Rarely have I felt anger, anguish and disgust in video games. Often games can make you feel happy, sad, proud, elated, defeated and all kinds of emotions in between. The Suicide of Rachel Foster disgusted me and it has nothing to do with the superb setting, visual or audio feats that the game achieves to create a spooky atmosphere. It is in its morally awkward storytelling.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster falls into what many would call a walking simulator style of game. You play as Nicole, a daughter who has lost her parents and has to return back to their old hotel her father used to own to sell it off. She doesn’t want to be there for any length of time as it reminds her of her troubled childhood. Her parents split up and her mum left with Nicole in tow whilst her dad stayed in the hotel to rot. She thinks her father is a monster for having an affair and for being a cold father in general. Sadly, she visits during a snow storm and gets stuck there, meaning she’s got to spend days stuck in the hotel with her own demons before help can arrive.
The game is set in 1993 and so her only communication is via an early mobile/walkie talkie to Irving, a FEMA operative. He knows the area well, and the hotel, as he checks up on it during his rounds across the mountains as he knew Nicole’s dad too. Over several nights and various fetch quests, the two bond as strange things start to happen in the hotel. This starts to point to something far graver around the suicide of Nicole’s childhood friend Rachel Foster. Why did she do it? Well its because she was having an affair with her dad Leonard. When her mother found out, that’s what caused the family break up and Rachel killed herself in the aftermath. No wonder Nicole doesn’t want to be back.
What The Suicide of Rachel Foster does exceptionally well is provide a creepy but engrossing setting. The hotel is beautifully detailed with tons of things to pick up and look at, although very little of it actually moves the story on. There is a fair amount of visual and situational storytelling – clearing taking a Gone Home course on the way to release. Where it steps up beyond this is in the audio design. The top floor of the hotel has become damaged and dangerous over the years and so wind howls, wooden roof beams clonk and creak and old heating pipes whistle and shudder. When the lights go out during a power cut, it is a genuinely creepy and immersive experience to hear the hotel breathe. All the better – its binaural at some points too. Add to that some strong voice acting from the two leads and you have a creepy version of Firewatch – just without dialogue choices.
However, that is where I’ll stop the accolades as the game veers into various sensitive topics with absolutely no regard for them. This paragraph is extreme spoiler territory so skip it if you want to go in eyes open. The game deals with self harm, rape, child abuse, child grooming and child pregnancy with no regard for them. Everyone who is a female victim is treated as a villain whilst Leonard the father is constantly given a sympathetic slant. The game tries to palm off a relationship that borders legal paedophilia as a star crossed lovers affair doomed to fail. No. This continues and then sees Nicole herself fall into an abuse cycle too. She is basically told to die and join everyone else that’s already gone before her and submit to the love she should feel and not break the cycle. The game then tries to get you to commit suicide yourself and although you can stop it as a final choice in the game, the way the narrative plays out, its as if living is the bad option. The problem with this is that neither option is earned in any way. The story all comes in two giant exposition chunks with little to no character development. Rachel Foster gets zero time or ability to share her own side of the story and so we are seeing this love through the eyes of a predator. That could be a powerful and shocking experience if it had tact, depth and above all sensitivity to the situation. Here, its played for cheap ghost tricks that never really take place. I was disgusted with the tone and the implicit consent apparently given by the unspoken characters in the game.
The story enraged me so much that it ruins the rest of the experience. There is so much potential here but it is wasted not just in story but in unused ideas. There are no meaningful dialogue choices so you don’t build up a relationship with Irving. The ghost tricks never really take place aside from a few bangs and creeps. The binaural microphone could have been a game changer but it is dropped as soon as it starts, same with the torch in the dark section too. Ultimately, the game turns into a ‘go here, find this, listen to that, repeat’ gameplay loop which feels dumbed down. There is no inventory to speak of. You do have a map of the hotel to get around but you’ll quickly find out how to get around with ease. If I could have interacted with more objects, had a few puzzles or something to do instead of ‘turn the heating on’ then I’d have been more engaged. Even when it throws a riddle at you, it then sends a butterfly to show you the way to solve it!
Aside from its highly questionable story, this game feels like it was going to try something bigger and bolder than the fetch quest it gives. A great atmosphere can go so far but it can’t make up for poor gameplay design choices combined with a poorly executed story.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster
Questionable story telling that lets all the characters down dampen a highly atmospheric experience.
Superb use of binaural sound and effect layering.
The mountain lodge is a fantastically realised environment.
Some decent visual storytelling.
Genuinely intriguing story to begin with...
... that turns into a completely bizarre stilted exposition dump that does no justice to anyone by the end.
Squanders some gameplay mechanics that are never utilised fully.
Often feels like an obscure fetch quest.
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