplay its hand and end up being lost in the crowded genre of hallway horror. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A troubled man flees the consequences of his actions, only to find himself ensnared in a supernatural nightmare. Add in memories of a sobbing spouse and a protagonist desperate for immersion, and you’ve got a narrative going. But The Chinese Room strategically refuses to provide the player with all the answers they want.

It’s easy to imagine a weaker presentation, where Caz stumbles across diary entries explaining a cult taking root on the oil rig, rituals to summon the antagonistic force, and definitive answers to his (and the player’s) questions. These scenes might be sprinkled with gratuitous gore and cheap jump scares. Instead, I walked away from Still Wakes the Deep feeling like I had experienced a carefully honed story. I still have questions, but that feels intentional; it’s proof that in horror, less is more.

A screenshot from Still Wakes the Deep in the first-person perspective, showing protagonist Caz leaping across the broken wreckage of a metal walkway on the oil rig.
Image: The Chinese Room/Secret Mode

It’s a shame that the platforming doesn’t hit quite as well. It’s very functional; Caz has to make his way through the oil rig, trying to find a way out. The creature from the depths is growing up over the rig, breaking the structure down. Once safe corridors flood, Caz must swim through dark and claustrophobic hallways. Former colleagues stalk critical junctures, weeping and wailing. But my journey feels like I’m on rails; unlike a Dead Space or a Prey where I’m exploring a structure, Still Wakes the Deep feels like it’s guiding me along a predetermined course.

There are points where this works really well, as you can watch the supernatural organism grow and evolve its way across the oil rig. Other times, that structure feels clumsy. For instance, stumbling across a platforming sequence where each jump is marked by a big splash of yellow paint feels a bit awkward. One thing I enjoyed is Caz’s blunt reaction to each subsequent bit of bad news he gets; after being ordered around by NPCs in a hundred other horror games, I appreciated Caz calling his colleagues out for bossing him around. It’s also deeply relatable to watch Caz nearly fall to his death and curse up a storm.

Indeed, I started Still Wakes the Deep hating Caz, but by the end of the game, he had won me over. The finale was a complete gut punch, and for the first time in a while, I sobbed over the conclusion of a story. It’s not necessarily a bummer ending — I’ll spare you the details — but it is an emotional one. Each individual element of Still Wakes the Deep has been done before, but they’re brought together marvelously here, and the end result is a horror classic.

Still Wakes the Deep was released on June 18 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using Xbox Game Pass. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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