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Under the surface of Still Wakes The Deep

Inside The Chinese Room, as it enters a fresh era.

Still Wakes The Deep artwork of a helicopter flying towards the oil rig at night, its search beam shining on the dark waves.
Image credit: The Chinese Room

Like the crew of Still Wakes The Deep's mysterious oil rig, the creators of next year's promising British horror game feel like they've been a little off the radar. When The Chinese Room fully re-emerges in 2024 with a pair of new releases, it will have been four years since the company's last game launch, 2020's Little Orpheus, and nearly a decade since the acclaimed Everybody's Gone to the Rapture.

The Chinese Room has changed considerably in that time, not least when it shrank back down to just its two co-founders in mid 2017. Now, the studio numbers over 100 people spread across multiple game projects and a spacious multi-floor office in the heart of Brighton. The journey to get here has seen it become part of UK development powerhouse Sumo Digital, and sign up to launch Still Wakes The Deep into Xbox Game Pass with the support of Microsoft.

But throughout this, the feeling of the studio's independent heritage and focus on strong narrative storytelling remains, staff tell me when I visit the studio - even after this summer's departure of creative director Dan Pinchbeck. After spending so long submerged on building its oil rig horror, I was keen to hear more about the game and what The Chinese Room in general has been up to, as it prepares to launch both Still Wakes The Deep and the long-awaited Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 next year - and as it begins early work on what comes after.

Still Wakes The Deep was announced at this summer's Xbox Showcase. It launches for PC, PlayStation and Xbox - including Game Pass - in 2024.Watch on YouTube

"The studio grew quite a lot in the last four or five years, really since Sumo Digital acquired it," The Chinese Room studio director Ed Daly acknowledges. "It's now more than 100 people and then we have the rest of Sumo helping us make our games with additional expertise at help. We've not been able to talk about what we've been doing for the last three years, so all of a sudden we've got an embarrassment of riches.

"The work that Dan [Pinchbeck] and Jessica [Curry] did with all the great games the studio made, that DNA goes all the way down," Daly adds. "The people that joined the studio joined because they were fans of those games and have that creative approach. So we're going to be evolving smoothly."

John McCormack, the studio's art director and now the project creative director for Still Wakes The Deep, remembers Pinchbeck coming to him to discuss an idea. It was an idea about a game set on a Scottish oil rig in the 1970s. "And I was like, as a Scotsman from the 1970s, count me in," McCormack says. "I knew exactly what this should feel and look like." (Pinchbeck had the original concept for Still Wakes the Deep and was creative director from conception and pre-production through to the alpha phase in 2023. At this point, McCormack then took over as project creative director to guide the game to completion.)

"We have to evolve to try and tell stories in different ways as a studio. The whole 'walking simulator' thing was cool..."

"The general idea was that we have to evolve to try and tell stories in different ways as a studio," he continues. "The whole 'walking simulator' thing was cool - and this isn't to say we wouldn't do it again - but we want to explore more gameplay opportunities to tell a story. You can have less gameplay and tell a liminal horror story just walking through places, but in a situation like an oil rig - what we have is the story, setting and character dictate the gameplay."

So, why a Scottish oil rig in the 1970s? For one, oil rigs present the perfect laundry list of fears. "Vertigo, drowning, claustrophobia, all the classic fears are on an oil rig," McCormack continues, checking them off. "And the distance from land, if communication drops, you're cut off." A Scottish oil rig also works as a setting where you can hear the kinds of voices not usually present in video games about Britain. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture - which featured voices straight from The Archers - this is not.

Still Wakes The Deep screenshot showing a dark and dingy oil rig cafeteria.
Players will explore all areas of the oil rig, and visit cabins which reflect each crew member and their background. | Image credit: The Chinese Room

"You get your cockney, your country bumpkin and the officer-class gentleman - and that's your general three things you get in a game about Britain," McCormack says. Still Wakes the Deep instead centres on the authentic voices of people from across the north of England and Scotland, and a main character - middle-aged Glaswegian electrician Caz McLeary - who "isn't an action hero".

"We have people from the Isle of Skye, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Burnley and Belfast," McCormack continues. Gameplay includes strings of words in Scottish dialect - so much so that I found the inclusion of subtitles in Queen's English useful when seeing gameplay earlier this year.

"1975 was particularly political as well, there was a lot of upheaval and turmoil - some issues that continue today, such as people's reactions to the government pulling resources away from communities, and immigration," McCormack adds. "Politics and class are the backdrop to the oil rig working environment. A lot of them are talking about industrial action, and having that included is really important."

As a Glaswegian himself, McCormack seems passionate about the project and what it can mean - as well as it being just another scary video game. The Chinese Room now features separate teams - with McCormack helping lead work on Still Wakes The Deep - while others work upstairs on Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2.

Still Wakes The Deep artwork of storm waves crashing underneath an oil rig, a lone figure standing on a metal gantry.
Image credit: The Chinese Room

"We've shifted to having project creative directors, which I think at a certain scale is something you need," Daly notes. "It's tough to direct multiple games at once. That's been an interesting and successful change this year. We're moving to the point where we have three games on the go, with three different creative directors, all working within a creative strategy which is really clear and consistent - it's about world and character first, and then whatever gameplay is going to help us tell that story."

Exactly what that third project will be, it's too early for The Chinese Room to yet say. "We're just starting to look at spinning something up at the moment," Daly teases. "It's small and early, which is always exciting - everyone always likes something new, after years on either oil rigs or vampires!"

"I love Spider-Man 2, but this is a harder game to sell [the vision of]."

Another recent change for the studio was the deal with Microsoft to launch Still Wakes The Deep via Xbox Game Pass, which The Chinese Room hopes will help its work find the biggest possible audience. Early signs are already promising. "It meant the announcement got an enormous boost being in the Xbox show over the summer," Daly notes. "It's tough for us to get out there and promote an original game - but the numbers I hear about for that video in terms of views are hard to believe. And of course with Game Pass, it means there's a lot of people out there who are going to get to play the game."

"It's not Spider-Man 2," McCormack adds with a chuckle. "I love Spider-Man 2, but this is a harder game to sell [the vision of]. For me, Game Pass is a thing that can spark that. And the Xbox showcase massively did that as well... It ended up, the things it was sandwiched between helped it really pop - it was just this odd note, and I could see the stream, YouTube and Twitter just light up going... 'what?!'"

Still Wakes The Deep artwork of buildings on top of an oil rig, in front of a dark stormy sky.
Still Wakes The Deep artwork of a doorway glowing with red supernatural light.
Image credit: The Chinese Room

After all, who else is making a video game about a Scottish oil rig in the 1970s? "I remember what the smells were," McCormack says, reminiscing about his Glaswegian youth. "I remember the feel of the clothing, the cigarette swamp in the middle of a room, the brand of an ashtray..."

"Some of the team have been going to antique shops in Brighton to try and find this stuff," Daly chips in, making everyone in the room feel older. "Everyone thinks antique shops are where you go to find 19th century stuff, but it's where you get twirly-cabled phones."

I reference a particular antique shop in Brighton - a cavernous multi-story multi-property affair named Snooper's Paradise, entered into from the city's warren-like North Laines, that seems to stretch TARDIS-like into and above adjacent properties.

"I go in there all the time," McCormack says. "Weirdly, my 11-year-old son just loves it. And that's because it's like time travel? It feels like this magical place, and it is kind of - he's absolutely fascinated." I'm hoping Still Wakes The Deep feels similar for me next year - it feels like The Chinese Room's long journey will be worth the wait.

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