Over the course of the last decade, the horror genre has experienced something of a renaissance in movies, television, and video games. Poorly made monster suits, violent deformed killers, and cheap thrills have all moved to the wayside to open the dialogues of horror media into tales of heartache, emotion, and suffering. To some degree, we have AMC’s popular The Walking Dead series to thank for this evolution – a story about a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested America that doesn’t focus on zombie-slaying and blood spraying, but rather the relationships that survivors form in face of disaster and how monsters can be born from within us. More recently, movies like The Babadook and Get Out, as well as television series like The Haunting of Hill House, have explored themes like mental illness, depression, and social injustices, using horror elements as an envelope to package these messages in. Video games have likewise followed this trend, and being a mighty fan of horror myself, I love the growth we’ve seen in scary storytelling. The Suicide of Rachel Foster, the newest release from developers ONE-O-ONE Games, dives deep into what it means to both love and hate, and how broken family bonds can come back to haunt us.
|Release Date||February 19, 2020|
|Time Spent Playing||3 Hours|
The game begins in 1993 as you pull into the Timberline Hotel, a mountain lodge owned by your father, Leonard, who has recently passed. Protagonist Nicole is stubborn and bitter, but has to deal with the fallout of her father’s estate. Unfortunately, Nicole has been estranged from her father for years following a scandal surrounding him and his affair with a local teenager named Rachel Foster who, as you could probably guess by the title of the game, killed herself at 9 weeks of pregnancy. Upon arrival to the Timberline, the Montana mountains are swallowed up in a snowstorm and you are unable to leave the abandoned hotel. Your only contact outside of the Timberline Hotel is Irving, a FEMA consultant reachable only by direct line on a large brick cell phone. Irving becomes not only a friendly voice, but a fishing line that helps reel you back into reality as you begin to uncover the secrets of Rachel’s alleged suicide and her affair with your father.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster is not an action game; it could best be compared to narrative-driven “walking simulators” like Gone Home and Firewatch. Walking, looking, and clicking on items for closer inspection will encompass upwards of 90% of your playtime, with little variation in between. Events and cutscenes are triggered by walking to the appropriate location, which can sometimes be difficult to surmise without listening closely to conversations between Nicole and Irving, or reading Nicole’s scribbled objective notes on her map. Even the phone calls between you and your new friend are automatically triggered, with no ability to call Irving to repeat a conversation should you forget some specifics of what was said (so listen closely). You retrieve a few items along the way that help you navigate through specifically spookier sections of the hotel, but these items are used sparingly. The Suicide of Rachel Foster could largely be considered a point-and-click game in a 3D environment.
Most point-and-click games don’t have you navigating an abandoned hotel while investigating a suspicious suicide, however, and the terror that constantly seems to be creeping around every corner is paramount to the importance of this game. The threat of some hair-raising ghost sighting is ever-present, but impressively, there is little in terms jump scares. The Suicide of Rachel Foster inspires dread almost entirely through the atmosphere of the Timberline Hotel, with cluttered rooms, dim hallways, long corridors, and shattered windows, all laid unsettlingly against the backdrop of howling winds and a falling blizzard.
Music is ofttimes tragic while occasionally shifting to gentle piano and violin in minor keys that herald some impending doom, yet as appropriate as the music feels in nearly every moment, the entirety of the sound mixing is king to creating the ultra-spooky feels. So many of the sounds blend perfectly together, and you’re constantly wondering whether it was you who made those footsteps, or someone lurking just behind you. The old hotel creaks convincingly, and odd noises creep out occasionally at the perfect volume to make you question whether you actually heard something or not. Like other games of the genre, I suggest you play The Suicide of Rachel Foster with a nice pair of headphones. Binaural surround sound mixing is essential to the full experience and, when paired with truly beautiful graphics, creates an unnerving atmosphere that has rarely seen its equal.
Unfortunately, the entire experience is bogged down by a storyline that never perfectly finds its footing. The story initially drags in a way that leaves you wondering when you’ll actually start uncovering details, and then attempts to wrap everything up in the matter of a few minutes. Rachel Foster and her affair with the protagonist’s father is heavy material and should be presented with ease and care, but ultimately comes off as clumsy and heavy-handed. As with any murder mystery, there are a few twists and turns along the way, but most of them seemed almost too easy to predict, and by the time they’re revealed, there is little shock value remaining. The story ends satisfyingly, but never delivers an epic payoff to Nicole’s journey through her extended stay in a possibly-haunted hotel. The voice acting is not to blame for a single point of this criticism; in fact, both of the main voice actors deliver completely believable performances, but an improved and focused script could have elevated the narrative from good to great.
Most of The Suicide of Rachel Foster ran smoothly and certainly looked beautiful, but occasional graphical glitches (like changing shades and textures, or subtitled text not appearing appropriately) did result in some lapse of immersion. On two instances I needed to restart the game: once for getting stuck in a door, and once for losing the ability to interact with items required to progress the story. Restarting the game is luckily quick and painless, but nevertheless aggravating. A few small typos in text and subtitles also seemed jarring in an otherwise well-crafted game, though I am admittedly a stickler for good grammar and spelling. None of these things ultimately ruined my experience, but that extra touch of polish may have caused me to look back on my time spent with it more fondly.
My spooky investigation of The Suicide of Rachel Foster was overall enjoyable, and being compared at all to some of its obvious influences is a compliment in its own right. Nevertheless, I walked away feeling like the story could’ve had more to give. I spent just over three hours at the Timberline Hotel, which could have been extended some to prevent feeling rushed in the final act. Retailing at $17.99 USD, the money-to-time investment ratio could be fairly compared to purchasing a movie. If story-driven or horror-themed walking simulators are your preferred brand, this shouldn’t be a game you miss. Otherwise, a Steam sale sometime this year will likely feature this game at a nice discount.