Pertaining to The Suicide of Rachel Foster, all may not be what it seems in Lewis & Clark county, Montana. The fallout of an affair between Mz. Foster, 16, and Timberland hotel owner Leonard McGrath, 40, demolished two families. Rachel threw herself off a cliff to avoid the embarrassment and shame of the relationship coming to light.
Life forever scarred for everyone involved.
Now, many years later, Leonard’s daughter, Nicole, charged with inspecting the place after a blizzard snows her in. Only the figurative ghosts of her past keeping her company while sifting through the literal and metaphorical wreckage of she long locked away.
Walk This Way
Like many games in this genre, The Suicide of Rachel Foster’s primary calling card is its atmosphere and narrative, with light puzzle-solving elements and exploration to tie it all together.
The atmosphere is on-point. A handy icon suggests you play with headphones. The binaural audio immerses you in the experience in a big, bad way when you do. Creaking floorboards, smashing shutters, and scurrying mice string the player (or at least this player) along like a panicked fiddle. Occasionally, I removed his headphones just to be sure a creepy noise was The Suicide of Rachel Foster’s doing.
Visually, The Timberland hotel oozes history in its details. Closed off rooms, old calendars, notes, and even a cute, dusty, diorama set the game’s elegiac tone. A fundamentally haunted space. It shows. Every missing picture on the wall, every grimy water stain. This place brought joy. No longer.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster’s gameplay mechanics also seek to unsettle, and do so wonderfully. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the Timberland hotel with a flashlight that’s just too dim to provide much comfort. The ghostly wind alone unsettling the player. Jumping, just a bit, due to the shutting of a door behind you. This is the kind of horror experience I suspect most fans of the genre seek out. At one point you’re seeking out the things that go bump in the night with a directional microphone. And if you’re not prone to anxiety now, you will be after that.
Shame then all this wonderful atmosphere and production design are in service of a story that’s disappointingly superficial. If you’re going to use a sexually abusive relationship that resulted in the suicide of the abused person as your inciting incident to all this misery, the game better be able to address that relationship with nuance, outrage, wisdom, or insight worthy of its charged nature.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster, however, provides just enough details into this relationship to get it into trouble. At one point Nicole refers to Rachel as being mature beyond her years. Something like “She demonstrates spectacular elegance”- tacitly rationalizing why a 40 year old man is attracted to her. Not because she’s 16 you see, but because she doesn’t act like she’s 16.
At another junction Nicole’s dad gets a monologue that paints him in a sympathetic light. As if this horrible thing he did was no less horrible then an affair with the maid or secretary. Beyond that, there’s more than one occasion where Nicole refers to her “Daddy” in a way that’ll make your lip curl like you’ve smelled sour milk.
But here’s the thing, there’s nothing technically wrong about this. The heartbreaking emotional complexities humans possess for loved ones who take repugnant and ultimately ruinous actions makes for a solid premise.
Hell, there’s even much to be written about the world’s obsession with youth and purity. Why so many horrible men do horrible things to people who cannot resist their advances because they don’t know there’s anything to resist until it’s already happened.
The emotional dissection of a sick brain is as valid a topic for fiction as any other.
Alas, this is all handled on a surface level, never truly delving deeply into the psychology of all involved; instead focusing on a mystery regarding the fates of these characters.
But maybe that’s just me. The developer, ONE-O-ONE Games, hails from Rome, Italy. Perhaps the troubling nature of a middle-aged male engaging in an affair with a 16 year old girl is less problematic there. Not unlike all the socially acceptable high school girl fan service you see in Japanese anime. Maybe this cultural difference is why the game downplays the horrifying nature of their relationship. Maybe it’s just less horrifying in Italy. Also possible is there were bits of environmental storytelling within The Suicide of Rachel Foster I missed. Notes and diaries hidden away that provided needed depth to this tragic tale.
Regardless, it’s a lot to chew on and a lot to think about. For that matter, when’s the last time a video game even attempted addressing this sort of issue in the first place? The game won’t get points for effort, but perhaps a begrudged pat on the back.
Yet for whatever reason I’m fond The Suicide of Rachel Foster. Filled with enough spooks, scares, and moment-to-moment chills to justify its asking price. Even if the narrative misses the opportunity to say anything of consequence, the fact remains the game is engaging, and when you’re done, you’ll want to talk to someone about it.
And unlike the nature of Rachel Foster’s tragic life, hopefully there’s someone around to actually care.