Still Wakes The Deep Review: Steeped in sea horror and shaky voice acting


Scottish petrochemical horror isn’t exactly a genre, but maybe it should be. From the opening moments of Still Wakes The Deep, it’s clear that life on a 1970s North Sea oil rig is precarious. Leaky ceilings, cracked wainscoting, faulty drills – the omens pile up as you spend the first thirty minutes wandering through a cafeteria packed with colleagues and across the platform to your boss’s office for some stern change. It’s a classic pre-disaster setup for a mostly time-honored monster story, but the game adheres admirably to the first-person horror mold, and the performances from its voice actors are so spot-on that judging this frothing scare feels like a crass simulator sticking to typing. It also contains a distinctly disturbing exploit of shipping forecasts, which is a famously tedious feature of British radio, and I definitely didn’t expect it to scare me in a video game.

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You are Caz, an electrician employed on the Beira D oil rig operating during the rainy winter of 1975. Next to you are several co-workers, pushed to the end, patching up the jagged platform with screws and their own anxiety with bravado and banter. The kind of football-centric chat you might expect from a mostly male team in the 1970s. Talking to everyone on the platform is like, in Scottish slang, bathing your ears. It sounds gross as I write it, but it’s actually a refreshing change from the unregionalized US chatter that often appears as the primary voice in game writing. There aren’t many of these hyperlocal stories in our industry in Scotland (and certainly none of this high quality), so it’s nice for once to hear real Glaswegians playfully insulting each other and talking about darts, as opposed to exaggerated facsimiles of the same voice coming from the furious dwarf’s mouth.

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The translation of this slang in the subtitles is also entertaining, with “bullshit” becoming “bastard”, “rank” becoming “disgusting”, and “dinnae flap” becoming “don’t panic”. At least they didn’t try to translate “Buckie” into the simpler “Buckfast” when the infamously brutal monk’s wine gets drop-name. (If your desire for authenticity goes beyond reality, there is also the option to play in Scottish Gaelic.)

Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Secret Mode

When it comes to the overall gaming experience, the desperate crawling along ventilation shafts, pulling levers and hiding into lockers reminds me most of Alien: Isolation. The motives of workers living in risky conditions are clearly reminiscent of the tense crew of the Nostromo and the broken infrastructure of the Sevastopol station. The lifeboats have flimsy ropes, broken doors won’t open for the trapped engineers, and the foul-mouthed rig manager insists that the monster problem is just a “minor exercise problem” far beyond the point of disaster. However, unlike Alien: Isolation, the game doesn’t cross the border into horror, and it took me seven hours to complete, which is a long time to maintain the scare factor.

This fear doesn’t just come from monsters. The crew’s voices and behaviors are so entrenched that when he starts introducing video game tasks, such as balancing on a beam suspended over a stormy sea, my sailor brain said, “No, buddy, no.” In other circumstances, I would have accepted the brilliant yellow beam as tolerable, expected, as common as a red barrel ready to explode. Here, when these surmountable obstacles first appeared in the game, I felt legitimately concerned. Caz is not a stuntman with his hands in the air, he is an electrician with no experience in such emergencies. When you finally get close to the beams, his limitations become clear. Caz drops to his knees and slowly and painfully crawls up the beams.

The game then loses some of that established charm by ramping up the risk by adding absurd action movie climbing solutions to scenarios where any normal person could spot several safer routes, none supported by the game’s path. But I can let it go. Vidgam, I will be vidgam. Gone are the days when the developers of The Chinese Room would slap you on a Hebridean island with only basic directions. Here, the visual language of first-person horror is presented with the transparency required by the medium. The caches are sprayed with helpful yellow paint. Arrows and maps constantly mark your path. When a risky jump is required, it becomes obvious. When you need to distract an enemy, suddenly there are plenty of objects to throw around.

The only time I felt these cues break down was in the later moments when the environment became flooded. At some points you are submerged and have to pull yourself along support beams while underwater. Otherwise, you have to find the right route until you quickly run out of breath. These are probably the most disorienting moments in the entire story and the subsequent drownings annoyed me more than scared me. It also suffers from the time-honored problem of horror gaming, which is that the tension wanes with more death. This applies to both rising water and your whiny ex-mates.

Not all these tentacled bladderworms are created equal. Every monster you encounter is deliberately and disturbingly named after the person who remains trapped in the hideous tangle of tendons, cartilage and tendons that power them. Their behavior is often similar; they hunt, pursue and patrol. But everyone feels a bit different. One looms over you on stilt legs. Another one crawls on the floor like a snail. Another will shamelessly enter the vents where you are hiding, forcing you to be quick and decisive. What’s more disturbing is how each of them whines in their own way, their pains and problems leading them to atrocities. Some of these beings were once your friends, and Caz constantly curses with terrible pity. Others who were initially hostile towards you before the disaster feel even more merciless and miserable in the form of the monster. I’m looking at you, Addair, you horrible bastard.

Addair, a platform employee, insults a player in Still Wakes The Deep.
Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Secret Mode

That’s a great hook. None of the enemies you encounter are faceless villains. They are familiar, speaking with disturbing moans about how sorry they are, sobbing that they miss their mother. They beg you for support before attacking you with painful howls of rage. Still trying to do laundry, furiously slamming the washing machine door to no avail. It’s an elderly horror trope that humanity and monstrosity can coexist in the same body. But again, Still Wakes The Deep carries this trope with such confidence and clarity that it’s challenging to care that you’ve seen it before.

What about Caz, your own character? He’s a mess with a broken marriage and a criminal record, a man who might as well be walking on an oil rig and screaming. “She turned everything against us” to the horrible body horrors that have taken over. I mean that in a good sense. I felt that his personal story of love, cowardice and irresponsibility lost steam towards the end when the game started relying on worn out disembodied voices and other oddities to move towards psychological horror as opposed to the classic monster movie it otherwise sticks to existence. But for the most part, he’s a good hero – from his core, troubled, furious, and scared in uneven degrees. Like everyone else, the voice actor does a great job, right down to the ragged breathing that comes every time the monster comes close to you.

Caz talks to his friend Roy about the monsters that have appeared on their oil rig.
Image source: Rock Paper Shotgun/Secret Mode

Caz’s troubles, like those of others on the platform, seem ordinary against the backdrop of all this horror. And I feel that this is the great strength of this game – in contrast to the unearthly, rainbow-shimmering hell of Jeff VanderMeer’s game Annihilation with the gray pessimism of a Caledonian winter. Caz’s personal struggle for survival and forgiveness is just one way in which this disturbing story can be read. It can also be interpreted as a terrible revenge of a bleeding planet. As a lament for the worker driven to destruction among the pipes and machines of capital. As a tragedy resulting from the father’s abandonment and thoughtlessness. As a mourning for male friendship, a painful recognition that banter and football are a laughably feeble social glue, a mere coping mechanism for transmitting violence. It is noteworthy that there is one woman on board the Beira oil rig, Engineer Finlay. Depending on your temperament, either her unwavering determination or helpless resignation ultimately cuts through the veil of oil, blood and testosterone.

No matter how you walk away from the platform, I came away shocked, impressed, and hungry for more horror as solid as this one. It may not revolutionize the genre in any mechanical sense (even the “look behind” button is something out of the Outlast series), but it sets the bar for solidity and naturalistic voice acting. More Scottish horror? Yes, do it in first person.

This review is based on the test version of the game provided by the developer.

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