“Walking Simulators” are ten a penny now, a lot of developers who want to provide a narrative-heavy game that has some major emotional impact on the player use the genre to tell their story. This involves tasking the player with walking around or through a location and interacting with clues to keep said story ticking over, The Suicide of Rachel Foster fits is one of those games.
That’s boiling it down to its real, basic. concept, but several games do this well, my favourite being Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. “…Rachel Foster” is an odd one, it can hit some high marks, and I can see many being impressed by it, there’s certainly a lot that I really like, but there are also some really big issues with it that have left a rather bad taste in my mouth. I’ll start with the good.
In the game you play Nicole, in a letter from her dying mother, she is tasked with visiting the families old hotel to assess it before its sold on, the hotel holds many bad memories for the family and her mother thinks the best thing for Nicole would be to just sell it and use the money to move on and leave Montana behind. Once there it becomes evident that Nicole is going to be there for much longer than the “20 minutes” she intended to use assessing the building as a major snowstorm kicks in, trapping her there, but also placing her in contact with local FEMA agent Irving via some odd combination of radio and a rather clunky early 90s mobile phone (worth pointing out now that the game takes place in the early 90s).
Nicole is pretty unlikeable, she’s rude to petulant, impatient and rude to Irving for no discernable reason, there’s obvious resentment towards her father for his involvement in the troubles the family went through, which is that he had an affair with the titular Rachel Foster, who later committed suicide through guilt after their relationship is discovered. As you progress, the more the families backgrounds are revealed and the more you get an idea of what really went on ten years before you take control over Nicole, but the journey to discover the truth is a hard one to take.
As thing progress and you explore more of the hotel, the more oppressive everything begins to feel, the atmosphere becomes incredibly creepy, especially when the narrative surrounding a group of ghost hunters kicks in. There are loads of typical horror tricks going on here, from corridors that are ripped straight from The Shining, to knocks, bumps and creaking floorboards. Sometimes doors move on their own, I’m pretty sure I heard a cry at one point and there’s a section where you have to follow the noise of some chimes.
The more I explored, the more the tension ramped up, I spent around 4 hours gradually becoming more and more expectant that there would be a reflection in one of the hotel windows or the many pictures on the walls (the mirrors are all dirty, as they nearly always are in these games), phones ring despite an early voicemail recording stating the lines had been cut off due to unpaid bills, it all serves to keep you on edge for the game’s conclusion, and it genuinely works amazingly well. For a game to creep up that constant suspense for that period, especially when modern horror film making relies on making the audience jump every few moments, that’s commendable and whilst the ending never really delivers on that tension, I’d like to see what the developers can do if they make a proper go at a horror game.
However, this isn’t a horror game, though it deals with some horrible themes. The first is in its title, The Suicide of Rachel Foster, though it’s not until the closing moments that it truly addresses this and I’ll refrain from saying anything more on that.
For me though, the true horror and the reason I can’t really recommend this game to you is how the writers handle its content.
As mentioned previously, the game’s story revolves around an affair, but the term affair is the wrong word to use. You see, Rachel Foster was 16 when she began a relationship with Nicole’s father, Leonard. It might be worth me mentioning that according to Google the legal age of consent is 16 in Montana, as it is here in the UK, but we are still dealing with a fully matured adult male having a sexual relationship with an adolescent girl, a girl the same age as his daughter, that went to school with his daughter, their families all attended church together (and Rachels father was the local pastor, just to put the icing on the cake), and there’s only one point where the game condemns this relationship: a note in Leonards bedroom that refers to him as a paedophile but that the tooltip (and thus Nicole’s opinion) labels as “slanderous”.
It’s a difficult thing to swallow, maybe I’m bringing some baggage to the table with this as my oldest daughter is the same age as Rachel was when she was in her so-called “relationship” with Leonard. Add into the picture that Leonard held a PhD in Astrophysics and that Rachel was regarded by her peers as “retarded” (the language the game uses) due to her being dyslexic, and the picture becomes even worse. But in the closing moments, when the games writers could have taken note of that and used the two voices we’re provided, those of Nicole and Irving, or the myriad of other materials such as the newspaper clippings that are ultimately pinned to the wall in Leonards room as “clues”, to condemn his actions, but instead its excused with the line “he was special enough to love both you (Nicole) and Rachel” during the games final chapter.
I’m sorry, what? No, that’s not okay, I’d understand Nicole glossing over that and maybe even her blaming Rachel, she too was a victim in all of this and its been shown time and again that the families in adulterous relationships will always blame the other person, but the God-fearing community? Rachels father, the pastor? The local media? Not one of them raised a single eyebrow to the nature of the relationship? Really, and that for me, places the writers and developers of the game in a position where they’re absolving Leanord of any blame, even if Nicole and Irving don’t challenge it, the game’s creators could have placed something that made separated their feelings from the story within the wealth of other documentation that you come across as you explore the hotel.