A fresh look at Still Wakes the Deep has left a lasting impression. The new narrative-adventure from The Chinese Room is still in early development, but everything I have seen so far leads me to believe that it will be one of the most impactful upcoming horror games of 2024. Three short gameplay demonstrations was all it took, each reflecting a stage of the journey that you'll undertake as Caz McLeary – an off-shore oil rig worker plunged into an otherworldly nightmare.
Something which really struck me is how Still Wakes the Deep is staged. How it'll gradually evolve from this quiet contemplation of the isolation faced by a working class community aboard an oil rig amidst a terrible storm into this somewhat transcendental experience, as creeping horrors pierce the veil of our reality. It's really stuck with me, from the truly astounding visual fidelity to the strength of the core creative vision and heavy, physical execution. The Chinese Room still needs time before it's ready to reveal more gameplay to the public, but in the meantime I'm able to share with you my experience of what the studio has shown me behind closed doors.
Still Wakes the Deep gameplay breakdown
The Life: The Chinese Room is known for establishing an incredible sense of time and place through its games, evidenced best in Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. That remains true for Still Wakes the Deep, with the studio using Unreal Engine 5 to bring its '70s setting to life. The earliest hours will focus on coming to terms with your wife serving divorce papers from the mainland, and are designed to give McLeary an opportunity to interact with others aboard the isolated oil rig.
Senior game designer Jade Jacson tells me that authenticity is a "big priority" for the studio, and I have to say that I was really taken aback by the setting. As you slowly navigate labyrinthian hallwalls, converse with other workers, and (in classic narrative adventure fashion) root through their belongings, the environment and characters all seem perfectly scaled against McLeary's character model. It lends this air of reality to the entire production, with stunningly detailed visual fidelity and atmospheric lighting only helping to further sell the fantasy.
"We want you to feel like everything matters; that every one of your choices counts."
The Incident: Jacson says that "Annihilation meets The Poseidon Adventure" has been the northstar in terms of vibe, and the works of author Jeff VanderMeer are evident in the second gameplay demo. Here I'm seeing McLeary after the reality-bending incident is underway, as haunting red tendrils coil around the drill and up into the superstructure. We're clambering across the under-rig in an attempt to find safety, just a few feet from the thrashing waves below, and I'm able to get a better sense of the systems The Chinese Room is implementing – running, jumping, climbing.
Simple verbs, but it's worth considering that many narrative adventure games are fairly passive, and Still Wakes the Deep appears to be a more active and aggressive experience. "With ladders or beams, for instance, you have to hold the triggers the whole time because we want you to feel like you're holding on for dear life," adds Jacson. "We want it to be very physical. These actions should bring about this feeling of 'oh no, oh shit, I need to hold on – I don't know if I'm going to make it."
The Nightmare: The third gameplay demo focuses on the horror of it all. All lines of communication to the oil rig have been severed, the exits have been sealed, your friends are all missing, presumed dead – but you aren't alone. Screaming through the dark of engineering tunnels lit by the red hues of smoldering fires and warning lights is an unknowable horror, a creature that's forever in pursuit. The Chinese Room proved that it has a penchant for survival horror with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, and Still Wakes the Deep takes this a step further; the visual and audio design is stark, making the storm-lashed rig the perfect playground for a lengthy pursuit.
The studio has simple stealth systems in place to help you navigate the under-siege rig, and will equip you with items that are authentic to the space such as fire extinguishers. Not that they'll help all that much. "There is no combat," Jacson clarifies. "We want you to feel powerless from beginning to end. At no point are you going to get a magical weapon that will allow you to kill everything. It's not that kind of game. We want you to feel like everything matters, and that every one of your choices counts."
Still Wakes the Deep is coming to PC, PS5, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Game Pass in 2024.