Sometimes the best villain is that of the past, as that of the hero slowly creeps up and stabs them in the back. Finding out about past sins, bad decisions and wrong pathways throughout a story is something that always provides a compelling, dramatic piece of work. Skeletons in the cupboard, and that event you wish was long forgotten, are just some of the main plot points used well over the years. The Suicide of Rachel Foster is a game set in the past – the early 1990s in fact – and tells a story of family history, a mysterious death, and is a narrative that focuses on someone trapped in a hotel in the winter. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin.
The ‘walking sim‘ is a term that I could well imagine most developers hate and despise. It’s a term that suggests there is little or minimal gameplay and that the player will be left going from point to point, triggering narratives. The term development teams might well prefer would be that of “narrative-driven adventure” – something that is much more enticing. Whatever it is though, I love these games and The Suicide of Rachel Foster fits nicely into this genre.
You play the lead role of Nicole, viewing things in the first person throughout the game. Set in the early ’90s in the mountains of Montana, just outside the town of Billings, it transpires that your father has died and you are traveling back to the hotel which he owned – a place where as a child you were brought up. Your job is to go to the hotel and assess the assets and any damage to the hotel before you sell it. As soon as you arrive though, the weather gets really bad and you are trapped in the hotel for the night. Your only contact with the outside world is via the phone, to a FEMA agent called Irving who advises you and guides you through the following nine days. It’s with him that you begin to learn the dark secrets that the hotel hides, and the uncomfortable truth about your father and what happened to Rachel Foster.
The story and narrative are the main thrust of the game and it delves into some very complex themes of abuse and suicide; this may mean that for some it will feel very uncomfortable to play. The relationship between Nicole and Irving very much reminded me of the tale behind Firewatch, with a two-way relationship building up and us viewers wondering who’s telling the truth and who can be trusted. Sometimes the dialogue hits, yet occasionally it falters and feels a bit like a soap opera. The actual themes of a middle-aged man falling in love with a 16-year-old girl in Rachel Foster and then focusing on her death are completely disturbing at times and I’m not entirely convinced of the conclusion of that story or exactly what the game is trying to say. But they do deliver a gripping tale that keeps you intrigued until the very end. There’s a sort of ghostly vibe that is done in a very subtle and well-designed way – something which I think is very clever.
As you would imagine for a game of this ilk, the gameplay is quite basic. You walk and explore at ease, picking up objects and examining them. You need to do this too as certain items are required in order to progress the narrative; luckily there is a handy map to look at which will help you work out where you need to go in the hotel. Later on, you get to use items like a flashlight and a sound recording device to pinpoint a strange noise. Again it’s simple, but it’s a nice touch and gives a variation to the gameplay. There are dialogue tree options in the conversations with Irving too, providing a couple of choices that determine how your relationship goes forward. Overall I enjoyed the gameplay and the exploration tasks, but at times the pacing can feel very slow and The Suicide of Rachel Foster never moves through the gears to ever up the tension stakes.
The game looks great though. There’s just one location used throughout – the hotel with its many different floors and secret walkways and rooms. Each location has been brilliantly designed with great attention to detail in signage, books and pictures located in the spaces. It reminds me a little of The Overlook Hotel from The Shining, with the same sense of foreboding and emptiness. Audio-wise there is an elusive and disarming soundtrack at play here, barely audible at times but always present. The effects, noises and creaks are expertly done throughout and it works brilliantly with the voice actors doing a great job with the script that is brightly performed.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster on Xbox One is a bit of an odd one because the story is decent enough and certainly very intriguing. But I’ve never really been sure what the team behind it have been trying to accomplish or whether it quite hits the points it needs to make. The themes feel a bit rushed at times too, and it needs a bit more work after the main twist. However, it’s good enough to wander around the hotel and discover what this game has to offer, pushed along by some superb sound effects, lighting, and visuals. And that means it is just about worth a play if you’re a fan of the genre.